Effigy Brewing: A Gypsy's Journey
As told by Benjamin Ward, owner and head brewer, effigy brewing
Effigy Brewing has been a part of me for several years now, since I made the cross-country move from Ithaca, New York to Santa Cruz over six years ago. My roommate back in Ithaca taught me the basics of fermentation, which he learned from his time as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech. We would go to the local brewing supply shop and buy whatever extract kit was cheapest. We’d supplement with whatever we had on hand: maple syrup, local bourbon, freshly-roasted coffee, left-over Easter candy.
Around this same time, I had just taken a job at a place called Ithaca Coffee Company. The front was an old-school coffee shop, but the back had a cheese counter, a general store, a tavern, and an amazing beer collection. Because I was the only available person over 21, I was offered the position of Beer Specialist. Their offer to give me a mixed six pack every week to study at home, combined with the mandatory beer break every time a new beer went on tap and needed a description — that was just too cushy to resist.
That job, combined with those sessions brewing weird shit with my Ivy-League physicist roommate, were more than enough to spark a passion for craft beer.
With an increasing sense of wanderlust taking me over, however, I decided to leave Ithaca, travel slowly across the country, and eventually land in Santa Cruz (I had a friend who lived there and after he described the mountains and the ocean, I told him I was coming out to visit, and gave my two-week notice). After all that experience, I had time to reflect on the places I had visited, and there was something unique about Santa Cruz: it had the right combination of location, people, weather, and size.
I started homebrewing with a friend – Chris Pester – who introduced me to the craft beer scene in Santa Cruz. I remember when my friend pulled out a growler from a brewery in Capitola I couldn’t pronounce, Sante Adairus Rustic Ales, and it tasted like nothing else I had ever had up to that point. (Years later, Chris would take on the role of head chef at Sante’s new tap room in midtown Santa Cruz.)
It was during these years I really decided I wanted to be a brewer. Chris and I talked at lengths about organic, local, rustic foods, and fermentation. We brewed, and we drank. I brewed more, I bought a lot of equipment. I upgraded. Bought a Kegerator, a fleet of kegs. I was hooked.
One day I just said, “F*ck it, I’m starting a brewery.”
After working as a barista at a local coffee shop, I eventually took a job at Seven Bridges Cooperative Brewing Supply (since shut down). I had applied to just about every brewery in town, and was told I needed experience. Almost every brewery in town had a connection to Seven Bridges, so I put my eggs in that basket. I learned a lot there, and made many valuable connections with the local beer scene — professional and hobbyist alike.
In particular, I had the pleasure of working with the last graduating class of Seven Bridges before it closed its doors permanently: Nick Menacho (New Bohemia Brewing Company), Michael Megill (Cellarmaker Brewing Company), Shane Winkler (Humble Sea Brewing Company), and Tallula Preston of the forthcoming Fruition Brewing Company.
When I came up with the idea for Effigy, it was more of a fluke. I just wanted to feel creative, to give my hobby a brand and an artistic direction, even if no one drank it. But then, people drank it, and more than just the usual captive audience. The beer and the brand were gaining traction. I bought stickers. I printed shirts. But, I was also pretty naïve back then. My style of brewing and understanding of the brewing industry wasn’t mature enough, and I had only the slightest idea about how much shit the city, state, and country want to bury you in before you can start a brewery.
My real brewing industry schooling began when I took a job as assistant brewer at Humble Sea Brewing Company. At the time, they were brewing professionally in a carport on agricultural land in Ben Lomond with a far under-utilized permit from the county that allows such activity. I worked with Nick Pavlina, Taylor West, Frank Krueger, and Jacob Luna to develop their style of brewing and voice as a brewery. As Humble Sea grew, their popularity grew as well. My position expanded from assistant brewer to just plain “brewer.” We brewed our asses off in order to supply various accounts, festivals, our own tap room, and our egos. Those two years were intense. Things blew up, valuable connections were made, lessons were learned, major events were attended, and the parties grew almost as fast as the tensions.
As things end up doing, my time at Humble Sea ended. While my departure was rather sudden, my time there was illuminating when it came to the inner workings of start-up breweries. I know now what it takes to start a brewery, and I know exactly what the brewing industry looks like; the good and the bad. Had I seriously tried to start a brewery two years ago, I’m sure it would have grown, but it would look so much different than it does today.
After leaving Humble Sea, some good friends at Shanty Shack Brewing extended their hand, and I spent a few very enjoyable months serving their beer and crushing their grain. I learned a lot from that experience in terms of the brewery I wanted to be.
This brings us to today. We’ve settled on the simplest form of a brewing business we could think of for Effigy; a gypsy brewery. Gypsy brewing is the off-color industry term for a brewer or brand that does not have its own space. Instead, the gypsy brewer forms a contract, know as an alternating proprietorship, with an existing brewery in order to use their equipment, space, and resources. There is no shortage of brewing facilities these days: we’re approaching a point in the industry in which opening such a facility is less viable. With so many facilities opening and planning for future growth, there is a lot of unused capacity. A lot of unused capacity means a lot of lost money. Gypsy brewers help fill out vacancies without contributing to the problem of overcrowding.
For me, the main attraction of gypsy brewing is the freedom to focus on quality and style. With less overhead comes less of a pressure to play the hits, so to speak. Effigy doesn’t have to rely on brewing 50-percent double IPAs in order to keep the doors open, because it has no doors. That’s not to say that we won’t brew any crowd pleasers, but our main focus will be on low-ABV, mixed-culture beers, raw beers, and seasonally-inspired ales and lagers. Most importantly, gypsy brewing is the model that gets Effigy beer to you in the shortest amount of lead time.
For now, Effigy Brewing is an LLC. It’s not an official, licensed brewery yet. I’m currently collaborating with other breweries, using Effigy as a brand to get the name out there, and gain the momentum I need to launch the brewery. We aim to have a glass of our beer in your hand by early next year. Stay tuned for the rest of this story.