Meet the Brewer: East Brother Brewing Company
MEET THE BREWER
Chris Coomber, Director of Brewing Operations, East Brother Beer Company
By Clayton Schuster
What got you interested in brewing?
I started in middle age — the more I paid attention to beer, the more I got interested in really tasting and experiencing it. The different flavors, different styles, getting into the history of beer. I remember very clearly discovering Lagunitas IPA and tasting that hyper hoppy flavor for the first time. I was taken with it. I loved beer before, but when West Coast IPAs started hitting the market, I was floored.
So, I became a Lagunitas guy. I’d go to Costco and get the big case and keep it in the fridge. I had an epiphany, though, when I tasted Pliny the Elder. It was very soon after it first came out. I was in a place called Freshie’s in South Lake Tahoe and they had it on tap, which they still do. I saw it on the menu as a triple IPA, which it isn’t, it’s a double.
I ordered pho and a Pliny and I just couldn’t believe that a beer could taste that good. I found out the brewery was in Santa Rosa, just in my backyard, and I went up there to explore. After that, I started getting really into beer.
One day, I was talking to this woman who told me about The Beverage People, which is a supplier for wineries and brewers in Santa Rosa. They’ve been around for years and years. So one afternoon I drove up and poked around the store and saw a beginner’s beer-making kit. I went home and cooked up a batch on the stove and bottled it and just couldn’t stop. I was done. I needed to keep brewing over and over and over again to just get it that much better. I became obsessed.
What was the first beer from that kit?
I think it was an English Brown Ale. I remember the first all-grain beer I made was based off a recipe from The Beverage People. They called it a Scottish Cream Ale. That first batch was so much fun. Frankly, I was surprised that it tasted good, but it did.
I have a carpentry and construction background and love working with my hands. Putting things together. I think home brewing is a real DIY kind of endeavor. The more you get into it, the more you realize that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all task. There’s fifty million ways to do anything and everyone has an opinion about how to do the task right. It was simultaneously frustrating, and compelling. I think a recipe is 25-percent of the work that goes into making beer, and the rest is your process. Temperature, timing — how you make it.
What were the next beers you were drawn to after that eureka moment with Pliny the Elder?
Everything hoppy that I could get my hands on. And, more importantly, finding out where those flavors came from and why. Like, what is it about a hoppy beer that I love so much? Why is it so different? I can’t even tell you. I love so many different kinds of beer.
I looked for anything that billed as hoppy. Gotta give me the hops. For a while all I wanted was hoppy beers. I would not touch a beer if it was less than quadruple hopped. But after a while, I started getting interested in lighter beers and subtler flavors. I never call it bitter. For me, it doesn’t taste bitter or fulfill my idea of bitter. It’s just hoppiness. I love it. The intensity, the aroma… Oh my God! The aroma… The complexity. There wasn’t a lot of malt going on in those beers.
How do you come up with your recipes?
I like to think about what flavors I want to bring out — hoppy, malty, big alcohol, small alcohol — and in that way I develop a goal. Then, I taste a lot of beers in that style and study tons of recipes, usually classics. I might combine some elements from a few, or add something that seems useful, and that’s it. Then, we’ll see how that comes out and taste and refine. It’s a constant refinement. I like to make the same beer over and over and then tweak that to make it better and better.
Talking to other home brewers about it, I was kind of an anomaly that way. They wanted to have fun and try new things. They’d even poke fun at me. Like, “Chris! You’re making the same beer again?” “Yeah, guys, same beer again.” I just wanted to tweak the recipe and get it perfect. That’s my natural process. I want to realize whatever taste I’ve envisioned.
What about Point Richmond made it the perfect place to start East Brother?
First, it was Richmond. My business partner Rob Lightner and I both live across the Bay. Rob was in the kitchen helping me with the very first beers I brewed. I needed his tasting expertise. He’s been very interested in the whole brewing thing the whole way, having fun with me making all the beer. After we decided we were going to move forward with this, we knew that finding the right space was at the top of our to-do list. Not just for legal reasons. I mean, you can’t even get a license to brew beer until you have a physical space, a signed lease, and all that stuff.
Beer, to me, is a fresh food. Your first market is the people that live near your brewery because they’re the ones who are going to come by and get fresh beer whenever they want. That’s one of the most fun parts of it, I think. So, we thought a lot about where we wanted to be. We live in the Bay Area and didn’t want to leave, obviously. We have families and lives here. Then, we figured that we wanted to be in Richmond specifically. We only looked around Richmond for a space, didn’t look anywhere else. It took a long time. It wasn’t just the economics of it or finding a place with the right “feel.” The difficult part is getting that balance between enough room and having access to all the necessary utilities: The loading, the plumbing, and the other parameters for a successful brewery.
Our current space is great. We don’t have a lot of walk-through traffic but it worked for all the production stuff. The landlord was amazing, too. The space was originally much bigger and we couldn’t afford it. But he reconfigured the space so that we could come in and start up. Beyond that, we really love Richmond. The history, the location. It’s such an under-appreciated area of the Bay Area and I love that East Brother is playing some part in making this city somewhere that people love to go.
What’s so important to you about brewing beer?
Brewing makes me fill like I’m being tuned into humanity as a species, in a weird way. It’s just something we do as a species. We breathe. We eat food. We drink beer. It’s like diving into the stream of human development. And, also, what is beer for? It used to be for nutrition and ingested as a food.
Today, beer is for feeling good. Whenever I tell someone that I make beer, the first thing they usually do is smile. There’s no other purpose for beer, that I’m aware of, except to enjoy it with friends or family or solo. Enjoy responsibly, of course. The fact that we’re making a product that’s been around since the beginning of recorded time and its sole purpose is to enjoy it––what could be better than that? There’s nothing more important.
What’s your vision for brewing beer?
We chose to focus on more classically-oriented beers, maybe less experi-mental, and stick with traditional ingredients and traditional techniques. Not so much exploring all kinds of new ingredients and flavor combinations and styles. We love that stuff. It just wasn’t what we were going to do. Lagers, for example, were totally important for the East Brother portfolio.
Also, I love hoppy beers, but I knew that every single one of our beers needed a strong malt balance. Historically, beers were not super-hopped. Plus, I love the malt flavor. I love that bready, doughy side of beers. I love tasting that malt and having it balance out that hop flavor. It’s a preference, I guess.
What’s your favorite beer at East Brother?
I don’t have one. They’re all my babies. But, if I had to pick one, it would depend on my mood. If I pick a favorite, though, it doesn’t mean I think it’s necessarily our best. Right this moment, I’d pick our Wheat IPA. It’s the hardest to make and I’m still working on the recipe and it’s the highest maintenance beer. We’re blending traditional ingredients with a take that’s a little bit different. Paying it so much attention might leave me a little biased at the moment. I’m more attached to it right now. The other thing is that all of our beers are so different.
EAST BROTHER BEER COMPANY
1001 Canal Blvd., Richmond