Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Jun 2016 | Issue #113
Photo by Jesse Irizary

Ask Brian Hunt the most fundamental of questions—Why beer?—and his answer is surprisingly succinct: “Beer is real,” he says. “It’s an everyday beverage. It’s always relevant.” Hunt has been brewing commercially since before there was a craft brewing industry, and since 1992, his little Santa Rosa brewery Moonlight Brewing Company has been churning out small batches of ales and lagers that are uniquely rooted in Northern California. “I strive to honor the sacred trust a beer drinker gives a brewer,” Hunt says. “I don’t just send a beer out there, into the marketplace. I sell a pint of—hopefully—delight to individual thirsty people.”

1. Celebrate the normal
Brian Hunt first tried his hand at fermentation as teenager after reading an article about mead in Scientific American. He hated the taste of that first batch of mead, but he loved the applied biology and chemistry of yeast at work making alcohol. He considered becoming a biochemist, then shelved that plan a year later in favor of fermentation studies at the University of California, Davis. Initially, he thought he wanted a career in winemaking, but he related better to brewing culture. “The people in the brewing lab were normal people. They were down to earth, and I really appreciated that.”

2. Jump off the carousel
Hunt started his professional career in 1980, before there was a craft brewing industry to speak of. A potential job with New Albion, the Sonoma County brewery that helped launch American craft brewing, offered him $120 per week, when there was cash to make payroll. So he signed on with Schlitz, but the Milwaukee giant closed its doors not long after. Years of being buffeted around an industry in its infancy, Hunt says, prompted a change. “I got tired of not getting the fair return for my efforts,” he says. “I concluded that I needed to either make it, or lose it, on my own.”

3. Survive
Moonlight Brewing opened in Sonoma County in 1992. “This has always been a haven for nonconformity,” Hunt argues. And Moonlight’s very existence was a mark of rebellion against corporate brewing. “I was incapable of working for the large breweries, due to my personality or theirs,” he says. “[Opening Moonlight] wasn’t some investment that could come or go, nor was it just money; this was an expression of myself, and feeding my family. And I hope that difference in motivation is something you can taste in the beer.”

4. Practice craft brewing, not accounting
Beer has seen multiple boom-and-bust cycles since Moonlight opened its doors in 1992. Hunt believes the real issue isn’t money, but whether new money affects a brewery’s priorities. “Any time control leaves the brewer’s hands, and beer becomes a decision controlled by an accountant’s pen, the beer suffers,” he maintains. “All this is inevitable. It’s neither evil, nor heavenly. It’s just business.” Still, Hunt adds, “I’m a romantic, I’m a brewer, and I think beer needs to be beautiful. When flavors are designed by a committee spearheaded by the marketing department, to me, that’s not craft. That’s craft accounting, maybe. But that’s not craft beer.”

5. Chew on unique flavors
After chewing on the Redwood trees growing at the brewery and experimenting with a variety of brewing methods, Hunt discovered that springtime Redwood tips give off hop-like lemony and resinous aromas, while boiled Redwood branches release tannins that enticingly dry the palate out. “You could say the word ‘terroir,’ but you could also just say, ‘Use what you have,’” Hunt reasons. “I’m not trying to make a weird new thing for the sake of novelty. I’m trying to make a beverage that tastes delicious.”

6. Go for the sure thing
Death & Taxes, Moonlight’s cult favorite black lager, shows Hunt’s ability to manifest a flash of inspired, imagined flavors in a pint glass. Death & Taxes arose from a craving for a beer that didn’t exist in Hunt’s orbit: a dark, hot-weather quencher that refreshed like a glass of iced coffee. “It’s clean and crisp, with a quaffable level of alcohol,” Hunt says.

7. Brew American beers
Hunt labels Death & Taxes as a San Francisco-style Black Lager rather than a Schwarzbier. He feels that American styles should exist on their own, instead of being tied to the closest available European style. “We need to stop trying to copy styles that are irrelevant to where we are today. When we succeed, we can begin to create something relevant and meaningful to where we live, what we eat, what kind of weather we hang out in.”

8. Hang left of center
Hunt started brewing his mainstay IPA, Bombay by Boat, in 1994. Despite a few tweaks here and there, it’s brewed from the same resinous, floral and restrained recipe it was over two decades ago. That makes Hunt’s IPA an outlier in California, but he’s OK with that. “I’m not going to change the beer based on what other people want,” he says. “There are people who burn out on intensely flavored hops, myself included. I want an IPA that will be there for those people.”

9. Get better, not bigger
“The most important thing for us is to make our beer continually better, not to continually try to make more barrels,” Hunt says. In 24 years, Moonlight’s annual output has only grown to 2,500 barrels. But Hunt is perfectly content to occupy the little slice of the craft universe he occupies, and grow through organic cash flow, not debt, when growth does happen. “The biggest thing is figuring out whether growth is really the best thing for your brewery. If you are small, you’re going to have trouble competing where the big dogs are. It’s more important to find the niche that matches your brewery size than be the little one trampled by the herd.”