Richard G. Norgrove of Bear Republic Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Oct 2008 | Issue #21
Photo courtesy Bear Republic Brewing Co.

Richard Norgrove used to brew a brutally hoppy Red Ale for his mountain biking buddies. Then the cycling company he worked at was sold, and he figured he’d make a run at brewing for a living. Thirteen years later, Norgrove is pumping out 20,000 barrels a year, and has a pile of awards—including the Great American Beer Festival’s (GABF) 2006 Small Brewer of the Year—on his résumé. And mountain bikers still love that red hop bomb.

1. “You need to learn about this”
Norgrove’s first exposure to beermaking came when he was stationed with the Army in La Crosse, Wis. “If you went to the old G. Heilman Brewery in uniform, you could drink for free,” he recalls. After “several weekends” of indulging in the brewery’s patriotism, a brewer grabbed him and showed him around the facility. “He said, ‘Hey kid, if you’re going to keep coming in, you need to learn about this.’” Soon, Norgrove was devouring books on homebrewing. His journey away from Pabst, Old Style and Coors—his beverages of choice during college—had begun in haste.

2. Study, find inspiration, then do it yourself
After the service, he returned to California and snagged a “wonderful” job welding and fabricating custom mountain bikes. In his spare time, he’d weld homebrew tower kits for The Beverage People’s Byron Burch and Nancy Vineyard, who also taught him to brew. Hooked, he sought out brewers at Anchor, and wound up meeting with Mark Carpenter. Carpenter connected Norgrove with Paddy Giffin, who was brewing at Marin, and with Brendan Moylan. Norgrove apprenticed for the pair for a year, and when his cycling company was sold to a foreign outfit, he decided to make a run at opening his own brewery. “Seeing Brendan Moylan develop Moylan’s,” he says, “[showed me] that I could make it myself.”

3. Dream big, but start local
Norgrove founded Bear Republic with his father—the man who has really made the brewery’s business thrive, he insists. He and his father, a Vietnam veteran, secured their first loan through the US Small Business Administration’s veterans’ office—“We didn’t have a rich aunt or uncle to go to,” he jokes—and though he wasn’t sure he wanted to dive into “hamburgers and servers and all that kind of stuff,” the SBA’s consultants urged the pair to open a pub with their brewery. Sonoma was “ripe” for a business that “pushed local food and local beers,” and that base has supplied the customers and capital that have slowly built Bear Republic into the microbrewery that Norgrove had dreamed of. The food’s pretty good, too.

4. Be real
“I make Real Ale,” Norgrove says, proudly. “That means I don’t own a filter. I don’t play with oils, I don’t do synthesized stuff. It’s about trying to create something that someone’s going to be able to literally sink their teeth into, and at the end, say, OK, that left an impression on me. That’s the challenge. You approach every beer with that same type of zeal. The strengths of the beer will flow through, because you’ve allowed the creativity.”

5. Resting on your last win? You’ll be lapped next time out
“I push the team in this place like you wouldn’t believe,” says Norgrove, noting his background in the military and in firefighting. But it’s his love of racing that most informs the way he manages his brewing staff. “I have the best brew crew in US,” he brags. “As the company grows, I feel like Jack Roush, or Hendrick—I give my brewers the best ingredients, the fastest cars, and I give them the opportunity to show me what they got. What moves this company forward is that constant pushing—saying, how much better and stronger and faster can we be overall, every single time?”

6. The bottom line: Do what tastes right
Bear Republic brewers age their ales for 21 days, “and we try to get a minimum of 10-12 days on dry hops,” Norgrove reveals. Few breweries match that maturation period because “that’s tank time that costs money.” For Bear Republic, great taste isn’t an economic decision. “It isn’t a cost factor; it’s part of the process.” He adds, “Nobody tells me what I can or can’t buy. At the end of the day, the accountability is with my wife, my mom or my dad, so that lends to so much creativity.”

7. Find success in mistakes
“We have this rule,” Norgrove says, “if you make the recipe wrong, you don’t try to hide it.” That’s because terrible miscues sometimes turn out fine—like Bear Republic’s wildly successful Racer 5 IPA. “It was one of those marathon, three or four brews back to back, 13-hour days,” Norgrove recalls. Though he was brewing his House IPA, he had Red Rocket on the brain, and, accordingly, he threw in an insane amount of hops. He rolled with it, dubbed the scorching brew Springtime Strong Ale and shipped it to the East Bay. “They went nuts for it. So we fed the monster.”

8. Give it 100 percent
In January, Bear Republic tapped the country’s first beer brewed with 100-percent malted rye. It wasn’t easy. And that’s the point. One batch wound up taking on “this horrible color, like gray cardboard,” and in another, “the viscosity was like 20/50 motor oil.” The brewers wound up giving the beer color by burning and caramelizing some of the wort, and it wound up crisp and clean, with a sweetness that reminded Norgrove of Milk Stout. “It’s the most expensive beer we’ve ever made. We didn’t do for profitability. We did it because we wanted to understand how to do it.”

9. Keep your ear to the streets
Norgrove warns his colleagues to “cultivate the homebrewing industry” because “it’s really a laboratory where true beer advancement is going to come from.” Norgrove recently took on a new apprentice, “one of most inspirational homebrewers I’ve met in the last five years.” He’d brought some of his homebrews on a fishing trip, and floored the Bear Republic staff with his beers, a Milk Stout made with fresh chocolate and a Scottish Ale dry-hopped with pine needles. “I was going, man, I have not tasted a beer like this in years. How did you do this?”