Where There’s Water, Beer Can Flow

Brick & Mortar by | Oct 2012 | Issue #69

Beer and water have a long partnership. Without water, there would be no beer. In the Middle Ages, the water in the Old World poisoned people. Beer didn’t. Even today, this remains true in some parts of the world.

Arthur Farley considered this relationship between water and beer while scouting a location for his Brasserie St. James brewpub in Reno, Nev. He decided on the old Crystal Springs Water building in Midtown. The kicker? The artesian well 300 feet below the building. “That was the closing deal,” Farley says. “Having grown up drinking Crystal Springs water and knowing it wasn’t city water. No chlorine, no chlorides.”

Originally constructed in 1929, the building housed Crystal Springs Water Co. until a few years ago, when the company rebranded to Spring Water Depot and moved from its original location, from which it supplied fresh drinking water to the parched residents of the high desert town at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain. But the artesian well is more than just a water source, Farley explains. “It’s actually like an underground lake,” he says. “It’s replenished by snow melt from the Sierras.”

As with any old building renovation, there were challenges and surprises. Rotten studs and other damages were found, but Farley—who is a licensed general contractor and oversaw the construction himself—discovered an unexpected bonus. “Inside the building, there was this wealth of old wood that had been covered up by drywall years and decades ago,” he says. “We were able to reclaim that wood from the building and do all our build-out and finish carpentry out of wood from the building.”

And like any historic structure, the building has tales to tell. Farley, 39, who was born in Los Angeles and went to high school in Reno, recounts his wife’s grandfather telling him about an unorthodox use of the building’s icehouse, an area now occupied by the Brasserie St. James brewhouse, fermentation tanks and barrel-aging room.

“During World War II, during the rationing of food, all the local hunters who were friends with the family that owned the building would just pool their resources—there weren’t the restrictions on hunting that there are now—and they converted it to a meat locker when meat rationing was happening,” he says. “That whole building was full of local deer and elk, and they kept their meat there.”

This isn’t Farley’s first rodeo. Four years ago, Farley opened St. James Infirmary, a beer-and-cocktail bar, also in Reno (featured in Destinations, issue #58). But he wanted to add a restaurant with a brewery, and he felt it made more sense to find a new facility rather than work the concept into the existing business.

“We were the first real beer bar in Reno, and we brought a bunch of Belgian and German and more obscure beers from all over the country into Reno. Ironically, some of the beers we had brought in we now have a difficult time getting,” due to the increase in demand for those beers. “The next logical step,” he says, “is that we’d just make our own.”

Farley started the initial demolition of the Spanish Mission-style building in August 2010 and the renovation in February 2011. He hired Josh Watterson from Bridgeport Brewing in Portland, Ore., as head brewer. Watterson brews on a 20-barrel system manufactured by Specific Mechanical, based in British Columbia, Canada.

Farley estimates they will brew 2,500 to 3,000 barrels the first year and have eight to 12 year-round beers on tap, with a few seasonals and special brews. Distribution will follow when it is feasible. The first beer was brewed in mid-August, and Farley says Brasserie St. James will be open in October.