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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mare Island Brewing Company Brings History and Suds to Vallejo’s Waterfront

Posted By on Thu, Sep 25, 2014 at 10:29 AM

  • Lou Bustamante
If you’ve been to Vallejo’s waterfront, it was most likely on your way to the Napa Valley. Vallejo is an old Navy town that fell on hard economic times after the military closed the shipyards on Mare Island, and seems to make more headlines for bad news than good.

But the waterfront in Vallejo is showing new signs of life and promise through an unexpected emissary — a brewpub.

"Mare Island is the reason why Vallejo experienced such a boom, and when it closed, the reason it was such a bust,” says co-owner and brewer Ryan Gibbons. “Why not make Mare Island a reason why people are excited about Vallejo again?"

Mare Island Brewing Company was started by two Mare Island residents, Kent Fortner, a winemaker and the behind -the-scenes guy, and Gibbons, a former brewer at Lagunitas. The taproom, located at the ferry terminal, pours all five beers the brewery makes, plus a small selection of bites like local cheeses and sausages. The menu was designed by consulting chef Curtis Di Fede, formerly partner and chef at Oenotri in Napa.

The restaurant is purposely being kept simple for the time being, with more items slated to scale as the kitchen staff gets trained. "The food offerings are going to grow from here, and we already have an even larger menu, but we want to grow into that," says Gibbons.

  • Lou Bustamante
The brewery and taproom have embraced the history of Mare Island and infused it into almost every aspect of the business. "Most everything in our taproom space has Mare Island heritage of some sort,” says Gibbons. “Most of it was donated to us by anonymous donors. The Mare Island Museum donated a lot of this to us."

All of the lights in the taproom are reclaimed from buildings on Mare Island, as are the tables, which are made from old wood that needed to be replaced and fashioned by an artist who works out of a collective on the island. Old hardhats, the required headgear from the Navy days, line the top portion of the walls, each color representing the wearer's job function and shop number. Even the beers are all named after some aspect of the Navy days.

click to enlarge One of the tables made from reclaimed materials leftover from structural retrofitting of Mare Island buildings - LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
  • One of the tables made from reclaimed materials leftover from structural retrofitting of Mare Island buildings
The Saginaw Golden Ale ($5.50/pint) was the first beer they made; it is a dry-hopped ale meant to be accessible, and named after the first ship built on Mare Island in 1857.

One of the most popular beers, the oddly named Hydraulic Sandwich IPA ($6/pint) is a hoppy number that doesn’t hide the malty goodness. Gibbons explains that the name comes from a term they learned from talking to old submariners. “They told us: 'it's so cool that you guys are opening a taproom in the ferry terminal because when Mare Island Naval Shipyard (MINSY) was up and operational, we used to take the ferry across for lunch [to Vallejo across the strait]. Of course some of us would have lunch, but a couple of us would have a hydraulic sandwich... you know, when you just have a couple of beers for lunch.'"

The Farragut’s Farmhouse Saison ($6.50/pint) is named after Commander Farragut, who commissioned Mare Island back in 1854, making it the first naval shipyard to be established on the Pacific coast. He is probably best know for saying “Damn the torpedos,” while fighting in the Civil War, and the official motto of Mare Island Brewing. The saison gets a special kick from aging for four months in used sauvignon blanc barrels.

Their newest addition is the Angles and Dangles American Blonde Ale, an easy drinking beer they created to honor the 50th anniversary of the submarine veterans group annual meeting, this year held in San Francisco. As for the name? "Angles and Dangles apparently is when a submarine is about to be [launched], what they would do is they would take it out into deep water, and take it through diving a different angles, increasingly deeper each time,” says Gibbons. “Hard lefts, and hard rights... The idea behind it was to make sure that nothing on the ship moved when they went through these maneuvers, because any kind of sound like that could be picked up by sonar from enemy forces."

Of the five, the Coal Shed Stout ($5.50/pint) points towards the brewery’s future. Named after the building the company currently occupies, it was formerly a coal storage unit that was used to load onto steamers when the Navy was powered by coal.

While the brewery is currently producing the beer at Carneros Brewing Company in Sonoma, the hopes are to move all production to the 8,000 square foot building soon. "The hardest thing with this location is with the ferry bringing a captive audience of a half million people a year, we weren't really sure what the demand was going to be,” says Gibbons. “We were looking at a seven barrel system [when setting up the business], and now we're looking a 20 barrel system."

While a single brewpub can’t change a whole town overnight, the success of the 80 person spot is perhaps more of a landmark, a turning of the tide, and the launching of a new vessel from the docks that have sat quiet long enough.
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