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Mare Island Brewing Co.: Beers Chased With History 

Tuesday, Sep 30 2014
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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 shipyard on Mare Island, and seems to make headlines more 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 Brewing Company was started by two Mare Island residents — Kent Fortner, a winemaker and the behind-the-scenes guy, and Ryan Gibbons, the brewer and a Lagunitas alum. The taproom, at Vallejo's ferry terminal, pours the brewery's five beers and serves a small selection of bites like local cheeses and sausages in a menu designed by consulting chef Curtis Di Fede, formerly partner and chef at Oenotri in Napa.

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 was the wood for the tables, which were made by an artist who works out of a collective on the island. Old hardhats, the required headgear from the island's Navy days, line the top part of the walls, each color representing the long-ago wearer's job function and shop number. Even the beers are all named after some aspect of the Navy days.

The Saginaw Golden Ale ($5.50/pint) was the first beer the company made; it is a dry-hopped ale meant to be accessible, and named after the first ship built on Mare Island in 1857. The Coal Shed Stout gets its name from the building the taproom occupies, a former storage shed for the coal that would be shoveled onto steamers in the bay.

One of the most popular brews, 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 he 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 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 David Farragut, who commissioned Mare Island in 1854, making it the first naval shipyard to be established on the Pacific Coast. He is probably best know for saying "Damn the torpedoes," while fighting in the Civil War — now the official motto of Mare Island Brewing. The saison gets a special kick from aging for four months in used Sauvignon Blanc barrels.

The brewery's newest addition is the Angles and Dangles American Blonde Ale, an easy-drinking beer the pair created to honor the 50th anniversary of the United States Submarine Veterans Inc. The annual meeting this year was 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 at 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."

While the brewery is currently producing the beer at Carneros Brewing Company in Sonoma, Gibbons and Fortner hope to move all production to the 8,000-square-foot Vallejo 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 at a 20-barrel system."

While a single brewpub can't change a whole town overnight, the success of the brewery is perhaps a turning of the tide for Vallejo, breathing new life into docks that have sat silent long enough.

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