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Anderson Valley Brewing poised for brand revival, beer park

BOONVILLE — By the late fall of 2019, Fal Allen had about enough as the brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Mendocino County since 2000.

He was no longer working full-time there since the Boonville brewery had fallen on hard times, under management that could not chart a new course after nine years of ownership.

Founded in 1987, the craft beer pioneer had become an afterthought in the marketplace with a massive drop in production. Plus, its beers were not a topic of conversation among beer geeks who craved the latest hoppy versions of the India pale ale style. Its bucolic taproom situated on the sunny west end of Anderson Valley off Highway 128 became less and less of a destination.

“It was kind of sad. … I felt we weren’t going where I wanted to,” Allen said, noting he had set a resignation date of Feb. 1, 2020. “We were just a company in this weird free fall.”

But Allen and Anderson Valley found a last-minute safety net in a Healdsburg home brewer’s family that saw an opportunity to revive the storied brand that for years has produced popular beers like Boont Amber Ale, with its touch of caramel, and slightly creamy Summer Solstice Ale. The problem was there was not as much thirst for these beers from younger drinkers driving the market.

Kevin McGee and his family bought the brewery in December 2019 from Trey White for an undisclosed price. And after more than a year of planning, McGee revealed his turnaround plans that include new beers, a more modern company logo and a major property upgrade for Anderson Valley to again become a must-stop beer mecca.

“Anderson was so many peoples’ initial emotional connection to craft beer,” McGee said, after hearing many personal stories of fans since buying the brewery.

Serving as chief executive officer of Anderson Valley, McGee is not just a passionate home brewer who previously started his own microbrewing label, Healdsburg Brewing Co., out of his garage. Most importantly, he had worked as legal counsel to nationally acclaimed Jackson Family Wines, working with the late founder Jess Jackson, and became an expert on all the intricacies of the alcohol industry — from dealing with wholesalers to federal regulations on marketing the products. These are skills greatly needed to run a brewery in the 21st century.

At the forefront of it all is McGee’s love of beer. “Kevin really is a beer guy,” brewmaster Allen said.

McGee had to confront the COVID-19 pandemic and navigate all the ramifications, such as a draft beer business that represented more than 30% of Anderson Valley’s revenue, and it disappeared as bars and restaurants shut down in March 2020.

“Overnight, literally, we just got phone calls and everybody around the country just canceled all their draft,” McGee said recently.

The brewery secured $1.2 million through two small business loans as part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. They allowed it to retain about 50 employees and McGee hired more salespeople. The result was expanded distribution with Anderson Valley’s beers selling in almost 40 states.

At the end of 2020, the brewery produced 20,000 barrels of beer, McGee said. That is much less than 10 years ago when it was listed among the top 50 craft breweries by the Brewers Association trade group, which represents independent breweries.

The yearlong pandemic gave McGee plenty of time to navigate his turnaround plan.

“The first thing you need to do is just quietly observe and try and figure out what's going on and come to as much of a rational diagnosis of what the challenges are and what the opportunities are possible,” said McGee, who has taught in an entrepreneurship program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

The response is Anderson Valley is undertaking one of the most ambitious turnaround plans now in the $116 billion U.S. beer market. The brewery will rebrand with a new logo to give its mascot Barkley — a bear with antlers that represented a hybrid between a bear and a deer — a sharper look with the eyes and snout similar to the late beloved McGee family dog.

The brewery is also heading into the IPA category again with four different styles: a double IPA; an updated version of a West Coast style known for its citrus and pine aromas; a dry and crispy IPA that is decidedly different from the “brut style” beers popular over the past couple years; and a juicy IPA.

Perhaps the most notable improvement, though, will be turning the 30-acre Anderson Valley site into a destination beer park. The property will include an updated 18-hole disc golf course, where there will be a beer tap station and an outdoor pizza oven. There also will be a 9,000-square-feet lawn area with bocce ball courts and room for cornhole games and a seating area with 50 Adirondack chairs. An outdoor stage for live music is being built just west of the taproom. Beer carts will roam outside on the property. He’s making the upgrades in stages and hopes to finish by the end of the year. Later he plans a commercial kitchen in the taproom.

As he executes his revitalization for which he declined to reveal the financial investment, McGee is working with a brewery that has a solid consumer reputation for quality beers. Despite sluggishness, it also retained decent market share for its aged stouts, as well as its gose (pronounced GO-zuh), a kettle sour beer that’s made in a variety of fruit flavors.

Herlinda Heras, an international beer judge from Sonoma County and host at KSRO radio station, said she has been a longtime fan of the gose and impressed by the brewery’s recent release of a tropical hazy gose.

“It’s refreshing and it still has that little bit of salinity,” Heras said of the tropical hazy flavor.

Anderson Valley is planning at the end of April to launch a gose variety 12-pack.

“It’s a really big deal as there really aren’t that many breweries out there that have an established collection of well-regarded fruited sours,” McGee said.

The brewery also has had success with its Huge Arker, a stout brew aged in bourbon barrels that packs a punch at 15.5% alcohol content, which is more than many wines. McGee switched the packaging from a 22-ounce bottle to a four-pack of 12-ounce cans that makes the beer more palatable for consumers.

“It’s been crazy. We’re sold out until November,” he said of Huge Arker.

McGee noted the “frustrated affection” loyal customers have for Anderson Valley and he hopes the brewery can recapture “connections they just kind of lost.” The beer park should help with that reintroduction.

Allen is convinced that with the addition of the beer park the brewery could easily double the number of customers that were coming before the onset of the pandemic.

“In order to develop the property, it takes time and money,” Allen said. “Now we are going to see some improvement and making it into what it could have been 20 years ago.”

The brewery’s location is not easy to reach. Drivers have to navigate many sharp turns along the more than 20-mile stretch of Highway 128 from Cloverdale to Boonville, after exiting Highway 101 to get to Anderson Valley. But there have been encouraging signs during the pandemic that people are making the drive.

Anderson Valley has seen an uptick of tourists as many visitors enjoyed visiting the area’s wineries, cideries and farms because they all have ample space to enjoy food and beverages outside, said Kristy Charles, proprietor at Foursight Wines and the former president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.

“I think people are looking to continue to have outdoor experiences,” Charles said. Her winery put up gazebos behind the tasting room and plans to keep serving customers outside through the fall.

“In Boonville, the nice thing is people can park and go from spot to spot as long as they bring sensible shoes,” Charles said.

For McGee, he hopes the beer park can attract a wide range of people, from families picnicking, to college buddies playing disc golf, to a young couple walking their dog — all of which can provide the environment to help the brewery regain its luster.

“I would like to make it worth the trip,” he said. “That also means just giving someone the opportunity to drink beer isn’t enough.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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