Santa Rosa beer pioneer Byron Burch dies at 75

Byron Burch co-founded The Beverage People, a Santa Rosa store that became a hub for North Bay brewers. He taught a generation of brewers how to turn barley malt, hops and yeast into craft beer.|

When Bear Republic Brewing co-founder Richard G. Norgrove first wanted to learn about brewing beer, he turned to Byron Burch’s seminal 1986 book: “Brewing Quality Beers: The Home Brewer’s Essential Guidebook.”

That led to hands-on sessions at Burch’s Santa Rosa store, The Beverage People, where Burch taught a generation of home brewers how to turn barley malt, hops and yeast into craft beer at a time when it still was more of a burgeoning hobby than the multibillion-dollar industry it is today.

“He could make it understandable to where you were captivated and wanted to keep doing it,” said Norgrove, who requires every new brewer at Bear Republic to read Burch’s book.

Burch, who died Aug. 20 at the age of 75 in Santa Rosa, created a lasting legacy in the North Bay’s vibrant brewing community. He died from organ failure due to circulation problems in his legs, said his former wife, Nancy Vineyard, who was an original partner in The Beverage People.

Burch could easily move in circles with well-known local brewers such as Russian River Brewing’s Vinnie Cilurzo and Lagunitas Brewing’s Paddy Giffen. “When I eventually moved up to Sonoma County, visiting Byron was one of the first things I did and over the years we became friends through beer,” Cilurzo said.

But Burch was equally as comfortable with the throngs of home brewers who came into his Sonoma County store, which he started in 1980, friends said.

“He was a pioneer,” said Charlie Papazian, founder of the Association of Brewers and the Great American Beer Festival. “His book on quality brewing was indicative of what he stood for.”

While Papazian and other early founders in the craft beer movement went on to great acclaim, Burch never sought out the limelight, in part because of his unassuming nature, as well as his other interests such as wine, cheese and mead. “He was very humble in terms of how he presented himself in terms of beer,” Norgrove said.

Burch was part of the do-it-yourself movement before it became fashionable and well before the digital era, where there are how-to videos on YouTube for every hobby imaginable.

In essence, Burch was a teacher who could make craft brewing understandable to the masses, friends noted, which wasn’t surprising given that the Minnesota native received an undergraduate degree in English from Westmont College in Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in literature from San Francisco State.

“Byron, and most home brewers, were frustrated by the lack of a good, well-organized basic brewing text,” Jay Conner, who also was an original partner at The Beverage People, said in an email. “He knew how to fashion a sentence, and also how to brew really excellent beer.”

His accomplishments were many within the industry, such as winning Homebrewer of the Year in 1986 from the American Homebrewers’ Association and becoming master judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program. His expertise was perfectly paired with his passion, which he once referred to as the “good beer revolution.”

As the movement caught on in the early 1990s, Conner said the store became a victim of its own success. Many home brewers started their own breweries, leading to a contraction in the home-brewing business. “We were overbuilt. It was more fun to hang out at the local micro-brewery than stir a pot on your stove,” Conner said.

Even with changes in the brewing culture, especially with ordering through the Internet, the store carried on. It expanded into home cheesemaking in the 2000s, with good results.

“We soon realized that this might very well be another area where a symbiosis between hobbyists and commercial producers could advance the art and help raise the national consciousness in a major way,” Burch wrote in 2010 in his store’s newsletter as he prepared to retire from the business. “We’ve seen it before. Why not again?”

Burch was an avid gardener and an Oakland A’s fan. Along with his wife, Karen, he was active at St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church, where he was a reader and choir member, and made sure its Glendi International Food Festival had a good selection of local beers.

“I would make sure we would have beer there every year,” Norgrove said of the festival. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t read Byron’s book.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen Burch; daughters Alicia Laurel Boyce, Sierra Joy Burch Tobler, Neva Vineyard Burch Tewolde, Robyn Sequoia Burch Rosemon; stepdaughters Heidi Dawson and Lisa Gerry; sister Beryl Hewitt; brothers Burdell, Beldon and Berkley Burch; and former wives Nancy Vineyard and Joanne Lagerstrom.

A public celebration of Burch’s life will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 13 at the Bear Republic Brewing Co. courtyard in Healdsburg.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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