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Craft brewpubs near Coffey Park experience revival as residents return home

Aside from being the title of the flagship black lager at Moonlight Brewing Co. in Coffey Park, death and taxes are widely known as the only sure things in life.

But here is another: people are passionate about their corner bars, their neighborhood watering holes, the taverns and public houses where they find escape and community - where everyone knows their name.

As the population of Coffey Park goes up, so does attendance at the trio of craft brewpubs that serve as its local watering holes. While Moonlight is closest to Coffey Park, Plow Brewing Co. and Cooperage Brewing Co. are within a couple blocks of one another, not quite a half-mile northeast of the neighborhood now returning to life following its devastation in the October 2017 Tubbs fire.

On a recent afternoon, Brian Hunt sat at a picnic table outside the recently remodeled taproom of Moonlight Brewing, which he founded in 1992 and nearly lost in the blaze.

The Tubbs fire that torched over 1,300 homes in this neighborhood missed his business, just off Coffey Lane, by about 700 feet. A part-time firefighter while he was a student at UC Davis in the late ’70s, Hunt spent the morning after the fire extinguishing embers, shoveling dirt over hotspots.

Business at the taproom plummeted in the aftermath of the inferno. Many of his Coffey Park regulars had been forced to relocate, but it was more than that, Hunt said.

Driving through the neighborhood, seeing the ruins was “gut-wrenching,” he said. “Sometimes when you go out for a beer, you don’t want to see things that are heavy. And this was heavy.”

“It was sobering,” he said, then smiled at his own bon mot.

Hunt also may have been smiling because business in his taproom is rebounding, as more and more regulars return to rebuilt homes in Coffey Park. As Moonlight’s Instagram account put it a few days earlier, “Love seeing familiar faces, and delighted to welcome new ones to the neighborhood!”

“The fire kind of stopped and went around us,” said Tyler Smith, who owns nearby Cooperage on Airway Court, directly behind the 24-Hour Fitness. His fatigued appearance on this recent morning was not a vestige of the fire, but rather the result of his wife giving birth three days earlier.

Two and a half years after bringing his brewery into the world, Smith closed on a $750,000 loan to build out his business. A month later, flames consumed large swaths of Coffey Park. While he describes that time as “kind of scary,” folks still dropped in. Smith’s simple explanation: “People like beer.”

While he wouldn’t describe the dip in post-fire business as a “nosedive,” Smith said, “we definitely felt it. Our weekends were always pretty good, but Monday through Wednesday, it got pretty quiet.”

Cooperage is a popular way station for Coffey Park patrons seeking to slake their thirst on the way home from work - to “pop in for a quick pint before heading home,” said its sales manager, Dan Hanes.

Some of that business faded in the wake of the fire. For people who did lose their homes, whose lives were disrupted, Hanes said, “their neighborhood bar, their watering hole, gave them community and consistency - the kind of stuff people were searching for.”

Holding down a barstool on a recent Thursday afternoon at nearby Plow brewpub on Industrial Drive, Mike Deas recalled the void in his life, when that establishment closed after the fire.

“It was a tough time,” he said. How long had the pub been closed?

“A week,” he replied, drawing a gale of laughter from his drinking partner, Hans. Both men lost their homes on Santiago Drive, just south of Coffey Park. Deas has yet to move back in, but never stopped patronizing Plow.

Even though his son spent a decade as general manager of Russian River Brewing Co., Deas preferred Plow, not just for the quality of its beer - he and Hans were savoring pints of Halflinger Pale Ale - but for the camaraderie.

“This is my Cheers bar,” Deas said.

“It’s true,” Hans said. “When he walks in, everyone says, ‘Hi Mike.’”

Over at Moonlight, Judy Dittmer and two friends blew off steam after punching the clock at St. Joseph Health in Santa Rosa.

Friday is their customary evening here, but after “an unusually stressful day,” Dittmer said, “someone said, ‘Who’s up for Moonlight?’”

While she enjoys the crisp tones of Reality Czech, Hunt’s highly regarded pilsner, that’s not why she’s a regular. With her house on Crestview Drive in Coffey Park not due to be finished until October, this is where she’s sure to encounter old neighbors and friends.

Atop the piano just inside Moonlight’s taproom entrance are three growlers, blackened and charred and presented to Hunt, who was happy to replace them with new ones.

He’s also happy to be providing customers with something - this may strike some hopheads as sacrilegious - more important than beer.

“Part of what makes us feel at home are routines, things you can count on,” Hunt said. “It’s nice for the people of Coffey Park to find a routine again.”

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Patience, please

As more and more people move back into their Coffey Park homes, others may be tempted to take up residence before their property has passed final inspections.

The number of residents “squatting” in their own homes is believed to be quite small, said Santa Rosa chief building official Jesse Oswald. And the city would like to keep it that way.

The main fear, Oswald said, is having people move into a house “where there may be some outstanding items we haven’t approved that could be major safety concerns.”

If the outstanding items on the builder’s punch list are not major - landscaping, for instance - the city will work with homeowners, granting temporary occupancy good for 90 days. That temporary status can be extended, if necessary.

“If they’re really close,” Oswald said, “we’ll find a way to throw resources at the problem until we can say, ‘OK, we’re safe here.’ Sometimes it’s simply a matter of coordinating contractors.”

“We don’t want to kick anyone out on the street. Our approach is, ‘We totally understand the situation you’re in.’?”

What homeowners need to understand is that if they do move in before official occupancy is granted by the city, any damage that occurs likely will not be covered by insurance.

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One of these nights

Kimm Howard, her husband, Don, and a bunch of their friends had just danced the night away at Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol in February when a member of the band thanked them for energy and support. Joey DiBono, bassist for the Illeagles, an Eagles tribute band, was chatting with the group when Kim Howard mentioned how excited they were to be moving back into their home on San Marcos Drive, which burned in the Tubbs fire.

“When you guys have your housewarming party,” DiBono told her, “we want to come play for you.”

Months passed. Finally, the Woods scheduled a party for Saturday, July 20. Not expecting DiBono to remember her, Kimm Howard left a message on the band’s Facebook page, mentioning their February meeting, and that their housewarming had been scheduled.

There were the Illeagles on July 20, playing an acoustic set in the Howards’ living room for a highly enthusiastic audience of about 100. Taking advantage of the intimate venue, band members ranged among the guests during songs that included “Hotel California” and “Seven Bridges Road.”

The musicians toasted their hosts, and spent time looking at pictures of the house after it was razed, and during its construction.

“The talked about how the pictures touched them,” Kim Howard recalled, “and how they were so glad to give back. We were just so glad they came.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com

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