By Sam Desatoff
Though Fresno State is widely-known for being the first university in the U.S. to operate a winery, a similar program for microbrewing is nowhere near establishment.
In semesters past, Fresno State offered a zymurgy course – a class centered on learning to brew beer. However, with the professors who taught the class, Dr. Barry Gump and Dr. James Farrar, no longer at the university, the course is no longer offered.
However, Fresno is home to a budding industry of award-winning local beer masters. It is also home to several resources aspiring home brewers can take advantage of.
Over the last few years, Fresno has seen a “renaissance” in the microbrew scene. At the forefront is Julian Bencomo, owner of Bencomo’s Homebrew Supply in the Tower District. With nearly 23 years of experience, Bencomo has won multiple awards for his homemade beers and is a nationally recognized beer judge.
Today, Bencomo supplies Fresno’s up-and-coming brew masters.
“I started the shop in 1991,” Bencomo said. “After trying to find new and different beers in the market, I decided to make my own.”
Browsing Bencomo’s shop, one can find a wide variety of grains, yeasts and hops, as well as any fermenters, thermometers or other equipment upstart brewers might need. Among the staff are a number of knowledgeable self-brewers, including Bencomo himself, that are willing to provide advice.
The shop also sells pre-made kits that include supplies necessary to start brewing.
Bencomo said he saw a sharp increase in the number of amateur brewers in Fresno and has noticed similarities to the beer boom of the 1990s.
“The late 1990s was a huge time for home brewing and craft beer,” Bencomo said. “However, the bubble burst in the early 2000s. A lot of mediocre and bad beers were coming into the market, and there was a natural correction.”
With the market flooded, a large number of craft brewers found themselves lacking business, and the industry eventually sorted itself out, he said.
If there is indeed another natural correction on the horizon, Bencomo said this time around will be different.
“The correction will be a lot more educated this time. With social media…good beers will have a fighting chance.”
One brewery that is seeing success amidst the sea of craft beer is Tioga-Sequoia Brewing, a Fresno-based brewery founded in 2007. One aspect to its flourishing business is its strong social media presence. Tioga-Sequoia is active on Twitter and Facebook, addressing feedback from fans and interacting with its community.
More important than social media, however, is the product itself.
“Our first three beers were our IPA, Amber Lager and Citrus Wheat,” said Michael Cruz, the marketing and sales director for Tioga-Sequoia.
Variety in beer styles is becoming an increasingly important way of distinguishing Tioga-Sequoia from the masses.
“American craft beer is all about innovation,” Cruz said. “It is an artisan way to create a beverage that had been made a certain way for hundreds of years. The recent trend is demanding that we create new flavors and ideas that keep up with the ever-evolving palate of our consumers.”
While it may be tempting to beer heads to attempt to establish a new brewery, Cruz offers a few words of caution.
“Starting a brewery is not as easy as most people would like to think it is,” he said. “It is very expensive and time consuming. Capital, professional experience and passion are the three things needed to successfully start up a brewery.”
Contract brewing is one of many possible routes for a fledgling brewery to take, and one that Tioga-Sequoia began with. In this process, a brewery can outsource its recipes and brands to other breweries. This significantly reduces the amount of capital needed for startups, but it is not ideal, Cruz said.
“We realized very quickly that the benefits of running a brewery on your own terms outweighs the capital commitment,” Cruz said. “With contract brewing, you are on someone else’s schedule. You have a high risk of consistency issues, and the profit margins are thinner.”
Part of the appeal of craft beer is indeed the sheer variety of styles available. Beer has gone from a relatively simple beverage to a complex chemistry of new yeast strains and innovative combinations of hops and malts.
“There is a craft beer for every mood or occasion,” Cruz said. “That is the beauty of the industry.”