At 5 a.m. on a frigid December day, Michelle Hanamaik’i lined up outside Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co. in downtown Fresno for a beer she wouldn’t taste for another six hours.
It was “Rush Day,” when the brewery releases a new take on its Rush Hour breakfast stout, this time with coffee from several local companies infused into the beer.
Hanamaik’i wasn’t the first in line – one guy spent the night there – and by the time the brewery opened its doors, about 200 people were queued up behind her.
“I couldn’t even see the end of it,” she said of the line. “It was massive. Every year it’s been steadily growing.”
Eventually, more than 400 people came to taste and buy that beer. If there ever was proof of Fresno’s thriving craft beer scene, that was it.
The craft beer culture in Fresno and the Central Valley keeps growing.
The beer geek community is bustling with craft beer lovers who share recommendations and trade beers using Instagram or the app Untappd, essentially the Facebook of beer. Central Valley Craft Beer Drinkers Facebook group has more than 3,000 members.
There are new events like the twice-yearly Old Town Clovis Craft Beer Crawl. (The next one is March 12.)
Although there have been a few setbacks – Peeve’s Public House and bottle shop Das Bierhaus closed, for example – Fresno is catching up steadily to other cities that have embraced the craft beer culture, says Mike Seay, co-host of the Perfect Pour podcast.
There are more small, often home-based brewers working their way up to a level where they can sell to the public. And there is even talk of a potential “brewery district” downtown.
Craft beer remains a hot commodity in the U.S. and in California. While the U.S. is home to more than 4,200 breweries, California has 710 craft breweries.
In the San Joaquin Valley, between Kern and Stanislaus counties, there are more than two dozen craft breweries, with more than half of those receiving their operating license within the last two years.
Although the rate of growth in the Valley is slower than in other parts of the state, experts say the region still has potential for more breweries, new beers and brewpubs.
“It is true that the Valley has been slower to develop as a craft beer market, but they are not alone in that respect,” says Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. “Sacramento was slow to develop, and it has really blossomed in the last four to five years.”
McCormick estimates there are about 50 craft breweries in the four-county Sacramento region. Their growth has been fueled by a sustained interest in craft beer along with support from local restaurants, developers and the media.
“If that can happen in Fresno, then it has some exciting times ahead,” McCormick says.
Already, there is buzz about several new breweries and beer-related building projects south of Chukchansi Park in downtown Fresno.
▪ Border Hop Brewing Co. will be one of the first to join the block of buildings developer Terance Frazier plans to transform into a craft brewery, apartments and restaurants. Border Hop will be at 721 Broadway St. and is expected to open by September or October.
▪ Tioga-Sequoia’s tasting room, at 745 Fulton St., already draws large crowds to its events and is expanding. The owners have acquired a nearby 14,000-square-foot building to boost production. They also plan to spruce up the beer garden and start doing public tours.
▪ A highly anticipated gastropub nearby at 820 Van Ness Blvd. will open in the next few months. It’s a partnership between House of Pendragon Brewing Co. and craft beer hot spot Pita Kabob in Visalia.
More brewers are rumored to be looking for space to open downtown.
“We are just scratching the surface of what we can do in Fresno,” Frazier says.
Dreamers in the craft beer world envision a brewery district like San Diego’s, with numerous breweries within walking distance.
“It makes it more of a destination,” says Tioga-Sequoia president Michael Cruz. “I can park and walk and literally go everyplace and not have to drive. It’s an appealing thing.”
Such a district could be an informal collection of breweries or, as in Visalia, a formal microbrewery district. The city made the designation for the eastern part of downtown last year, meaning breweries don’t need a special permit to dispense beer or deliver to restaurants and retailers.
When brewery districts thrive, they’ll bring in tourists – beer geeks from out of town who want to spend a weekend checking out new breweries.
It’s already happening to a small degree, says Seay, the podcast co-host. He knows of listeners from Los Angeles and San Diego who spent a weekend in Fresno checking out breweries.
“Just from the show, we’ve convinced people to come to Fresno who never would have come to Fresno,” he says. “There’s a certain group that’s just their hobby, traveling to see … breweries.”
While checking driver’s licenses at Tioga-Sequoia’s release of the Rush Hour beer, Cruz noticed 25 to 30 of the 200 in line were from outside the Valley.
Attracting out-of-towners was one of the goals of Dust Bowl Brewing’s new 30,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in Turlock. Located just west of Highway 99, the brewery has become a hot spot for beer drinkers.
“We felt we had an incredible opportunity to draw people in from 99,” says Michelle Peterson, spokeswoman for Dust Bowl Brewing.
And it’s working. Peterson says reservations at their new brewpub are almost a must for dinner on weeknights and nearly all day on weekends.
The brewery that began as a small company in 2009 now has two taprooms, including the new brewery and restaurant on Fulkerth Road. It also has widespread distribution and employs nearly 145 people.
Their production has grown from about 5,000 barrels to about 10,000. The new brewery has the capacity to produce 15,000 to 20,000 barrels a year.
“We were the first ones to brew craft beer, and we have really set the stage for growing the culture here,” Peterson said. “And our brand continues to grow, which is really exciting.”
Along with dominating the local market, you can find Dust Bowl’s beers throughout California, from Kern County to San Francisco. It soon will expand into Southern California, the Central Coast and Washington state.
“Craft beer is definitely on the rise, and a lot of breweries are finding success not just being a stand-alone brewery but also having a taproom and restaurant,” Peterson says. “Beer and food go hand in hand.”