Eel River Brewery:
From Organic Barley to World-Class Beer
If brewing is a dance, then the girl Owner/Brewer Master Ted Vivatson brought is the prettiest of them all. He was the first in the United States to have a certified organic brewery. In a time when others are using GMO crops and pesticide riddled ingredients, he took the road untraveled. Brewing organically is, on average, 30% more expensive than neo-traditional methods. He re-invented the industry. By seeking out organic components from as far as New Zealand for his hops he opened the door for organic breweries around the country. He looks as near as Humboldt itself, for the organic beef and ingredients he uses in the brewpub’s kitchen. In doing so, he endeavors to set a standard of excellence that not only surpass American standards, but compete and win against a litany of world renowned foreign breweries. ERB has won enough gold medals over the years to make Michael Phelps feel like an under-achiever.
Walking into the 20,000 sq. foot main brewhouse in Scotia it is instantly apparent that there is a peaceful rhythm and almost team-like atmosphere in the air. There is no one rushing. There is no one shouting. Everyone seemed to know their job and do it with an almost silent precision. One reason for this Ted explains is because he likes to hire people who know virtually nothing about brewing. His current Head Brewer Mike Smith started out washing dishes in the kitchen. He paid for Mike to attend school and thus cultivated a passionate and committed student in the art of brewing.
The artistry and craftsmanship that goes into every bottle of beer is really quite extraordinary. What is also incredible is the amount of insider language that is misrepresented to fool the general public by the large beer conglomerates. “Cold-filtering” is something everyone does because as Ted says, “It is impossible to filter beer warm”. The idea of “beach wood aged” as something special is a lie as well. Beach wood aging actually shortens the brewing process making a bad beer brew faster. As for real ingredients; many big companies who rely on frogs or icy trains to sell their beer, use feed corn or rice instead of the organic barley and hops that ERB uses. Even the water is something special when it comes to ERB. They get theirs from an underground aquifer. Ted believes good water is hard to come by since- “good brew water is bad for pipes.”
To see how it’s done, when it’s done right, Ted walked through the process. First, you must “mill” the malted barley to release the sugars.
Second, you take the sugary extract of the malted barley called “wort” and add it to a “kettle” with hops and boil. It is at this stage where a lot of opportunities exist for dictating the flavor and type of beer you will have. It is also at this stage that Ted takes his spent barley and feeds it to local cattle further reducing the already very low waste in the production system.
To remove larger particles or “grub”, the contents of the kettle is placed into a “whirlpool” where centrifugal force and gravity are used at a means of filtering out the grub.
Once the wort is cooled, it and the yeast are added to a fermentation tank causing the yeast to eat the sugar where it “Farts C02 and pisses alcohol” Ted explains. The beer may remain in this fermentation tank for as long as 8 weeks for a lager and as little as 2 for an ale.
Once the brewer is satisfied with the beer he will move it to conditioning tank(s) that allows the yeast to drop to the bottom and the CO2 levels can be adjusted.
Finally the beer is ready to be put into kegs, bottles or whiskey casks like ERB’s world famous Triple Exultation. It takes two years in whiskey barrels to create the only beer to win three awards in the same year.
Their bottling line does a 120 bottles a minute on average. That is barely a fraction of what the beer giants produce. ERB places their emphasis on quality and as small as they might be, the $60,000 dollars they spend on their Quality Control program a year, speaks volumes about their dedication to creating something more than just golden liquid to play beer pong with.
Due to the fact that ERB is organic, they do not use the cleaning agents that most companies would easily compromise their integrity for. Because of this when they get a bad batch they dump it. They recently had a batch of beer worth thousands of dollars that was contaminated due to a crack in the tank, so they decided lose the beer rather than their standard of excellence.
If you aren’t already impressed, this will set you over the edge. ERB uses recycled glass for their bottles and all their packaging is 100% recycled and soy based.
As you might expect, no matter how great the product or how noble the deed, Uncle Sam always wants his piece of pie. Every barrel of beer that ERB produces, they pay $13.20 in taxes to Federal and State government.
If there was one place in our county that encapsulated the true spirit and best aspects of Humboldt, Eel River Brewery is that place. The food has local ingredients and regional flavor. The staff is some of the nicest and hardest working folk this side of the Redwood Curtain. The building in which the pub thrives is as classically Humboldt as any you might find. Were it not for its age, it would be hard believe it hadn’t always been there.
The brewpub is comprised of a dining room with a bar, a beer garden replete with horse shoes, music, sculptures and plenty of seating for the sun-deprived. Behind the bar is a small brewing room over-seen by Ted’s son Matt, who has been brewing since he was 14. In this small room which remarkably once housed all of ERB’s brewing operation, smaller more experimental batches can be brewed.
Finally there is the beer. As they are always adding and inventing new styles and flavors I would encourage you to go and see for yourself what they have and what they suggest. Happy hour is Monday-Friday 3:00- 6:30pm. During happy hour, pints are only $2.75. What follows is a description of the beers they had as of June 8, 2012.
Acai Berry Wheat- (4.0% Alcohol by Volume) the aptly named Acai Berry Wheat tastes just as it sounds. It infuses a distinctly wheaty flavor with a pleasant mix of berry. You will never have a wine cooler again.
Amber Ale- (4.8% ABV) a lighter ale that smells summery, and has a festive melody of hops.
Cali Pale Ale- (5% ABV) Cali Pale Ale manages to be both robust and smooth. There are subtle almost ethereal notes of lemon and oak.
Porter- (5.8% ABV) a very dark and hoppy style that is rich, tasty, and bubbly.
Cali Blonde- (5.8% ABV) one of the most refreshing beers you can find. It has a nice crisp, clean bite that reminds you what good beer is all about.
Marzan- (6.5% ABV) this American variation on a German lager has a lively smell with a light bodied bouquet of malt, wheat, hop and caramel.
I.P.A. – (7.2% ABV) very robust aroma that tastes wheaty and rich- finishes smooth.
Saison Du Hum- (7.7% ABV) or roughly translated from French- “The Humboldt Season”. This French style has a sour smell and is bitterer than most American ales. It bursts with strong hop flavor in a very summertime kind of way.
Hazelnut Porter- (8.2% ABV) this version of Porter is much nuttier than its (5.8%) sibling. It is also darker and has a more distinct accompaniment of oak flavor.
Earth Thirst- (8.2% ABV) this beer is brewed annually for Earth Day. A portion of the proceeds are donated to CCOF (non-profit association that promotes organic food and agriculture). This double I.P.A. has a smell that is light and full of citrus. It tastes even fuller with a presentation of all that the hop has to offer.
Raven’s Eye Stout- (9.5% ABV) hints of chocolate, cream, coffee, all meld into a dart stout that is smoky and smooth in flavor, but strong where it counts.
Triple Exultation- (9.7% ABV) this beer requires aging for at least two years in whiskey casks before it is ever put into bottles or kegs. It is probably the most pain-staking of all their beers and it shows. Brew master Ted says that with brewing- “balance is key” and I never found that more the case than with this beer. It takes whiskey along with a myriad of other flavors, refines and heightens them, into one of the most full bodied beers on the planet.
Eel River Brewery is more than just a good place to go for an incredible organic beer and some delicious food. It is a business we can be proud of. In an age where we rely more and more on faceless corporations and heartless conglomerates there is one business willing to make a difference. Organic brewing is- “The girl I brought to the dance” Ted said about his enterprise in the context of the greater brewing industry. In the ballroom of the world stage, for the brewing boogie- that is one dance card we can only hope is never changed.