Shortly after I launched the website for International Brewers Day, I got an appropriately curmudgeonly comment disdaining the idea from my friend Brian Hunt, who owns Moonlight Brewing. Here’s what he had to say.
Let’s all just make good beer and drink it. The Brewer’s Association will log acres of forests for special posters and mailings. I can see Hallmark jumping on this one big time, and before long you’ll have to wade through all the K-Mart “holiday” ads looking for that right something for the brewers in your life. I vote no on this.
While hardly shy, I think having worked in the moonlight for so many years has made Brian shy away from the limelight. That alone made him the perfect choice for my first IBD profile. He is, to my mind, one of the truly unsung heroes of brewing, quietly making some of the nation’s best beers.
And happily I’m not the only one. In an article entitled Czech Mate, published in Forbes, the author reveals that of all the beers rated on Beer Advocate, Moonlight’s Reality Czech is the only golden lager on their list of the “Top Beers on Planet Earth.” Unfazed, Hunt explains.
“We have almost no concept in this country that we can have a beer that is light but also flavorful and vibrant,” explains Brian Hunt, Moonlight Brewing’s owner (and sole employee). “Making a great lager like that requires more time, more skill and more expense than making an ale.”
Brian Hunt was, of course, born in a log cabin near Sacramento, and walked ten miles to school, uphill — both ways — through blizzards in winter and punishing heat in summer. Alright, everything in that last sentence, except Sacramento, I made up. But Brian’s past just cries out to be remade as mythic fable.
Brian started college at U.C. San Diego as a biochemistry major, but soon realized that most of his fellow students were pre-med, a path he decidedly was not interested in pursuing. So he transferred to U.C. Davis to study fermentation sciences with an eye toward becoming a winemaker. But fate stepped in when he was randomly assigned Michael Lewis as his advisor. Needing income, he found himself working in Lewis’ laboratory and found it was easy to be persuaded to concentrate on beer instead of wine. He found his fellow brewing students much closer to his own temperament, more down to earth and fun. “Beer just seemed more enjoyable.” Hunt remarked.
After graduating with a degree in Fermentation Sciences in 1980, Hunt relocated to the heart of early brewing — Milwaukee, Wisconsin — to take a job at the Schlitz Brewery. He loved the history of the place. Everywhere you looked it was there. Hunt spent about eighteen months working for Schlitz. There were no computers in the place. Every step they took was done manually, so you learned the reason why you did certain things, and you could extrapolate those to subsequent steps, too. As a result, he learned a lot in that year and a half, crediting that experience with setting the tone for the rest of his career.
He moved back to California in 1981, brewing at the now long gone Berkeley Brewing Co., making ales and lagers on a 40-bbl system. After that venture went belly-up, he consulted on several brewing projects throughout the Bay Area, before ending up at Acme Brewing in Santa Rosa, California in 1985. He was there two years, but the brewery never had much of a chance owing to financial issues that the owners had not anticipated. The majestic 100-bbl brewhouse finally made its first batch of beer on March 2, 1987, but it was too late. Hunt says of his time there that it was a great MBA project and he learned most of what he needed (whether he wanted to or not) about the business side of the brewing industry.
When the Santa Rosa brewery finally shuttered its doors, Brian spent some time working for the other team at Grgich Hills Winery before a brief stint formulating two beers (whose recipes have since changed) and helping layout the brewery itself at the early Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville.
In 1988, Brian finally opened his own place in Napa with a descendant of the Hamms brewing family. He had a 1/3-share of Willett’s Brewing Co. (now Downtown Joe’s) from sweat equity and $1,100 of his own money. But by 1992, a get-rich-quick lawsuit brought by one of the brewpub’s employees forced Willett’s into bankruptcy. Brian Hunt saw the writing on the wall, and when someone phoned him to offer 100 Hoff-Stevens kegs, he bought them for himself and began … well, moonlighting.
The original Moonlight brewery was built in a barn behind the house he was renting. He built the entire system himself using equipment cobbled together from a variety of sources. Brian bought old kettles from a winery that couldn’t boil water, and so had to be adapted. Quite a number of items from Sierra-Nevada’s yard sale (when they opened their own larger brewery in Chico) found their way into Moonlight’s brewery barn, including fermenters and a keg washer. The whole enterprise was financed with credit cards and a $20,000 personal loan. The initial brewhouse included a 7-bbl system.
The original name was going to be Old Barn Brewery, but it never sounded quite right. New Moon Brewing was also an early contender of the hundreds of names that were brainstormed. But once the name Moonlight was floated, there was no turning back. It just worked on so many levels and it seemed to mean different thing to different people, a quality Hunt relished.
For the first two-and-a-half years, beginning in 1992, Brian literally slept 5-1/2 nights out of every seven. He was working two jobs, one at the newly opened Downtown Joe’s (where the bankrupt Willett’s brewpub had been) and at his own place in the barn. This continued until he could afford to concentrate just on Moonlight Brewing. But just a few years into the new venture, another monkey wrench was thrown Hunt’s way. His landlord decided he wanted the house Hunt and his family lived in for his own son and told Brian they had to go. Luckily, they let him keep the brewery in the barn until it could be moved. In 1999, Hunt and his family moved to their present location. It would take another four years until all he permits were in place and the new brewery was built. The new system was 21-bbl and was the original Hart Brewing system, which Brian bought from the Thomas Kemper brewery on Bainbridge Island in Washington. The present set-up has pieces from at least fifty different breweries, either ones that went out of business or upgraded.
Neither the original brewery now the new one has a computer of any kind in it, and that’s by design. It’s because of one of Hunt’s favorite quotes, this one by Albert Einstein. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Hunt sees one of the most important aspects of brewing as creativity and thinks of himself more as a tinkerer or toymaker of sorts. And, as he puts it, “you can’t see what’s happening if you’re just pushing buttons.” He believes that many young brewers don’t understand how to make “delicious” because of what he terms “a failure of imagination.” This is because, he says, “many are not taught how to think for themselves.
The first three beers Moonlight brewed are all still being made: Lunatic Lager, Death & Taxes, and Twist of Fate. Lunatic Lager’s original name, though, was Moonlight Pale Lager, so named because Hunt thought it would translate better to consumers already aware of the newly popular pale ales. The fourth beer Hunt made was Bombay by Boat IPA, also in 1992, and it was one of the first IPAs made in America. At that time, nobody really made one and certainly those few who did, did not call it an IPA.
Hunt believes that being small also allows him a flexibility that bigger breweries can only dream about. He can follow market trends and turn on a dime. Because he not only brews the beer, but also delivers it (he’s a one man operation, most of the time) he’s not removed from his customer but mingles and converses with them almost every day of the week.
His original plan was to hope that he could make a living in Sonoma selling whatever he brewed. Though his net is spread slightly wider than he originally thought, it’s not by much, and he’s remained true to initial vision. “I don’t find success by selling a lot, I find it by selling to people who respect it or appreciate it.” So long as that’s the case, we won’t be seeing Moonlight beer in grocery stores nationwide or even bottle locally. Brian’s just not looking for that kind of success. He’s content doing what he wants in his own way, an iconoclast to the end. As you’d expect, Hunt also doesn’t think much of competitions either. “Fame is empty.” He says. “Good beer should not be.” So while that may be a loss for the people who can’t find Moonlight beer in their neighborhood, it does make the Bay Area just that much more of special place for beer and provides yet another reason for beer fans around the world to make the pilgrimage to taste California beer.
Or put another way — as his pint glasses used to read — “good beer is as good beer does.”