The staff of Hop Dogma has spent much of quarantine brewing up something poignant and new — and it’s not just beer.
The jam sessions began in late March.
California’s breweries had been ordered shut, and Hop Dogma Brewing Company’s taproom was empty and quiet for the first time in months. Almost quiet, that is — save the gentle waves of bluegrass music floating through the bar. Dan Littlefield, co-founder and owner of the Coastside brewery, was strumming his guitar, the notes bouncing off the barroom walls.
During the brewery’s quieter moments in quarantine, Littlefield had taken to playing — sometimes alone, sometimes joined by Hop Dogma staff. Head brewer Jesse Jones and bartender Ella Jenkins joined most frequently, and had taken to bringing their instruments to work. Both are musicians in their own right — Jones plays guitar, and Jenkins is a classically trained, professional harpist.
The False Bottom Boys playing “Shady Grove” in the brewery’s delivery truck. Jenkins, center, is a classically trained harpist who performs under the moniker EllaHarp. (Video via Hop Dogma’s Instagram Account)
The three spent their downtime jamming together, sometimes coming in early to play music.
“We just kind of found ourselves bored at times,” Littlefield said. “We’ve always shared a love for similar music — so we just started bringing guitars into work.”
Starting a beer industry band had long been something Littlefield had joked about with his staff. They had the talent; now they had the time. But it took finding the perfect name for the group for things to kick off.
The way Littlefield tells it, Assistant Brewer Kyle McCarthy was replacing one of the brewery tank’s screen filters — a part called a false bottom.
“As he was doing that, he said, ‘False Bottom Boys’ should be a band name, like the Soggy Bottom Boys,” Littlefield said, referencing the George Clooney-led band in the film O Brother Where Art Thou. “From there, I was like — we have to do this.”
All harps and false bottoms aside, the band’s creation amid brewing sessions is strangely in tune with the trajectory of things at Hop Dogma. Since its founding seven years ago, Hop Dogma has been home to not just award-winning beer, but a roster of live musicians, community hangouts and even a popular stand up comedy series that has all collectively resonated as an unlikely but thriving Coastside cultural hub.
Growth in El Granada
Hop Dogma’s inception is perhaps a lens through which to view the many Coastside culture projects it seems to have spawned since its founding in 2013. In fact, the entire venture of the brewery was a joke of sorts in the beginning — a pact, almost a dare.
Littlefield and co-founder Ethan Martini met in Sonoma, home territory for Littlefield; the pair worked in wine country together. When they weren’t working, they often spent time together home brewing. And it seemed to the two of them in 2013 that microbreweries were popping up in California faster than anyone could count.
“We kind of had this ‘what if’ moment,” Littlefield said. “Everyone and their brother were opening breweries. We were like — why not us?”
The iteration of Hop Dogma that he and Martini planned was to be opened just on Fridays and weekends; it would be a home-grown operation, something of a passion project.
It didn’t stay that way for long.
“It got out control real quick,” Littlefield said, of the demand the brewery began to see. He’d been working as a teacher at the time. “I realized I had to quit my job if we were going to make this work — so I quit teaching, started contract brewing to make a little bit of extra beer, started canning, and it just kind of blossomed.”
In 2016, one Hop Dogma’s beers—their Rock-Biter Roggenbier— placed silver at the Great American Beer Festival, the biggest event of its kind in the entire United States. (In fact, the festival drew 60,000 attendees and 1,752 beers from almost 800 breweries that year.)
Even in the midst of their success, trouble brewed at home. A rapidly deteriorating situation with their landlord in El Granada left the brewery homeless almost overnight. Littlefield searched through the night for a place Hop Dogma could move to without being forced to lose its staff or its customer base. That’s when he stumbled across a vacancy in Harbor Village—a group of shops that had come to be known among locals as “the ghost mall.”
“We had been in this really funky old Victorian building — a tiny little place that was just a hole in the wall, and that really defined the business in the early days as the hidden gem it was,” says Jenkins, Hop Dogma’s musically-talented bartender, who began working at the brewery in the summer of 2017.
The crew was apprehensive about leaving that original location behind, especially since Harbor Village seemed like such a peculiar contrast: a strangely generic mini-mall that was often bemoaned by locals as being sorely out of touch with the vibe of the harbor. Jenkins, though, has found herself pleasantly surprised.
“It’s actually been really cool, because that mall has been there for years, and nothing has really happened there — nothing’s taken off,” she said. “But since Hop Dogma has been there, I really feel like things have turned around.”
The new taproom has come together nicely — it’s cozy, according to Littlefield, but unpretentious, sort of like “walking into someone’s living room.”
“I know several people who have met their life partners (in our taproom), and ended up getting married and having kids,” Littlefield said. “There’s that social kind of joy, that chemistry in the room. People are just happy here.”
Open and shut
In March, Littlefield began steeling himself for the possibility that a complete shutdown of bars and restaurants — ludicrous as it had seemed just the month before — could be on the immediate horizon. Hop Dogma ultimately closed its doors following Governor Gavin Newsom’s call for the state’s breweries, wineries, bars and night clubs to close.
Pre-pandemic, the brewery was dependably packed. Its following was made up largely of devoted locals, and even on weekdays, patrons ranged the full spectrum of ages. Some were canine. Twice a month the taproom was filled to the brim by fans of Comedy Sharks, the twice-monthly show hosted at Hop Dogma by local comedian Phil Griffiths.
Griffiths, a Half Moon Bay resident, discovered Hop Dogma soon after it opened its doors in El Granada in 2013. He’d seen the taproom — Griffiths quickly decided the living room-esque vibe was for him — and approached the two co-founders. (Martini was still a partner at the time.)
“Dan and Ethan were always amazingly easy to work with, and they trusted I’d do this right,” Griffiths said. “Having that trust and the backing from Dan and the whole crew has been a huge, huge part of the show’s growth.”
The founding pair had faith in Griffith s— it’s possible Littlefield saw something of himself in the comedian. Comedy Sharks began as a passion project for Griffiths, much as homebrewing had for Littlefield. The two men share that in common: both have found considerable success in what began as a labor of love.
“(Phil) came in and just told me he was a comedian — and he brought in this amazing talent right away,” Littlefield said. “It was incredible. There was buzz around town that was unlike anything I’d ever seen previous to living here.”
Before the shutdown, Griffiths’s show regularly packed the taproom; it’s drawn comedians from all over California. The show’s reputation in comedy circles has begun to precede it, Griffiths says, and he often has to tell new comedians that it could be anywhere from six months up to a year before he’s able to schedule them on Hop Dogma’s stage.
Littlefield had put a pause on live music following Hop Dogma’s move to Harbor Village. It shares the mall with a hotel, Littlefield explained, and so he’d been cautious about reinstating performances in the hopes of being a good neighbor. Just before the pandemic hit, though, as the brewery moved forward with its outdoor patio, he’d been considering bringing live acts back.
The brewery was once more hitting its stride — and once again being asked to shut down.
Dan and Jesse play “Cluck Old Hen” during a lull in brewing. (Video via Hop Dogma’s Instagram Account)
As the shutdown sprawled on, only the dregs of the taproom’s regulars remained. Littlefield’s brewing team, considered essential workers, carried on. His employees — beertenders, as Littlefield calls them — manned the doors and phones.
Hop Dogma, from its place in Half Moon Bay, did what many of the nation’s small breweries are doing to survive and pivoted to canning more of its beers. Littlefield and his team turned to doing organized home deliveries, some as far away as San Jose; they turned to curbside pick up, some of the beer stored in growlers, 64-ounce glass containers. And when the days were slow — and there were quite a few slow days, Littlefield says —his team turned to making music.
Hop Dogma co-founder Dan Littlefield plays the walk-in fridge. (Video via Hop Dogma’s Instagram Account)
They jammed on the patio, in the beer fridge, even in the box truck used for hauling kegs and pallets. Littlefield has documented several iterations of the group, posting videos to the brewery’s different social media channels.
Word of their musical endeavors has spread; the group calls their music “beergrass.”
Bluegrass in the “ghost mall”: featuring beertender Ella Jenkins on harp. (Video via Hop Dogma’s Instagram Account)
“When things slowed down and there was a lot of time on our hands, Dan started playing a lot of music in the brewery, saying things like, ‘beer is better when you play to it,’” Jenkins said. She started bringing instruments along with her on her shifts, coming to work an hour early just to record and post a song.
Littlefield began posting music on the brewery’s social media channels at the end of March; in early recordings, he’s accompanied only by Jones. Jenkins first joined for a later recording of Shady Grove, a folk song that’s been recorded and sung by the likes of Jerry Garcia and Doc Watson. She joined the pair again, accompanied by local musician Lisa Marie Johnston, for a haunting rendition of Pentangle’s “Rain and Snow.”
Hop Dogma recently reopened for outdoor service on its new patio, so things have picked up considerably since the first slow days of the pandemic. But the down time gave Littlefield and his staff time to be serious about their musical endeavors. The False Bottom Boys is not the first passion project to take hold of Littlefield — nor is it the first one that’s started at Hop Dogma. The group plans to make some noise, Littlefield said.
“I feel so lucky, because we have some really talented musicians working with us now,” Littlefield said, adding that the group plans to play some gigs whenever live musical performances are next declared safe.
The group — a motley crew of mostly beer industry members — recently performed at a friend’s a socially distanced barbecue. They’re open to seeing where the venture takes them, according to Littlefield.
“We say this from time to time — but we don’t take too many things seriously except for the beer we make,” he added.
Hop Dogma Brewing Co. is located at Harbor Village, 270 Capistrano Rd (at Pillar Point Harbor).
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