Hidden in a Silicon Valley industrial park, the microbrewery maintains a small but diverse taplist of approachable beers.
The city of Sunnyvale is not known for its breweries. And so it comes as a surprise to find ShaKa Brewing, tucked away in an industrial park, appearing like an oasis in a desert. Nestled unsuspectingly between auto body shops, a medical device company and a firearms dealer, ShaKa Brewing is serving up a small, highly focused menu of brews across a swath of beer styles.
ShaKa had its conceptual genesis at Google in 2012, not in the form of some sort of high-tech revolution, but when two co-workers bonded over their shared love of brewing beer. Shawn Ellis and Karl Townsend (ShaKa is a portmanteau of their first names) had both been experimenting with homebrewing for many years, and thought it might be fun to collaborate.
The joint venture between the two friends matured with age, eventually evolving to monthly tasting events, dubbed Speakeasy Fridays, where they would turn their homes into taprooms for sharing their creations with friends and family. With those events serving as a preliminary form of market research – early tasters helped select beers that would later make it onto ShaKa’s taps – Ellis and Townsend decided to make the jump from hobbyists to professionals.
ShaKa Brewing opened its doors in 2020 as not much more than a small brewing space.
“We knew we wanted to ease into it,” Ellis said, describing the production brewery that was ShaKa’s first iteration. It was important for the duo to open ShaKa in their own community of Silicon Valley. In fact, ShaKa’s assistant brewer, Andrew Vazquez, is a Sunnyvale native himself. Describing the surrounding industrial area as a bit of a “cultural desert,” ShaKa hopes they might be able to contribute something positive to the culture of a community whose residents are still in need of good beer.
Even with its relatively modest beginnings and low cost of operation, the timing of ShaKa’s opening was less than ideal.
“The pandemic hit, and we were like, ‘Oh shit, we just signed the lease,’” Ellis said when recounting ShaKa’s early days, before any brewing equipment was even purchased. With businesses closing as an unfortunate backdrop to their new journey, the pair had a difficult decision to make. After running some numbers, Ellis and Townsend bet that they could survive selling cans of beer directly to customers and decided to push ahead.
This ended up being a wise decision. ShaKa’s luck turned in March 2020, when the state of California permitted sales of to-go alcohol from restaurants. As local restaurants’ draft beer taps ran dry, they became eager to boost their sales with canned offerings that could travel well with takeout orders. ShaKa’s microbrews found a home in a handful of local restaurants, and the company’s wholesale business grew steadily.
As the pandemic eased, ShaKa moved closer to its vision of being a community hub for beer lovers. Customers who might not otherwise linger after picking up their cans began to sit and stay awhile, going as far as to bring camping chairs.
“We started throwing out picnic tables,” Ellis said, describing the ad-hoc taproom that they pieced together in their old location.
In December 2022, a larger space became available just three doors down and ShaKa relocated, adding a bar, some tables, and plenty of seating to enjoy a snack. ShaKa plays host to a wide rotating selection of local food trucks — like yakitori from Kikuchi to empanadas from Cali Caracas.
Though small, ShaKa Brewing’s taproom — designed by Ellis’ wife Rika — feels open, airy and inviting, a design aesthetic that reflects ShaKa’s brewing philosophy.
“It’s about approachability,” Ellis said. This philosophy manifests itself in a selection of beers that is broad in terms of the variety of styles that appear on the menu while remaining focused.
“You don’t have to work hard to drink our beers,” Ellis added, noting that the beers ShaKa serves are meant to be well-crafted and easy to drink. “There’s clearly a market for 13% barrel-aged stouts made with Count Chocula cereal,” Ellis said, “but we’re not doing that.”
At ShaKa, no beer style is repeated, either. Bucking the West Coast’s regional affinity for IPAs, ShaKa serves just one; it’s the same one they’ve been brewing since the beginning. “I try to create space around each beer,” Ellis said. The end result is just nine beers — four that were developed and rubber-stamped during the days of Speakeasy Fridays, and five that represent the more experimental and seasonal side of ShaKa.
One of ShaKa’s flagship beers (and its bestseller) is the Sunnyvale Lager. The pale lager is German-inspired, brewed with the classic trio of floor malted barley, German hops and even a yeast strain derived from the fabled German brewing institute at the Technical University of Munich. The end result is a crisp, refreshing beer perfect for sipping in the midday heat of the city that gave this beer its name.
A boozier but no less refreshing brew is ShaKa’s Yardbird Golden Ale. The Belgian-inspired ale has a streak of Californian influence in it through the addition of native purple sage. The sage, which Ellis jokingly refers to as “estate-grown,” is plucked from his own yard, and joins juniper berries and Centennial hops in producing delicate citrus notes and a floral aroma to balance what is, at just over 8% ABV, a relatively strong and heady beer.
ShaKa is also keen to showcase its creativity through beers like the Gemini Summer Ale, a tart ale that’s not quite a sour beer. “I wanted to do something that hinted towards tartness,” Ellis said, mentioning that he wanted to avoid the intense sourness popular in American craft sour beers. Rather than producing the beer the classic way, by introducing specific strains of bacteria to produce lactic acid, ShaKa has elected to use an acidifying blend often employed by winemakers.
When it comes to the future of ShaKa Brewing, its owners are planning on taking it slow and steady. They’re keen to continue increasing their brewing capacity, and starting this Saturday (July 15) they’ll expand the taproom’s operating hours and be open 2-9 pm. on Saturdays.