Chris Garrett’s San Carlos brewery follows a community-minded mantra — aficionados, families and neighbors have noticed.
By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Chris Garrett needed an antidote to life in the tech world. Back during the first dot-com boom, Garrett’s work monitoring chat rooms for places like RealNames and Disney left him — predictably, perhaps — a little soul weary. As a result, he began looking for something a little more tactile; something that could more tangibly factor into his community.
So he started brewing beer.
That hobby became a business, Brew 4 U, which opened in 2001 in Belmont, where customers could brew their own beer in copper kettles. Garrett would ferment it for them and would also brew for restaurants and bars that wanted their own labels to serve.
Meanwhile, Garrett’s own beers started winning awards, which soon landed him a booth at Shoreline Amphitheatre, just as the craft beer movement was taking off on the West Coast. It turned out to be a game changer: Garrett ditched the brewer-as-a-service part of the business, adopted the name Devil’s Canyon Brewing Company (after the canyon that runs through Belmont and San Carlos) and decided to do the beer business a little differently.
How differently? Walk into Devil’s Canyon’s rambling, massive San Carlos facility (he outgrew the Belmont space in 2013) on a Friday night and you’ll see maybe a thousand people — from kids to seniors, hipsters to bikers — and more than a few dogs getting down, dancing, lining up for food trucks, playing skee-ball. It’s more neighborhood block party than bar scene, a mix of large crowds, mellow attitude and actual stuff to do/eat/drink that’s rare in the ‘burbs and often missing from much of the Peninsula’s social scene. And it started not with the beers (although they’re pretty yummy) but with a philosophy that Garrett attributes to his family’s background as ranchers in New Mexico.
“Our view of sustainability in our business directly impacts the community,” says Garrett. “Our community defines who we are today and who we become. . . It doesn’t hurt that beer just happens to be a wonderful vehicle to bring it all together.”
Garrett and his wife, Kristiann, sit atop a very small pyramid: Devil’s Canyon has just six full-time employees (including the couple—meaning most of them wear many hats) and limited distribution (for most of its history the brewery sold and shipped its own beer), so no one’s spending millions of dollars on fancy interior decorations. Instead, the Garretts built a community of like-minded, environmentally conscious hopheads with whom they can exchange favors for flavors.
Early on, the Garretts started opening up the brewery to the public the last Friday of each month. A core group formed that eventually became Devil’s Canyon’s beer club with regulars given handled mugs that hung on a wall of pegs. Originally there were about 10 mugs; now there are 185 and the pegs have been upgraded to special lockers.
A lot of the members have been integral to the brewery’s sustainability efforts. Bill Allen often helps with projects around the brewery. (He even happened to be there helping on the day we stopped by.) He and his wife, Debbie, also held the wedding ceremony for the brewery’s events director, Adam Atkinson, at their house. The reception was at the brewery. Bob Bowie, of Bowie Construction & Engineering, helped building quite a bit of the brewery. Bob’s band, The 515 Band, often plays at the brewery. His daughter Jianna now works in the taproom. Member Scott Haines is a drone enthusiast who’s shot promotional footage for the brewery. Scott is building a deck at his home themed around Devil’s Canyon’s Full Boar Scotch Ale. Other members have helped build furniture.
This devotion shown by locals isn’t a happy coincidence or just a sign that people were starved for something to rally behind (the Peninsula now boasts multiple breweries and wineries). From the start Garrett wanted Devil’s Canyon to be mindful of the environment and the surrounding community. He dubbed his approach C.O.R.E. (culture of reutilization ethic) “The notion of sustainable business is something that I learned from many generations of farming and ranching,” says Garrett. “We had to balance and respect the land/nature, our neighbors (community), and we had to make money to survive.”
Philosophy only goes so far, though, without people to live it. Garrett looks for deep passion and drive in who he hires and training someone with the right qualities can be more rewarding for the brewery than hiring a more experienced person. Rebekah Atwell began as a bartender on Friday nights after working at local country clubs. Since then, she’s worked on many projects around the brewery, including construction, before doing sales full time. She’s also worked on the brewery’s marketing, sales forecasting, inventory and graphic design, “It’s a really fun environment because it’s very dynamic, as is the nature of craft beer, and both Chris and Kristiann are very open to new ideas and improvements,” she says. “To see a guest try our beer for the first time and tell us they love it, or hear a first-time visitor say how cool the taproom looks is monumentally rewarding. “
Small choices have also paid off for Devil’s Canyon. By asking drinkers to bring their own glasses or purchase one on arrival Atwell estimates they save 1,000 gallons of water a month from reduced washing.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed. They’ve won several sustainability awards including the Sustainable San Mateo County award and the San Carlos Business of the Year, both in 2014. Devil’s Canyon beers have won over thirty-five craft beer awards as well as the CityVoter.com’s People’s Choice awards for Best Brew- pub and Best Beer Bar for the past five consecutive years, SF Magazine’s Best Off-the-Grid gathering in 2017, and San Mateo County’s As Fresh as it Gets award.
The business is growing, too: they recently found a distributor to sell their suds, a sign of confidence from the industry. Today the brewery produces over 10,000 barrels a year and is distributed both domestically and internationally. But this isn’t the next Lagunitas or Ballast Point, craft brews that are now ubiquitous in the U.S. The beer biz is competitive and they’re an independent, mid-sized beer maker, which puts them in a challenging position. Their costs are much greater than that of a microbrewery and they’re competing for shelf space against big brewers with big marketing budgets.
As a brewer, Garrett is a traditionalist, and likes European-style beers. Devil’s Canyon makes six beers year-round and produces some seasonal and speciality beers, like a coconut porter aged in rum barrels. A homemade root beer gives non-tipplers something special to sip. “I’d like to brew more Bohemian style beers in the future or maybe more Lambic beers,” says Garrett. “I have many ideas that I want to bring to the glass.”
How to visit:
Everything–community, sustainability, good beer, and fun–comes together for Beer Garden Fridays, which run 4pm to 10pm. (The rest of the week the brewery is used as an event space.) A wide selection of local bands–booked by Kristiann–play live at the brewery. The party gets even bigger of the last friday of each month.
What to drink:
Full Boar Scotch Ale (7.4% ABV) — Devil’s Canyon’s most popular beer, it’s toasty and chocolatey with a hint of smoke. Despite the dark color, it’s actually pretty medium-bodied, making it really drinkable.
Belle Bière Brut (6%) — A sparkling ale brewed with Champagne yeast. It’s light-bodied, delicate, and refreshing with sweet notes of stone fruits and ripe citrus.
Beer Kitty Kölsch (5.2%) — Word on the street is that this popular seasonal offering will be joining the line-up of core beers. It shows fresh notes of tangerine and peaches.
Kaleidoscope Series, Tripel Abbey (9.5%) — For those looking for something different, the Kaleidoscope series puts a twist on more traditional styles. The Tripel Abbey was brewed with Belgian Candi Sugar and Trappist yeasts. It’s rich and round with tutti-frutti notes of apple, pineapple, and caramel banana.