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SFO to PDX part 2: Cooperage Brewing

Reading Time: 6 minutes read

“San Francisco has only one drawback. ”Tis hard to leave.” — Rudyard Kipling

By Ben Wilson and Meagan Wilson

As much as I am loathe to malign another writer – Kipling was full of shit. Leaving San Francisco is easy. 

Unlike nearly every U.S. city, getting out of town on a work morning takes very little time, and is a pleasant drive. Within a half hour, you’ve crossed the Golden Gate and are in the beautiful, windy (both with wind, and winding) Marin Headlands, away from the handheld signs reading “I JUST NEED HOOKERS AND COCAINE, EVEN A DOLLAR WILL HELP” and into the John Muir wilderness.

Somewhere around Strawberry we take the Panoramic Highway (intentional capitals, that’s actually the name of the road) out to the ocean. There are sights to be seen here – Muir Woods National Monument, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, the weird labels on kombucha that say they are age-controlled beverages despite having about as much alcohol as kimchi, the guy with a bicycle strapped on the back of his motorcycle, and the highway with curves like Luther Vandross’s sheet music.

That last is the real star out here, threading through the coastal redwoods and the stands of blue gum eucalyptus – the latter of which is considered an invasive species, despite specimens having arrived here as early as 1770. That damned tree. Such a nuisance, what with the whole “I turn pollution into clean air” and all. It is obviously a real problem in California.

But! The highway – oh, that highway. Curves to shame a pinup model. Curves like a cursive series of Z’s. Curves like my thought patterns when I run out of similes.

A series of chalkboards that form the menu at Cooperage Brewing Co.
Photo by Ben Wilson

We divert from Highway 1 to 101 around noon, and arrive at Cooperage Brewing by taking the same exit on 101 you’d take to go to Coffey Park (more on this in a bit). Cooperage lives in a converted warehouse space nestled in a sleepy business park, housing a wealth of independent art and marijuana puns. A man cooking sausages greets me at the door, enhancing the general feel of a crime caper surrounding the trip. He does not say, “Five minutes, Turkish.” I am disappointed.

We’re looking for Dan Hanes, and have no difficulty finding him. He takes us on a whirlwind tour of the premises which includes the two sides of the brewpub; the taphouse / art gallery / dog-friendly eating space out front, and the brewery / ferm chamber / kegging / bottling / barrel aging space out back. The reason for the conjugating slashes is that this place is quite, quite small. They handle their own brewing, serving, distribution and everything except for canning, for which they tend to use The Can Van – a mobile beer cannery that is endemic to the locale, helping out a bevy of the nearby brauhauses.

Dan Hanes and Ben Wilson sitting at a table at Cooperage Brewing.
Dan Hanes (left) and Ben Wilson at Cooperage Brewing.

Cooperage, by virtue of being small, doesn’t have the horsepower of Sierra Nevada or Rogue, but they don’t let that stop ’em. What’ve they got? They’ve got heart, and Cooperage ain’t afraid to show it. Tyler Smith and his wife Stephanie own the brewery, which just celebrated its four-year anniversary in June. Craft beer folks tend to be more laid-back than their Silicon Valley startup counterparts, but they don’t work any less hard. Tyler is at the brewery seven days/week, and at the time of our visit, he had just one brewing assistant, a bearded dude named Dylan. The beard is important. Without one, you can’t collect 30 years of brewing yeast in your beard like John Maier (who just retired as Rogue Ales brewmaster). Man, it must be amazing to have a job that you’d actually want to do for three decades. But I digress. 

Cooperage operates with a small team, and they do about 800 barrels per year. They also self-distribute, primarily in Sonoma County (70% of their beer stays in the county), the Bay Area, Sacramento, and other points in the northern half of California. Dan enjoys the direct relationship of self-distribution, and the ability it offers to control the temperatures right up until delivery. “Cold chain” distribution is very important to them, and to that end they have a cold storehouse and refrigerated van. 

A stack of barrels at Cooperage Brewing Company
Photo by Ben Wilson

The taps at Cooperage are constantly rotating. They’re into pale ales and IPAs, but they’ve got Belgian and German chops, too. In addition to Cotty by Nature, a hazy, easy-drinking berliner weisse (4.8% ABV), we both dig their Dolla’ Dolla’ Pils Y’all, a Czech-style pilsner (5.5% ABV). This seems to be a tough style for U.S. brewers to nail, but Cooperage does a good job with theirs. No complaints about the Steph Curty pale ale (5.8% ABV), either. 

The “Curt Bartender” series is something of a statement, or an inside joke. Apparently, there was a journalist who mentioned in an article that a bartender was  curt. Thus, the Curt Bartender beers (of which Steph Curty is one). Everyone we encounter at Cooperage is friendly in a straightforward, West Coast kind of way. 

Like nearly every brewery on this trip, the folks at Cooperage have a deep love for the community where they work and live. For some breweries, that means fundraisers that make national news. In other cases, it means collaborating with other businesses, or contributing to the tourism economy, or being a friendly place to hang out and get a cold beer after a hard day’s work. One thing Cooperage does is provide wall space for local artists to showcase their work. At the time of our visit, the featured artist is Ken Weaver. He does quite a bit of beer-related writing and editing, and the Massive Potions comic.  

After taking our leave of Cooperage, we take a sobering (emotionally – we’re not driving drunk) drive through Coffey Park. Ben used to ride his bike through here as a kid – it’s strange, seeing the way that wildfires work, leaving entire arms of a neighborhood untouched, but leaping a 4-lane boulevard to burn a house across the street. Here, the trees are burnt down, there, the entire landscape is untouched.

A burnt tree in front of a newly-constructed house in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.

There are signs that say “Coffey Park Strong”, and there’s a new, fire-resistant wall being put in on one of the main drags through the neighborhood. The fire was within spitting distance of Cooperage, and the local businesses have really pitched in to rebuild. It’s half-eerie, and half inspiring.

But a word to the wise – be careful when driving through. There’s a mass of construction going on, so you might pick up a nail in your tire.


Post 1 in this series: Pacific Coast Trip: SFO to PDX – day 1

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Ben is a writographer that likes to travel and do things. He's been shot, pepper sprayed and even had to dress like a clown once. In addition, he has a really hard time talking to pretty girls sometimes.

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