The Secrets Behind Cellarmaker Brewery's Instant Success

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By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor 

San Francisco is a city with a passion for enjoying the finer things in life. The scenery and architecture are renowned, the culture has embraced and produced great art and literature, and the food and wine scene is the envy of most cities in the world. Often lost in the culinary shuffle, however, is the fact that San Francisco also boasts a seriously great craft beer scene. Beer's history in San Francisco is well established; Anchor Brewing has been in existence for over one hundred years. The launch of the now defunct New Albion Brewing Company in 1976 is considered by many to be the genesis of the current craft beer movement. And in Lower Haight institution Toronado, the city has what many consider to be the best and most revered beer bar in America.

A newcomer has recently appeared in San Francisco's extremely fertile beer scene, making serious waves in a relatively short amount of time. Cellarmaker Brewery opened launched in San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood in fall 2012, and has since built itself into one of the pillars of the San Francisco beer community. Let's explore the strategies and philosophies that have made Cellarmaker extremely successful extremely quickly.

The Experimental, Rotating Lineup

Most breweries, especially when they're in their infancy, will produce a consistent, core lineup of beers that are always available, and then produce two to three rotating beers at a time. This serves the purpose of giving consumers consistent access to beers that they have tried and enjoyed, encouraging patronage by having something people are happy and familiar with. The rotating taps allow the brewers to experiment with recipes and expand the scope of what they can produce.

Cellarmaker has shunned this somewhat safe approach, relying instead on a constantly rotating list of small batch beers. A Cellarmaker “house” beer that is consistently available doesn't exist. Instead, the lineup often includes a few examples of particular styles, such as IPAs, Belgians, dark malty ales, and saisons, allowing Cellarmaker the freedom to constantly experiment with new recipes while providing consumers with a small level of familiarity.

While this may seem like a risk, it makes sense considering the current craft beer environment, where consumers are often looking for beers that are novel, exciting, and unusual. Cellarmaker has bet that the consistent quality of their beers, along with their customer's desire for experimentation, will take the place of having a familiar lineup that consumers can rely on. So far, the gamble has paid off.

Limited Distribution

Cellarmaker has quickly become one of the most buzzed about breweries in America. But if you want to sample Cellarmaker products, you'll have to be close to the San Francisco area. The brewery rarely bottles its beer, and limits its off premise accounts to a handful of Bay Area bars (though the beers have made it down to Los Angeles and San Diego in the past). This small distribution footprint has perhaps limited Cellarmaker's ability to get its beers into the hands of a wide range of drinkers, but has ensured that the brewery has been able to maintain quality and freshness in its products. In embracing this strategy, Cellarmaker has joined a list of small but revered breweries that have put quality assurance ahead of profits. Craft beer is popular enough right now that a brewery making great beers should be able to keep itself small and still remain profitable. In the case of a brewery as good as Cellarmaker, this hasn't presented a problem.

Focus on Hops 

Let's face it: hoppy beers are hot right now, and their popularity shows no sign of waning anytime soon. The popularity of hoppy beers, such as IPAs and American Pale Ales, is understandable, as these beers at their best are flavorful, complex beers full of delicious nuance. Too often, however, breweries are content to release overly aggressive, bitter beers that punch you in the face rather than massage your palate.

Cellarmaker has set themselves apart from the too-intense hophead crowd by focusing on what has come to be known as “Northeast” style hoppy beers. Inspired by Vermont breweries like The Alchemist, Lawson's and Hill Farmstead, these beers focus on producing a softer, less-bitter body with an emphasis on floral, fruity hop flavors. This is achieved by both altering the hop schedule (beers hopped later in the brewing process will produce less bitterness and more aromatics) and by focusing on the crucial role yeast plays in producing flavors. Cellarmaker has embraced the trend of using English Ale yeast, rather than the more common California Ale yeast, to make hoppy beers. The results have been fantastic, as Cellarmaker IPAs and Pales routinely exhibit bright, juicy hop flavors, reminiscent of tropical fruits like mango and pineapple. Beers like Wicked Juicy, Permanent Daylight, and Tremont have helped to solidify the brewery's reputation as one of the best hop-focused beer producers anywhere in America.