Next time you're wandering Eureka's waterfront, take a moment to look west and remember: All that lies between you and South Korea is a boat ride.
"A very short boat ride," Sunghoo Yang assures me.
Yang, slender and understated, manages to look urbane even in jeans and a hoodie bearing his brewery's name: The Booth Brewing Co. Maybe it's the two-toned glasses or the backswept hair. Maybe it's the deliberate way Yang outlines each step of his decision to brew South Korean beer in California, for export back to South Korea.
Either way, Yang exudes exactly what he is, a financial analyst turned CEO, a 29-year-old executive from a city of 20 million, plopped down a little improbably in Humboldt.
He is standing between a small test brewing rig and a large fermentation tank inside the sprawling, partially restored plant that used to belong to Lost Coast Brewery. Now it's his.
The Booth's brewmaster Chris Shelton works nearby, joking that for the past few years, Yang has basically built a profitable cover story: "Everything he does is so he can drink great beer."
Shelton, with spiky hair and an engaging grin, is a Midwesterner who landed at The Booth after following his wife's career to South Korea. The two men form an easy team, each praising the other's expertise, both focused on the next new beer.
"We don't want to make the same beers as everyone else," says Shelton. They're trying new hops, new yeasts, ingredients they don't always care to name. Shelton tinkers with water chemistry and yeast strains, creating an IPA he describes as "softer, almost a little fluffier" than most others. They anticipate producing 10,000 to 12,000 barrels annually at first, in a facility that's capable of turning out 70,000.
So far, their brewing efforts fill only a fraction of the blocky yellow building on Eureka's West Third Street. A worker's RV is parked in one section and pigeons are being chased from another. A raucous screech of recorded birdcall starts up periodically as part of that slow eviction effort.
Less than four years ago, in 2013, Yang, his physician wife and a writer who once dissed South Korean beers co-founded a restaurant they called The Booth. It sold one beer and two kinds of pizza (cheese and pepperoni). "Most restaurants have one or two things they're really good at," says Yang, and if you order something else, you can end up disappointed. The founders wanted to create something like a food stall or a busy street market booth, a place that lures you back again and again for one or two superb specialties.
Then one beer became six. One bar became five. "We couldn't keep up," Yang says. "Every other month we would run out of beer. That really hurts sales. Customers would get angry." Booth became a beer distributor. It founded a microbrewery. It opened a bar with Danish brewer Mikkeller. It struck a canning deal with a contract brewery in Florida. By 2016, The Booth Brewing Co. had exploded into a craft brew mini-empire with 90 employees, nine bars, one microbrewery and plenty of customer demand to keep on growing.
Why do that growing in Eureka?
That's a two-part question, Yang says, and the first part is "why not South Korea?" Brewing at home runs up against a tax structure that falls heavily on all brewers but hits small brewers harder, he says. And the quality ingredients he wants all have to be imported, with the time lag and loss of freshness that can entail.
By comparison, North America's western rim offers quality hops, quality yeast and a quality labor pool of experienced craft brewers. "It's like the Silicon Valley of beer," Yang says. As his search turned to specific sites, Eureka stood out partly because Lost Coast Brewing is well known in South Korea, having sold beer there for years.
Negotiations began in 2015 and took months. Federal licensing ate up more time. Cleanup and refurbishing has been no small chore. Finally, next month, Shelton expects to begin brewing the first full-scale of batches of three Booth beers: an IPA, a session IPA and a stout. All three will be poured into 12-ounce bottles or 20-liter kegs, then trucked to Oakland for shipping to South Korea.
Only a bit of Booth beer will remain in Humboldt.
The Booth Brewing Co. has no immediate plans to open an onsite tasting room. Yang wants to sell some bottles here and hopes to place kegs in some local venues, but nothing firm has been lined up. Ask me again in January.
A Date with Beer
December – The Local Beer Bar's long goodbye continues all month with beer specials, discounts on merchandise and wistful well-wishing to co-owners Darren and Michelle Cartledge, who will close the place down on New Year's Eve. The site will go quiet for a month or so, and then re-open as the second venue for the Cartledges' Humboldt Cider Co., with 15-20 ciders on tap, along with kombucha, wine, possibly cold-pressed coffee and — yes — a few beers. Just nowhere near as many varieties.
Friday, Dec. 16 – Do you have the most hideous holiday sweater ever? Really? Prove it during Eel River Brewing's ugly sweater contest and you could win something that makes wearing that thing worthwhile. Judging will be around 7 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 31 – Dress to impress at Six Rivers Brewery's New Year's Eve celebration from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. with a free champagne toast at midnight. DJ Dub Cowboy provides the music.
Thursday, Jan. 5 – Is this the year you vowed to learn a new skill? Make new friends? Drink locally? Fulfill three resolutions in one by joining Humboldt Homebrewers at their first meeting of 2017. Bring your homebrew or your homebrewing questions to the 7 p.m. meeting at Humboldt Beer Works in Eureka. Free to attend; $20 annually to join.
Friday, Jan. 6 – Mad River Brewing Co. reopens after closing on Dec. 24 for a mini-makeover. The freshly refurbished taproom will have seven more taps, for a total of 18 regular and two nitro. Expect Mad River specialties, cider and some guest brews, along with a new menu and live music from 6 to 8:30 p.m. A barleywine event follows on Saturday, Jan. 7.
Saturday, Jan. 14 – Of course beer goes with wedding cake. If you have any other questions about your big day, get some answers at Beer and Brides from 1 to 4 p.m. at Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka. The couples-friendly event includes a wedding planning seminar, beer tasting, refreshments and an event-related tour. All are free, but you have to call 267-9639 in advance to reserve a spot.
Monday, Jan. 16 through Sunday Jan. 22 – It's customer appreciation week at Eel River Brewing's taproom, with specials, giveaways and some beers that will only be available that week. And hey, the timing includes Inauguration Day, which should give everyone a reason to drink.
Wednesday, Feb. 1 – It's not too early to get your tickets for a beer and bourbon dinner at HumBrews in Arcata. Five Anderson Valley Brewing Co. beers and at least one bourbon will be paired with a multi-course dinner. Seating is limited for the 6 p.m. event. $30.
As a good Humboldtian, Carrie Peyton Dahlberg really did bother the port people, asking if it would make any sense to ship Booth beer out of Eureka. They kindly did not laugh but the short answer is no. The volume is many orders of magnitude too low. Send her your beer or shipping news at firstname.lastname@example.org.