by Jim Hight

Humboldt County's five microbreweries will produce more than a million gallons of beer this year. Their lagers and ales will win awards at beer festivals and elicit murmurs of admiration from microbrew fans from Garberville to Orick.

But these business create more than local legends. Their distinctive brews are craved by beer-drinkers throughout California and as far east as Virginia.

The five microbrewers employ about 200 people. This year they'll generate some $9 million in revenue from wholesale sales to bars, restaurants and stores and in tabs at their own "brewpub" restaurants.

Their market growth has slowed from the sizzling pace of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We're down about 15 percent for 1997," said Vince Celotto, co-owner of Arcata's Humboldt Brewing Co., the oldest and largest brewery in the county.

"In years past everybody experienced 30 to 40 percent growth (annually)," he said.

"The bottom line (for micro-brewers) hasn't grown much recently," affirmed Dave Harris, sales manager for DelReka Distributing. "It's grown some but not at the level that the local (microbrew) industry has experienced in the past." Harris estimates that local brewers garner 8 to 10 percent of retail beer sales in the county.

"It's not as wide open a marketplace as it was even a year and a half ago," said Celotto. "It's going to be tight until some people get out of the system."

Despite their obvious competition for beer drinkers, local microbrewers maintain a generally fraternal outlook toward one another. They seem to feel that each one's success contributes to the region's reputation for good beer. "We're all fortunate that we come from an area that's known really well for quality microbreweries," said Celotto.

Celotto said that he expects to produce 17,000 barrels (there are 31 gallons in a barrel) this year, and he predicted that by year's end the restaurant and brewery would bring in $3 million. Eighty five percent of its Red Nectar Ale and other varieties of beer is sold elsewhere, primarily in California.

Humboldt Brewing was courted earlier this year by a business group from India headed by Vijay Mallya. "They were going to merge us with Mendocino Brewing Co. out of Ukiah and some other smaller breweries ... and put the new entity on the New York Stock Exchange," said Celotto, who co-owns the brewery and restaurant with his brother, former Oakland Raider Mario Celotto. But in mid December the family decided to stay independent.

The Celottos rolled out three new beers last month, including a pale ale and a hefeweizen wheat beer. "We're also going to be packaging full-time our oatmeal stout, a gold medal winner from the Great American Beer Festival."

Mad River Brewing Co. in Blue Lake is the only local brewery that is purely a production shop. The 8-year-old company employs 30 people and sells all its beer -- including its flagship Steelhead Pale Ale -- wholesale to stores, bars and restaurants.

General Manager Bob Smith estimated that the company grossed $2 million in 1997. He said 30 percent of the 9,000 barrels of beer it made were sold in Humboldt County, 30 percent in other parts of California, "and 40 percent out of state, as far as Alaska, Hawaii ... Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey."

Lost Coast Brewery on Fourth Street in Eureka was established in 1990 by two women who liked to homebrew beer and enjoyed the atmosphere of English pubs: Barbara Groom, a pharmacist, and Wendy Pound, a marriage and family counselor. The business flourished and by 1995 they needed more room for customers, so they moved their brewing operation into a nearby building. This year the company produced nearly 5,000 barrels. Its brewing operation employs nine, and about 45 people work in the restaurant.

Like other microbrewers, Lost Coast relied on beer festivals and awards to establish its reputation. "We did what a lot of breweries do, went to the Great American Beer Festival and tried to win some medals," said West.

For Humboldt County's two newest microbreweries, making a reputation through beer-tasting contests is still very important. In October Eel River Brewing of Fortuna won a gold medal for its Ravensbrau Porter at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Beer has four basic ingredients -- malted barley, hops, yeast and water. But an artful brewer can subtly adjust recipes to create a multitude of palate-pleasing lagers or ales. Eel River's winning porter is made from a combination of pale, chocolate, black and dark caramel malts.

Ted Vivatson and his wife Margaret opened the brewery and restaurant in December 1995. Their motivation: "The love of beer," said Ted, who had previously managed restaurants in the Bay Area.

Eel River produced about 2,500 barrels this year, serving 60 percent of that at the restaurant and wholesaling the rest "from the Oregon border to Monterey County."

Our newest microbrewery, Six Rivers Brewing Co., opened one year ago in McKinleyville. Owner Lawrence McCoy fairly stumbled into the opportunity.

A general contractor (and microbrew enthusiast), he bid on renovating the old Pete's Bella Vista -- for decades a popular restaurant and nightspot. When the would-be restaurant developer came up short, McCoy put together a $500,000 deal with his own assets, private investors and a loan from Six Rivers National Bank.

The pub has an ocean view and room for 400. Its business has been growing. "We'll probably do over $1 million in the pub this year."

McCoy brags about his brewmaster, Carlos Sanchez, who has worked at Mad River and Humboldt. "He has more experience than anyone in the county."

Six Rivers has about 35 employees. In its first year, the microbrewery has produced about 1,500 barrels of beer. Most of it was sold at the restaurant, although some stores are carrying Six Rivers' Stout. McCoy is already talking about expansion plans and new bottling equipment.

BIG KIDS ON THE BLOCK -- Humboldt Creamery and Fluhrer Bakeries

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