Craft beer might be trending down nationally, but here in Santa Cruz, businesses continue to bet on beer enthusiasts.
Leslie Buchanan, co-owner of the new taproom Balefire Brewing Co., is willing to take her chances. She is standing behind the bar as she estimates about 200 people showed up on what some consider an unlucky day.
“We risked the odds and opened on Friday the 13th,” Leslie says with a laugh. “It was a great day for us.”
Leslie is one of the brewers and co-owns the operation with her husband Matt Buchanan, brewer Nate Murphy and beertender Stephanie Murphy.
Balefire is the newest brewery to pop up in the Santa Cruz area, taking over the space that housed the former Greater Purpose Brewing Co. and before that, the East Cliff Brewing Co.
Opening a brewery in 2023 might seem like a leap of faith, with craft beer sales seeing decline in recent years. According to the Brewer’s Association, which has been tracking craft beer sales for years, 2022 saw a 0% growth in sales, while the first half of 2023 saw a 2% drop in sales.
This marks the largest decline in years, with the exception of the pandemic. The popularity of hard seltzers and pre-packed beer has taken a bite out of beer sales in general, and mid-sized craft breweries are taking a hit.
Leslie recalls attending the Brewers Association annual conference last year and says the keynote speaker painted a dire picture.
“We knew coming in, and having worked in the industry previously, that we’re outside the heyday,” Leslie says.
Local Craft Brewing Persists
Luck might continue to be on their side.
A silver lining in the recent Brewer’s Association report is the resilience of small, hospitality-driven breweries that produce less than 1,000 barrels per year. The report indicates a “strong positive” outlook.
The number of craft breweries nationwide increased from 9,119 in June 2022 to 9,336 as of June 2023, with the total brewery number up from 9,242 to 9,456, according to the report. It also highlighted that openings of new breweries are outpacing closures.
In Santa Cruz County, small craft breweries have popped at a steady pace. From Watsonville-area spots like Elkhorn Slough Brewing and Corralitos Brewing Co., to Westside Santa Cruz mainstay Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, the list has grown.
According to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the county is home to 25 establishments with a small beer manufacturing license. Most of the licenses were issued in the last 10 years, with the oldest manufacturer on file being Seabright Brewery (now Seabright Social), which has operated since 1998.
Balefire is entering a saturated market, but its owners hope that their approach to brewing will resonate with local beer lovers.
“We want to get back to basics. We want to just brew good, clean, simple beers,” Leslie says. ‘I don’t see us getting into sours or super fruit-infused things.
Currently, Balefire has seven beers on tap, including an Irish red ale (Moped); a chocolate stout (River Styxx) and a staple west coast IPA (Opa). Oh, and they also have a hard seltzer. But the Buchanans say that they are interested in brewing more English-style ales, much like what East Cliff Brewing Co. was doing. Their approach has gained them some fans.
“I have followed them around for eight years,” says Dan Crenshaw, sitting at the bar on a Thursday evening. “They make the best beer in Santa Cruz.”
Being the new brew in town, Balefire has to find its footing. However, Matt sees the craft beer scene as a community, not a competition, and says that other local brewers have been supportive.
“I think we just want to make a local community place around beer [where] people want to come and hang out and that’s about it,” Matt says. “We don’t want to stand out or be above anybody else. We just want an even playing field.”
“It allowed us to learn a lot,” says Matt Buchanan about opening day. “We’re figuring out the system.”