Engineering the best brew

Blue Oak Brewing Company owner takes home brew to the next level

With three 7-barrel tanks, a portable bar, a used cooling room and barrels used as tables in the suite holding San Carlos’ Blue Oak Brewing Company, it’s almost as if every inch the brewery claims at 821 Cherry Lane has been carefully planned out.

That may be because for the last two years, owner Alex Porter has been spending almost all his weekends and countless hours during the week shaping the suite he shares with Redwood Coast Cider into a fully-fledged brewery.

But it hasn’t been easy. Porter said he has worked alongside plumbers and electricians along with plenty of hours on his own procuring, connecting and, at times, creating the equipment needed to produce the seven different beers he serves at the same space on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons.

“This is basically an overgrown home brew situation,” he said.

Though he won awards for his Belgian beers as a home brewer, Porter said making the transition to operating a brewery some two years ago has been a constant learning process. By patching together his friends’ skills as contractors, advice from other beer brewers and years of experience working at Bay Area biosciences companies, Porter said he’s been able to creatively engineer several steps of the brewing process to stay within a shoestring budget.

Using the chillers in bar tap handles, Porter said he was able to create a temperature control apparatus for his brewing system instead of buying a more expensive, industrial glycol chiller. Also the brewery’s only employee, Porter said he does much of the work by hand, which also means he’s the only one serving beer when it is open for tasting. He said he arrives at the brewery around 8 a.m. most Sundays to brew another batch of beer and maintain a variety stocked in his cooling room, including IPAs, Pilsners, lagers, a sour beer, a dark beer and his famous Belgian beers. Well aware he’s very attentive to detail, Porter said he also cleans the tanks and kegs he uses by hand, but isn’t averse to the idea of automating some of the processes at his next location.

“It’s funny because now I have this laundry list of things I will automate for the next place,” he said.

Porter said his background in science has proven to be useful as he homes in on recipes, noting his research on yeast’s role in creating a wide range of substances like fragrances and lubricants has helped him understand how the organism can be used to create a variety of beer flavors.

The 42-year-old San Francisco resident said he’s been juggling his business with a full-time job as a process engineer for San Francisco-based food company Hampton Creek. He said he became interested in creating his own business partly out of frustration with the level of pay that comes with jobs in science and also to work on his own projects.

Prior to starting the brewery, Porter started T-shirt and mountain bike tour companies. He said his first few forays into becoming a small business owner were daunting, especially one in the brewing industry, which is known for high start-up costs. But he also said getting the right recipe, seeing customers come back every weekend and fostering a small community around the garage door of his warehouse space on weekends has been incredibly rewarding.

“What I had to do was … I had to go for it,” he said. “Once you get things going and once you start understanding what’s possible … it’s actually really inspiring and it can actually make it easier to make those leaps.”

Though he still has five years to go on his current lease, Porter is already searching for a commercial location where he’ll have more space to serve beers and possibly set up a larger brewing system. Though he is interested in having his beer served at local restaurants and pubs, he said his current setup doesn’t allow for him to expand production to that level, meaning those looking for a cold one need to pay a visit to his warehouse space.

Though he’s much more aware of the many challenges associated with starting his own brewery than he was two years ago, for Porter, refining beers that can’t be found anywhere else has made it worth his time.

“Amazon will never be able to make good craft beer,” he said. “So I tried to gun for … something that I was good at and wouldn’t be replaced.”

Blue Oak Brewing Company’s taproom is open Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. at 821 Cherry Lane. Visit blueoakbrewing.com for more information.

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