Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Backgrounder: Elk Grove Brewery, Kelley Bros. Brewing

NOTE: The abrupt closure Oct. 5, 2008, of Elk  Grove Brewery in Elk Grove, which is south of Sacramento on Highway 99, worries me.  It looks like we’re into some tough sledding economically and when things get tough business that have become institutions in their communities can fall like snowflakes.

So, for the record, to help remember Elk Grove Brewery, here’s an article I wrote for Northwest Brewing News back in 2005 about a pub crawl down Hwy. 99. Kelley Brothers in Manteca is still going strong, thank the lord.

I’ve been in there a few times over the years and always been impressed. It is – or should I say – was a rough-hewn place in an old building that had been there since pioneer days.

Rural Brewpubs, California Style…

ON THE ROAD IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY  –  Finding a rural brewpub within two hours drive of the San Francisco Bay Area isn’t easy, but it can be pleasant.  On a rainy afternoon recently, I set out for the two pubs with claims to rural roots – Elk Grove Brewery & Restaurant, in Elk Grove, CA  and Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. in Manteca.
Elk Grove brewer  Bill Wood has won an impressive list of medals at the Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Cup and county and California State Fair competitions.

Kelley Brothers is justifiably famous for its décor, it’s unusual “Chinese’’ barbecue ovens and an impressive beer list.

I turned my back on freeways  for a drive across the Sacramento Delta. State route 160’s actually a levee , keeping out the river  and allowing farming on the below-sea  level,  delta. An hour beyond the Delta, Elk Grove is a town on the cusp of  Sacramento’s suburban sprawl.

Veterans Day Parade in Elk Grove, CA., taken from a Realtor’s brochure.

A boulevard of cookie-cutter, gated communities leads to the original Elk Grove, which began life as a stage coach stop in 1850. It’s now called “Old Town,’’ but a better description would be “real town.’’ No boutiques.

Elk Grove Brewing’s in the brick General Store, built in 1885. The interior’s full of brick and wood; there’s an ancient tin ceiling over the bar area, tables and chairs on the other side and a tiny front patio. The place was half-full at 3 o’clock on this rainy Wednesday afternoon.

I knew I was a step outside urban California: people instantly started talking to me. In a half-hour over  a plate of garlic fries, hamburger and a sampler set, I felt like a regular.

Elk Grove became a brewpub  in 1995, the brainchild of Tom and Kathy Ogden. Tammy, who waitressed here  and  husband Chris Correa bought the place in 2003.
All along, the guy behind the beer has been Bill Wood. His first award was a third place for Big, But Blond at the California State Fair. He’s gone on to win many medals. In 2004, he won a gold at the World Beer Cup  for Winter Warmer Porter, a bronze for Bock Lager. At the GABF in Denver he won bronze for Otis Alt.

Elk Grove’s a Central Valley town where   “average’’ summer temperatures  range from 95-110. So all Bill  Wood’s beers tend to be dry. Heavy and sweet don’t mix with 110 F.

Winter Warmer Porter was still on tap, thank goodness. It’s a spectacular beer, almost jet black, with a lively head, a roast malt nose and a complex taste of dry, dark malts and hops. No wonder the  judges gave it gold.

Tammy Correa, who was tending bar,  said they’re puzzled about one thing: Elk Grove is drowning in suburban sprawl. Where are the new-resident  customers?
If you’ve ever lived in the slurbs, you know the answer: They’re at some chain restaurant,   sucking on Bud. Stick to your roots Elk Grove Brewing: You have live blues on weekends, people will come. I’ll be back too.

Fifty miles down Hwy. 99, Kelley Brothers proprietor Joe Kelley also waits eagerly for suburbia to reach Manteca. It’s because of the “Chinese’’ ovens. Joe and his brother Shon Kelley built the oven when they opened in 1997. They have a capacity of 8,000 pounds of barbecue in a day. Right now, they’re doing about 1,800 pounds a week.
Joe’s grandfather,  Allen Wright,  was a customer, friend and hunting companion of Trader Vic Bergeron, the guy who parlayed a pub in his native Oakland to an international chain of Polynesian-theme restaurants.  The brick-lined oven  with its firepit providing indirect heat for slow cooking was a restaurant trademark.

“Our grandfather built one in his backyard in Berkeley in1941,’’ Joe Kelley says.
Kelley Brothers was built on the ruins of the El Rey Theater, which burned to the ground in 1977, hours after the last showing of its final picture  – “Towering Inferno.’’

This is a big, airy place, seating 500, with , an 80 foot-long bar; a huge window  looks  onto the 30 barrel brewplant.

The place was crowded – a delightful mix of parents and kids eating at tables , guys and women lined up at the bar. Like Elk Grove, it’s small-town friendly. There’s an ambitious beer list, brewed by Joe Kelley and his head brewer  Roy Madeiros: Oktoberfest’s a fine version of the style, softly malty, with an American-style, hoppy kick. Inferno Red Ale was big and chewy. Four Towers IPA,. a 6.2 percenter,  was a hoppy wonder.

After a look at the Chinese ovens, I quickly switched to a Pork Shoulder Sandwich with Plum Sauce. Oh my! Four Stars. The pork was soft, succulent, spicy, perfectly balanced with the Asian-style plum sauce.  I ordered a second sandwich to go. And I’ll be back.

  • Elk Grove Brewery & Restaurant, 9085 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove, CA 95624, (916) 685-2537.
  • Kelley Brothers Brewing Co., 112 E. Yosemite Ave., Manteca, CA 95336, (209) 825-1727. Hours: 11 a.m – 10 p.m., Mon.-Thurs.;   2 a.m., Friday, Sat.,  8 p.m., Sunday.

Photos: Top: Elk Grove’s prize-winning brewer Bill Wood. Below: Kelley Brothers proprietor Joe Kelley.