“There’s nothing that pisses me off more than mediocre beer, and there’s a lot of it out there.”
Standing next to the wooden foundation of an unfinished bartop, Steve Doty says, “There’s not nearly enough sour beer in this world.” As we look up at over 10,000 gallons of sour beer patiently aging in a library of old barrels stacked on one side of the warehouse, it becomes tremendously clear that his mission is to change that.
It’s a beautiful day in Santa Rosa, and we’re walking around an old carpet warehouse on 1st Street, where stacks of boxes, brand new tanks and various odds-and-ends from construction are sitting where dozens of tables and chairs are slated to be. Sunlight pours through the tall doors that lead to the yard that will soon be a beer garden with picnic tables and outdoor games. Vines from hops and morning glories reach from their planters to climb up the pale beige walls, though they still have a long way to go.
Steve is the solo mastermind behind Shady Oak Barrel House. His demeanor is warm and casual; the kind where you feel as if you’ve known him for years even though you’ve only spoken for a few minutes. With a beanie over his long, wavy hair and a beer in hand, he guides me around the warehouse, pointing out what it will all look like when it opens this Spring. It’s a huge, clean space with loads of natural light and enough space for about 200 people to sit indoors. A railing will be put in place to section off the tasting room from the barrel section, where guests can admire the big, beautiful collection of gin, port, whiskey and pinot barrels that Doty has acquired over the years to age his beers.
The intention behind Shady Oak is simple: To give the world more experimental beers with acidity and complexity, and less IPAs.
Bit by the bug
Up until a few months ago, when Doty hired his very first (and only) employee, the entire Shady Oak operation has been a one-man show. All of the brewing, marketing, selling, tinkering and managing has been performed by himself. It all began when his dad bought him his first homebrewing kit at the age of 16.
“He didn’t realize what he’d started,” he laughs. He became instantly fascinated with the artistry and science behind brewing, and started by experimenting with pale ales, IPAs and oatmeal stouts. Pretty soon, he fell in love with the Belgian Abbey style and Trappist beers, which eventually gave way to his passion for brewing sours.
“IPAs man, they grow old on me,” he says. “To me it’s like oak character, brett character, funk… all that stuff that’s sour is so much better.”
Since those first couple batches he concocted from his own house, he’s never stopped brewing. As a Sonoma County native, he’s been around wine his entire life and worked in the wine industry for seven years as a lab tech, which gave him experience with creating blends and using Brettanomyces — a wild yeast used for acidity and earthy, funky aromas that are a defining characteristic of both his beers and his favorite beers to drink, including Orval, Saison Bernice, and different lambics. It was after his work in the wine industry had winded down and he had completed his degree in English that he realized his passion for brewing had to become his livelihood. He has never looked back since.
After making the decision to pursue his dream of brewing full-time and opening up his own taproom, he officially started the Shady Oak company in 2013 and obtained the keys to the warehouse on 420 1st Street towards the end of 2016. The place does not have that pungent, malty smell that all breweries have when you walk behind the scenes because evidently, there is no actual brewing system in here. He does most of his work over at HenHouse Brewing Company and distributes afterwards because the cost of his own brewing system would mean he would have to be pumping out beers at a rate that his slow barrel aging process does not allow for at the moment.
Despite not having his own brewing equipment, he has managed to get pretty creative with his process. Last year, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to build his own coolship trailer, which employs the traditional coolship method of cooling beer by pouring it over a wide, shallow surface area: picture a metal pool table, but full of boiling hot beer. Not only does this cool the liquid, but it invites local bacterias and yeasts to be absorbed into the blend. The campaign was successful, and allowed him to build a mobile trailer that can hold about 130 gallons of liquid. In the wintertime, the trailer can be driven to different orchards and wineries to capture the terroir of the area to add a unique complexity and flavor to each batch.
While Doty chips away at construction for his taproom, he still has a wide selection of beers available at local bottle shops; all with incredibly detailed and wickedly cool psychedelic art on the labels. His most recent series, released in mid-March, is the Cellar Wizard series: a collection of sour farmhouse and golden ales bursting with fruit. Almost all of the fruit is locally sourced, and the plums used in the Santa Rosa plum sour were actually donations from residents who had more plums growing on the trees in their backyards than they knew what to do with. He tries to achieve beers without a lot of sweetness, and aims to make each one a beverage that people can appreciate as a food complement in the same way that they appreciate wine.
Once Shady Oak opens its doors, Doty hopes to double his production and barrel capacity and open up his beer garden to local food trucks. There’s not much left to do in the way of construction, but the place still needs its finishing touches.
As we make one last trip back into the yard, I ask what exactly people can expect when they come to the Shady Oak taproom.
“A fun, awesome, sexy, good time,” Steve laughs.
“What they can expect is not to come to a place where everything on the tap list is IPA, IPA, double IPA, and another IPA.” He explains that the menu will feature at best eight to 10 sours out of a total selection of 12 beers, with a starting point of six sours upon opening. He wants to keep experimenting and trying as many different blends and methods as possible to serve up the best and most unique stuff he can make.
“That’s what they can expect,” he concludes. “A different experience.”