Sometimes hobbies become careers. The co-founders of West Oakland’s Ghost Town Brewing were looking for a space to jam rather than to brew when they got together six years ago. The four co-founders — Ryan Nosek, Sam Carr-Prindle, Jason Gehman and Adam Hill — were a metal band that got together to home brew on the weekend. Music was the point. Beer was just a side-gig.
It was while looking for rehearsal space that the four found a warehouse within their budget on Union Street, a place they could build out a rehearsal space and set up a single barrel brewhouse to help offset the cost of rent. “But it was just so expensive to afford rehearsal space we thought maybe we should start a brewery,” said Nosek.
They never did settle on a name for their band, playing at various points in time as “Baby Arm,” “Tire Fire,” “HAG” and “a bunch of other garbage,” said Nosek. But the brewery got the name that stuck.
Soon beer was the bigger priority, once the ales they were homebrewing under the Ghost Town label started getting attention through small accounts at Dogwood and Golden Bull in Oakland and the Uptown in San Francisco.
For four-and-a-half years, Ghost Town supplied all its accounts by brewing beer one barrel — 31 gallons — at a time in its Union Street rehearsal-studio-cum-brewery. “It got so crazy we were brewing on that one barrel system several times a day,” said Nosek.
“We started out really, really small,” said Carr-Prindle, “basically with glorified home brew equipment,” using a system that he referred to as “the pots and pans method.”
“Up until a few months ago that was still how we were brewing,” said Carr-Prindle, a far cry from the 450-gallon batches Ghost Town now brews at their new digs at 1960 Adeline St. in West Oakland.
Like many breweries that double as neighborhood hangouts, Ghost Town’s new space features family and kid-friendly activities like foosball and board games, a projection screen and indoor bike parking. But look closely at those bike stations. Each dock is in the shape of an exaggerated coffin, wide at the top, tapering at the bottom, set with an inverted beer bottle emblazoned with a cross. There it is again, on the brewery gates, on signage and etched into the bar.
The casket motif is a reference to Oakland history. Though also known as Hoover-Foster, “Ghosttown” is another moniker for this slice of West Oakland. The name could be a reference to the neighborhood’s long struggles with violence, vacancy and blight, or possibly to two coffin factories formerly located in the neighborhood. According to local lore, the warehouse at 1960 Adeline St. was one of those factories, though none of the four Ghost Town co-owners have been able to verify this story through city records.
Along with getting a shiny new brewhouse, Ghost Town also expanded its team. Justin Burdt, head brewer at the former Black Diamond Brewery in Concord, joined Ghost Town as a brewer in 2017.
“The best thing we did was get Justin on board,” said Nosek. “We were avid homebrewers for a few years before, but amateurs for sure,” Nosek later wrote in a follow-up email. They had no idea how to scale up their product from the single barrel system they’d been using.
Burdt conceives, designs and executes Ghost Towns newer brews along with co-owner Hill. “They build the grain, they package it, they malt it,” said Nosek. “They essentially run our whole production.”
That production skews mainly towards ales that are more malt-forward rather than hop-forward, dialing each ingredient up or back depending. “They’re not all hop bombs,” said Nosek, “They’re a bunch of different styles catering to more than just the hop heads.”
Ghost Town still offers its very first beer, a German roggen-style ale called Final Rites Rye. Roggen differs from other ales in that it is made with rye malt, though this particular brew differs slightly from its Teutonic ancestry. “We hopped it to more of a West Coast style,” said Nosek, describing it as both heavier and spicier than a traditional roggen.
With a dozen beers on draft, Nosek describes the menu as seven core beers, with the remainder composed of “experimentations in whatever we can get our hands on.” The brewery also offers porters and stouts, as well as lagers, pilsners and helles beers, a style of pale German lager.
While volume has increased, Ghost Town has remained committed to staying small, relatively. The brewery self-distributes, working directly with bars and grocery stores. The co-owners financed the brewery’s expansion from garage to brewhouse through small business loans. All beers served at Ghost Town are brewed on site, which means a beer has never had to travel more than 50 meters to get from tank to keg to glass. And beers are priced between $3 and $5, based on their alcohol by volume (ABV). A higher ABV beer, like an IPA, will be higher in price than a lower ABV beer, like a lager.
“A lot of beers, especially IPAs, are pretty expensive to make,” said Carr-Prindle, “but we don’t want this place to feel exclusive. Craft beer can have a bougie bend to it.”
The brewers want Ghost Town to feel like a natural extension of the neighborhood. And to that end, they are kid, dog and bike-friendly. While the brewhouse does not serve food (“That’s not what we know,” said Carr-Prindle. “We know beer. We’ll just stick to that.”), customers are welcome to bring their own food from outside. Currently, West Oakland food truck The Taco Panzon occasionally stops by on a catch-as-catch-can basis, but the owners hope to have more food trucks outside on a rotating schedule as the brewery becomes more established.
In the meantime, there are plenty of beers on tap to enjoy, many a nod to death metal humor. Along with Final Rites Rye, there’s also its Inhume IPA, a wordplay on “exhume,” and Locrian, an ale named for the modal musical scale that contains the diminished fifth chord used in medieval music to denote the devil.
“We’re very heavy metal, very tongue in cheek,” he said. “We’re always pushing the boundaries of good taste.”
Then, on a menu otherwise filled with gallows humor, there’s the surprisingly feline-themed Cat Hoarder porter and the Polydactyl pale ale (a shout-out to cats born with extra digits), because…
“We just like cats,” said Carr-Prindle with a shrug.
Ghost Town Brewing is open 3-10 p.m., Monday to Friday; noon to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.