With all the beer flowing out of the East Bay these days, it’s easy to overlook Origin Brewer. Origin does not have a taphouse nor does it operate public brewery tours. It does not sell bottles or cans for take-home consumption. The one-woman nanobrewery operates out of a 210-square-foot facility in the owner’s backyard in Richmond.
Though Origin offers a few beers — including an IPA, a witbier, a gose and a porter — each batch is brewed on the same single-barrel system, 31 gallons, two kegs at a time.
Owner Michelle Baker deliberately wants to keep Origin small.
Friends in the industry suggested Baker to brew big and brew often and advised that she would need to spend $200,000 minimum before brewing. Baker took the opposite tack with her small-batch approach and started Origin for under $100,000.
Baker has 20 years experience in the food service industry. In 2012, she was looking for a creative outlet that could carry over into retirement, as both an activity and a source of income. Beer was the natural choice. “I just enjoyed brewing a lot,” said Baker.
Baker began thinking of the pub-model in England, where owners brew small batches and “it’s a different beer in every pub.” She wanted that same geographic specificity for her own brewing ventures, considering the long histories some beers have with their locations, and the mutual influence the two have on each other.
“The idea is to make beer that the origins are from all over but making them with local ingredients,” she said. “This is going to be a very local beer that you can only get in the Bay Area.”
Currently, Origin has accounts with Point Richmond Social Club, Elevation 66 in El Cerrito, Caffe Sapore in San Francisco and Way Station Brew in Berkeley, where I first encountered Baker’s beers, including People’s Porter, a bourbon barrel-aged porter, on tap. Baker likes to brew with the climate and the calendar, which means those curious to sample the porter will need to find it while they can. (At time of publication, Way Station Brew still had it on tap.) Baker said the last kegs of it have been delivered for the season, as she needed to free the space for a summer kolsch.
“We don’t try to speed anything up,” said Baker. “Sometimes we’re going to take two months [to brew] because that’s more in line with the history of the fermentation schedule.”
“It’s a really long-term, slow plan,” she said.
“I think it’s just related to how I experience food,” Baker said, outlining her slow-and-steady philosophy. “It’s an important part of culture, and a lot of these beers are from cultures that I’m not familiar with at all. I’m just curious. I find it personally fascinating, and it’s also experimental because with a number of these beers this isn’t necessarily the right climate.”
Though Baker has a three-barrel system waiting in the wings and would like to branch out into growlers — “I need to figure out a way to negotiate that,” she said — she has no plans to grow beyond her means. She wants Origin to stay “unique to this area.”
Personal connection is important to Baker. At all the locations where her beer is on draft, she either knows the bar owner or someone who works for them. That said, though she has a strong preference to keep Origin small and easily managed, she would have no problem dealing kegs to a Bay Area bar where she didn’t know anyone.
“That’s one of the great things about beer,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet people.”
Besides hewing to Old World highly localized brewing tradition, Baker tries as much as possible to limit environmental impact. The size of her operation is part of the strategy, but additionally, Baker locally sources all base malts from Admiral Maltings in Alameda and — for accounts within a 10-mile radius — delivers pony kegs (992 ounces) and sixtel (661 ounces) kegs via cargo bike. At the end of the brewing process, Baker feeds the spent grain to her chickens and composts the rest.
The backyard brewhouse is made of Watershed Block, a masonry material constructed from locally-sourced minerals and recycled aggregates. The material is easily cleaned and very insulative, keeping brewing conditions on the warmer side when Baker brews ales, and cooler for when she makes the switch to lagers. She applied a white silicone sealant to the roof to reflect heat and reduce energy usage further.
But Baker’s biggest environmental savings is water. She made good use of this year’s wet weather, stockpiling the rainwater in a catchment system to use throughout the year. The collected water does not get used directly in the beers, lest readers think they’re about to drink a batch brewed from clouds. Instead, it is used to cool the beer, mid-brewing.
After the malt is boiled, it has to be rapidly cooled before yeast can be added to turn the mash into beer. “It takes a lot of water to chill beer after you’ve cooked it,” said Baker. “The ratio is at about three to six times as much water.” Which means for every 100 gallons of beer, a brewer needs around 300 gallons of water to cool it. “And that’s a waste of a lot of potable water, in my opinion.”
“We have these large totes that take rainwater, pump it from one tote to the other tote, and then recycle it for the next batch,” she said. “We don’t use a single drop of potable water to cool our beer down.”
The savings are a point of pride, but also a necessity. The choice to run an environmentally sustainable nanobrewery cuts operating costs, but also restricts profits and growth, which might go some way towards explaining why there aren’t quite so many Origin Brewer beers on draft in the East Bay.
“It’s not a great business model,” said Baker. “It’s going to take over 10 years to break even.” Happily, 10 years from now is still at least five years before Baker plans to retire.
Head to these East Bay locations to get a taste of Origin Brewer beers: Way Station Brew, 2120 Dwight Way, Berkeley; Elevation 66, 10082 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito and Point Richmond Social Club, 401 S. Garrard Blvd., Richmond