“The line I always use is, ‘I got into for the beer, but I’ve stayed in it for the community’.”
When you hear Quinn Gardner, owner of Sactown Union Brewery, say that it might be easy to dismiss as just some marketing jargon. But when you talk to Gardner and his partner and head brewer Michael Barker, you quickly realize they are living every word.
“There’s duality to (the idea of community). On one hand there’s the literal sense of it being Sacramento and East Sacramento and working with groups here to push the greater good. One the other hand, it’s sort of more metaphorical sense– the community of craft brewing,” says Gardner.
Sactown Union is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to the region’s burgeoning brewing scene. But its roots are steeped in beer history and an appreciation of those who came before.
“We have all the pictures framed on the wall of the pioneers of the craft brewing industry,” Gardner explains. “The Sir Isaac Newton quote above it, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be here.”
Furthering the idea of a brewing community, the shelf of growlers from other local beer makers, and the walk-in door covered in brewery stickers. Gardner says there’s no room for competition because the success of one brewery can only help the rest.
And while the brewing community matters to Sactown Union, Gardner and Barker says they have a responsibility and a role in the community that surrounds them.
“I have a belief that there should be a brewery on every corner of every neighborhood, so people in the community have somewhere to go and socialize,” says Barker. “It’s not just a drinking establishment, it’s a place to go meet your friends, socialize.”
Socialize and be socially aware. In its five months of operation Sactown Union has already held fundraising events in response to the shootings in Orlando, hosted a dog-adoption event and uses its seasonal beers to raise money for a variety of good causes.
“We call it ‘The Revolutionaries Series’… (the beers) are named and brewed in honor of various social catalysts, people who made our community better.” Gardner explains that a mural on the tasting room wall is a sort-of guide to the causes they support. “So Dr. King is up there with a hornet on his shoulder because of a beer that we call ‘Freedom Ryder’. The Freedom Riders of ’61, themselves being students, and the premium Dr. King put on education, (sales from) that beer go to a scholarship at Sac State for kids who are studying to be educators in the inner city.”
Sactown Union brews a Helles Lager called ‘First Responder’ that supports the Sacramento Firefighters Burn Institute. Another brew will be released around Labor Day in honor of labor rights leader Cesar Chavez and that money will help the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. “So again, it’s that sort of greater sense of we have this platform, we need to use it,” Gardner says.
A DECADE OF PLANNING
It’s a platform Gardner has been planning for more than a decade. Dreaming of owning his own brewery, he started in the beer business working for Coors. That job gave him his first exposure to California’s Central Valley and specifically Sacramento. He eventually left to work as an area manager for Sierra Nevada. One of his areas was Santa Cruz where he met Barker.
Barker has been brewing beer since the mid-90s after he made a dramatic career change. “I was a fireman for 10 years. I just wanted something different.” He says fortune smiled on him putting him in the right place at the right time to learn the brewing business from someone who was open to teaching him. “No regrets about it either. This is what I started doing, this is what I enjoy, so I didn’t look back at all.”
Barker was the piece Gardner was missing to complete his dream of owning his own brewery. Still, it would be several years before they would go into business together. “If you had asked us at the time we were going to open within the next year or two,” Gardner recalls. It would actually be seven and a half years of planning, painstaking research and eventually relocating to Sacramento before Sactown Union opened. “We waited until we were ready, until we had the location, we had the funds, we had the team, we had everything else behind us instead of just ambition and a plan.”
THE PLAN IN ACTION
The evidence of that plan and ambition are everywhere you look inside the brewery. “Everything is deliberate. We didn’t just throw out some picnic benches and call it good,” Gardner explains. This shows in everything from the light fixtures, to the chairs, to the bar back designed in the likeness of Sacramento’s Tower Bridge.
The beer-brewing partners say it’s a surreal feeling to own their own brewery and that they’ve been so busy they haven’t had time to enjoy as much as they’d like. Still, Barker says there are have been moments, “Probably one of the better feelings is when you walk out to the bar and see people enjoying something that you made.”
The plans are to distribute Sactown Union beer in five states over the next five years, but Gardner says he doesn’t want to grow too fast. He says they will once again be selective about where and how they sell their beer because at the end of the day, no matter how big they get ‘community’ will still be at the heart of it all.
“Our tag line is ‘we’re not just brewing beer, we’re brewing community’.” And when Gardner says it, you know he means it.