In Sacramento region’s relatively young craft beer market, no brewery owner is younger than Burning Barrel Brewing Company’s Duncan Alexander.
At just 23 and with a can-do attitude Alexander says some have been quick to dismiss him and his brewery. “Sometimes, I’ll go and say, ‘Hey, I really like your brewery I’m opening up one maybe 10 minutes away,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ and they kind of like brush it off.”
But writing Alexander and Burning Barrel off would probably be a mistake. While Duncan might be the fresh face of the brewery there’s a season home brewer working alongside him—his dad, Jack. “He was always home brewing from the time Sierra Nevada started kicking off,” the younger Alexander explains. “Since I was born he’s been brewing.”
While the elder Alexander has had his passion for brewing… well… brewing for decades, the younger Alexander really caught the craft beer bug while studying marketing at the University of Oregon. “I got kind of pretty involved in the beer and distilling scene up in Eugene,” he explains. “I helped a distillery with some marketing, so that was kind of my push into it.”
From Eugene, Ducan would move to another craft beer mecca, San Diego. There he would take a job with TapHunter, an app-based company that helps connect bars, restaurants, and taprooms with drinkers by providing real-time inventory and selection. Duncan says his time there really helped him get an idea of what craft beer drinkers were looking for.
Around this same time, he’d find out what his dad was looking for—a partner to open his own brewery.
“My dad has always had this dream since he started brewing to do this,” Duncan explains. “And he was like, ‘Well, I kind of want to keep my full-time job, and I don’t want someone else running it, so are we going to do this?’”
“Took me about a week and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’”
And with that—Burning Barrel Brewing Company was born as a true father and son project.
“Not many people have parents that want to do this and it kinds of aligns with my passion so it was a really fortunate opportunity for me to have this experience.”
In October, Duncan earned a certificate in brewing science from the famed Siebel Institute in Chicago. He says between his education and his dad’s experience his youth won’t be a factor.
“I’m hoping that once we get open and they see the kind of beer we’re making then it’s going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the kid over there making that beer.’”
JUST GETTING STARTED
When I sat down with Duncan at the start of December as the future home of Burning Barrel, it was quite literally nothing more than an empty shell. But where I saw an empty building, Duncan sees the future.
“The location itself, being in a building that’s under 10 years old with 20-foot ceilings, that allows us to have that great tasting room and also be able to expand, have a small to decent sized barrel program,” Duncan explains.
Burning Barrel is bucking the craft brew trend of opening in an out-of-the-way industrial area by taking up 4800 square feet next to Rancho’s Pocket Deli which happens to be right off the always busy Sunrise Boulevard and just a few blocks from Highway 50.
“There so many businesses around here and at 5 o’clock traffic is jammed up for miles,” Alexander explains. “So what are you going to do? Do you want to grab some really good beer or do you want to wait in traffic in your car?”
The location seems like a no-brainer now, but it wasn’t the Alexanders’ first choice. In fact, Burning Barrel got some media attention when it initially filed its plans to become part of downtown Sacramento’s R Street Corridor. The company announced in September that it couldn’t make that location work and was instead relocating to Rancho Cordova.
“We actually got recruited by an economic development manager in the city of Rancho Cordova.” Alexander says after meeting with the city, Rancho was a clear choice. “We felt like this was going to be the city that was really going to stand behind this business.”
And it’s not just Burning Barrel Rancho is getting behind. Already home to five breweries including Claimstake, Fort Rock, and the recently opened Thin Line Brewing companies, Rancho has developed what it calls the Barrel District. This new district also includes the only operating distillery in the region, a second distillery that is coming online soon and a planned meadery. All of this shows how the city is embracing the craft spirits business.
“The building is just as important as the city behind it,” says Alexander. ”We saw this package as being able to offer what we’re trying to do.”
After writing these blog posts and Sacramento Beer: A Craft History (out May 7, 2018) I’ve learned that you basically need two things to create a successful brewery (besides good beer of course): time and money. And you need a lot of both. So it was somewhat surprising when this 23-year-old explained that he and his dad were opening Burning Barrel without investors.
Alexander explains that they wanted to be in charge of their own destiny and make their own decisions. “Opening a brewery is really expensive and so a lot of people need those investors. We’re just in a fortunate position where we can do it all ourselves and keep it in the family.”
He says they are also fortunate enough to be doing this without taking on debt, which is the number one killer of any new brewery. “They overexpanded, they were having to pay rent, utilities, employees and then they have this mortgage behind it and you can get caught up pretty quick in that.”
Time is another issue.
“Everyone is always like, ‘Oh, we’ll be open in five or six months,’ and then two years later they’re open,” Alexander explains. “Just because there are so many things with different codes and regulations with any business, but specifically brewing.”
Permits and codes alone sound like a full-time job, but let’s not forget the beer. Duncan and Jack are brewing three to four times a week right now on their pilot system to develop their recipes. And the work doesn’t end there. Construction is just beginning in the tasting room and brewery and much of that work, the father and son team are doing themselves.
“I spend the majority of my days with my parents just doing everything from the woodworking we’re doing for the tasting room, recipe development, branding, marketing, so it’s a full family experience, which is cool.”
And things aren’t going to slow down once the brewery is open of course. The elder Alexander is keeping his full-time job, for now, leaving Duncan with the majority of the responsibilities at the brewery. He’s not complaining, in fact, he seems like someone who just can’t wait to get started.
“I’ll probably have a mattress in the office working sun up to sun down,” he jokes. Or at least I think he’s joking. Running a brewery is one place that Duncan says being in his early 20s will provide him a leg up on other brewers.
“I think that’s an advantage too of me being so young, is that a lot of people who open breweries have kids,” he says. “I don’t have any of those responsibilities at this point; I don’t have a family yet. I’m really going to put all of this into it.”
THE BEER & THE BRAND
“The brand itself is kind of like a devilish, punk almost aggressive feel to it,” Alexander explains. “That’s going to kind of translate to the atmosphere you’re going to find in the tasting room.” Don’t misunderstand, Duncan promises the brewery will be family friendly, but that it will offer a look and feel that is consistent with the brewery’s flaming barrel logo.
When Burning Barrel opens its door sometime in spring or summer of 2018, it will open with a 15-barrel brewing system with four 15-barrel fermenters. Alexander promises a line of beers that will stand out from the crowd.
“We’re trying to do things that are really unique. We like to take really popular styles and add a spin to it,” Alexander explains. “We’re just trying to be distinctive but have enough selection for where anyone who walks in the door will be able to enjoy something.”
Alexander says the brewery will have about 14 beers on tap, a third dedicated to IPAs, a third to stouts and a third to sours and European styles. And of course, they plan to specialize in barrel-aged beers.
For the foreseeable future, you’ll only be able to get Burning Barrel beers at the taproom which is all part of the plan.
“We want people to be able to come here and be able to experience the brand as a whole. You can just get a can or a bottle from a local bottle shop and you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, this is good beer,’ but we want people to understand the story behind it, we want people to get to know us and kind of experience the brand as a whole.”