Wanderers Welcome at Turlock’s Dust Bowl Brewing Company
Written by Dana Koster
Brett Tate, founder of Dust Bowl Brewing Company, looks to where a server fills a plain glass goblet with dark, chocolate-colored beer from one of a long line of taps. He sighs as thick, creamy foam drains off into a grate. “That, that right there makes me happy. We’re at lunchtime on a Tuesday, and that’s going out to someone to drink right now. I never would’ve thought that would be happening in Turlock, California.”
We’re in the Dust Bowl taproom at the corner of W. Main and Broadway on a Tuesday afternoon, and the place is hopping. Even a year and a half ago, this section of downtown Turlock was a veritable ghost town, an area people passed through on the way to somewhere else. Not anymore. On this particular Tuesday afternoon in November, there’s a middle-aged couple eating burgers at a glossy wooden table to our left, its irregular edges revealing the tabletop’s past life as a reclaimed tree stump. Outside on the balcony, a group of 20-something young women take turns sipping from tiny glasses set into a plank of wood. This is Dust Bowl’s most famous menu item, the beer sampler, which allows adventurous customers to order five 4-oz samples of the brewery’s landmark beers.
When the taproom opened in August of 2011, the strip mall behind it contained the Dust Bowl bathrooms and little else. Now, the corridor sports boutiques that sell child-sized tutus, a barber shop and a host of other small businesses and offices tucked away upstairs. The empty lot visible from the taproom’s patio has been purchased, and a new restaurant is slated to open across the street sometime next year. Clearly, people want to be near Dust Bowl.
It’s not just the ambiance of the place that draws folks in, though that’s a large part of it. Behind us, giant photographs showcase the bleak, evocative landscapes of America’s Dust Bowl era, a large part of the Valley’s shared history and the history of Tate’s family, specifically. “My dad’s grandfather was a straight-up wanderer, a hobo, looking for a life of no ties to anything. And then he created his family, and it was a constant struggle for him to choose between being a family man or a wanderer.”
This dusty, wanderlust heritage runs deep at Dust Bowl, creeping in to every part of the company’s branding, from the barbed wire dust devils emblazoned on shirts and beer labels to the hobo signs inset into the bar. But the branding isn’t the only thing that makes customers pilgrimage across the Valley for a Tuesday lunch – they’re coming because the place happens to serve some seriously great beer.
To say Dust Bowl’s brewmaster Don Oliver knows his beer is a gross understatement. The man rattles off facts about the longer boil time on a Russian Imperial Stout or the fermentation levels of ale versus lager versus IPA as though he’s reciting basic arithmetic. The sort of stuff anyone would know.
“This is black malt right here,” he tells me as he opens two bags sitting in a corner of the brewery’s malt and mill room. The first is filled with aromatic mahogany-colored pellets that resemble oblong coffee beans. “These give the beer a nice, roasty kind of coffee flavor.” He opens the other bag and lovingly grabs a handful of the golden grains inside. “And then our base malt, which is going to give the majority of the body to our beer – and the alcohol content – is that light one right there. Malted barley.” This is just how he is: unassuming, fully trusting of his customers to understand and appreciate the complexities of the beer he’s making. And if the taproom’s success is any indication, his customers are up to the challenge.
In person, Oliver is unassuming. A sandy-haired dude in jeans and a black “Hops of Wrath” t-shirt, at least a day’s worth of light stubble on his face. In fact, all of Dust Bowl’s employees seem like average guys. As Oliver describes the process of adding mash to the giant tanks behind him, rock music blares from across the room, and several men with beards, brooms and the signature black Dust Bowl t-shirt mill about the room. One belts the song out in an off-key baritone, and every one of them has an easy smile playing at the corners of his mouth – even the guy pushing the broom.
But don’t let appearances fool you. These guys are the best of the best, consummate craft beer experts who thrive in a region – the Central Valley, that is – that was once a domestic large scale beer market. Think Budweiser or Corona, not Arcadia Ales, the Michigan-based microbrewery where assistant brewer Kevin Becraft worked before he landed at Dust Bowl. Even the intern, Brandon, a young man with short-cropped hair who was studiously hunched over a microscope when we first arrived at the brewery, gets described by Tate as a “biology guru.” Oliver himself has won multiple awards in his field, beginning in 2006 when he won the Samuel Adams Longshot Homebrew Competition with his version of an Old Ale.
At the time, Tate was still a coach and high school P.E. teacher, and Dust Bowl Brewing Company was nothing more than a gleam in his entrepreneurial eye. But a writeup in the local paper about Oliver’s prize-winning beer got him thinking. “He won the national home brew contest for Sam Adams and he’s local – he was in Hilmar, and I was going are you kidding me? I had always wanted to start a business, and finally I called him, and he said ‘that’s my dream.’ And I said ‘well what do you need to do to make it happen?’ and he said ‘I need to go to commercial brewing school.’”
With Tate’s backing, Oliver applied for and was accepted to the commercial brewing program at UC Davis. He did well – astoundingly well. In 2008 he scored the highest score worldwide on his exit exam. The following year, he was named in DRAFT magazine as one of “Nine Beer Innovators to Watch” by Samuel Adams founder and brewer Jim Koch. In short, this guy knows his beer.
“He’s really a perfectionist,” says Tate, a fact that becomes evident in the first five minutes of talking to the brewmaster. What isn’t as obvious is Oliver’s knack for innovation. “He’s creative, yet scientific, so that’s a great mix. He knows how to create recipes within the style guidelines, but to kind of push the envelope there. He puts his own flavor to it.”
One great example of this creativity is Soul Crusher, a dangerously smooth 13.73% ABV monster of a brew that got its name from literally crushing parts of the machinery used in the brewing process. His signature beer, though, is Hops of Wrath, an amber hued India Pale Ale with a name that invokes its hoppy flavor and serves as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It’s also the brewery’s flagship product, the only brew the company currently has on store shelves, though Tate and company are looking to change that. “We want to hit the East Bay, the Bay Area, South Bay, Peninsula – down to Bakersfield, to Sacramento. All the way to Southern California, for goodness sakes! But pieces at a time, so we do it right.”
This is where the brewery stands today: on the precipice of a major expansion, at maximum brewing capacity in a storage facility-style building so full of boxes, machinery and yet-to-be-filled bottles that even the doorway to the bathroom is obscured. What will they replace it with? Well, they don’t exactly know yet. At the moment, they’re still scouting locations, dreaming of tasting rooms, soaring ceilings and what Tate describes as a “beer garden” overflowing with winding, viney hops plants – a future he can’t quite clearly envision, but one that he can certainly taste.
Back at the brewery, Becraft, Oliver’s lushly-bearded second-in-command holds a goblet up to a ten barrel fermenter and pours himself a taste. Drinking on the job? “I’d call it ‘sensory evaluation,’” he answers smoothly as he raises the glass of newly-carbonated barleywine to his lips.
“We don’t have much in the way of analytical equipment, so the most advanced things around here are our tongues. I was just evaluating the finished product,” he adds with a grin. He’s either a genius beer maker or a genius at fabricating answers on the fly – maybe both. Luckily for beer lovers across the state of California, he’s in very good company at Dust Bowl.