Kenny Hildebrand and Julien Sprague Stir the Pot at Kaweah Brewing
May 28, 2015 02:40PM
● By Brandi Barnett
Brew Ha HaJune 2015
Story and photos by Fache Desrochers
If someone with only a modicum of knowledge about beer brewing were to visit the industrial space out of which Kaweah Brewing operates at this time of the year –when the days are only just starting to vibrate with the fierce Valley heat – they might be surprised to find that the interior temperature of the brew space regularly soars well over 100 degrees. But the reason for the Amazonian heat becomes immediately obvious upon view of the enormous stainless-steel kettles that boil theatrically in the majority of the brew space, casting a slow haze of grain-scented steam into the warehouse’s upper atmosphere.
Upon entering this area, one will inevitably register two lone men moving about the large warehouse like the steam: seemingly everywhere at once, though in no discernable hurry; stirring the boil, checking dials, fiddling with tubes and shifting heaps of equipment, all with the deliberate focus that one might find in a lab, or in an art studio. This makes sense, because each is exactly what this place is, especially if you ask the man who first emerges from the curtain of steam; the man behind the brew, a smiling, impressively bearded gentleman named Kenny Hildebrand. “I think brewing is part imagination, part art, part craft. It takes a little bit of everything to make it happen,” muses Hildebrand. “And there’s a lot of science behind it, too. But the precision, the science, the creativity and the community that surrounds brewing is the reason I love it.”
Although the culture of homebrewing has been around since time immemorial, it is only the public interest of recent years that has enabled enthusiasts to draw a living. But the purists within this discipline prize the integrity of the small-batch artist perhaps above all else. So it’s no surprise to learn that although Hildebrand doesn’t operate alone, his team remains very small. His partner in the sweltering mist, an equally amicably bearded fellow named Julien Sprague, is the lead brewer, and it’s typically just the two of them who patiently brave the painstaking process of turning hops, grains, water and yeast into Kaweah Brewing’s signature beers. And apart from some sales and branding support and the encouragement of their families, Kaweah Brewing’s working nucleus hasn’t changed much at all from when Hildebrand and his friends first started stooping over their earliest backyard boils a few years ago. Their initial motivation to brew was simple: “It just stemmed from a desire to have good beer made in the Valley to drink in the Valley,” says Hildebrand.
Kaweah Brewing emerged organically, growing naturally out of the passions and motivations of the people behind it. And that’s how the label still stands today, with a desire to grow at the rate that will best preserve the loving care that Hildebrand and Sprague take with their product. “People often ask us why we haven’t opened a taproom just yet,” Hildebrand says. “Those plans are totally there, but we don’t want to stampede into the next phase. We want to let it happen when the time is right.”
The ability to choose when the time is right is something that Kaweah Brewing clearly values, as do the many Valley businesses who pride themselves on their judicious product selection. “Howie & Son’s pizza in Visalia was the first place to carry our beer,” recalls Hildebrand. “And then The Depot and Jack & Charlie’s brought us on, as well as Ol’ Buckaroo up in Three Rivers, and now several places in Fresno.” The guys brew in Tulare, and the local grocery store Bob’s Market is a delightedly supportive carrier, as is eatery Bravo Farms. “A lot of the mom-and-pop shops are behind us, because that’s who we are too,” says Hildebrand. “It’s great how independent businesses support each other.”
Typically available in stores are the label’s Frontline Beers, which comprises the Brown Ale, the Black IPA, the Chocolate Cow and the Holy Toledo IPA. Three of these brews are now certified award winners, as both IPAs and the Brown Ale all took home the bronze at this year’s celebrated New York International Beer Competition. Kaweah Brewing’s selection also extends into an established fondness for seasonal brews. “We call them our Giant Beers,” says Hildebrand. “It’s in reference to the giant Sequoias, but also just to giants, as these beers are called Fe, Fi, Fo, and Fum, and they come out four times annually.”
With their playful yet serious and local-centric approach to craft beer, it’s unsurprising that Kaweah Brewing has established itself as an essential part of the Valley’s microbrew culture. “It is a lot of work what we do,” says Hildebrand. “But you get to share that work, that art with others. And then when you make those other people happy, it’s just awesome.”
Kaweah Brewing • Find locations at www.kaweahbrewing.com
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