Brewers, winemakers see potential in untapped Richmond market
on September 20, 2017
Last Saturday, a little piece of Munich found its way to the Iron Triangle. Benoit-Casper Brewing Co.—Richmond’s first brewery—celebrated Oktoberfest at its facility, complete with Mayor Tom Butt tapping into the first keg. The lederhosen may have been lacking, but the brewery did provide free bratwurst for all.
Opened in 2014, Benoit-Casper represents a growing trend in the city. From East Brother Beer Co. on the point to R & B Cellars at the Kaiser Shipyards, Richmond is experiencing a small surge in alcohol production, with wineries, breweries, and even a cidery popping up within city limits.
Owners say the Richmond community responded to the change with enthusiasm.
“We’re surprised by how quickly the community was like, ‘Yes!’” remarked Gregory Zobel, who co-owns Armistice Brewery with sister Alex Zobel. “We had no idea exactly how thirsty Richmond was.”
Armistice, which has only been open for six weeks, is already trying to find ways to increase production. “We can’t keep beer on tap long enough here,” said Alex Zobel.
While Richmond’s boom may be small — with four new breweries, three wineries, and a cidery opening in the last three years — this increase is indicative of a larger trend across California. The California Craft Brewers Association reports that, as of July 2017, there were 850 craft breweries in the state, up from 312 in 2012.
Richmond is an attractive location because of its comparatively low rents and available industrial real estate. For businesses like Far West Cidery, which needed space for production and a tasting room, Richmond was the only option that offered large enough properties “without breaking the bank,” explained owner Adam Chinchiolo.
Additionally, Richmond is one of the only untapped craft beer markets in the Bay Area. “If we had done this in like a Berkeley or something, we’d just be another brewery,” explained Alex Zobel. “But here, there’s a lot of beer drinkers here and they don’t have a ton of options.”
While moving into a new market makes good business sense, it also stokes fears of displacement.
“Breweries and coffee shops are the bellwethers of gentrification. There is no way around that,” Alex Zobel said. “We had a lot of concerns when we opened that a bunch of white bros were going to show up. That has not been the case. I think what we’ve discovered is that there are a craft beer drinkers all over Richmond.”
To combat those worries, many of these new businesses are supporting local organizations. R & B cellars donates wine to events like Richmond Mainstreet Initiative’s Spirit and Soul Festival, Benoit-Casper partnered with Urban Tilth, and Armistice designates one tap every month as an “Ally Tap”: For every draft beer they sell from that tap, they donate $1 to a local nonprofit or community group. So far, they’ve raised more than $1,000 for organizations like NIAD and the Family Justice Center.
Richmond was once a center of wine production when Winehaven opened in Point Molate in 1907. A fortress-like complex, Winehaven housed crushing, distilling, bottling, and distribution operations for 80 percent of California’s wine.
Prohibition toppled Winehaven’s booming business, and the structure was eventually requisitioned by the Navy to serve as a fuel depot during World War II. Today, Richmond has repurposed parts of the historic Kaiser Shipyards—busy ship-building sites during WWII that have lain empty in recent years—to create Riggers Loft, a development that houses four wineries and a cidery.
“We don’t control 80 percent of the wine in California,” said Riggers Loft tenant and R & B Cellars owner Kevin Brown while chuckling. But R & B still feels that it’s contributing to a piece of Richmond history, too.
Even though establishments are new, for many the vision and commitment to Richmond is long-term. R & B Cellars signed a more than 20-year lease with the Port of Richmond and has invested nearly $2 million into improving its space. Similarly, Armistice has paid for numerous improvements at its Marina Parkway location and hopes to expand its current location in the coming years.
As for the future, this trend shows no signs of slowing, with rumors of yet another winery opening soon. As Armistice’s Gregory Zobel put it: “Its only a matter of time before we hear about the next bar or brewery.”
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