Learning About Craft Beer Brewing
with Master Brewer Don Barkley

by C. C. Hansen

Don Barkley in 2010 at Napa Smith Brewery.

Though this article was originally published in the now-defunct in 2010, the SoCal Craft Beer Blogger (SCCBB) was inspired to re-post it to the old SCCBB site after hearing a piece that ran on National Public Radio in April 2015. The piece, “Aspiring Craft Brewers Hit The Books To Pick Up Science Chops,” talks about the “trend” among brewers today to master the chemistry behind the beer they make.

Don Barkley was the only brewer we interviewed to show us his lab, which he said was essential for good brewing practice. Barkley, who had been brewing in Northern California for several decades, graduated from the prestigious brewing program at the University of California at Davis in the 1970s. Though not mentioned in the NPR piece, Davis offers one of the oldest and most respected brewing degrees in the nation.

When the Smith Family, which also runs a winery in an adjacent facility in Napa, decided that it was high time for Napa to have its own craft brewery, they approached Barkley, who jokes, “I figured it was time for me to do something completely different, so I agreed to brew for them.”

Don started making craft beer in 1978 at New Albion Brewery, America’s first new brewery since Prohibition. The name came from explorer Sir Francis Drake’s name for California. When Don started, budgets were tight and he lived in a small tent on the mountainside above the brewery. The beer and tent were literally his “Room & Board” – but he was doing what he loved.

After five years brewing at New Albion, he went on to help found the Mendocino Brewing Company in Hopland, Calif. which opened in 1983 and was the first brewpub in California. During his 25 years there as Master Brewer, Don became an icon in the craft beer industry, creating such legendary beers as Red Tail Ale and Eye of the Hawk, which we frequently purchased at our local SoCal Trader Joe’s.

Don’s great-great-grandfather settled in the Napa Valley in the 1850’s as one of the region’s very first hop farmers.

Don was happy to give us a tour of his facility, which was fairly new at the time we visited.

(Incidentally, I found the above biowhich I believe I wrote–along with the photo above, which I took, on the California Craft Beer Summit website. I was not credited for any of it, but as a member of the craft beer community, I’m happy to share. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that I borrowed the photo and bio from CCBS. Live and let live, as they say…)

The Malt Room

The malt room. Different types of malts produce different kinds of beer. According to Wikipedia, “Malting is a process applied to cereal grains, in which the grains are made to germinate by soaking in water and are then quickly halted from germinating further by drying/heating with hot air. Thus, malting is a combination of two processes: the sprouting process and the kiln-drying process.”

The Mash Tun

The mash tun is where malt is combined with water at just the right temperature to release the sugars – usually somewhere around 155 degrees.

Once the sugars have been released from the mash, the water is transferred to the brew pot and the grain is cleaned out of the mash tun. Barkley says that his cows love eating the grain. He mentions that he’s got a small herd of grass (and malt) fed cattle – no hormones or antibiotics. Their meat is perfectly marbled, but not too much.

The Brew Pot

After the water from the mash is transferred to the brew pot, it is brought to a boil and hops and other special ingredients are added.

The Steel Tanks

Once the wort (malted water and hops) is finished brewing, it is transferred to these stainless steel tanks, where yeast is added to turn the sugars from the malt into alcohol.

Barkley says that they have a 15-barrel brewing system and produced about 1,200 barrels in 2009. Napa Smith is on track to produce over 3,000 barrels this year [in 2010, the year we visited].

The Bottling Machine

Barkley has owned this venerable (and apparently reliable) bottling machine for years. He estimates that 60% of the beer Napa Smith produces goes into bottles and 40% into kegs.

He says that the ratio will eventually be 75% bottles, 25% kegs. “There are 300 taps in Napa,” says Barkley,” and Napa Smith is on about 55 of them. The community supports our efforts, and the quality of our beer is worthy of being served in Napa.”

The Chemistry Lab

Every master brewer, particularly those trained at U.C. Davis, needs his own chemistry lab. This is where Barkley conducts his experiments in zymurgy (the chemistry of fermentation). Perhaps it is here that Barkley discovered that adding gin, and eventually juniper, to a particularly hoppy brew cooled the bitterness and left the taste. That’s the way the VCBE heard it, but Barkley would neither confirm nor deny the story.

At the end of the tour, Barkley offered the VCBE samples of several beers–four on tap in the brewery, and one from a bottle in the offices. The brews sampled were a Pale Ale, the Cool Brew, Lost Dog (a red ale), a wonderful porter, and an Organic IPA.

The malt and hops in each were superbly balanced. The restrained use of hops allowed the character of each style to shine. Like the brass section of a world-class orchestra, Don Barkley’s hops selections were definitive, but not overbearing, lending herbal and floral notes in a brilliantly conducted symphony of flavors. “Let the others use hops appropriate for Dixieland Jazz or Heavy Metal,” Don seemed to be saying, “I’m sticking with Brahms.”

Postscript 2022

Napa Smith? Who’s heard of it? When’s the last time you had a pint of it, bottled or on tap? Where did they go? In his “Reflections of a Homebrewer,” BeachRock Bill observed, “with a talented brewer, supportive management, and maybe even a little luck, a fortunate few breweries can grow into greatness.”

We don’t know what happened to Don. It could be that when Napa Smith was purchased (in 2013) by Nashville-based RS Lipman Brewing Company, the new owner lost interest, or didn’t think big enough, or sold out, and ZOOP! Napa Smith’s footprint shrunk.

Or, it may be as simple as, Don retired, the brewery was sold, maybe Stone no longer distributed, or maybe the Whole Foods beer buyers were told to cut back after WF got bought by Amazon. WF is where we used to pick up a six-pack of Napa Smith every so often. Maybe it’s still on the shelves, but, to quote BeachRock Bill again, “Often, especially when financing is tight, many breweries play it safe, sticking with an unchanging selection of decent core beers that never improve, but also never completely disappoint.” Perhaps Napa Smith didn’t evolve fast enough, and we just didn’t see the point.

I DO know that MadeWest seems to have knocked Napa Smith from the spot they once occupied at our most favored beer emporia.

Look for an upcoming post by a new guest contributor, “The Mad Scientist,” who seems to understand the chemistry of great beer well enough to have been able to pull the kind of stunts that Don Barkley allegedly pulled, back in the day.

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