How motorcycle mama Emily Thomas
ignited the Santa Cruz craft beer explosion
Thomas in a rare quiet moment at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Emily Thomas with Michelle Ng, SCMB’s events coordinator; Kathleen Genco,
co-founder of Discretion Brewing, Taylor Settanni, a brewer at SCMB;
and Fran Fitzharris, co-founder of Brewery Twenty Five.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
The driving force and culinary mastermind behind Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and The Cremer House restaurant, Emily Thomas says she often feels like the producer of a Broadway play.
“Every morning I go in and I have this cast of characters and all the sets and the props. It’s high drama. Everybody’s got their stuff going on, equipment is breaking,” she says. “It’s really intense and then somehow, miraculously, we open and it’s like a beautiful show.”
Thomas, who at 41 runs two successful businesses and manages 60 employees, likes to spend mornings at the brewery and then hop on her black Triumph Bonneville SE for the 10-minute ride through the redwoods up to the restaurant in Felton.
“Riding that motorcycle and yoga are my meditation,” she says. “It gives my head a chance to disengage.”
This summer she has even more than usual on her mind with the brewery’s first major expansion. SCMB is tripling its floor space, adding a 2,400-square-foot suite adjacent to the current brewery.
Part of the new space is being used for an 800-square-foot walkin cooler, and the rest is filled with fermentation tanks of various sizes—which will allow SCMB to brew three times more beer than it does now.
“We just couldn’t make enough beer,” Thomas explains. “People wanted a kind of community center with the beer garden and taproom, so we put a lot of energy and effort into creating that, but once we did, all of our beer was being consumed there.”
The expansion will also enable the brewery to have a bigger presence in local shops and restaurants and pursue exciting new projects.
For example, SCMB will begin selling its brews at the Westside Santa Cruz and Felton farmers’ markets this summer. Thanks to a new state law, shoppers will be able to sample beer at the farmers’ markets and take home bottles, 12-ounce cans and “crowlers”—32-ounce cans filled at the brewery.
SCMB is also expanding production of the beer it brews each summer for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This year, instead of one special beer, it will make four brews using recipes from the past four seasons: Giant DIPA, Boardwalk Blonde, Horse Tale Ale and Casinos IPA.
In the second year of its collaboration, SCMB won the Brass Ring Award for “Best New Innovation in Food and Beverage” at amusement parks worldwide, a prize handed out by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. A new mobile canning service this year will help SCMB get cans of the four beers out to more Boardwalk concessions and local shops.
If her brewery can make enough, Thomas wants to expand distribution to the South Bay, then maybe San Francisco and Oakland, but no farther.
“When we first started we did the whole West Coast and Hawaii and we felt that the farther the beer got away from us, the less we could control the quality,” she says. “With the availability of good local craft beer in pretty much every city, I don’t think it is necessary to go farther than your local area.”
The eldest of four siblings, Thomas grew up in the San Lorenzo Valley on the grounds of a conference center in Ben Lomond, where her parents were caretakers and her mother was the cook. All of the food was vegetarian and mostly organic. So tinkering in the kitchen comes naturally. “Moosewood and Mollie Katzen were our go-to resources. I’ve probably made every dish in the first three Moosewood cookbooks,” she says with a laugh. “My parents definitely loved food.”
While attending Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Thomas developed a taste for craft beer and learned the art of brewing from her uncles, who lived locally and had a great appreciation for Portland’s microbreweries.
Though she graduated with a degree in journalism, she took a job in San Diego, another craft beer capital, as a secretary working for tech giant Qualcomm. She caught on so quickly that within six months she was promoted to engineer.
After 10 years in the corporate world, Thomas returned home with the idea of bringing the flourishing craft beer scenes of Portland and San Diego to Santa Cruz. In 2005, she and former husband Chad Brill founded Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, igniting the current boom. Thomas and Brill have two school-aged boys and still happily share both child rearing and running the brewery.
“I came back and couldn’t figure out why there were only Seabright and Boulder Creek brewing,” she says. “I’ve always wanted Santa Cruz to be a beer destination.”
Now with 15 craft breweries in Santa Cruz County alone and dozens of tap houses in the area, Thomas shines as the leading lady of the brewing community. “We really work hard to be united. We’re only 6% or 7% of the entire beer market,” says Thomas of the position of craft brewers nationally, “so our true competition is the big beer companies, and we kind of all stick together.
“People who get into brewing are passionate about what they do, and we all try to do something unique so it is less threatening to each other and makes everyone friendlier,” she adds. SCMB remains the area’s only certified organic brewery, although other breweries make some organic beers.
Surprisingly, she believes there’s still room for more local breweries. “A brewpub is different from a coffee shop, it’s different from a bar, it’s different from a restaurant,” she says. “It’s more casual. You can meet friends there after work or hang out with your dog, so I really think every part of town could sustain a beer bar or brewpub, for sure.”
BEER + FOOD
Driven by her love of cooking and desire to open a business in the San Lorenzo Valley where she grew up, Thomas opened The Cremer House restaurant and alehouse in late 2014. It’s located in an allegedly haunted former hotel, boarding house, tavern and brothel built in 1874.
Together with building owner Bob Locatelli, who also owns the New Leaf Community Markets store next door, she spent months painstakingly restoring the property with vintage finds and rustic handhewn touches. A copper kettle with 25 taps was installed behind the bar, where Thomas gets to offer not just SCMB’s beer, like the brewery’s own location in downtown Santa Cruz, but also favorite craft beers from other breweries that Thomas has discovered in her travels around the country. She also created most of the opening menu herself—focusing on all-American comfort foods and vegetarian options made with fresh, seasonal, mostly organic local ingredients.
“We do all our buying with New Leaf,” she says. “Bert Brown has been doing their produce buying for 30 years and he knows every farm in the county.”
As for sticking with organic ingredients: “It’s always been important to me,” says Thomas. “It doesn’t necessarily have a lot of commercial draw in terms of what the cost of it is, but that’s the way I was raised. It’s just an ethical choice.”
Throughout the summer, The Cremer House is hosting a series of Tuesday night farm dinners to coincide with the Felton farmers’ market. Using produce from a different local farm each week, chef J.P. Doiron will create a special farmers’ market menu that will be available alongside the regular dishes.
For the brewery and for the restaurant, to a lesser extent, Thomas relies on three types of customers. “You get your locals, but it’s very expensive to live here so they might not be willing to spend as much on a regular basis; then you get your tourists, but that season fluctuates with the weather; and then the other customers are UCSC students,” she says. “I like to have a trifecta of customers.”
Business is brisk, but Thomas says she’s learned a lot about the hospitality business over the past few years. “I’ve always wondered why there aren’t more restaurants in Santa Cruz, but I know now from my own personal experience that it is not an easy place to do business,” she says.
“It’s really hard to get the city and the county on board with new business plans. They are always excited about it, but it’s way easier in Portland to start a new business, get zoned for it and build it,” she says.
“It’s so restrictive and it’s expensive. That’s why people go towards pop-ups and food trucks and take the catering path, so they don’t have to invest in bricks and mortar,” she adds. “In the end, I think Santa Cruz would benefit from more established places.”
KEEPING IT FRESH
To keep everything fun and exciting, dishes are rotated according to the seasons. The wintry chicken pot pie, for instance, was recently replaced by lighter Arctic char, with spiced couscous and yogurt dill sauce. But favorites remain, such as the puffy house-baked pretzels, fried chicken with maple-mustard coleslaw and the Cremer burger. The restaurant’s vibrant and creatively spiced pickled vegetables and condiments are house made and available for sale to take home.
At the brewery, head brewer Tommy Mills—who just returned from a 2-year stint at NOLA Brewing Co. in New Orleans—was experimenting with a batch of horchata pale ale the day we were there.
“Because the tanks aren’t huge and we have a lot of them, we can keep being creative with what we do,” says Thomas. “We have our six flagships, but one of the ways we keep ourselves inspired is to let people brew what they want.”
Thomas also hosts one of the wackiest and most creative beer fests around, the Twisted Tasting. Held every winter during San Francisco Beer Week, it was inspired by a visit to the Great American Beer Festival where Thomas sampled a pig’s head porter made by a Michigan brewery called Right Brain.
Twisted Tasting includes all of the local craft breweries and offers brewers a chance to dress up in fanciful costumes and be as weird and wild as they want. Last time one of her personal favorites was a currylaced Thai Coconut Stout from Brewery Twenty Five in Hollister. And the first year, SCMB created a version of the pig’s head porter using pig’s ears smoked by el Salchichero butcher Chris LaVeque. “They imparted a smoky richness,” she recalls. “It was pretty good.”
Thomas also organizes the popular SausageFest every fall on the first weekend that UCSC students are back in town. Some 2,000 people descend on a Westside field to sample sausages and drink craft beer.
“It’s one of those days when we get to have fun and make fun of ourselves. We have all the other breweries there, so it’s a great way to introduce those students to what’s happening in town,” she says.
This year SCMB is partnering with the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County on the event, and it is also releasing a special beer for the Land Trust in September called Rail Trail Ale. Profits from the beer—which will be available in stores and at the brewery—will help finance a 32- mile paved bike trail from Davenport to Watsonville.
Being among the first women in the country to brew beer and own a craft brewery has not always been easy, she admits, and that’s one reason Thomas started offering special educational events such as the annual Strong Women Brew Strong Beer, a homebrew class for women.
“Eleven years ago when we started, beer was a guy’s drink and women drank wine,” she says. “We could see that was changing and just wanted to give it a little push.”
Nowadays she sees a huge movement of young women who want to be part of the beer culture. In just the past decade the number of women brewers at the national Craft Brewers Conference has grown from 12 the first time Thomas attended to more than 600 the last time she went. “There are definitely some challenges, but little by little we are having our voices heard,” she says.
As for the future, Thomas hopes to spend at least a month this summer in the Pacific Northwest, visiting breweries and doing some collaboration beers. She is eyeing properties in historic downtown San Juan Bautista and feels “a very strong desire to do business there.” So for this producer the show’s not over yet. Pay close attention to find out what happens in the next act.
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.