Anderson Valley Brewing reviving flat brand, adding beer park

BOONVILLE — By the late fall of 2019, Fal Allen had about enough as the brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Mendocino County since 2000.

He was no longer working full-time there since the Boonville brewery had fallen on hard times, under management that could not chart a new course after nine years of ownership.

Founded in 1987, the craft beer pioneer had become an afterthought in the marketplace with a massive drop in production. Plus, its beers were not a topic of conversation among beer geeks who craved the latest hoppy versions of the India pale ale style. Its bucolic taproom situated on the sunny west end of Anderson Valley off Highway 128 became less and less of a destination.

“It was kind of sad. … I felt we weren’t going where I wanted to,” Allen said, noting he had set a resignation date of Feb. 1, 2020. “We were just a company in this weird free fall.”

But Allen and Anderson Valley found a last-minute safety net in a Healdsburg home brewer’s family that saw an opportunity to revive the storied brand that for years has produced popular beers like Boont Amber Ale, with its touch of caramel, and slightly creamy Summer Solstice Ale. The problem was there was not as much thirst for these beers from younger drinkers driving the market.

Kevin McGee and his family bought the brewery in December 2019 from Trey White for an undisclosed price. And after more than a year of planning, McGee revealed his turnaround plans that include new beers, a more modern company logo and a major property upgrade for Anderson Valley to again become a must-stop beer mecca.

“Anderson was so many peoples’ initial emotional connection to craft beer,” McGee said, after hearing many personal stories of fans since buying the brewery.

Serving as chief executive officer of Anderson Valley, McGee is not just a passionate home brewer who previously started his own microbrewing label, Healdsburg Brewing Co., out of his garage. Most importantly, he had worked as legal counsel to nationally acclaimed Jackson Family Wines, working with the late founder Jess Jackson, and became an expert on all the intricacies of the alcohol industry — from dealing with wholesalers to federal regulations on marketing the products. These are skills greatly needed to run a brewery in the 21st century.

At the forefront of it all is McGee’s love of beer. “Kevin really is a beer guy,” brewmaster Allen said.

McGee had to confront the COVID-19 pandemic and navigate all the ramifications, such as a draught beer business that represented more than 30% of Anderson Valley’s revenue, and it disappeared as bars and restaurants shut down in March 2020.

“Overnight, literally, we just got phone calls and everybody around the country just canceled all their draught,” McGee said recently.

The brewery secured $1.2 million through two small business loans as part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. They allowed it to retain about 50 employees and McGee hired more salespeople. The result was expanded distribution with Anderson Valley’s beers selling in almost 40 states.

At the end of 2020, the brewery produced 20,000 barrels of beer, McGee said. That is much less than 10 years ago when it was listed among the top 50 craft breweries by the Brewers Association trade group, which represents independent breweries.

The yearlong pandemic gave McGee plenty of time to navigate his turnaround plan.

“The first thing you need to do is just quietly observe and try and figure out what’s going on and come to as much of a rational diagnosis of what the challenges are and what the opportunities are possible,” said McGee, who has taught in an entrepreneurship program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

The response is Anderson Valley is undertaking one of the most ambitious turnaround plans now in the $116 billion U.S. beer market. The brewery will rebrand with a new logo to give its mascot Barkley — a bear with antlers that represented a hybrid between a bear and a deer — a sharper look with the eyes and snout similar to the late beloved McGee family dog.

The brewery is also heading into the IPA category again with four different styles: a double IPA; an updated version of a West Coast style known for its citrus and pine aromas; a dry and crispy IPA that is decidedly different from the “brut style” beers popular over the past couple years; and a juicy IPA.

Perhaps the most notable improvement, though, will be turning the 30-acre Anderson Valley site into a destination beer park. The property will include an updated 18-hole disc golf course, where there will be a beer tap station and an outdoor pizza oven. There also will be a 9,000-square-feet lawn area with bocce ball courts and room for cornhole games and a seating area with 50 Adirondack chairs. An outdoor stage for live music is being built just west of the taproom. Beer carts will roam outside on the property. He’s making the upgrades in stages and hopes to finish by the end of the year. Later he plans a commercial kitchen in the taproom.

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