It’s only coincidental that one of the flagship beers at Hamilton Family Brewery in Rancho Cucamonga is called “Young Fool.”
That name might seem appropriate when you consider that owners Josh and Crysten Hamilton sold their house to raise enough capital to finance their own brewery.
“I’m sure a lot of people thought we were fools,” says Josh, a self-proclaimed “Star Wars geek” who claims the name comes from a scene in “The Return of the Jedi” where the Emperor addresses Luke Skywalker as “young fool.”
Working both as a gardener at Azusa Pacific University and a tour guide at Hangar 24 Brewery in Redlands, Josh says that one day the idea hit him: “I’m working multiple jobs and wasn’t getting to see my wife or the kids – all to pay our mortgage. What if we sold the house? We could get rid of the expense, and if we could make some money then maybe we could start the brewery,” says Josh,
The Hamiltons put their Rancho Cucamonga home up for sale in October 2013 in hopes of raising enough cash to pursue Josh’s longtime dream. Along with their two young children Natalie and Noah, the couple moved in with Crysten’s parents, Rick and Debbie Aleman. Three days after it went on the market, the house was sold, with the Hamiltons clearing $72,000 to put toward the brewery.
“When it was still in the dreaming stages, I never thought about selling the house – there’s no way we’re going to do that,” recalls Crysten. “But he was working two jobs and not seeing the family at all. We were trying so hard to make it. Once we decided to sell the house, I don’t think it could have gone fast enough. I was just so eager to get out of our situation. Josh was hardly home at all.”
Josh’s dream started long before he even started home brewing, but he admits he was pretty naïve. He started reading about and trying different home brews and eventually tried making his own, which he says “lit the fire inside of me. I became so passionate about home brewing that I got two of my really good friends into doing it with me. We all talked about opening a brewery together, but that was before we knew what it would take. I got two more friends at work interested, and soon there were five of us involved. We were going to call it Brethren Brewing Company.”
After more research, Josh realized the road to opening a brewery would be a lot longer than he wanted, and the process of getting investors would be just as difficult. With a young girl at home and thoughts of more to come in the future, he shelved his fantasy brewery. However, two of his friends, Jason Stevens and Scott Lucas, continued their home brewing and eventually opened Sanctum Brewery in Pomona.
Josh also continued to brew beer on his own, and he and Crysten even tried to fund their hopes for a brewery with a Kickstarter fundraising program. That fell short, but Josh says that was a blessing, because it got Crysten on the same page with him in understanding his love for craft beer.
When their baby son Noel was born, Josh realized he needed another job. Staying true to his passion for beer, he took a job as a tour guide at Hangar 24 in Redlands.
“Talk about a bad idea for someone who wants to open a brewery,” Josh admits. “Working there only rekindled the flame. My job was to talk about beer all day and show people how we made beer. I would get off work in Azusa and drive all the way to Redlands in the summer heat and work an eight-hour shift. The first two days I worked there I got to brew two 20-barrel batches on their system, which was more beer than I had ever brewed in my life.”
Born and raised in Rancho Cucamonga, Josh says he never wanted to start his own brewery anywhere but in his hometown, from which he was briefly displaced during his formative years. He attended Etiwanda High, but his family moved to the Central California town of Nipomo after his sophomore year.
“All of my friends were here and I wanted to get back,” he says. “When we finally moved back I vowed I wouldn’t leave Rancho again. I ran away from wine country to come back and start beer country here.”
Not long after selling their house, the Hamiltons found what they felt would be the ideal location for a brewery in the Scheu Business Center on Seventh Street, just east of Archibald. Unfortunately, the property owners had just recently turned down another group proposing a brewery in the same unit.
“Being a man of faith, I felt something would work out, so we put in an offer,” he says. “We got letters of recommendation from our pastor and from Debbie Stone, who is a city council member in Upland. We wrote our own personal letters explaining what we wanted to do. All of that was enough for them to say ‘meet with our property manager – and bring beer.’ It turns out she was a total craft beer geek, so she got it right away. She liked the beer and liked us, and the next day they told us they would lease to us.”
That was in December 2013. Josh soon gave notice at Hangar 24, but continued working his decade-long gardening job at APU from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every weekday. He’d spend the rest of his day working at the brewery, brewing beer; installing floors; building tables, an office desk and the bar; and creating the artwork that today hangs from the brewery walls.
“I’d come here after work and sometimes be here until midnight or later, and then wake up the next day and go back to my job,” he says. “It was a lot of work. I built everything. I’m not a carpenter, but I did it anyway.”
Crysten says the money they cleared from the sale of their home covered almost all of their start-up costs. “We ended up in the last week having to spend about $7,000 from our credit cards above the $72,000. Our original investment in the brewery was just a little under $80,000.”
The brewery opened in full on June 21 without the benefit of a soft opening to work out the kinks.
“About 10 minutes before we opened the doors,” says Josh, “my wife looked at me and said, ‘what if no one comes?’ That was a legitimate concern, but we didn’t have time to worry about whether or not this would work. As long as we’re making good beer, it had to work.”
After seven months of brewing and building, Josh says their only focus was on presenting a good product and not about whether people would come. Fortunately, they had nothing to worry about.
“We opened the doors and there were already people waiting outside,” he says. “We let them in 15 minutes early, and before we could finish pouring their beers, more people were coming in. We had two full tables at 9:45, and by 10 o’clock we had a line out the door. We went through 11 kegs of beer that day – that’s over 120 glasses in each keg.”
Since opening, Josh continues to experiment with different beers while striving to improve the brewery. “I am constantly asking myself, ‘What is more important, my customer or the beer?’ It’s the customer, and the best way to show that is by making good beer. When I’m brewing my beer, I’m thinking about our customers,” he says, noting that the Hamilton Family Brewery will soon collaborate with Sanctum Brewery on a special holiday brew, and that a three-way collaboration beer with Dale Bros. Brewery and Claremont Craft Ales is on the horizon next spring.
Young Fool, an American Pale Ale, has become one of Hamilton’s most popular beers, along with Brethren Brown Ale and an IPA called “2 x 4.” That name has a double meaning. Not only does it contain two malts and four hops, but it also represents the wood that it took to build most everything inside the brewery. “I built everything with 2 x 4s. That’s all I knew what to work with,” says Josh.
All of the Hamilton Family beers carry an element of historical significance. The brewery logo pays homage to the family ancestry, and all of their beer logos represent something from the region’s history. For example, the church in the background on the Brethren Brown Ale logo is the first church in Cucamonga, and Midnight Oil Stout depicts the historical gas station at Route 66 and Archibald. Other artwork depicts the lake at Red Hill Park and the pioneering irrigation and engineering innovations of Etiwanda founder George Chaffey.
A month after opening, Josh says he was able to quit his gardening job to focus on his new business. The Hamiltons have made back their original investment and have hired their first two employees, giving Josh an occasional night off. Still, most of his nights are spent at the brewery.
“It’s almost like a date night when we’re both working,” says Crysten. “I’m so happy. It’s great to see Josh flourish and doing what he loves. This is our baby. My new passion is in trying to find that balance between being a full-time mom and wanting to be part of this. Now I work here every Thursday and do all of our bookkeeping and other aspects of the business on other days, but I do those during nap time and bedtime. I feel like I have the best of both worlds.”
Despite their early success, the prospects of another house are not yet on the minds of the Hamiltons, who seem at home living with the Alemans in Upland.
“We just want to see this thing grow some bigger legs and start walking,” says Josh. “Then we’ll look into it.”
Articles from “Sips, Suds and Spirits” focusing on the local craft beer scene now appear in 9-0-9 Magazine. An abbreviated version of the above article will appear in the December magazine.