Crafting An Education

IMG_1603There was a time when Cal Poly Pomona students only had to go as far as the Student Union on campus to find the closest bar. “The Blazing Saddles” was the typical college watering hole of the 1970s and 1980s, with pool tables, dartboards, a jukebox, pinball machines and TVs – all against the Western motif. It was where I watched Rick Monday hit the dramatic game-winning home run in the deciding game of the 1981 National League Championship Series against the Montreal Expos.

Like other such establishments, the Blazing Saddles carried memories for many former Broncos – be it a social stop after (or between) classes or a convenient escape after final exams.

As alcohol awareness became more prevalent, the Saddles went the same way as the university’s football program.

There is reason for Cal Poly students to celebrate again, with the recent opening of Innovation Brew Works, a craft brewery with a relevant mission and an updated vibe located just off the main campus at the university’s Innovation Village research park.

Innovation Brew Works is more than a craft brewery – it’s part of an overall beer education effort at the university. Cal Poly offered a four-week beer appreciation and culture course during the fall through its College of the Extended University, which is open to public enrollment and not state-funded. Given the popularity of the course, it will return again this spring, and Neilson says that the class will eventually expand to eight weeks and will include a hands-on beer-making curriculum.IMG_1507

“Nobody else is doing this,” says Aaron Neilson, the university foundation’s food service director, noting that a number of colleges and universities have wine-making programs, but none focus on brewing beer.

“This is an educational brewery,” he says. “We don’t have beer specials and we don’t serve pitchers. Our hours are limited and we don’t do last call at 1:30 a.m. Our purpose is to educate.”

The education theme is obvious. In fact, the brewery’s theme, “Crafting an Education,” is part of its logo and is etched on the door, on signs and on merchandise. According to the website, Innovation Brew Works is a learn-by-doing brewery laboratory for students, who acquire hands-on experiences with brewing and brewpub operations. They are exposed to applied propagation of custom yeast strains, the nitrogenation and carbonation process, and the development of unique hop and malt blends.

Among the instructors is Owen Williams, one of the founders of Ritual Brewing Co. in Redlands and the first brewer for B.J.’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. He also teaches Beer and Culture at The Collins College of Hospitality Management. Along the way he has trained many award-winning brewers around the country, including Koby Harris, the master brewer at Innovation Brew Works.

If you were hoping for the old Blazing Saddles bar, you’ll have better luck finding a copy of the movie.

The atmosphere resembles more of an intimate coffee house than a beer bar. The most obvious difference from most craft breweries is that it’s not hidden in an industrial park with roll-up doors. It’s extremely clean and modern with televisions and ample seating both indoors and outside. Perhaps most significant, it also boasts a simple yet innovative menu of culinary delights designed to pair with the craft beer offerings.

“A lot of kids come here and study, and it’s a place where faculty and their students will come to meet in a more comfortable, relaxed environment. It’s just another place for college students to convene,” says Sandy Cain, assistant director of retail operations for the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, which oversees the brewery and 22 other retail operations on campus.

Neilson says that in early 2013, the executive director of the Foundation, Paul Storey, approached him and said, “I want you to build a brewery.” Despite having no experience in the beer industry, Neilson agreed and put together a plan, which the Foundation board approved later that year.IMG_1607

The brewery opened in September 2014 – without beer. When it was finally approved to serve alcohol a month later, it only offered guest beers from other craft breweries. Innovation Brew Works began pouring its own beers on Jan. 2 of this year, just before the start of winter classes. The guest beers continue to be replaced as more new “home-grown” beers are developed. By the “official” grand opening on Feb. 20, there were seven Innovation beers on tap, with two more due to be added in time for the spring quarter.

“What I love is that we’re not drinking the same styles of beer anymore,” Harris says. “We’re going through all the styles and seeing what’s out there. That’s what I wanted to bring to this job. I didn’t want to do four IPAs. I wanted to do a nice spectrum, so I started out with five different styles and slowly added in more unique and complex styles. We’ll look to see what people like and keep producing those, too.”

As Harris continues to experiment with beer styles, Innovations Brew Works Manager Jennifer Waggener’s food menu is also evolving.

“We decided from the beginning that it was just going to be pizza and beer, along with salads and sandwiches,” says Waggener. “We don’t have a hood, we don’t have a fryer and there are no open flames. The conveyor oven is my only cooking vessel. I picked out some popular items from other menus that I’ve done, and some strange things that turned out to be good, like the pastrami pizza.”

While it may not sound appetizing, the pastrami pizza may become Innovation’s signature food item, if it isn’t already. I had it during my visit; it’s unique and delicious.

“Jennifer has made menus for us at some of our other venues ” says Cain. “We received menus for the brewery from a lot of different departments on campus, from executive chefs, to the Kellogg House and others, and Jen’s menu won.”

“She is our resident true foodie,” says Neilson.

HarrisIMG_1509’ path from college student to master brewer was not by design. While he had a keen interest in craft beer, he had virtually no experience brewing on his own. He spent all four years of college working in the Foundation’s food service operations, and by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in 2012, he had proven himself as someone willing to take on a challenge. When Cain called to tell him she needed someone to make the beer for the new brewery project, he returned to Cal Poly to follow his passion.

“She asked, ‘Are you in or are you out?’” says Harris. “I figured I would either go for my dream job or I would be too scared to do it. I had to do it.”

Harris spent the next five months training with Williams at Ritual on the brewery’s 30-barrel system. Today he heads the four-person “Brew Crew” beer making side of the operation, which also includes an alumna microbiologist who oversees the brewery laboratory and a current student who helps with production. Another employee is using the experience to learn more about craft beer to add to his local restaurant offerings.

“Another beautiful thing about this is how involved Cal Poly is with all aspects of the brewery,” says Harris. “The agriculture department takes our spent grains to feed the livestock. We’ve not only had hospitality students, but also engineering students who come to see how our sanitary centrifugal pump works, how a heat exchanger works, and our glycol units and how we chill beers. Business students have come in to see how the process starts and how it finishes.”

“The music department wants to play here,” added Cain.IMG_1510

History also has its place. Neilson says the names of Innovation’s beers are all named after historical figures or places relevant to Pomona or Cal Poly. The Palomares Porter is named after Ygancio Palomares, who owned land throughout the region, including what is now Pomona. Rubottom’s Red comes from “Uncle Billy” Rubottom, who founded the town of Spadra, which was once part of Pomona, and operated an inn along the local stagecoach line during the 1870s.

A “Blazing Saddles” brew just may be next. All in the name of education.


Articles from “Sips, Suds and Spirits” focusing on the local craft beer scene also appear in 9-0-9 Magazine. An abbreviated version of this story will  be featured in the April magazine.