Business & Real Estate

Los Altos High grad makes beer a burgeoning biz in the Bay Area

Photo Courtesy of Ashley Jennings
Jonathan MacDonald, a Los Altos High School graduate, in his Novato brewery.

A Los Altos Hills native is doing his part to put hops on an equal footing with grapes in the Bay Area.

Less than five years after receiving a home brewing kit as a Christmas present, Jonathan MacDonald’s Adobe Creek Brewing is open for business.

MacDonald’s story is in some ways familiar: He was looking for a change from a career in information technology and wanted to pursue a passion project. In other ways, it’s unique. MacDonald may be the first Los Altos High School graduate with a beer available at Honcho. The brewery’s logo is a fever dream from long nights working in his family’s shed near Adobe Creek: an owl with the horns of a buck and the body of a hop plant.

“I was working in IT in San Jose and I wanted to do something with my hands,” MacDonald said of his desire to brew beer.

He received a brewing kit from More Beer on San Antonio Road as a Christmas gift in 2012. Like many brewers, it was a desire that stemmed from drinking some of the finest. He singled out Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder as his favorite.

“When I moved back here after college, I got into craft beer,” MacDonald said. “On the Peninsula, there are not many craft breweries.”

He soon found out why: Brewing beer takes space, and space is tight in Silicon Valley. MacDonald took his search north in 2016, following his girlfriend to Novato and finding warehouse space in the North Bay. Less than a year later, he was in business.

The biz of brew

“In March 2017,” he said, “I sold my first keg to Tamal,” a restaurant in Fairfax.

Adobe Creek Brewing now sells in three other spots, including Burger Bar in San Francisco’s Union Square and Honcho on First Street in Los Altos. It’s a lot of work for one man with one barrel to brew in.

“It’s a one-man hustle – I’m talking to people about helping out with sales,” he said. “But I get a lot of support from family and friends. I can’t say that it’s totally me.”

MacDonald has been working steadily toward a line of beers worth sipping and savoring. He said he was simply trying out recipes for two years before he was satisfied enough to enter a competition. He won a third-place award in 2014, not bad for the nanobrewery – a scaled-down microbrewery – he runs.

“I’m one of the smallest breweries I know in the area,” MacDonald said. “It’s one barrel, 30 gallons. I want to start small and gain the accounts.”

He won five awards in last year’s California State Homebrew Competition, including a Best of Show for a historical brew he dubbed Vaquero Borracho (now the Tamal Lager), a light lager he calls his proudest achievement.

“It’s very hard to brew because the beer is so light that any flaws will shine through,” he noted.

Putting Adobe Creek on the map

Adobe Creek’s The Invisible Peak Imperial IPA was named the best India pale ale of 2016, and his Derealization Pale Ale took second place. Derealization is available at Honcho.

“Derealization uses Galaxy, Mosaic and Citra hops,” MacDonald said. “Galaxy is a hard hop to come by, but one of the benefits of being a smaller brewing (company) is that I don’t need massive quantities.”

Tait Detro, bartender at Honcho, shared how the lounge picked Derealization.

“We tried a bunch of their beers, and Derealization was the most unique,” Detro said. “It is one of the best pale ales I’ve ever had, and even if MacDonald weren’t a Los Altos High School grad, we would have put it on the menu.”

Award-winning beers are great for business but can be tough on Adobe Creek’s one-man operation. MacDonald has to deliver kegs himself, and neither bottles nor cans are cost-effective for a one-barrel operation.

It also means he’s at the mercy of what restaurants like. Even innovative lounges like Honcho aren’t going to be able to sell unconventional beers like the Vaquero Borracho or MacDonald’s new experiment, a summery Berliner Weisse. MacDonald sees a solution in the future where he can control his own taps.

“I’d like to have my own tap room, which gives me room for experimenting,” he said. “Restaurants and bars want more IPAs.”

For MacDonald, it’s all about making a career in beer. He wants to put Adobe Creek Brewing on the map.

“I want to make this my career,” he said. “I’d like to have lots of outlets in the Bay Area, and most of all have people enjoy my beers.”

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