On Saturday, Novato — and more specifically Bel Marin Keys — will have a new destination for artisan libation, heartfelt eye-to-eye chats and a wee bit of nightlife.
After two years in the making, Beltane Brewing Company is making its debut in an industrial sector of the city that is in dire need of a warm, cozy place to relax.
"We're looking for a most pastoral feel here," said Alan Atha, a former homebrewer who runs Beltane with business partner Cathy Portje at 401B Bel Marin Keys Boulevard. "We want this to be more 'old world,' like a beer cafe. We want camaraderie and face-to-face talk over a nice beer instead of me looking over your shoulder at a TV screen and you checking your text messages."
Even during a one-hour interview one evening this week, several people came in excited to see the lights on at night and ready to try a beer and soak in the vibe. Atha explained that Saturday is opening day and there was still a lot of preparation to do before the coming-out party.
"We've been swamped with inquiries like that," Atha said. "People out here already know who we are and what we do, and they can't wait. It's mind-blowing, actually. They're really excited and we're really excited."
Atha has been brewing for 10 years — as long as he's been living in Novato — and brewing pretty seriously for the past five, mostly out of his Novato home but occasionally with other microbreweries. He focuses on craft beers that have full body, full flavor and some ingredients that fall well outside the norm. Atha has spent a lot of time in Europe — including most of his youth in England — and is recipes are reflective of his experiences there.
Beltane is a cozy place. The 300-square-foot front room has space a few dozen patrons at most, which means you'll definitely get to know the other visitors if you're a friendly sort. Shoot, if you're an employee at a nearby business or a resident of Bel Marin Keys, Los Robles Mobile Home Park, Ignacio or Hamilton, you're guaranteed to see some neighbors in there. That's the whole idea, Atha said.
This is a working microbrewery, not a brewpub. The distinction is important. A brewpub is a microbrewery with a restaurant, like Moylan's Brewery & Restaurant up the road apiece. When it comes to dining at Beltane, it's BYO except for peanuts and pretzels.
In beer geek parlance, this is a "nano," sort of a supermicrobrewery, because the products are not produced with a rushed idea of mass distribution. There are a couple of part-time assistants, but it's mostly the Atha-Portje team at work. While Atha handles the brewing and hand-shaking, Portje will handle accounting, business partnerships and personnel. Both will be front-of-the-house personalities, too.
"We have lots of hats to wear," he said.
Beltane has 12 taps, one of which will be reserved for a guest beer from another brewery. Among the Beltane beers that will be available this weekend or at least the coming weeks are En Suite Saison, Fleuret golden ale, Meritage Session IPA, Sable Black IPA, Bolero double IPA, Rumpelstiltskin double IPA, Automne Eve dubbel, Luminesce triple and Paleo Belgo pale ale.
"I would describe these as West Coast beers because of their bold flavors," Atha said. "We will make an English ale, a sour, a French beer with French yeast, a super-hoppy double IPA, but I'd say 60 percent of what we offer are going to be of the Belgian styles. I am not trying to tag myself to one idea that everybody pegs. I want it to be open to interpretation."
Taste his beers and you'll be able to tell that Atha is an artist at heart. He has been a working artist most of his life, focusing on photography, collage, sculpture and other forms. He's also been a fitness trainer with professional and amateur cyclists.
"But this is an art form that is actually working," he said of making beer. "An artist has to have an audience."
For much of his time, especially on brewing days, he works with no audience at all. Behind the taproom, Atha has his three-barrel brewing system controlled by a state-of-the-art electrical panel. He still has to get his hands dirty and wear rain boots when brewing, but many of the operations are controlled by a touch pad. These are luxuries that homebrewers don't have.
"Homebrewers often rush their beer and not let it sit because they want to try it really bad ... I did that for a long time," Atha said. "The beer will tell you when it's ready through science. Often if you wait one more week, it'll clean up itself real nice. Patience is a virtue."
Customers can come in for a quick taster set of small portions or have a choice of a half pint or full pint. If you want beer to go, you can purchase a 32-ounce growler that you refill as many times as you like. Kegs are available as well, and Beltane is working on accounts at bars and restaurants. You'll find a Beltane tap at Taps in Petaluma, for instance.
Right now it's all about the grand opening Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Beltane has teamed up with nearby Tavola restaurant to offer up a dining delights for the two-day bash (pork meatball sandwiches, sausages, stew, soup), and there will be live music from A Thousand Years at Sea (Saturday) and the Kerby Cast (Sunday).
After opening weekend, Beltane will be open at 3 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 2 p.m. Fridays and Sundays and 1 p.m. Saturdays. Patrons are welcome to bring in their own food or order from a nearby restaurant; there will only be a few snacks available on the menu. The music will be all acoustic, Atha said.
Atha said he's been well-received by the Bay Area beer community already based on responses he's had to his brews at festivals and special events the past two years. A solid portion of his clientele will be craft beer industry experts, beer bloggers and amateur beer geeks from out of town. But it's the locals who mean a lot to him.
"We will get some of the after-work crowd from Bel Marin Keys because they can walk here," he said. "And we hope to attract a lot of people from the residential area down the road. In the nice weather they can walk or bike here.
"They'll either go, 'Wow!' or "Ewwwww,'" he said with a huge smile. "It's about what I like, and it's about what they like. More often than not, it's been the 'Wow.'"