Craftsmanship And The Four Elements: WATER

Jan 23, 2016

First, the Pacific Northwest had small local wineries. Then came a bevy of microbreweries.

Now, there’s another craft movement growing in the adult beverage industry that brings that same artisanal sensibility to making distilled spirits.

JPR’s Michael Joyce is presenting stories exploring craftsmanship in the context of the four classical elements. Today’s story: WATER.

Abe Stevens is the founder, head distiller, and only full-time employee of the Fortuna-based Humboldt Distillery.

“Our product is 80 proof, so 40 percent alcohol. That means water makes up 60 percent of our product.” 

 Humboldt Distillery was  the very first of what are now three craft distilleries in the county. Other than some seasonal brandies,  Abe mostly makes organic whiskey, rum, and vodka. Grace Archer is a bottler at the distillery.

“I guess we should mention that the vodka label has a crab on the front of it," she says.

But it’s the back label that catches my eye and I have Grace read it for me:

“No, it’s not crab flavored. It’s just a fine, quadruple distilled, organic vodka made along the Emerald Coast of Humboldt County, where the redwoods overlook the fresh waters of the Pacific. And, yeah, the crabs are pretty good too.”

Abe explains the basic mechanics of turning grain into booze, a process essentially unchanged for centuries.

“We add water," he says. "We add yeast. The yeast eat the sugar and turn it into alcohol. We add that to the pot of our still. Bring it up to a boil. All the alcohol boils off and the water stays behind. And the alcohol that boils off comes over as alcohol vapor and condenses back to liquid alcohol. It comes out of the still  here  … "

Abe uses a spirit hydrometer, a device that measures alcohol content, to gauge the clear liquid emerging from the still.

"Today it’s coming out at … looks like we are at 170 proof. So 85 percent alcohol.”

Then, adding water will bring it down to the 80 proof target. It’s a simple process. Where it gets complex is manipulating what are called the “heads, hearts, and tails.”

The ‘heads’ are what boil off first - things like methanol and acetone - that are usually discarded. Then comes what Abe calls the ‘good stuff’ - the ‘hearts’ - and t   hat’s what you keep. Finally, there’s the oily and bitter ‘tails’ which are also thrown out …. usually.

“So there’s always a trade-off between how much alcohol you are going to throw away versus how much of the impurities you are going to leave in the final product," Abe explains. "A little bit of those non-alcohol compounds are going to give it some character.”

And this is where the craftsmanship comes in. And also what makes the difference between a top shelf spirit and one on the bottom shelf. 

“But on the other hand there could be the temptation to try and make a bigger hearts cut and leave more heads and tails in then you should have, just because you end up with more volume. You yield more alcohol. It’s more economical. But the quality of your product could suffer.”

And judging from numbers provided by the 2-year-old American Craft Spirits Association, a growing number of people seem willing to pay  extra for small batch spirits. In 1990 there were only seven craft distilleries in the US. Now there are over 500.  By next year that number is expected to double.

Maybe this is why California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that - as of January 1st - allows distilleries to have sample rooms and sell bottles on the premises; just like wineries and breweries. And like microbreweries, and boutique wineries, small batch spirits are gaining market share from the mega-producers.

Phillip Brenner gives me a tour of the liquor shelves at Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata.

“Here is our spirit section: vodkas, tequilas, gins, whiskeys ….”

Brenner is the head of Wine and Spirits for Wildberries. Even though local spirits make up just 10 percent of what’s on the shelf, Humboldt Distillery outsells them all. Phillip thinks this success can be attributed to localism and story.

"I think Humboldt is a brand," he says. "People want to buy local products. They are more comfortable spending more money to support the local economy and the local producers. And they like the stories behind that. It’s all about the story.”

And what about Abe’s story? Well it’s a good one.

He grew up in Fortuna. Went off to Chicago to study physics but ended up a chemist. While working in the pharmaceutical industry in the Bay Area he sold real estate on the side. He also had success as a professional poker player. He made enough money to do what he always wanted to: come back to his hometown, raise a daughter, and start his own business with his wife.

Back at Humboldt Distillery, Abe pops a cork on a bottle of one of his products.

"This is our organic spiced rum and our organic vodka. These are two of our main products."

Clearly Abe is multi-talented. And he strikes me as one of these humble guys who quietly wears a lot of hats.

So I ask him a few questions about how he sees himself.

“Do you feel like you’re a scientist?"

"Yes."

"Do you feel like you’re an entrepreneur?"

"Yes"

"Do you feel like you’re a salesman?"

"Yes."

"Do you feel like you’re an artist or craftsman?"

Abe hesitates.

"Uh, that’s a hard one. I can’t really give a yes or no, but yes, I would say I’m a craftsman. Not yet a master craftsman, but that is a possibility in the future.”

Right now small batch distilleries account for only one percent of all domestic spirit sales. But like craft breweries - who now represent over ten percent of all beer sales - craft spirits are expected to reach a double-digit market share over the next decade.