When you ask most five-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, common responses include astronaut, firefighter, doctor, movie star, or professional athlete. But in the case of Cal alumnus Blaine Landberg, the dream was to become a brewer, like many family members before him. Fifteen years after graduating from Berkeley, Landberg’s dream is in full effect: in 2012, he took the leap and opened up the brewery he had always envisioned. He now owns and operates one the East Bay Area’s largest craft breweries, Calicraft Brewing Company, based in Walnut Creek, California.
To learn more about Landberg’s journey and how UC Berkeley played a role in fulfilling his lifelong goal, we sat down with the local business owner.
Did your passion for homebrewing ever interfere with time as a student in Cal?
Not really. I mean, I did brew some beer in the center commons. I had the beer fermenting in my closet. It never interfered with my studies, it was only additive. My focus and passion around brewing was not about drinking and getting drunk per say; it had to do with actually learning about how to do the art. I was making beer to understand how it worked. At the same time I was brewing, I had an internship at Honest Tea, so I was learning the distribution and retail side of things. I was also taking classes on business, communication, and marketing. I was already starting a foundation for a brewery, which is why I did it. Brewing was always something that was no more of an extracurricular activity than what the other kids were doing.
Did you always intend on starting a brewery after you graduated?
I decided in 1983 (when I was five), that I wanted to start a brewery. When I came to Cal, I was still torn on whether I wanted to become a doctor or a brewer. I got into the labs of the Chemistry 1A classes and the people who were interested in chemistry for reasons other than being a doctor were way cooler than the people who were overly competitive and wanted to become doctors. It was within the first eight months of my time at Cal that I decided I wanted to do the brewery thing.
Was there a particular class or professor that inspired you to pursue a career brewing?
Chem 1A was great. There was a lecture by (Nobel laureate in chemistry) Glenn T. Seaborg I attended that really got me interested in the subject. The other two classes that stand out were kind of random. One was an advertising and marketing class at Haas by Trudy Kehret-Ward, who was also my advisor. She was really influential, supportive, and instrumental in my future decisions. Another person that played an important role was Kathy Moran. She was the chair of the American Studies Department, and she did an amazing job of linking business to American culture.
For me, this combination of classes and people were important, because it touched on three points that really inspired me: chemistry, the marketing and advertising side of creating a business, and why something like American craft beer was important to society.
Did you always know that you wanted to attend Berkeley?
To be honest, I never thought I was going to be able to get into Berkeley. I grew up in a little California town, Willows. The population is about 7,000, counting dogs and fence posts — it is tiny. My mom was a teacher and dad was a probation officer. I always aspired to get into a really good school; I just knew that very few people from my area went on to UC Berkeley. My graduating class had 96 kids; ironically, three of us got into Berkeley that year. I’ll never forget the day I ran out to the mailbox and found the large packet from Berkeley. I took it to my mom, and she immediately began to cry. It was great getting the chance to attend a university that was rich in history and culture.
Is there one style of beer in particular that you have been exploring recently?
I have always liked IPAs and I find that I drink them the most, but my favorite style is one that we specialize in: sparkling ales. It is this interesting fusion between beer and wine. It has so much white space for us to color in. For me, I love the creative process and getting to create something that no one has done. We have worked with a lot of winemakers, and we have learned the tricks of the trade. All of the little motions and potions and powders they use to make a great wine, we have applied to our beer-making.
I’m always about what we are doing next and what is new. I always felt that Calicraft is an innovative beverage company that is focused on beer first. For us, beer is just the first step — there are a lot of other beverages out there to be made, which you will see us start to experiment with in the future.
Your company tries to source local ingredients for your beer whenever possible; what was that practice born of?
First and foremost, I grew up in an agricultural environment; the house I grew up in is literally on the last street in town. Behind our house is nothing but seven miles of fields and orchards. I always tried to understand the people behind these farms.
Second, when I went to Berkeley, organic and sustainability practices were starting to gain popularity. Berkeley was the epicenter for these movements. There was also the influence of Alice Waters ’67 and Chez Panisse, and the time I spent working at Honest Tea, which was focused on using organic ingredients. One of Calicraft’s first partnerships, and something I’m proud of, is our partnership beer with Chez Panisse.
Lastly, we look at the people who buy our beer and understand that we have a very special relationship with them. They trust us enough to ingest and consume something that we have made, and in some essence becomes a part of them. That is a tight relationship we have with people, so it makes perfect sense that if this is the type of trust people give us, we should get to know and understand the people that are providing the ingredients that create the beverage.
Is there any advice you would give to a current Cal student?
This sounds cliché, but I believe that it is important for you to follow your passion. Don’t let the blinding light of money distract you from the glowing light of passion. Too many times when we are young, we try to pursue things that we think our parents or peers want us to do. You can make money doing almost anything, so why not do the thing that you want?
I had the opportunity to go into investment management out of college, but I knew that it wasn’t for me. Instead, I took a job at Honest Tea for half the salary and helped build the company from the back of my parents’ Honda Accord. Although I didn’t make as much, I did take the time to build a relationship with the people that founded the company, who now sit on the board at Calicraft. I also took the time to form relationships with the distributors and retailers, which proved to be way more valuable than the money.
I never planned on being rich when I started Calicraft. I just plan on enjoying what I do. I want to make enough money to live in this area while being able to support my family.
Is there something that excites you about your 15th Reunion from UC Berkeley?
Here’s the thing that excites more than I ever thought, and that’s the fact that I’m a part of the UC Berkeley family. It’s interesting, because when you graduate from Berkeley you keep these loose friendships and connections. Over time, you all get jobs and start families and you eventually lose contact. It wasn’t until I was about 10 years out of college that I started to reflect on those connections. One thing that is great about Calicraft is that it is a visible company, and since I’ve started the brewery it has allowed me to reconnect with a lot of these people. I appreciate how deep those bonds go; the older we the get, the more I find we are reconnecting.
For more information on Calicraft Brewing Company, please visit http://www.calicraft.com/