THERE’S AN OLD IRISH PROVERB: You’ll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind. And in December 2013, Kevin Robinson, owner of Plow Brewing Co., was about to get his hands dirty: He had just signed the lease on his own Santa Rosa, California, brewery space, which had been his aim since he first entered the 18-week Master Brewers program at the University of California, Davis 10 years earlier. In the meantime, he did stints at Lagunitas Brewing Co., Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, Russian River Brewing Co. and a winery in St. Helena, where Robinson says he, “… got to see fermentation from the perspective of the grape.” Itwould be another year and a half, however, before he invited the first customer into his brewery. He had to build it first.
“There’s no used brewing equipment out there at all—or there is, but it’s too expensive,” Robinson says. For one of the first pieces of equipment, manufacturers’ quotes were cost prohibitive (in the $50,000 range) for fabrication and installation. “I priced out the equipment, boughtall the parts and was able to build the steam boiler myself for $8,000,” he says.
Robinson has always been mechanically inclined. “I was the type of kid who would take apart the lawn mower, try to put it back together and totally piss my dad off,” he says. Through his teens and mid-20s, he worked as an auto mechanic.
“By the time I got the job at Lagunitas, I already knew how to weld,” Robinson says. “They had a full-time maintenance guy who I would bug at all hours so I could watch him work on stuff. Every brewery I worked at, and even at the winery, whenever things broke, I was right there fixing it. I learned how things work and why they break and how to fix them when they do.”
Robinson’s boil kettle, acquired from a defunct juice factory, came without a steam jacket, so he built one himself. (“It gets raging boils,” he says.) He retrofitted old dairy tanks to act as the lagering vessels for his unique Sonoma Coast Pils. His heat exchanger, acquired from an old Gatorade plant, had to be adjusted to run at one quarter capacity; it’s hilariously oversized for the as-yet small brewery. Even the mash tun—the one piece of the brewhouse Robinson says he really didn’t want to build—was assembled by the brewer’s hand.
Yet as ad hoc as the equipment is, everything works perfectly—well enough, in fact, that Cooperage Brewing Co., located just down the road from Plow, produces all its wort using Robinson’s Frankenstein brewhouse. But it won’t last forever. With plans to soon begin selling Plow beers in 16-ounce cans—and to someday ship the four seasonal beers produced under his higher-end Divine Brewing brand nationwide—equipment upgrades will have to come. There’s some worry that changes to Plow’s unique brewing setup might also change the beers people have come to love. But Robinson isn’t concerned.
“It’ll be a challenge on that day, but I’m good at that: taking equipment and making that equipment do what I want it to do,” Robinson says. “The equipment will try to change the beers, but I won’t let it.”