Long before the craft brew craze exploded over the last handful of years, Calistoga had its own brewery, the first commercial brewery in Napa County since Prohibition.
This year, Napa Valley Brewing Company – the brewery of Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery – celebrates its 30-year anniversary.
Co-owners and mother and son team Rosie and Michael Dunsford have owned the business since 1989, when Michael was still attending college studying fermentation science in the Department of Enology at UC Davis.
“We’re also one of the pioneers in the country, because the craft brewing industry was founded in Northern California,” Michael Dunsford said.
The brewery’s founder, Phil Rogers, was good friends with Fritz Maytag – of the appliance company lineage – who, in 1965, purchased and revitalized Anchor Brewing Company, and while Napa Valley Brewing Company is tiny in comparison to Anchor, it has held its own for three decades selling beer only at the Inn’s restaurant and bar – though that may change soon, Michael Dunsford said.
The four beer mainstays – Calistoga Wheat Ale, Red Ale, Pilsner, and Porter – are made with the original recipes from the brewery’s inception, with a few tweaks to accommodate for such things as not being able to find “certain hops,” for example, that might not be available at the time, he said.
The brewery also produces seasonal beers, that the brewer, Shawn Siedel, has liberty to create with his own formula, but they’ve been producing seasonal beers for 28 years, so many of them are the same recipe, Dunsford said.
Things just fell into place for Michael and Rosie about the time they purchased the business in 1989, and the team that Rosie assembled at the beginning gave them the foundation on which the business was built.
They’ve managed to survive and thrive in business, weathering such adversities as a fire in 2012 that shut down the inn for 10 months, and now the construction of the Lincoln Avenue Bridge that not only comes with a lot of jackhammering and other disruptive noise, but large equipment and construction barriers that block the view of the building and have caused a reduction in diners and drinkers in their restaurant and bar – something that hurts not just the Dunsfords, but their employees, too, Michael said.
Michael was in his second year at UC Davis and was on the rowing team with his college roommate and best friend, Keith Nilsson. The rowing team had a race over spring break so on Easter his roommate’s parents, Ken and Leslie Nilsson, came to school to cook them an Easter dinner. Over dinner Ken and Leslie, who were real estate investors, were discussing the Calistoga Inn property and considering purchasing it.
“They knew nothing about the restaurant and beer business,” Michael said. But the Dunsfords did.
“It’s in my blood,” Michael said.
Rosie and Michael’s father moved to Lake Tahoe in 1974 to take over management of the Stanford Alpine Chalet, which is a small 20-room bed-and-breakfast in Alpine Meadows for Stanford alumni and faculty.
“My mother was the cook, and my dad was the (general manager). My mother had no professional training but that’s where she earned her wings cooking for large groups of Stanford alumni,” he said.
She also built strong and lasting relationships that later led her to owning her own restaurant, Rosie’s Café in Tahoe City, backed by Stanford alum investors. Rosie wanted to be in wine country and was in the process of searching for a restaurant to buy in Sonoma at the time the Calistoga Inn business came up.
Ken Nilsson had a pilot’s license and a private plane and “he literally flew up to Lake Tahoe within days and picked (Rosie) up and they flew here and landed at the old airport in town, walked down the street and did a tour of the place, and he asked her do you think you can make a go of this?”
She said she could and they shook hands. Michael has since bought out the Nilssons and now he and Rosie are 50/50 partners.
Rosie brought with her a full team, some from Rosie’s Café, which she sold to get into the Calistoga Inn business.
“She brought one of our chefs who was a homebrewer so he took over the brewery, his wife took over all the accounting. One of the other chefs became the executive chef. She brought down the baker who was a longstanding family friend, and another friend of my mother’s who was a really good cook. They were the backbone of the inn. Another front-of-house restaurant manager who came with them as well,” he said.
Immediate changes were made to the restaurant and patio area. Rogers used the patio and beer garden to serve hot dogs and hamburgers to go with the beer, and the inside restaurant was a white linen seafood restaurant.
“My mother basically saw the patio as the asset. That’s where people really wanted to dine and also have a nice meal, not just a hot dog. We literally moved the restaurant out on the patio, and it quickly became known as an outdoor destination restaurant,” Michael said.
They continue to upgrade the patio, inn and restaurant over time, but the biggest change came as a result of the 2012 fire, which started in the attic due to faulty wiring.
“We had to do a complete renovation. Thank God nobody was hurt. At the same time it did allow us to bring it up to code and position us for the next 100 years,” he said. They lost a room in the inn to an emergency exit, but added a cottage compliant to ADA laws, keeping their total room count at 18.
The water tower was converted into the brewhouse in 1987 and coincidentally Dunsford’s professor at UC Davis, Michael Lewis, was the one who did the design and installation. They’ve changed little in the brewhouse other than to upgrade equipment for efficiency and quality purposes.
They are currently working on distributing their beer to other restaurants in Napa County, and potentially growing their wort business. Napa Valley Brewing Company has provided the wort – the liquid extracted from the mashing process – for Johnny’s, which Dunsford owned for a short time. He designed and installed Johnny’s brewery where they finish making the beer.
A few years ago the Dunsfords purchased a food truck, which is not set up for concession sales, but is used as a portable kitchen capable of putting out food for up to 450 people in just about any style – from casual to gourmet.
Michael started working at Calistoga Inn full time after he graduated from college in 1992, but he had been spending all his school breaks working there up to that time. He and Rosie have been working together most of his life, he said.
“I always worked for my mother as a young kid, working in the kitchen doing dishes, prepping, cooking, doing front of the house, basically doing it all. I was managing Rosie’s Café when I was 16 years old,” he said. “We’re very close, and we work very well together.”
Their bond extends to their employees that include multiple generations of families. “Several staff worked for us in 1989, and now their kids work for us,” he said. Their restaurant manager, Salvador Cortez, was a bus boy, and executive chef Nicolas Montanez was one of the first employees starting there in 1989.
They both left to work at Culinary Institute of America, and then returned.
“By coming back here I was able to inherit all those things they learned working (there),” he said.
Michael, who is also Calistoga’s vice mayor, is an advocate for affordable housing, voicing concerns about the cost of living in Calistoga and saying that when two new resorts open in a few years, creating about 500 more jobs, the housing options will be even more difficult for hospitality and winery workers.
Fewer diners and drinkers have been stopping in since construction on the Lincoln Avenue Bridge began in the spring, and it’s hurting not only the Dunsford’s business, but the employees’ pocketbooks.
They’ve endured other challenges such as the Great Recession, Y2K, and other Caltrans interruptions, he said, but nothing could make them give up.
“First of all, we love this place, we love the town, we love what we do. We never thought for a minute we would do anything different. It’s never been an option for us to do anything other than get through it,” he said.
They’re hoping a Bier Fest on Sunday, Oct. 1, will remind locals – and visitors — that they are still open and pouring beer and serving food.
The event is also in celebration of harvest and Napa Valley Brewing Company’s 30th anniversary. There will be live music by Americano Social Club, bites at the wood grill barbecue, paella and taqueria stations, and two pints per person for $40 each. Tickets can be purchased on EventBrite.