Beer Country: Brian Hunt, Moonlight Brewing Co.

While other kids were playing baseball and learning to drive, Brian Hunt was busy brewing mead in his bedroom at age 15, inspired by an article in Scientific American Magazine.

It didn’t matter that the ancient libation of fermented honey tasted “disgusting:” The seed was planted. years later, when Hunt abandoned pre-med studies and enrolled at UC Davis, that same thirst for experimentation would lead him to beer.

Since founding Moonlight Brewing Co. in 1992 in rural Santa Rosa, Hunt has never stopped pushing the edge, whether it’s inventing the California dark lager that would become his flagship Death & Taxes brew, or dropping redwood tips from a tree in his backyard into the “hopless” Working For Tips ale.

“I fail at mainstream,” Hunt said. “If everybody likes the beers that I make, then I have failed.”

Always off-center in the beer revolution that has thrived in Sonoma for more than three decades, Hunt is a maverick among mavericks.

“Death & Taxes was not a beer that was copied from somewhere else in the world,” he said. “One day, I had in my mind a beer that I wanted and it didn’t exist: not in the store where I could buy it, not on the planet.”

It was a hot day in Napa and he wanted a beer that was “refreshing and crisp and black and tannic. I wanted it to have that iced-coffee zippiness to it but not the caffeine.”

It didn’t take long for beer connoisseurs to discover the dark molasses lager goes well with “tacos, sushi and 100-degree weather.” Or for Budweiser and Guinness to come out with their own black lagers.

Over the years, while brewing with unusual ingredients such as mugwort, yarrow, bee balm and Labrador tea, Hunt has always tried to walk the balance between innovation and gimmickry.

“I call those novelty beers,” he said. “You take a sip and say, ‘Wow that’s interesting,’ and then you probably don’t finish the glass.”

These days, at 57, he has five employees who help him brew approximately 2,300 barrels a year. Despite rave reviews and widespread distribution in pubs, he’s never been interested in rampant growth, or even bottling, for that matter. Moonlight Brewing beers are sold only in kegs. While working for Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. in Milwaukee in the early 1980s, Hunt learned “what happens to a company when you cheapen a product.”

He recently relocated his “Abbey de St. Humulus” brewery from his backyard to Coffey Lane in Santa Rosa. He had dreamed of opening a taproom, but is now working on a growler fill station to open later this year, where fans can fill glass jugs with Moonlight ales and take them home.

More important than growth, Hunt said, is his beer philosophy: “I like it when people try something I make and I see their face wince,” he said. “not wince and spit it out, but if they wince and then have this look of curiosity, then I don’t care if they don’t like it. If I put a crack in their preconceived notions of what beer can be, then I’ve succeeded with that person.”

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