Just last year, Hangar 24 Brewery in Redlands took a leap -- from "microbrewery" to "regional craft brewery," that is. While the distinction may seem small to most, in the beer world, it's a pretty big deal. The subtle change in nomenclature has to do with the popular Inland Empire brewery's production increase, which rolled them over the all-important threshold of 15,000 barrels per year. That's some serious brewing. But with a small crew dedicated to the craft, a commitment to local farmers and an award or two hanging on the walls, this is the type of seriousness that comes with a smile.
Head Brewer Kevin Wright is a young man, by nearly anyone's measure. Sturdy, with thick arms and the full facial scruff of a lumberjack in training, the Milwaukee native leads brewing operations for Hangar 24. He comes to this unassuming strip of Redlands across from the airport by way of UC Davis, where he enrolled in and completed their master brewers program. One of only a few dedicated programs to focus entirely on preparing students for certification with the UK's Institute of Brewing and Distilling, the 18-week schedule covers everything from beer theory to brew practice. The final test is a brutal, nine-hour slog, with written portions covering brewing science and pure engineering. It's sort of the equivalent of disassembling your rifle in under a minute while blindfolded, but for guys who like beer.
The experience has certainly paid off for Wright, who moved through the new ranks at Hangar 24 Brewery in a matter of months. Still, he'll be the first to tell you that he's constantly learning, honing his palate and pushing the limits of what their equipment can handle. The tanks, fermenters and even the bottling line come by way of the Monte Carlo Casino, strangely enough. For years, the casino was brewing their own small-batch beers in their basement and serving them up through one of their brewpubs on site, but folded the operation just as Hangar 24 owner Ben Cook starting looking into brewing for himself. In 2007, finding a complete nose-to-tail brewing operation in good working order was something akin to a miracle. While things have grown considerably year over year since 2007, the same Monte Carlo equipment is put to good use, 24 hours a day, five days a week.
There is one little piece of machinery that might just be carrying the heaviest burden, though. It's an unphotogenic sort of R2D2 blender for the beer-inclined, and manages to puree all of the oranges that go into Hangar 24's Orange Wheat. The cloudy American wheat beer is light and crisp, with the undeniable tang of citrus that practically pumps its way out of the bottle and towards your nose. Whole oranges are tossed into the little fella, rind and all, and blended down into a fine puree before being added in batches during the brew process.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about the Orange Wheat beer, and Hangar 24 really, is their commitment to local farmers. All those oranges, tossed in day after day, come from the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit co-op for small, local farmers. Most of the fruit comes from well within 15 miles of the brewery; a few of the groves surround you as you turn off the freeway towards the airport. It doesn't get much more local than that.
Or does it? Hangar 24 also runs a limited series of beers known as Local Fields. The idea is simple: take a locally produced ingredient (say, spruce from the San Bernardino Mountains) and use it to create a beer worth drinking. The result of that spruce concoction? Their Warmer beer, a strong ale that netted them gold at the World Beer Cup in the Specialty category. Their current concoction, Palmero, is a fruity Belgian-style dubbel made with dates from the Coachella Valley.
For Head Brewer Wright, it's simple: use what you've got, and constantly improve. It's no wonder that, in five short years, they've joined the ranks of only 87 other regional brewers in America, won gold at the World Beer Cup, and begun to open up a distribution network for themselves and other craft breweries with a second warehouse in Orange County. They're also expanding the size of their brewery, with an entire new wing set to break ground in the coming months. But that doesn't mean Hangar 24 Brewery is going to outgrow Redlands any time soon. They've got a nice thing going out here, with a community behind them and fields full of locally-sourced ingredients at their feet. At the bar, set against a wall inside the living, breathing brewery machine, you while away an hour or two with a sample tour of all the beers that Hangar 24 has to offer, and life is good. Outside on the patio, with prop planes idling on the thin airport strip and rustling orange groves beyond that, life might just be even better.
Hangar 24 Brewery
1710 Sessums Drive
Redlands, CA 92374
[Photos by Clay Larsen]