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The Members-Only Brewery Has Arrived

February 11, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

art: Nick Hensley

In the age of direct-to-consumer everything, it was only a matter of time before boutique brewers went subscription-only.

“They are very expensive and sought-after because they only pressed a small amount—they were more regional and hard-to-find,” says Brad Clark, a longtime brewer and avid record collector for 20 years. He’s describing self-published vinyls often known as private press records. “These records were put out by people, not big labels like Capitol Records or Blue Note, who wanted to get this great art out into the world.”

It’s this same philosophy that informs Clark’s latest venture, a members-only brewery aptly named Private Press Brewing. For the bulk of the past two decades, Clark was building the acclaimed barrel-aged beer program at Jackie O’s Brewery in Athens, Ohio, where he served as brewmaster starting in 2006. But as the company grew, he was increasingly removed from the beer-making process. In 2019, he moved to Santa Cruz, California (where his fiancée, Adair Paterno, lives and owns the acclaimed Sante Adairius Rustic Ales), and launched Private Press.

Over the last decade-plus, a number of top-tier breweries have incorporated the concept of members-only clubs into their business strategies; The Bruery launched its Reserve Society in 2010 and The Lost Abbey created the Patron Sinners & Saints club in 2006. But these limited-access clubs rarely represented the entirety of a brewery’s business—until now.

In recent years, several members-only breweries have arisen, like the spontaneous fermentation–focused Horus Aged Ales in Oceanside, California, Hanabi Lager Co. in Napa Valley, and Floodland Brewing in Seattle. But none are more exclusive than Private Press, who sells 10 annual beer releases strictly to its 600 members.

“Since I had the opportunity to start over, I wanted to create something I could run, instead of something running me,” says Clark. Looking at the extended Bay Area, he saw plenty of IPA breweries and a lot of lager production, yet very few barrel-aged imperial stouts or barleywines—his specialty—on the market. Opting for a members-only model would not only allow him to focus exclusively on the styles he wanted to brew, it wouldn’t step on any other breweries’ toes. “I could make the beers I love, and not take away tap handles, not take away shelf space, not take away taproom customers from other breweries.”

When I talked to Clark on a Wednesday afternoon in late January, he was at his space just blocks from Mitchell’s Cove Beach packing up boxes of beer to ship out. As a one-man operation, he handles every job from aging to blending to labeling bottles, even managing the website and social media channels. Clark, however, does not operate his own brewery, instead he brews his beers or wort (unfermented beer) at other regional breweries, like Alameda’s Faction Brewing, putting the liquid in barrels of his choosing—casks that once held bourbon, apple brandy, Cognac, port, Sauternes, Madeira—and then storing them at his facility until he deems them ready to bottle. He calls each barrel type his “threads”; after a year to 18 months of aging, he weaves the different threads together to create a 1,000-bottle batch.

“There’s a part of it that is really neat to touch everything, every step of the way, to provide this intimate beer experience,” says Clark. At Jackie O’s, he managed nearly 1,000 barrels and 20 employees who needed to consistently produce enough beer to supply the brewery’s four locations and a good bulk of the state. At Private Press, he only brews what he wants, when he wants, which has allowed him to create what he believes is the best beer of his life. “I can now spend months working on just a few beers. It really allows me to try to knock everything out of the park.”

When it’s time to create a new release, Clark evaluates the different threads he has aging in the cellar—“Anything and everything is game,” he says—and tries to assemble a blend. So, a single beer release might be composed of a blend of several different stout or barleywine recipes from several different types of barrels. Occasionally, he’ll adds adjuncts like coffee or vanilla beans, though never in pursuit of the dessert-style beers that have become an enduring trend in today’s industry.

His technique ensures that it’s almost impossible for him to ever make the same beer twice. “Like a winery where there are vintages dependent upon the weather and soil, here it’s more about what [barrels are] on hand,” he says. “In some aspects it might be difficult to recreate these due to the randomness for how blends come together. As the depth of my library, my threads, continues to grow over the years, you’ll get even deeper beers.”

Not surprisingly, this is catnip to beer geeks. On June 1, 2020, 500 yearly memberships went on sale for $300 apiece and sold out in three minutes. Due to the immense popularity, he found room for another 100 selectively added members, bringing him up to the 600 he has today.

“That was shocking; I still get goosebumps to know that, after 15 years of brewing, people were still interested in what’s next for me,” says Clark.

With beer labels inspired by private press jazz albums of the 1960s and ’70s, bottlings among the first five releases include Life is Round, a blend of barleywines aged in Old Fitzgerald, Blanton’s and Weller barrels; Expanding Worlds, a blend of stouts aged on vanilla beans from Uganda, Ecuador and Tahiti as well as coffee beans from Vietnam; and Cosmic Echoes, an ambitious blend of three stouts and two barleywines aged in five types of oak barrels.

Bottles can be shipped direct to California residents, while out-of-state members elect to have their beer stored at Clark’s space until they can retrieve them in person. To that end, he may soon offer shipping to his former home state of Ohio, where 150 members currently reside. But he has no plans to ever expand beyond his 600 subscribers.

“The minute I start adding more members, then I have to get more space, and get more tanks, and maybe build a tasting room,” says Clark. “When I think about it that way, it doesn’t make me more excited.”

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