Hangar 24 is named after the hangar where owner and licensed pilot, Ben Cook, and his friends would relax after a day of flying. Like most brewery owners, Ben started homebrewing years ago and fell in love with the craft and the culture. Cook graduated from the Master Brewers Program at the University of California, Davis after working in Quality Assurance Organization at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Van Nuys, CA. With his background in science and chemistry, this perfect combination fueled the launch of Hanger 24 in 2008.
After rapid growth, Cook hired head brewer, Kevin Wright. Wright also graduated from the U.C. Davis Master Brewer program, the place where beer legends are made.
I chatted with Milwaukee native and head brewer, Kevin Wright. With a background in engineering, this teacher’s aide turned brewer is as humble as he is strapping. When asking who he looked up to in the industry, he couldn’t say enough good things about Mitch Steele, head brewmaster of Stone Brewing Company.
“I can’t say how many times I reach out to others in the industry with a question, and usually it’s Mitch.”
Cook got the craft beer bug years ago while watching a baseball game in Chico. Home to Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, he tasted the Pale Ale and gave him a taste of what else was out there.
The main brew house (some of the tanks & fermenters) came by way of the Monte Carlo Casino. The casino was brewing their own, when they suddenly had to close operations and sell the system. This same system is getting much more use than its previous home in Vegas, as the brewers are on the clock 24/7.
In 2013, Hangar 24 brewed a little over 35,000 barrels. This is up from 17,000 barrels in 2011 and just over 24,000 barrels in 2012. According to Cook, they are “setting lofty goals for 2014.” The brewery wants to increase production to 60,000 barrels this year and 100,000 in 2015.
The brewery’s flagship beers are the Orange Wheat, Pale Ale, Alt-Bier, Helles Lager, Columbus IPA, Chocolate Porter, and Double IPA.
Grounded in local geography and ingredients, Hanger 24 rose to popularity with their Orange Wheat. This year-round offering sources all its oranges from the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit co-op for small, local farmers. Their massive, rotund, metal blender puree’s all the local oranges for the Orange Wheat. Whole oranges are blended into a pulpy puree before added to the beer batch. It looks like a gigantic Orange Julius.
The Local Fields Series is a seven beer series highlighting locally sourced ingredients, all in different beer styles. Using classic Southern California fare like dates, pumpkins, red wine grapes, cherries, navel oranges, spruce and apricots, the series showcases ingredients from the high desert to the San Bernardino Mountains.
Cook explains that the Local Fields Series “essentially started with the Orange Wheat.” While technically not in the series, it’s the first beer that utilizes locally sources ingredients.
“I never thought the brewery would get this big. When I first started I just wanted to brew beer and be social <laughs>…but I set it up so we could grow quickly. I’m always brainstorming. And now that I can see there is a chance we can get bigger, I think about why someone in say, Wisconsin, is going to want to buy our Pale Ale? They’ve got plenty of Pale Ales out there. So, the Orange Wheat is super unique because we have oranges growing all around us. Redlands and the surrounding area is what created the orange industry in the United States. That’s very authentic and unique and you can’t really copy authenticity. The idea <of the Local Field Series> evolved from there. That’s the same thing with the apricots…We’re one of the very few breweries that are sitting in an area that has a lot of farms sitting around it…”
When asked if he foresaw the popularity of the beer, Cook humbly and quickly answered “Not even, no way!”
“That beer has a cult following now. I get it, I mean, that’s why I like brewing it. Brewing and taking something from down the street and integrating it into the beer, it makes it really authentic and local. People in this area really want to support the groves. And looking beyond that, it supports the success of the beer…Bottom line, it’s a good tasting beer.”
The first in the Local Fields series is an old ale brewed with Mourvedre grapes from Wilson Creek Winery in Temecula. Vinaceous is then aged in French Oak. The second is Palmero, which is a fruity Belgian-style dubbel made with Coachella Valley’s own dates.
Named after the abundance of apricots used in the mash (Poly = Many, Cot = Apricot), Polycot, became one of the breweries most successful offerings, is one of the top five selling beers they produce. Brewed in early July when the Southern California’s high desert apricots are truly ripe and fresh, this beer also epitomizes local. The idea and the apricots originally came from Cook’s friend, Paul, who suddenly had seven acres of apricots to share from a house purchase. To further the local feel and culture of the brewery, it’s Cook and his buddies that went to Paul’s house the next day to pick and de-sticker thousands of apricots. The 7.2% wheat-wine style is the first of the style they’ve brewed, which is an American strong ale, with a large portion of wheat malt.
Their Barrel Roll Series is cleverly named for the barrels the beers are aged in and to epitomize the aviation branding. Immelmannis is the first of seven beers, with the 2013 version coming in at 11.4% ABV. This strong porter is aged for over six months in single-use bourbon barrels and brewed with oats, cocoa nibs and whole vanilla beans.
Their Humpty Bump is a Belgian Strong Golden Ale aged in oak barrels with Brettanomyces, for eight months. Hangar brews this inviting beer with apple cider from the local Riley’s Los Rios Farms. Humpty Bump has notes of caramel, black pepper, apple and some farmhouse funk. Try this paired with citrus salads or nutty cheeses.
Pugachev’s Cobra is the third installment from their ‘Barrel Roll Series’. This California award winning 13.8% ABV Russian Imperial Stout was first released in mid-December 2011 and has been an annual release since. With intense flavors of dark fruit, chocolate, bourbon and roasted coffee, this brew can be enjoyed now or shelved to savor in a year or two. Named after Victor Pugachev, a pilot that would suddenly raise the aircraft nose to near vertical before dropping back to attack mode.
The brewery will be celebrating six years this May. And once again, they will celebrate in the air, as well as on the ground. The 6th Anniversary Celebration and Airfest is May 17-18th at the brewery, complete with an air show, beer festival, concert series and food truck festival. All proceeds will go to charity. Their Hangar 24 charities started in order to preserve the local agriculture. Specifically, these proceeds will go to the region’s orange groves.
In just a short five and ½ years, Hangar 24 has seen rapid growth and popularity in California. What’s been the biggest surprise?
Cook says, “I think one of the biggest game changing surprises to me was, <years ago> me and a guy named Jim Hogarty spent, I don’t know how many hours and how many beers getting our original bottling line set up. Eventually we got it running and started bottling the Orange Wheat and Pale Ale. It was only about a month after that I got a call from Stater Brothers, a guy named Kevin Macky. And, I was blown away because I kept hearing from other breweries, ‘Supermarkets, don’t even think about it…Don’t waste your time…’ That was a pivot point.”
Stater Brothers gave Hangar 24 great distribution and the brewery’s sales immediately increased.
Hangar 24 loves to showcase the flavors of Southern California—and it’s a blessed thing that soon, many more craft-beer lovers outside of the Golden State will get to enjoy these flavors as much as we do.