From reds and whites to gold

The family has decades of experience in the wine industry, but five of the Ceja brothers have decided to trade grapes for grains and oak barrels for copper kettles with the launch of Carneros Brewing Company.

The family won’t be cutting ties with the industry they staked their name on, but under the talents of master brewer Jesus Ceja, the brothers are trying their hand at amber gold in addition to their reds and whites.

“It’s been a big learning curve for us,” said Armando Ceja. “We’ve spent a lot of time crafting beers that are balanced and really crisp.”

Set on the family’s land on Burndale Road at Carneros Highway, the property now includes a beer garden with industrial concrete tables under pergolas that surround the man-made pond and fountain. Inside, the towering tanks of the brewery share space with a sleek tasting bar.

“People can enjoy the product while they watch grain being thrown in the hopper,” Armando said. After two-and-a-half years of work, the new family business opened in July and already has plans to increase production. But that’s down the road a bit, along with bottling their own beer for sale and selling kegs to restaurants.

“We think our beer will pair very nicely with food,” Armando said. “We have five beers that we plan to offer year-round. We’re also working on some seasonal brews.”

Currently, the Carneros Brewery line-up includes a Jefe-weizen made from white wheat; a red Morena Ale crafted from barley from Chile, Argentina, Canada and Scotland; a Cerveza Pilsner with fruit esters; a creamy Negra IPA with hints of chocolate; and a lighter Carneros IPA with a higher hops profile.

“Whenever possible, we use estate-grown hops,” Armando said. Rows of different styles of hops grow just beyond the beer garden, and even adorn the tasting bar. The family has discussed growing their own barley for beer, which can double as a cover crop over their wintering wine-grapes, but they would need to invest in some new equipment first.

“We’re still developing the business and what we can do with it,” Armando said.

The company began with Jesus Ceja, who spent more than 20 years as an international brew master for Anheuser-Busch, working with Budweiser brewers all across Central and South America. When he returned home to Sonoma three years ago, he came with a new idea.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we make great beer right here?’” Armando recalled. “We bought it hook, line and sinker.”

By “we,” he means brothers Manuel, Pedro, Ignacio and himself. He admits there can be challenges with working in a family-run business, which became apparent as they fought over what to name the new venture.

“You had five very strong brothers who think their name is the best,” Armando laughed. But they found compromise by paying homage to the unique appellation where their family launched its wine business. Because Carneros means ram, they created a logo that features five rams – one for each brother.

Currently, Carneros Brewing Company, at 22985 Burndale Road, is open by appointment only from noon to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For appointments, call 938-1880 or visit carnerosbrews.com.