Bear Republic's new Rohnert Park brewpub is its latest salvo in fight against 'Big Beer'

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Bear Republic Brewing Co. has grown like a weed from its humble roots as a small craft-beer brewpub in Healdsburg. Now, bucking an overall slowdown in the craft beer industry, the company is about to open a second brewpub in Rohnert Park complete with food-and-beer pairings and a big selection of craft spirits.

News from the craft-beer sector has been dour as it undergoes the biggest shakeout of the last two decades. Through the first six months of the year, craft beer production grew at a rate of 5 percent, according to the Brewers Association trade group, a far cry from the nearly 20 percent in past years when many breweries ramped up their expansion plans.

That slowdown has triggered a wave of mergers and acquisitions. Just this summer in the Bay Area, the beloved Anchor Brewing Co. of San Francisco was bought by Japan’s Sapporo Breweries, Brooklyn Brewery acquired a minority stake in 21st Amendment Brewery of San Leandro, and Magnolia Brewing Co. in San Francisco was purchased by New Belgium Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, Colorado, through bankruptcy proceedings.

The Norgrove family, who own Bear Republic, do have their worries given the state of the disruptive marketplace. Major brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors are buying up smaller craft brands and using their leverage to muscle out others on the supermarket shelf. But they also realize there will be opportunities as well that the new brewpub, located on the site of the shuttered Latitude Island Grill, can help showcase.

“The fact of the matter is we’re a family, independently owned brewery that just has slow and steady growth activity,” said Richard R. Norgrove, president and chief executive officer of the Cloverdale-based brewery, which also operates its original brewpub in Healdsburg that opened in 1996.

The $2.5 million revamp of the Rohnert Park site features a new 10-barrel brewing system that Norgrove’s son, brewmaster Richard G. “Rich” Norgrove, calls his “Willy Wonka factory.” It will allow him to try out new beers such as sour ales and so-called juicy India Pale Ales (IPAs), cloudy hoppy beers with tropical flavors. The restaurant also has a large kitchen with a pizza oven produced by Healdsburg-based Mugnaini Imports that will allow for expanded menu offerings.

There is a large outdoor dining area, with both adult and children’s game sections, and a stage for musical performances, all of which overlooks a lake flanked by palm trees. In less than two years, work crews turned a site that previously resembled a hotel restaurant in the Bahamas to a more urban design, with stainless steel parapets and silos and a solar roof for electrical vehicle charging stations out front.

“What’s the 21st century beer garden look like? Europe definitely has established it. We are just kind of doing our own flair on what it is,” said Rich Norgrove.

The Rohnert Park brewpub will be the first in the North Bay that will be designed as much for the visitor experience as for brewery production, following the example of local wineries in attracting casual tourists as well as serious aficionados. It will have a dining capacity of 300.

In fact, more such destination breweries are coming online locally. Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido will open a small brewpub in the historic Borreo Building in downtown Napa by the end of the year and Russian River Brewing Co. of Santa Rosa is opening its $35 million Windsor location by next fall.