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Breweries Face a Dangerous Challenge Amid California's Wildfires

November 06, 2019

By Jess Lander, November 06, 2019

An hour before I spoke with Amy Levin on the phone, she had received the good news that the evacuation order for her hometown of Windsor had been lifted. She, along with her two sons and two dogs, had been gone from their home in Sonoma wine country for five days while her husband Aron Levin, a Windsor fire captain, fought to save it. 

Amy was relieved to learn that the worst was over—the fire had come within a mile of town—but her family wouldn’t actually return to their home for another four days. They had to first wait for it to be inspected for smoke damage and get re-entry approval from their insurance company. 

And then there was the issue of St. Florian’s Brewery, which the Levins own and run together in Windsor. It too had been closed for over a week and its brewer, Aron, was on duty indefinitely. 

Déjà vu

Sadly, the situation wasn’t unfamiliar. Two years prior, wildfires ravaged California wine country and left massive destruction in their wake. The day the Tubbs Fire broke out in Sonoma County just so happened to be Aron’s first shift as Acting Battalion Chief. He worked six straight days before getting a break.

Amy and Aron Levin. Photo by Julie Hughes.

So when the Kincade Fire ignited on October 23, Amy didn’t panic. “Both of us looked at our phones at the same time and we both looked at each other. He ran for his scanner and turned it on; I started grabbing his stuff and finding his keys, his wallet, and everything he needed to go,” she says. “I kissed him and said, ‘Let me know where you are.’ You could tell by the chief’s voice on the scanner that it was a big fire and it was going to be a big incident.”

And it was big. The Kincade fire exploded to 10,000 acres in 24 hours, forcing 180,000 people out of their homes. As first responders fought to get the flames under control in the initial days, a new set of strong winds blew through, setting back their progress. 

Still, the first responders heroically held the line, refusing to let the flames into any urban areas. When the evacuations were finally lifted, the damage was nothing like 2017. Just short of 400 structures (174 residences) were lost, but the destruction was minimal compared to the nearly 9,000 structures and 44 people lost two years ago. 

As of Wednesday, the Kincade Fire was at 77,000 acres, but 86 percent contained. 

“2017 was chaotic. It was something nobody had really ever experienced,” says Amy, recalling the terrifying feeling when she learned the fire had jumped the freeway. “This was different because we knew it was coming, there was a wind event, and leadership prepared for it. We learned lessons from 2017. The whole execution of how they handled it, I’m just in awe and bursting with pride. There should be parades going through town for days.”

Recovery

The Levins didn’t have to evacuate or close the brewery in 2017, so as soon as Aron got a day off, he started planning a giant fire relief fundraiser at St. Florian’s. The brewery—which is named for the Patron Saint of Firefighters and has a single-hop Citra session ale named 48/96, an homage to the standard firefighter schedule—consistently donates at least 5 percent of proceeds to fire-related and community-based organizations. 

Photo by Nicole Gross - 22 Frames Photography.

But while they’d love to do something similar this time, reopening is proving to be difficult. A lot of smoke and ash made its way into the brewery, so Amy says a professional crew is being brought in to “evaluate, clean, and ensure quality control resumes at 100 percent.” 

St. Florian’s was just one of several local breweries to lose significant business during the evacuations. Russian River Brewing opened a second, 85,000-square foot production facility and taproom in Windsor in 2018. It had a generator to prevent beer and food spoilage while it ceased operations for five days, but still took a big hit in terms of revenue. 

Russian River also closed its Santa Rosa taproom for one day because so many of their employees were evacuated that they couldn’t staff it. 

Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of Russian River Brewing, estimates that the Kincade Fire evacuations affected more than 75 percent of the brewery’s roughly 200 employees. When they did finally return to Windsor, they didn’t have gas, but decided to make the best of it and get their employees back to work. “We can’t open the kitchen, we can’t serve food, but we can serve beer,” she says. 

After eight days, they were fully back in business and immediately got to brewing Sonoma Pride. The label was part of a nationwide brewery fundraising effort after the 2017 fires, but this second edition from Russian River is an India Pale Ale made in honor of the first responders that saved their town last week.

As for Amy Levin, she’s now filling out stacks of insurance paperwork for both her home and business. And her brewmaster? He’s still working at his other, more important job. The beer will have to wait. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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