What’s the ideal job to prepare you for launching a brewery?
“Swimming pool maintenance guy” might not be the first gig that pops to mind, but that’s the way it worked out for Jeff Finn, a SoCal transplant who’s about to launch his own nanobrewery in Arcata called Pale Moon Brewing Company.
What’s the connection between swimming pools and beer, you ask? In a word, science.
After graduating with his teaching credential from U.C. Irvine in 2009, Finn struggled to land a teaching job but, falling back on his plumbing background, managed to get hired by an Orange County school district to maintain its massive, 400,000-gallon swimming pools.
The process of adjusting the pool water’s pH and alkalinity levels came to mind a few years later as he started experimenting with a Mr. Beer-brand home-brewing kit — a gift from his brother — fermenting beer in a closet at his parents’ house.
“It didn’t taste great,” he said of his first few batches, “but I kind of became obsessed with it.”
Much as he did with Olympic-sized swimming pools, Finn started playing with the chemistry in his home brew kit.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, like I got the pH right! Now the yeast is happy and now it no longer smells like a horse barn. It’s not muddled. The true flavors are coming through,’” Finn recalled.
After a while he started trying to emulate beers he enjoyed, such as Michelob’s Amber Bock (now discontinued) and Samuel Adams’ Boston lager, then made subtle adjustments to the process. Before long he was dialing in recipes that he and his friends really enjoyed, and his obsession grew.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, I can make exactly what I want and people think it’s cool,’” he said. “It’s an excuse to have people over. It just became fun.”
After following a former romantic partner to Humboldt County post-graduation, Finn got hired at the Arcata Community Pool. He figured he might be headed for a career at a water treatment plant, but a friend suggested he apply for a mechanic job at Eel River Brewing. Within a couple of months he was promoted to brewer.
Finn worked for two and a half years as a brewer for Eel River, followed by eight years at Lost Coast Brewing. In each place he sought to express himself, writing his own beer recipes and tweaking some existing ones.
“But you’re still coming out through someone else’s platform, right?” he said. “I want to be able to show people who I am [and] the different things I can do.”
He offered up an analogy. “I read this in, like, a religious philosophy textbook about Hinduism, where, like, you’re the white ball,” he said, holding his hands around an imaginary glowing orb, “and I don’t want the lampshade to be somebody else.”
Now looking to transform his passion into both an art and a profession, Finn recently offered up a tour of his soon-to-open brewing facility and pub, located in tucked-away storefront behind Bencharong Thai House in Arcata’s Uniontown Shopping Center.
Finn pulled the tap handle on one of the facility’s six gleaming-new, temperature-controlled fermenters, releasing a foaming stream of coffee-brown porter into a pint glass.
“My plan is to have five [varieties] on tap at all times,” Finn said. That will likely include three recurring brews — a German pilsner (his specialty), a porter and a red IPA, though it depends on customer feedback — while rotating in other creations.
“So, like, the first month it’s the cherrywood smoked Scotch ale,” he said, “and next month I’ll do maybe a steam beer.”
Finn still enjoys experimenting with recipes, tinkering with ingredients until he’s happy with the result.
“I initially came in thinking I’d use two yeast strains and, lo and behold, with my first six beers I used four yeast strains,” he said. “Like, the cherrywood-smoked Scotch ale: when you smoke cherrywood through a malt it has this subtle sweetness, and so I found a yeast strain that had subtle cherry notes to it, and so that interplayed really cool.”
While experimenting with recipes for his first fruity IPA on offer, he said, “I found one that had stone fruit [notes], like cherry and those kinds of flavors in an IPA, and then I found a yeast strain that really exploited that.”
Looking at the interior of Pale Moon Brewing Company’s tasting room, with its clean surfaces of natural wood and slate gray, you’d never guess that it once housed a dingy laundromat, or that, in recent years, it functioned as “the boneyard” of this shopping center, in Finn’s words — a storage room stuffed with discarded restaurant equipment, broken pillars and other detritus.
“It was a hellhole,” Finn said. “I mean, it was a diamond in the rough, to say the least. But it had a giant electrical panel, it had a big gas feed, it had a big water feed, it had floor drains — a lot of things that are tens of thousands of dollars-worth of upgrades if you go somewhere else.”
Over the past year and a half, as he pursued all the necessary permits with the City of Arcata, Finn renovated the space, partly by employing repurposed materials and fixtures from recently closed businesses.
Look closely at the narrow, polished boards of the bar’s front-facing wall, for example, and you might recognize it as bowling lane segments from the former E & O Lanes in Glendale. The tables and chairs came from La Trattoria, an Italian eatery in Sunny Brae that closed earlier this year. And the padded booths were salvaged from the McKinleyville Denny’s, which shut its doors late last year.
Pale Moon won’t serve its own food, but Finn said customers will be welcome to bring in their own grub, including Uniontown offerings such as Bencharong’s Thai food, West Side Pizza and Subway sandwiches. He’ll likely invite food trucks to the parking lot out back sometimes, and eventually, he said, he’d like to build a patio on the lot, which faces the freeway.
We asked Finn if he’s worried about the amount of brewery competition in Humboldt County, and he said he’s not.
“I have a unique style … and I’m familiar enough with what everybody else is doing that I can find a niche,” he said.
One advantage, he said, is that he plans to remain small.
“I like the other people; it’s not like I’m trying to take from other breweries,” he said. “It’s just, you know, there are certain sweet spots in terms of size. And the bigger you get, the more you lose the nuance in your beer.”
Once a brewery signs contracts with grocery stores and distributors it’s committed to reproducing certain recipes on a large scale, and it has employees depending on it for their livelihoods, he explained.
“The goal here isn’t to, like, become the next Lost Coast or something,” Finn said. “As long as I’m here, I’m going to brew all the beer.” He recently hired one person to help him tend bar, and he has no plans to hire anyone else.
“So, it’s small. It’s focused on freshness. … The way the industry is going, you don’t get the kind of beer where it’s like, I brew it there,” he said, gesturing at the row of kettles to his right, “I ferment it here [pointing to his fermenters], I store it in that walk-in and then you drink it here. … And so, like with anything else, freshness matters.”
Finn plans to hold his grand opening on Friday, Sept. 22. Eventually, he said, he may look to get his beer served in a few local bars and restaurants — his pilsner pairs great with sushi, he said — but the plan is to stay small.
“It’s a nanobrewery with all the bells and whistles of a big brewery,” Finn said.