The Mare Island Brewing Co had been open less than a week when owners Ryan Gibbons and Kent Fortner got a $1,000 tip on a $100 bill. They took it as a sign, a big sign, that they had hit on a winning recipe, namely well-crafted beer with a big nod to the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard and its workers.
The Mare Island Brewing Co taproom operates inside the Vallejo Ferry Building with its bank of windows overlooking the shipyard’s historic coal sheds, cranes and dry docks. Nearly 18 months later, the brewery is still making a big splash, with waves spilling over into Benicia and the Bay Area. Some of its beers can be found at Benicia’s Lucca Bar and Grill, and the Benicia Veterans Memorial Hall.
With its nautical theme and shipyard artifacts, the taproom serves eight different beers named after Mare Island ships, workers and their customs. A menu of snacks, sandwiches and salads, plus T-shirts, hats and glasses compliment the offerings. As the New Year gets underway, Gibbons and Fortner are looking ahead. They are open one additional day each week, and plan to add live music. One big step will be brewing beer in a revamped Mare Island coal shed. They currently craft their beers in Sonoma County.
The partners are eager to contribute to a revitalized Mare Island, plus to them it’s no stretch that more craft beer brewers could set up shop there. The reception they’ve gotten indicates breweries are welcome in Vallejo. “We’re absolutely thrilled. You hope for it to be successful from the start, but we didn’t expect it to take off so quickly,” Gibbons said.
Mare Island’s 1996 closure dealt a big financial blow to Vallejo, but change is in the air. The former shipyard is undergoing a renaissance with new businesses, artists, homes, schools and other activity.
Not all customers can leave $1,000 tips, but appreciation flows regularly. “People come in and say, ‘Why hasn’t this been here all along?’ We’re giving locals something to be proud of again,” Fortner said. When anyone asks “Why Vallejo?” they can easily point out the taproom’s windows to Mare Island across the channel and the historic coal shed they will soon call home.
Mare Island has always been the key. The brewery taps into a proud, patriotic spirit that surrounds the island and lives within many former shipyard workers. The business also helps bridge gaps between older and newer area residents. “We’re able to carry on that history through beer. We can help tell the story of why Mare Island was so important,” Fortner said.
In its 142 years, the base employed tens of thousands of people and made significant contributions to numerous war efforts and submarine development before closing in 1996. The base is also a major anchor to Vallejo’s history and identity.
Mare Island Brewing Co. patrons asking for a Saginaw Golden Ale will learn the ale is named after the USS Saginaw, the first keel laid on Mare Island in 1857. The Farragut’s Farmhouse Ale is in honor of David G. Farragut, Mare Island’s first commander, famous for saying “Damn the Torpedoes. Full Steam Ahead;” and the Hydraulic Sandwich IPA is a nod to the “liquid lunch” many yardbirds consumed.
In crafting beers, the pair strives to achieve balanced, classic light and dark ales, stouts and beers that will outlive fads. Formally trained in wine fermentation, the two met during a wine grape harvest in Napa County and became friends. Gibbons moved to beer, working for the Lagunitas Brewing Company. Both have been home brewers and live in historic Mare Island houses.
Over the long haul, their aim is to build a tradition in the beer, and dedication to Mare Island. “Craft beer is definitely riding a big wave in general and there’s no doubt we’re riding that wave, but as Mare Island has endured we really intend on being around for 100 years,” Fortner said.
The Mare Island Brewing Co. Taproom is open 4-10pm Monday-Friday, 11:30am-10pm Saturday, and 11am-9pm Sunday.