by Holly Madrigal
Good beers are abundant these days, but back in 1983, when Red Tail Ale was created, a good beer was hard to find. In fact, the birth of the Hopland Brewing Company/ Mendocino Brewing Company (MBC) ushered in the era of the now-ubiquitous brewpub. The Hopland Brewery was the first brewpub in California and the second in the country. (There are now upwards of 1,500 brewpubs in the U.S.)
The now defunct Mendocino Brewing Company, home to Red Tail and many other wonderful craft beers had a glorious run and a sudden and mysterious end. Initially brewing only 400 barrels in 1983, the Mendocino Brewing Company was brewing upwards of 75,000 barrels just prior to their closure, with a nearly nationwide distribution (helped along by a sister brew pub in New York).
Housed in a gorgeous, Mission-style building in Ukiah, where the brewing company moved after it lost its lease in Hopland, MBC grew to create and market over twenty labels in its 35 years of brewing excellence. (Kudos to the label artist, Randy Johnson, for his avian-themed labels, showing an exceptional eye for color and detail.) In the late 1990s, it was considered one of the most successful microbreweries in the country. MBC was the only unionized craft brewery in the country, represented by the Teamsters Union. It won many awards, launched a public offering, and landed major accounts across the globe. By 2015, MBC was the 41st largest brewery in the United States and the largest in Mendocino County. That was why it was quite surprising to the average Mendocino County resident to hear that MBC had gone belly up.
Rumors of financial troubles have plagued the brewery for the past decade. Following the offering of MBC stock, the majority of the shares were purchased by Indian billionaire Vinlay Mallya in 1997. Mr. Mallya lives in London and is currently fighting extradition to India on charges of money laundering and fraud. It appears his financial problems overran the banks of his personal life and impacted his financial holdings, including MBC.
The news of the brewery’s closure was a shock, since the bottles of beer continued to grace the shelves of many a pub, Costco and other retailers even after the official axe had fallen. One local shop mentioned that even her supplier was kept in the dark, told the product was simply out of stock. Prices of these final bottles have risen steeply as word of the closure has spread. There is scarcely a local resident (of a certain age) who does not have a MBC tale. My favorite is my friend’s story about when she was laboring to give birth. She was told by her midwife that beer could “help her milk come in.” Her BFF’s dutifully snuck a couple of bottles into the hospital, and the results were spectacular.
Mourning fans ask, can the brand be resurrected from the depths of our not too distant history? Rumors abound of local companies taking an interest in the brand and seeking a potential rebirth. When asked, resident beer expert from North Coast Brewery, Joe Seda said “It would be challenging. My guess is that because of the legal issues incurred by past ownership, Mendocino Brewing Company may be tied up for some time.“ The assessment, though accurate, saddens many a fan of this groundbreaking brewery that retained a loyal following up to and beyond the news of its closure. For now, it can live on in our memories of hot afternoons, dancing till the wee hours, and spending time with friends.
Keep an eye on Small Bites monthly email for info about a forthcoming Mendocino Brewing Company wake in Willits.