.Brews With a View: In Alameda, plentiful parking and hundreds of outdoor seats

When barkeeps at Alameda Point talk about seating, they rattle off numbers in the hundreds, without exact figures. Most seats are outside, because that’s how the spaces were designed pre-pandemic. Floor spaces are 20,000 or 25,000 square feet, give or take a thousand. There’s no need to count parking spaces, either. The tract of breweries, wineries and distilleries on the defunct naval air station covers so much land that parking is always a cinch. Taps sprawl across walls wide enough to fit 20 to 25 hazy IPAs, lagers, stouts and sours.

Brewers are hardly hiding anything in their approximations. This alcohol-rich tract on the former Alameda Naval Air Station has become a Bay Area anomaly due to its sheer size. After eight years of slow development, the spot also known as Alameda Point draws full houses on weekend evenings as customers travel from as far away as San Joaquin County. Then there are the sunset views of the San Francisco skyline across the Bay.

“The sunset is nice, and it’s all a little separated, secluded from the hustle of Bay Area life,” said Andrew Engle, 34, who lives in Berkeley and works in ad sales at IndieGoGo. The fan of hazy IPAs arrived at the Almanac Beer Co. just before 5pm on a recent Friday, for a friend’s birthday party. “When you realize stuff is out there, you wonder why there isn’t more.”

Grapes and barley began discovering Alameda Point 17 years after the base shut down as part of the national Base Realignment and Closure process aimed at increasing military efficiency—an economic blow to Alameda. The base served from World War II through the Korean War as a busy U.S. Navy defense station. The 2,806-acre, concrete-intensive tract hit a peak in July 1945, with more than 2 million man-hours worked by base personnel that month. Today, the city rents out the preserved 80-year-old former storage depots and hangars for commercial use.

“It’s great to see how certain parts of Alameda Point that used to be dreary places are now active with people and activity in ways that are not expected,” said Tony Daysog, an Alameda City Council member who grew up near the base when it was active.

The brewers, distillers and vintners found Alameda Point more affordable than East Bay alternatives, and its structures are taller and broader than usual, making them ideal for brewing and serving alcohol on a single site. Twelve of them operate there now, with ample room for more.

Faction Brewing opened in 2014 as one of five original nearly back-to-back tenants that together call themselves Spirits Alley. Today it seats about 300 people at a time—mostly outdoors on a patio that has the district’s widest-angle San Francisco view—on weekend evenings. Its lofty brewing vats sit next to the indoor tables inside Faction’s former “helicopter repair center” and turn out 24 different beers on tap. The hoppy Faction A-Town Pale is one, while the English-style Winter Warmer, at 8.5% alcohol, is another. Want just water instead? Faction attracts so many dogs—and full-blown families—that it sells water bowls for a quarter apiece and operates an Instagram account just for photos of the four-leggers, said server Tony Jelen.  

The other Spirits Alley tenants are Building 43 Winery, St. George Spirits gin-and-whiskey distillery, Rock Wall Wine Co. and Hangar 1 Vodka distillery. “We’ve got the ultimate location, the ultimate weather. We’ve got tons of parking right here, we’ve got fabulous views,” Building 43 Winery-owner Tod Hickman said. He looked at every urban Bay Area winery site before picking the cavernous former-bomb locker at Alameda Point. Hickman says his 12 wines, including a 2010 white port and a 2014 grenache rose made from Sierra Foothills grapes, are on average four to five years older than most Napa Valley wines. The oak wine barrels are stacked along the back wall of his 200-seat indoor-outdoor space.

A left turn from the original Spirits Alley, on Monarch Street, onto West Tower Avenue leads to Almanac Beer Co. It hosts up to 2,500 customers on summer days, founder and CEO Damian Fagan said. Fagan picked the “zombie-like” former dry-goods storage building in 2018 because the rent was half of the Bay Area norm per square foot. And, the thirty-seven-foot-high ceilings on the 30,000-square-foot site fit his 25-foot-high brewing equipment. His 20-plus beers include hazy IPAs, kombucha-like sour beers and barrel-aged stouts of up to 15% alcohol. Seating covers 3,000 square feet in a largely outdoor space that sustained him during the pandemic. “I can’t understate the importance of having outdoor space in the pandemic,” Fagan said. “We’ve been really fortunate to have the kind of outdoor space that we do.”

Next door, at The Rake at Admiral Maltings, co-founder Ron Silberstein of Alameda gets barley from the Sacramento Valley and Tulelake. His staff germinates it and turns it by hand on 9,100 feet of floor space on his Alameda Point site to make malt that gets sold to commercial beer and whiskey makers, who in turn sell the finished product to the malt house pub. Seismic Brewing Co.’s Tremor California Light Lager, one brew made with Silberstein’s malt, won a gold medal at the 2021 Great American Beer Festival.

Still, not every thirsty person out on a Friday is sure about how to reach Alameda from I-880, and many who grew up in the Bay Area still associate the former naval air base with abandoned military structures and assume it’s closed to the public. Dakota Larsen, 27, heard about it from a barkeeper near his home, in Dublin, and took his friend, Kevin Kozik, 28, there one Saturday in January. “I didn’t know it used to be a naval base—that’s awesome,” Kozik said while sampling beers at Faction and watching a San Francisco skyline sunset.

The city may someday use impact mitigation fees from future housing developments to improve Spirits Alley’s infrastructure, City Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer said. The zone particularly needs lighting, walkways and clear property demarcations, Hickman said as he eyed expanding his site by 5,000 square feet in order to open a restaurant in 2024. “We’ve only seen a fraction of the customer potential that’s out there.”

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