.Face-Off With Fieldwork: An unlikely craft beer titan rises in San Leandro

Even energetic beer-averse objectors—people who have never liked and firmly believe they will never meet a beer they can enjoy—will crumble in a face-off with Fieldwork Brewing Company CEO and co-founder Barry Braden. Or so it seems, when the Bay Area’s most unlikely craft beer entrepreneur rises to meet a mock challenge during a conversation about the San Leandro Fieldwork Taproom and Beer Garden he and co-founder and head brewer, Alex Tweet, opened in early September. (More about our verbal “sparring” and stump-the-expert match below.)

Fieldwork team’s newest open-air beer garden and indoor taproom in the company’s growing enclave comes in as its eighth location, after rocketing out of the gate in West Berkeley in 2015. The other seven locations, in addition to Berkeley and San Leandro, include Corte Madera, Monterey, Napa, Sacramento, San Mateo and San Ramon. 

The newest location is positioned strategically to benefit from already well-established foot traffic in cozy downtown San Leandro and features its largest-of-all, 7,800-square foot, craft beer “destination station” in a building that in the 1960s and for decades following housed a Firestone Auto Service Center. Immediately prior to Fieldwork renovating and moving in, a commercial bank occupied the space.

“We chose this place in San Leandro because the building itself was so beautiful, and it’s a great community in the downtown,” says Braden. “It’s also just three blocks from the BART, making it even more accessible. When we signed the lease, we were well into COVID. Still, we knew we wanted to be in that location, partly because the owners of the building had a great vision. Matt Holmes of Retail West is one of the owners and has found most of the locations in which we operate now, except for the original Berkeley location.” 

Braden trusts Holmes implicitly, but when he first entered the space, “it had dropped ceilings and sheetrock walls and was ugly.” Gradually, he and Tweet began to reimagine it renovated and returned to its “former self” as a tire shop. He says working with the city of San Leandro to bring the facility up to code and other processes required to open the businesses was incredibly positive. “They wanted to help us through the process. They went above and beyond for us every step of the way.”

The result is a sprawling, casual space with raw, exposed steel framing, three roll-up garage doors, and access to an outdoor beer garden that totals 4,780 square feet and accommodates up to 265 people. Customers lounge on love seats and benches under the branches of a 75-year-old olive tree or will cluster around fire pits during the late fall and colder winter months. The indoor taproom (3,020 square feet) offers seating for up to 65 people; a food menu highlighting Neapolitan and Detroit style pizza, health-conscious starters and a children’s menu; and a curated, ever-fluid selection of beers from among Fieldwork’s 500 craft beers created to date. 

A 32 tap wrap-around bar with seating and well-placed picnic tables receives natural light and affords views of passing pedestrians and foliage via 265 square feet of windowed walls. With more than 18 beers available daily—IPAs, Double IPAs, lagers, pale ales, sours, stouts and more—the space calls out for convivial, stay-for-hours gatherings or serendipitous encounters and will eventually host live music and other arts programming.

Braden is an unlikely craft beer titan: a high school dropout not very into beer who grew up in Danville in the East Bay and worked for two decades in tech, business development, sales and executive roles. He has been a devoted, impassioned wine drinker since the 1980s. But life takes strange twists and eventually, he found himself devoting more and more time to following his passions: exploring wines, spending time in nature and protecting animal welfare. He began to work with the Endangered Species Coalition, eventually become the organization’s board chair.

The tech world held less allure, and on a trip to San Diego in 2008, Braden crossed paths with his soon-to-become business partner, Tweet. “I discovered craft beer pretty late, when I met Alex at a bottle share in Southern California. He brought rare beers he had brewed, and the other people there were savvy. I was naïve. Before that, I was drinking only wine, which is my first love. Craft beer surprised me.”

Which makes Braden the perfect foil for answering what beer he would place in the hands of those most resistant imbibers who might wind up at a Fieldwork establishment. These folks are not impressed that all Fieldwork beers are brewed at their Berkeley brewery and distributed entirely by the company’s staff—not the big, national distributors such as Reyes and others that command the industry and operate with dictatorial power that retains dominance but sacrifices quality and choice by severely limiting the number of skus a vendor can carry and other factors. 

Braden says brewers, vendors and especially customers are ill-served by the mega distribution companies. “They’re not what the customer wants; they’re not what we want. We believe in meeting the customer where they are. That means it’s the freshest beer, direct to you. We own four trucks. We have sales people who meet our bar, restaurant owners, and buyers and are great partners. We don’t put up roadblocks like what day they can receive orders or how large the order can be.”

That’s all just dandy, but rerouting his focus to the highly reluctant consumer and the name-a-beer-to-please challenge, Braden says he’d lead any such anomalous person to a flight of beers. With six tasters, he is certain one of the beers will cause any customer to say, “Wow, that’s beer?” For example, pour a tart, Blackberry Parfait, a sour ale with a creamy Pilsner malt, flaked oats, milk sugar base with a dash of vanilla that brings to mind blackberry cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream, and you launch a beer denier’s surefire, positive experience. “It’s dessert in a glass,” says Braden.

For drinkers of chardonnay blanc, getting them to cross the line to join the beer camp might come with Farmhouse Wheat. “It’s a beautiful Saison that has sauvignon blanc notes from the hops we use.” The wheat-heavy Saison introduces rural farm flavors: fresh cut hay, dried lemon peel, white pepper and faint magnolia blossoms.

Someone who prefers red wine? Braden says hazy IPAs and hoppy beers will satisfy people whose tastes send them scouting for something big and bold. “I have winemaker friends who when they reach for beer, want something with oomph. West Coast IPAs are where red wine drinkers go.” Such a person might wind up with The Lucky Ones, a hoppy IPA with substantial mouth feel, or Everbong, a pale ale with “super juicy pineapple, fresh squeezed pomelo, limoncello, clear gummy bears, pine sap and the freshest buds.” According to the website, Everbong is the “equivalent of smashing piña coladas and doing bong rips on spring break, just without the braids and sunburns.”

Obviously, the majority of people hanging out at Fieldwork will be courageous or curious beer drinkers, or near-experts who are likely to have experimented with brewing their own draft in a garage or backyard. “Salted Blueberry,” says Braden, who appears to have an answer for every beer stumper question. The resurrected fruity Gose is a stunner in a glass, boasting a rich, ruby red color and offering with the first sip a tart and salty kick. “It’s one of my favorites on tap right now. It’s balanced, and has a fruit character that finishes with solidity. It grabs your tongue. You get that tickle on both sides of your tongue. I’d want to have it with something spicy, like our Delivery Boy pizza. The blueberry in the beer and the pizza’s roasted jalapeño go well together.”

If it all sounds too fancy, there’s always the anti-hype Shtickless Plain ol’ Stout. Saying no to shtick such as coconut, waffle batter, pumpkins, birthday cakes and other trendy acrobatics, Fieldwork’s all American stout lays down a robust mouth feel with rich toffee, dark chocolate and fresh coffee flavors.

There’s also a beer that sold hand-over-fist when it was first introduced. Braden at first thought it would be a dud. “Alex had this concept when we started to make a beer like the Grapefruit Sculpin he created when he worked at Ballast Point. He said he’d add sea salt to it. I doubted it, but when he made it and I tried it, it was really good. People would fall all over it. It was huge.”

Braden says beer is a social drink that invites camaraderie and underscores the convivial, meet-the-neighbors vibe found at all Fieldwork locations. “I notice the commonalities more than the differences between our locations. Beer is an accessible beverage in a way that a $250 bottle of wine from Napa is not. Go into a Napa winery—which I’m not knocking at all—and it’s hard not to drop a lot of money. But an $8 beer? That’s accessible to almost everybody.”

The pandemic erased accessibility to Fieldwork beer for everyone and at first, it was Braden’s darkest hour in the business. “The pandemic was the low point and the hardest thing I’ve experienced as a manager. That first day of shelter in place, I’d never known anything like that. To have people show up to work and have to tell them they’d have to go home? Then the next few days all I thought was about what my business was going to be able to do. Can employees be there? Are we a ‘necessary business’ under the manufacturing codes? It took more than 10 days to get clarity.”

The realization that “we’re in this,” he says, led him to consider how to take care of the employees and reach customers sheltering in their homes. “We tried to keep each person employed and in roles to make money to provide for their families in a safe way. Most of them wanted to work because being home wasn’t in their DNA. We also tried to make people feel comfortable if they chose not to come in. From the customer perspective, we started bringing beer to their homes. We loaded up Fieldwork vehicles and delivered direct to people’s doors.”

Braden said he not only feared for his health and that of his employees; he worried overall about society. Out of the challenge presented by COVID came proactive solutions. “The company didn’t go into a shell, and I was never frustrated. There were so many things not in my control. It was just such a hit to the whole system. Those first weeks, it was existential. What would COVID create or morph into? Sadly, obviously, we as a country didn’t do a great job managing it. Look at the number of deaths we had compared to other developed countries.”

As did many people during the pandemic, hope and positive energy were revitalized by focusing on gratitude. Reflecting on the most positive moments that came from watching the team at Fieldwork blossom during the last seven years, Braden experiences a constant refresh. “It’s an amazing organization, and these people who’ve been here for six or seven years, watching them grow, start families, take on new capabilities, it’s really gratifying.” 

Asked about the dreams he indulges in as Fieldwork expands—he cannot yet disclose where in the Greater Bay Area taprooms number nine and ten will be located, but says one will open in late spring of 2023, the other, in summer of 2024. “It’s to have an enduring company that goes beyond Alex and I being involved. It’s to have people who have careers that go on even after we are gone, because we’ve all done well together,” Braden says.

When that day eventually comes, when Braden retreats to Napa to save animals, grow grapes, make wine and support other causes, it’s likely he will lift a feisty Belgian sour ale, bold barrel aged stout, smooth West Coast IPA or another beer with one hand, and a glass of the finest zinfandel with the other.

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