The economic downturn has wrought mostly turbulence for Mill Valley businesses. But it also serendipitously spawned Beerworks, which has stoked a downtown revival of sorts and caused commotion on Throckmorton Ave., just a few doors down from the original Sweetwater.
When co-owner Tyler Catalana quit his job at a New York City architecture firm and returned home to Mill Valley at the end of 2008, he did so with the intention of getting a job in his field closer to his family. His brother Justin had just graduated with a degree in bioengineering at University of California San Diego, and the brothers returned to their occasional hobby of brewing beer together as they prepared for a three-month trip to Southeast Asia.
Upon their return, the bleak job market had turned downright scary. The brothers used their free time to resume brewing beer for friends and family, and researching the logistics of taking it a step further.
"There was just so much free time on our hands at that point, so we researched what it takes to commercially produce beer," said Tyler Catalana, 32.
They dispatched initial plans to sell their beer to restaurants when they learned that you could only sell beer brewed in a non-residential space. They found a reasonably priced space they liked at 173 Throckmorton, and were knee-deep in plans before they knew it.
By the spring of 2009, the brothers were pulling together a business plan for a combination brewery and café that would sell more than 100 different beers from all over the world. The emphasis would remain on the beer, with a light food menu of items like homemade pretzels and cookies, cheese and charcuterie plates and Blue Bottle Coffee.
Despite warnings from supporters that the city would never approve such a venture, they took their plan to the Planning Commission and got the green light.
"[The council] just saw it for what it was," Tyler Catalana said. "The town needed a reason to get people into downtown Mill Valley."
The brothers scrambled to find more than two dozen investors to help them make it happen, and garnered enough micro-loans to convince them there was a strong desire in town for their business.
"This all came together incredibly quickly," Tyler Catalana said.
More than a year later, the deluge of support has been overwhelming. Beerworks is packed several nights a week, with locals drawn to its beer-centric culture and location in the heart of downtown. People also seem attracted by what Beerworks is not. It offers a stark contrast to the 2am Club, which coincidentally was shut down temporarily when Beerworks opened at the end of May, and it is one of only two bars in Mill Valley that is not located inside a restaurant.
"We did not expect to be as busy as we've been at night," Tyler Catalana said. "The daytime café crowd was more what we envisioned but we're happy with what it's evolved into. It's clearly something the town needed."
Not everyone loves Beerworks' evolution. A handful of neighbors have complained, including Chris and Lara Deam, who live across the street and said they have been overwhelmed by the noise since Beerworks opened.
The Deams confronted the Catalanas on several occasions and wrote a six-page letter to Planning and Building Director Mike Moore earlier this month. The letter meticulously outlined their complaints, including a near-daily journal.
The focal point of the Deam's complaint has been noise in the hours leading up to and around Beerworks' midnight closing time. They accuse the Catalanas of being disingenuous, as their Conditional Use Permit calls for a "small 1,160-square-foot craft micro-brewery, specialty beer market and café."
The brothers' application and public notices "intentionally obfuscated the true nature of the establishment," the Deams wrote.
"We thought that a micro-brewery with family friendly emphasis on education sounded really great, but what has gone in there is radically different than that," Chris Deam said. "In reality, it's just a fully functioning bar."
The Catalanas said they want to work with the city and the neighbors to address the complaints, but they also see the issue as a test for the City Council's stated pro-business stance, exemplified by its creation of the Business Advisory Board. The council's approval for Beerworks surprised many in town, and the Catalanas said they hope the city won't waiver in its support.
"We grew up here and when we moved back here, there was nothing to do," said Justin Catalana, 24. "We could have taken this business elsewhere, but we wanted to open it up in our hometown. We wanted it to be here."
Moore met with the Catalanas last Thursday and said he came away with a sense that they are sensitive to the issues and will address them. He asked them to submit their plans to install a double-pane window in the front and, most importantly, an updated ventilation system that will allow Beerworks to keep its noise by closing its windows and door without overheating.
"We're trying to address these issues without having to go back to the Planning Commission," he said. "Our hope is that we'll have a successful business that is appropriate for the neighborhood and the community."
Chris Deam said he understands the city has six months to review Beerworks' permit since it opened in late May, but hopes the issues will get addressed soon.
"As long as we're showing that we're respecting and addressing their concerns, the whole thing is probably going to blow over," Tyler Catalana said. "If everybody can just be patient, this will get sorted out."
The brothers are in the midst of getting their beer-making infrastructure up and running, and hope to have their first in-house batch ready to roll out before the end of the summer. They plan to focus initially on both lighter session beers like Kolsch and heavier brews like barleywine.
While they will constantly brew their own small batches, the Catalanas want to keep their emphasis on beer from around the world.
"We're always going to maintain a giant bottle list and then have about five of the best beers on tap along with our own," Tyler Catalana said. "We want this place to be very beer-centric, and we don't want it to be only about our beer."
Coupled with Mill Valley Market's new monthly beer club, Mill Valley is dipping its toes into the craft beer movement. Tyler Catalana said he's been pleasantly surprised at its emergence over the past few years.
"The interest level has never been higher," Tyler Catalana said.