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Blue Collar Brewing: Mare Island Brewing Company (Vallejo, CA)

The entrance to Mare Island Brewing Company, located within the
rotunda of the Ferry Building at Vallejo, California
For awhile, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard was the primary economic engine that drove the economy of nearby Vallejo, California. Opened in 1854 under the command of then Commander David Farragut (later best known for his paraphrased quote "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" during the 1862 Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay), this facility was a prime source of military shipbuilding on the West Coast up to the years leading up to World War II. Starting in the 1930s, the shipyard's focus turned mainly to submarine construction and maintenance, and at its peak, the facility employed over 40,000 workers. Not surprisingly, the surrounding community of Vallejo developed into a blue-collar, workingman's kind of town, and the town's businesses catered to this population.

Post World War II, the shipyard's fortunes continued nicely for a couple decades, but then the need for bases like Mare Island fell precipitously as the Cold War faded and relations with the old Soviet Union warmed. By the time the shipyard was listed on the U.S. Government Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission's closure list in 1993, the employment base was down to around 6,000.

Even with that lower employment number, the complete ceasing of operations had a profound economic impact which even to this day is still felt by the surrounding community of Vallejo. The city has since tried to diversify its economic engine, and as someone who lived for a time in the area, ventures like the Mare Island Brewing Company, situated along Vallejo's waterfront, are signs to me that things are trending in the right direction.

Located in the Ferry Terminal Building (the ferry service, by which you can travel to San Francisco, and the Panama Red Coffee House are also co-located in the building), Mare Island Brewing is the creation of co-owners and homebrewers Ryan Gibbons (formerly of Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma) and Kent Fortner (who also runs the operations of his Road 31 Winery.) As we discovered, the taproom has a great view of the strait (with outdoor seating for warmer weather visits) that separates Vallejo from Mare Island beyond.

The brewery was intended in part to preserve the history of its namesake shipyard, and former shipyard employees and members of the military have taken to their efforts, donating numerous examples of old shipyard and US Naval memorabilia that the brewery has displayed throughout the space. The brewery has also acknowledged the historical connection in their brew names, using numerous shipyard and military references, including special releases such as their General Order No. 99 (which mandated that the Navy be officially dry in 1914) and their Survivor's Tale Pale Ale.

This latter beer was brewed in honor of the survivors of the World War II-era cruiser USS Indianapolis, who had been serviced at the shipyard prior to their secret mission to deliver components related to the building of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This secret mission in large part led to the subsequent harrowing ordeal for the ship's crewmen (who had no idea about their valuable cargo.) After the ship was hit and sunk from a torpedo from a Japanese submarine shortly after the delivery, the secret nature of their prior mission and other factors delayed rescue efforts for the stricken crew members. Those who did not go down with the ship were forced to battle for their lives in the waters of between Guam and the Philippines, with many succumbing to drowning, hypothermia and shark attacks.

Mare Island Brewing sports six base brews and plenty of memorabilia
from the former military facility located across the strait from the taproom
Vallejo and the county it resides in (Solano) has existed in a craft beer desert of sorts until recently; most workers of the old shipyard would almost certainly been more familiar with the products of the large Anheuser-Busch plant not too far up the freeway in Fairfield, CA. The first craft beer brewery in the county proved to be Heretic Brewing, which opened up its Fairfield-based taproom in September 2013. Since then, two other craft beer enterprises, Suisun City's Right Eye Brewing and Mare Island Brewing, have followed suit.

Thus, it came as no surprise when our server told us that introducing the idea of craft beer to the surrounding populace has been something of a calculated process. Based on a flight of all their offerings, while we found the brewery's initial offerings won't wow those with more established beer palates, the brews on tap are very drinkable and would be solid introductions to various styles for the new-to-craft-beer drinker. For example, we're not normally folks who pick out lighter ales or pilsners save for specific situations (e.g. refreshment on a hot summer day), but we found Mare Island's Saginaw Golden Ale and Angles & Dangles Ale excellent for their class. We could easily see a lifelong macro-only beer drinker getting a taste of either of these ales and saying to themselves, "So THIS is what I've been missing all this time."

Left: Mare Island's Saginaw Golden and Angles & Dangles Ale
Right: Coal Shed Stout and Hydraulic Sandwich IPA
Other brews such as the Shipwright's Porter and the Hydraulic Sandwich (an old shipyard worker's term for going out for a "liquid lunch" aka beer) IPA keet that transitional beer motif going, with a noticeable but not overbearing smokiness in the former, and a not too bitter, not too piney profile in the latter. In contrast, our server said that their Farragut's Farmhouse Ale, a better-than-average saison, is in line with their efforts to push the boundaries a bit for those customers who wanted to go beyond their base beers.

Mare Island Brewery does sport a kitchen, featuring a menu of pub-styled sandwiches and personal pizzas from Napoli Pizzeria, a local Vallejo business due to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2016. For those who aren't in tune with the brewery's beverage offerings, the brewpub offers a small wine menu, bombers of beer from California-based breweries like Almanac and Dust Bowl, cider from Corvallis, Oregon's 2 Towns Ciderhouse, as well as a typical assortment of pop and water drinks.

Mare Island Brewing Company
289 Mare Island Way
(Vallejo Ferry Building/Waterfront Rotunda) 

Vallejo, CA  94590
(707) 556-3000
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Mare Island Brewing Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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