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Windsor couple's 'blessed' brew

St. Florian's Brewery
St. Florian's Brewery

Owner Aron Levin takes out the beer labels for his St. Florian's Brewery IPA on Thursday in Windsor. Levine, who also works as a full-time firefighter, named the brewery after the patron saint of firefighters.

ConnerJay/The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 11:12 p.m.

When firefighter Aron Levin suffered minor burns battling a blaze more than a year ago, his wife, Amy, knew immediately what they should call the new craft brewery they were in the process of planning.

“Our family is very blessed; my husband was blessed in the situation here he didn't get hurt worse,” she said, “and we felt St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, was watching over him, and so: St. Florian's Brewery.”

The couple also pledged to give at least 5 percent of their proceeds to community causes, including fire-related charities.

“My whole goal in putting together the business plan, I wanted to do something philanthropic,” she said. The firefighter connection “gave us the outlet.”

The couple opened their new brewery in January in Windsor. Their first brew, an India pale ale, has so far met with a warm reception, said Matt Fenn, co-owner of Beercraft in Rohnert Park.

The beer is fresh and well-balanced, he said, and customers seem to like the firefighter angle.

“People like a good story behind everything they buy, and beer is no exception,” he said. “They like to support that.”

St. Florian was an officer in the Roman army in the third century. He was executed for being a Christian, first by being set on fire and then by drowning, according to various Catholic sources.

Firefighters adopted him as their patron, and the St. Florian's Cross, also known as the Maltese Cross, is a commonly used symbol in fire departments worldwide. A small version of the cross is the centerpiece of the brewery's logo.

Aron Levin, 37, began brewing about 20 years ago, helping his cousins in their homebrewing hobby. He stuck with it, becoming a proficient and well-equipped amateur. The Levins' home is packed with equipment and beer left over from his experiments on the recipes.

“I didn't want to turn a hobby into a job,” he admitted as he was hand-filling kegs from a towering steel tank last week. “I could decide to do this when I wanted to do it at home, but here I have a schedule to keep.”

But his wife had other ideas. After about four years at home raising their two young sons, the former high-tech sales and marketing executive was eager to get back to work.

Her husband's talent as a brewer offered an enticing possibility.

Over the years, she said, friends who claimed to like wine better than beer kept coming back for a second glass of Aron's creations.

“After that happened I don't know how many times, I turned to my husband and said 'You've got something magical going on. This isn't just a fluke, it's happened too many times; let's do something with it,'” she said.

Aron Levin, who maintains his full-time job as a captain in the Windsor Fire Protection District, says he resisted for a few months but finally gave in to his wife's infectious enthusiasm.

“Now my job is her job,” he said with a laugh. “She went back to work and I went to work twice as hard. But it's all good. It's family time; we get to spend more time together.”

The couple won't say how much the new brewery cost, other than “a lot.” It was funded by a combination of their savings and a Small Business Administration loan.

The brewery, in an industrial park off Highway 101, isn't large, just an office and a small two-story production bay lined with a series of tall steel tanks, where barley and other grains are steeped in hot water to create a sweet, sticky liquid that is boiled and fed to the yeast that creates the finished beer.

The couple expect to produce about 1,500 barrels per year, or about 46,500 gallons. That's enough to fill more 20,000 cases of standard 12-ounce bottles, although the beer will be sold on draft from kegs at taverns and at retail in several sizes of bottles.

As impressive as that may sound, the figure places them near the small end of America's booming craft brew market, which produced more than 13 million barrels in 2012, according to the Brewers Association, accounting for about 15 percent of all beer sold in the United States that year.

Small is just fine with Aron Levin too.“I don't want to be the big brewery,” he said. “If it goes there it goes there, but if it goes there, it goes on it's own. It's not a direction we're forcing it to go

“How can we keep up with market demand is what we're really looking at.”

At this point, distribution is done personally by Amy Levin, 39, who delivers kegs and bottles as far away as Santa Cruz.

Because the business is so new, and there is so much to do, she said, the couple has not settled on what philanthropic causes they will focus on in fulfilling their 5 percent pledge. So far they have concentrated on donating beer and time to charity events, such as the annual Ales for Autism Black and White Beer Ball in February.

That kind of public spiritedness earned the couple notice from North Bay Brewery Tours, which on Saturday added St. Florian's to its beer expeditions.

“It's a family operation, and we also love the fact that they give back to the community,” said Ron Holt, co-founder of the Rohnert Park tour company. “They embody the ideals you want to see in a craftsman.”

The couple's flagship brew, the only one available on the market for the moment, is unusual by West Coast standards. Where most IPAs from the region tend to be bright yellow, bitter and extremely hoppy, such as Bear Republic's Racer 5 or any of Russian River's line of IPAs, the St. Florian's brew tends towards the more subdued, darker, malty style of an English IPA, often favored in a hopped-up form by East Coast brewers.

“It's just a recipe that I had developed around my personal tastes,” Aron Levin said. “I am not a fan of the real piney hops; I like more of a citrus, fruit-backed kind of hop and that's the direction I went with it.”

Next up for release this spring will be a malty brown ale and a California common, the generic name for the traditional West Coast lager style made famous by Anchor Brewing's Steam Beer.

Aron Levin is developing a recipe as well for a Belgian-style IPA, a popular new subset of IPAs, brewed with the flavorful specialty yeasts that make Belgian beers distinctive.

Although they have no plans to step up to the size of craft brewing powerhouses such as Bear Republic, the good initial response has the couple hoping to expand somewhat, and they are in negotiation for some additional equipment. They may eventually open a small tasting room as well, but they don't want to grow too far or too fast.

“Right now we're just looking at Northern California,” Amy Levin said. “We don't want to get too big, oversell ourselves. We don't want to disappoint anyone. We're all about customer service and taking it one step at a time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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