Wine County Beer People - Ricardo Norgrove

Fourth in the series


“You have to realize that I was born and raised in Sonoma County,” affirms Richard G. “Ricardo” Norgrove, the passionate, confident brewmaster at Bear Republic Brewing Company. “Growing up, I actually thought I might try to work in the wine industry. But then in the service I got introduced to beer.”

When Norgrove returned to Sonoma County, he knew he wanted to brew. His decision had its roots in the differences between brewing and winemaking.

“At that point I already had a pretty good understanding of the winemaking process," he recalls. "The winemaker does an excellent job of taking his natural ingredients and then putting his own little nuances into the process. But a lot of that element of control is very much controlled by mother nature..

”I kind of looked at it as making wine had certain limitations, but with brewing beer it was more expanded.”

Norgrove, who has been a member of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas for about 20 years, says that in the brewing process the brewer has more finite control over the process. He details some of the reasons.

“What I get from my water supply I can treat. I can change, I can manipulate it to match whatever kind of water source I want from anywhere in the world. I can add whatever kind of malts and yeast i want. It’s kind of endless.”

Maybe his interest in creating something new and different should not be a surprise, for as he explains, “I’m a very artistic individual. I went to school for graphic design.”

If the beautiful beers of Bear Republic Brewing are any evidence, the graphic arts world lost one heck of a master designer.

Differentiating your brewery

Wine country has lots of great breweries. You can’t survive unless you're real good. The question is, how does Bear Republic differentiate itself? One way is the emphasis it places on hops.

“I actually travel about every year to visit my hop farmers,” Norgrove says. “I know them by first name.”

This friendly relationship provides him the information needed to make better decisions on hopping his beers and also guarantees him a steady supply of some rarer and special cultivars.

“That lends to my consistency year after year because I’m getting to choose,” he says. “Now I’m actually creating blended lots of certain varietals of hops, which are specific to me.

Compare this to a small brewery without these relationships that has to call up the hop supplier to place an order and then gets what he gets. In contrast, Bear Republic makes long-term commitments with certain better hop growers, just like a winemaker would with grape growers.

Wine country’s discriminating taste offers a challenge and a benefit

A highly creative food, wine and beer environment permeates wine country. The region’s beverage customer is a more educated, more demanding consumer. There are also a lot more foodies. There is stiff competition in a relatively small market. It seems this could add up to make a brewer’s life pretty tough, but Norgrove disagrees.

“We’re at a day and age now where what I love about living in Sonoma County is just this incredible amount of educated palates,” Norgrove says. “I’m given tremendously more leeway than somebody who may be trying to do this in some other part of the country.”

“That actually lends to more creativity because I can throw out a specialized cask beer or make a small lot and use it to educate the customer who comes in. I use it as a test to see if the beer is going to work.”

On Tuesday nights at the Bear Republic pub in downtown Healdsburg, they hold locals night. If you wear a winery shirt in or you just say you are a local, you get special prices on beer. It’s also the night they put out specialized casks because they know they will be getting a lot of the winemakers in from the surrounding area. 

“Most of the winemakers that come into our pub have no problem giving me constructive criticism,” says Norgrove with a laugh. “I have a tremendous respect for the wine industry because they are a tremendous amount of the lifeblood of our county.

“People in Sonoma are used to finding specialty boutique wines, and there’s a natural synergy to the fact that you can also find specialty cheeses, breads and beer. It just goes hand in hand.”

There is also a nice cooperative relationship among the local brewers and winemakers.

“We used local Chardonnay barrels from a winery that’s literally right over the hill for aging a beer we call Toyon Brut,” Norgrove says as he explains that there is no shortage of offers of used wine barrels for use in the brewery.

Toyon, a beer with Sonoma terrior

The name Toyon comes from the geographic region where Bear Republic’s production brewery is located. Norgrove decided he wanted to create a beer that had a unique Toyon-Sonoma signature. He starts by brewing a pretty standard ale recipe, but that’s where things take an unusual turn.

The unfermented beer fresh from the brew kettle is poured into open fermenters and allowed to mingle with the springtime Cloverdale air. No brewers yeast is added. The beer is instead inoculated with the natural wild yeasts found in the local air. It undergoes a spontaneous fermentation, and once the primary fermentation is completed, the beer is pumped into the Chardonnay barrels for some aging.

“We age the beer with the microbes left over in the barrels,” Norgrove says. “After two months there’s a little bit of brettanomyces in there; there’s a little bit of diacetyl. We blend the barrels and put them back in stainless to finish. You get a nice beer that’s a little more spritzy than our normal ales.”

Another Sonoma wine-influenced beer is his Cuvee de Bubba, which is made in a sort of solera system. He takes about 25 barrels from six or seven local wineries and fills them with ales. The barrels are constantly topped and tasted as they age. When they find a barrel or several barrels that have the notable characteristics they are looking for, they use them to come up with the final blend they will choose to package.

A beer drinker’s brewery first and foremost

Even though Bear Republic makes a bunch of specialty, small lot, and limited-edition seasonal beers, the brewery has not in any way lost its focus on the traditional craft ale customer.

We cater to the beer drinker,” Norgrove states adamantly as he tells that about 85% of the brewery’s annual production is Racer 5, its very popular IPA. “We brewers never want to get to the point where beer is unapproachable. The moment you take beer and you try to make it something that’s unapproachable, you make it unattainable. And then unattainable creates a level of elitism.”

Elitism and beer are two things Norgrove doesn't plan on mixing at Bear Republic. He thinks it is important to keep beer approachable for the average person.

“We also make a lot of little lighter gateway beers that are easy for people to get into,” he says. “We use our pub to educate people. When you come in we’ve got 12 to 16 beers on tap, and you should find something there that will fit your style.

“Our servers spend a lot of time being educated about beer styles. The servers will ask you what kind of beer style you like, and they will steer you in a direction toward that. The servers are also good at offering you a taste of something that might be a little more aggressive to allow the customer to expand his beer experience.”

Expanding horizons

Norgrove finds that wine country tourists and locals alike are looking to expand their horizons. It’s the beauty of being in wine country, he says.

“I just hope that folks visiting wine country will at least also stop in and try the beer,” he adds. “The tourists will go through their day and get saturated with wine and eventually they’ll go, ‘Where can I get a good beer?’ That’s what we’re here for.

“What I want people to think of northern California—I hope they think of an anchor; I hope they think of the Sierras; and I hope they think of a bear. If I can be classified in any way with those folks, then I’ve done my job.”

Tracking the Bear

Bear Republic Brewing Company has been a Healdsburg fixture for 15 years. It was founded by Ricardo Norgrove and his father, Richard, in 1996. Bear Republic’s brewpub is located just about one block off Healdsburg’s town plaza. The larger production brewery was built a few miles north in Cloverdale and opened in 2006.

The brewpub has a diverse food menu and also features many local wines. It’s the place to visit any day of the week and is an especially nice change of pace from the areas many wine tasting rooms.  The production brewery does not yet offer a tasting room, but all the beers are available at the brewpub. All Bear Republic ales are made in the time-honored traditional process incorporating high-end malts and hops. The ales undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle that produces their carbonation and gives them a more complex character.

In 2006, Bear Republic won the small brewery of the year award at the Great American Beer Festival. In 2009, Racer 5 IPA claimed a gold medal in its category at the same festival.

  1. Tasting Tip

  2. Norgrove reminds us that Bear Republic beer is alive in the bottle and changes with time. He personally prefers drinking Racer 5 that is two to three months old. He says it’s a lot drier and the finish is better. All Bear Republic beers are open code dated and guaranteed to be fresh for six months after bottling. Each beer bottle label also tells you the beer’s recommended serving temperature.

For more information go to: Bear Republic Brewing Company profile page 


Norgrove races his Bear to the top


Top: Richard G. Norgrove, better known as Ricardo, is brewmaster at Bear Republic Brewing Co.

2nd Top: The section of the brewery where Ricardo Norgrove creates many of his specialty and one-off beers.

3rd Top: A bottle of the flagship Racer 5 IPA, a beer that has been awarded top honors at major national competitions.

4th Top: You will see numerous NASCAR-like numbers in the brewery, carrying on its racing theme.

5th Top: Cross over this bridge from the Healdsburg city parking lot to Bear Republic’s brewpub.

6th Top: Kegs of Racer 5 being readied for market at the Cloverdale facility.

7th Top: The brewpub entrance in Healdsburg is only one block off the town plaza.

Photo Credits

All photos by Charles Bockway for Wine Country Beer.

Follow this sign from the Healdsburg plaza.

Ricardo Norgrove