In five short years, Santa Cruz’s Humble Sea Brewing Co. has gone from one small taproom on Swift Street to a culture-defining brewery with three destination-worthy locations.
Owned and operated by three childhood friends, Humble Sea opened in 2017 and quickly gained a reputation for its kooky, surf-meet-pop-culture vibe — its first foggy IPA, Socks & Sandals, is still a top seller — and wide selection of chuggable beers. They make it all: IPAs, DIPAs, TIPAs, ales, farmhouse saisons and pilsners. And head brewer Nick Pavlina is always innovating, trying new hops varieties or fermentation techniques.
An e-commerce website thrown together at the start of the pandemic got Humble Sea into the hands of beer drinkers outside the Santa Cruz Mountains. And it helped Pavlina, Frank Scott Krueger and Taylor West expand much faster than they expected.
Last summer, the trio opened a second location, Humble Sea Brewing & Kitchen in Pacifica, where they serve their thirst-quenching brews alongside double smash burgers near Linda Mar Beach.
Now their newest spot is drawing Bay Area beer drinkers to the mountain town of Felton. Open since mid-February, Humble Sea Tavern is a spacious, 125-seat restaurant-meets-taproom located inside the historic Cremer House on Highway 9. It’s got a full bar, weekend brunch and a fine dining chef who brings a refined touch to comfort food classics.
We recently caught up with co-owner West to learn more about Humble Sea’s meteoric rise and how they stay kooky.
Q. How did you guys first come together to make beer?
A. We grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Frank and I have known each other since preschool. Nick, who is our head brewer, was the cool older brother of a really good friend of ours. He started homebrewing with his dad and went to Chico State, so he was around Sierra Nevada Brewing. We started Humble Sea with a rigged one-barrel brewing system on Nick’s grandmother-in-law’s farm in Ben Lomond. After winning national homebrew medals, Nick pitched opening a brewery to us.
Q. What’s it like running a brewery with childhood friends?
A. It’s definitely a lot of fun. It’s really important for us to share hobbies outside of work as well — to take a step back, surf or mountain bike together and visit other breweries together.
Q. What’s the inspiration behind your offbeat labels?
A. To be fun and creative but still have a lot of intention. Frank runs a design studio called Good Knife made up of a bunch of designers from around the world. So it’s a few designers from that collective who do all of our labels.
Q. We heard you have a Slack channel devoted to brainstorming beer names.
A. We do. It’s called #beernames and there are 112 people on it. There is so much creativity in there. Some people participate a little more than others. You might see a long list of ideas come in at 10 a.m or 2 a.m. Everything we go with starts there.
Q. Sounds like the pandemic actually contributed to your growth. What happened?
A. COVID was a challenging time for us. When it started, we had Swift Street and were pretty much about people drinking draft beer in the beer garden. That came to an immediate halt. We scaled down from a staff of 30 to 14.
Overnight, we shifted to an e-commerce model. Frank and (marketing director) Lee DeGraw stayed up three days in a row to launch the website. Almost immediately, we were shipping beer all over the state, reaching L.A., San Diego and other places we didn’t think we could reach.
Q. What makes the Felton tavern particularly special?
A. It was built in the late 1800s as an old hotel. In the basement, you can still see some of the old redwood beams. The building’s owner, Bob Locatelli, is me and Nick’s old high school football coach. He told us it was available, and we knew we wanted to bring something there. We grew up in Ben Lomond and have close roots to Felton. It’s been nice coming back to the community.
Q. What are the most popular dishes? And what on earth is kook sauce?
A. The Calamari Fritto and the Bigfoot Burger are really popular. We just put a New York steak on the menu, and it’s gotten a lot of good reception. Kook sauce is our Citra-hopped aioli that goes on the burger.
Q. How do you grow and still stay kooky?
A. We try to approach things light-heartedly. We know it’s a job but we try to have fun while doing it.
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