Lester Koga never imagined that Galaxy Dust IPA would become synonymous with the upstart brewery he co-founded, Barebottle Brewing Company.
Back in 2014, when Koga first dreamt up his hazy IPA as an amateur homebrewer for his local beer club’s competition, he didn’t even win top prize. Koga received third place behind two clear IPAs, losing points because of his beer’s, well, haziness, which Koga described as less on-trend in the San Francisco area at the time.
Fast forward a year and a half later, and Koga’s creation was making waves across the San Francisco beer scene as the standout beer from Barebottle, which Koga launched in 2016 with friends and fellow homebrewers Michael Seitz and Ben Sterling.
“That’s the beer that really put us on the map,” Koga said. He even got to gloat to the beer club members who bested him in the competition after San Francisco’s well known beer bar Toronado put Galaxy Dust IPA on its menu. “As a homebrewer, there is no greater joy than to see your homebrew beer being consumed at a bar or restaurant,” Koga said.
As a homebrewer, there is no greater joy than to see your homebrew beer being consumed at a bar or restaurant.
The initial success of Galaxy Dust IPA set the tone for Barebottle’s worldview and business strategy. It aims to be a homebrewer’s brewery fostering a sense of community and idea-sharing. That’s not simply public relations spin: Barebottle has taken the ultra rare step of placing its beers’ recipes right on the packaging as an homage to its homebrewing roots.
Koga says that Barebottle doesn’t feel like it’s giving away any state secrets here. “For us, it’s a bigger joy to see people write back and say, ‘Hey, I took this recipe from the label and it inspired me to start homebrewing, and I brewed this beer and it was great. Now I have some questions for you.’”
Way back in late 2014, operating a professional brewery was still just an ambition for Koga and his would-be cofounders. And Galaxy Dust was just a concept. Koga’s beer club was holding the competition thanks to a local yeast company, Giga Yeast, which offered its 054 Vermont IPA strain to spark the homebrewers’ creativity. Koga decided he would pair stone fruity Galaxy hops with Maris Otter malt. “I’m going to pair this peachy hop character and peachy yeast, and it’s going to be a complete peach bomb,” Koga remembers strategizing.
Though it didn’t win the competition, Koga continued making Galaxy Dust, and it eventually became one of Barebottle’s early beers when it launched after four to five years of conversations and planning. The new business moved into a 16,000 square foot building in San Francisco, an ambitious space for the three former homebrewers. Barebottle started with eight 40 barrel tanks. Now it’s at 20.
Galaxy Dust would come to embody Barebottle’s philosophy in packaging, too. “The thing we noticed on the beer shelf was that there was no communication of flavor on packing,” Koga said. “You’ve got eagles, flames, hop monsters, but what does that actually taste like?” A Galaxy Dust bottle, then, leaves nothing to the imagination. It shows a giant, in-your-face peach. “We did some ad hoc marketing research and learned the key reason people didn’t want to try new beers is because they were afraid of making the wrong choice. That’s not a personal problem, that’s a packaging problem,” Koga said. Barebottle’s other packaging maintains this clear marketing strategy, too.
Eventually, however, Galaxy Dust’s success presented a resource problem. Galaxy hops became increasingly desirable, and thus increasingly difficult to find. “We had not thought a ton about hop contracts,” Koga said.Barebottle was in a bind. Its accounts wanted more Galaxy Dust IPA, but it couldn’t fulfill the demand. So Koga and his colleagues had to get creative, spinning out new “Dust” branded hazy IPAs, like Citra Dust, to utilize different hops while keeping its customers happy. Koga said that the accounts ultimately stuck with Barebottle’s new beers, a credit to the brewery’s creativity and quality.
With all those different beers moving back and forth, Koga has come to rely on Kegshoe for keeping track of Barebottle’s kegs, a key part of the production chain of an ever-expanding brewery. Kegshoe’s technology has been a big help to keeping Barebottle’s operations running smoothly, Koga said. If Barebottle notices that they are short, say, five gallon kegs, Fulfillment Manager, Alex Kimble, will put out an all points bulletin to his delivery team to bring those back into the brewery. “If we don’t have kegs, that means we can’t fill beer. It means we can’t empty that tank. It means we can’t brew into that tank tomorrow. Everything is a work stream.”
And as a brewery owner, Koga also pulls up Kegshoe when he is traveling around the Bay Area meeting with accounts. Seeing where kegs are allows him to have a business development tool right in his pocket: “I’m going to choose the place that has bought beer most recently and go in to talk to them,” Koga said.
With bars and restaurants in California closed due to the ongoing epidemic, Barebottle has reacted quickly: their beer can now be purchased online for home delivery, and their taprooms have been kept open for pickup and takeaway orders. This includes their Santa Clara taproom — Barebottle’s first expansion outside of San Francisco — which officially opened in January.
Barebottle today churns out beer after beer, endeavoring to come up with three to four new recipes a week. Last year, it produced 180 unique beers, with batches at a minimum of 600 gallons. The recipes are still on full display with each release, creativity open for replication.
Barebottle hasn’t made any Galaxy Dust IPA in two years, but Koga still sees it as central to the brewery’s origin story.
“It forced us to find new hops and new combinations,” he said. “It forced us to be creative.”