The Bay Area’s Fieldwork Brewing Company
Legend has it that in ye olde days, people drank beer because it was safer than water. Albeit, this is a medieval-era myth, from an age of plagues and egregious class disparity. My, have times—not!—changed. Good thing is, we had beer to get us through the past 18 months, and Fieldwork Brewing Company helped us make it to the pandemic finish line.
Established in 2015, Fieldwork Brewing Company is a craft brewery with a decidedly Bay Area footprint, with taprooms and beer gardens reaching from Corta Madera and Napa in the North Bay to Berkeley—where it’s brewed—and San Ramon in the East Bay to San Mateo in the South Bay, with Monterey and Sacramento thrown in for good measure.
Fieldwork scored bonafides not just for its brews but for its business: Fieldwork is the 10th fastest-growing private company on San Francisco Business Times’ “100 Fastest Growing Private Companies in the Bay Area” 2018 list, and Inc. Magazine ranked Fieldwork at No. 604 on its 2019 Inc. 5,000 list of “America’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies.”
And then the pandemic hit. But the beer never stopped flowing.
“When it hit, when the shelter-in-place hit, we all got together and we just said, ‘Well, what can we do? What under the health order are we able to do, and let’s go do it?’” says owner and co-founder Barry Braden. “I think that we probably mostly benefited from just the people who we count as guests—and friends—who just support us and enjoy the beer. We got by on home delivery, loading up people’s cars and dropping beer on people’s porches.”
Beer delivery—the ultimate pivot.
“I think it helped us stay connected with our regular folks who we see all the time in the tap rooms, and managed to keep our sense of fellowship and community that we want to aspire to because honestly, what a year! It was just nothing like I’ve ever seen before in my life and I hope to never see again,” says Braden, who has an affable and easy demeanor—and not just because of his inherent, brewery-owner “cool,” but also because it’s clear he truly cares. Inasmuch as Fieldwork is ostensibly a beer company, it’s also a “people company.”
Throughout the pandemic, Fieldwork retained more than 80% of its staff. It also retained its market share. What’s the secret ingredient?
That Braden and his partners actually give a shit is readily apparent, even to a crusty, seen-it-all reporter. “We have an amazing team, and they executed at the highest level, and they did it with a lot of poise and professionalism in a really, really, really crappy time,” Braden says.
“The pandemic certainly took its toll on many in our industry, and not only from our brewery colleagues, but also bar and restaurant folks who are still feeling the effects and will probably be feeling the effects for the rest of the year,” he says. “We were fortunate that our seven locations did very well through the pandemic. We’re even, year over year, which I don’t think there’s a lot of businesses that could say that.”
There are also not a lot of businesses that can say they’ve just launched a philanthropic venture. This June, the beer biz announced the establishment of the Fieldwork Community Fund Committee, led by Fieldwork staff members with the mandate that they donate funds to noteworthy local non-profit organizations.
“It keeps us up at night—we always have to try to figure out how to be a better company and a good corporate citizen,” says Braden, who convened a crew of more than 10 Fieldwork team members from various locations, each of whom nominates a non-profit to the committee’s vote.
Among the 11 non-profits receiving donations locally is Corta Madera’s Ritter Center, which received a $2,500 donation to support its food pantry efforts—the largest in Marin—serving 3,000 households annually with the distribution of 22,000 bags of groceries. The Ritter Center also offers case management, medical and behavioral health services, as well as 2,000 laundry and 8,000 shower appointments each year.
Another local beneficiary is the SF-Marin Foodbank—also in Corte Madera—which, during Covid, operated 29 pop-up pantries and provided weekly deliveries to 12,000+ seniors and groceries to 55,000 households. Fourteen percent of people served are homeless, with 60% of food offered being fresh produce. Fieldwork’s donation brought 4,000 meals to those in need. Napa’s VOICES Youth Programs, which supported Napa County foster youth during Covid, also received support from the brewery.
Besides being available on draft at their own locations and local craft beer-focused restaurants and bars, Fieldwork brews are also available in cans.
“We were canning on a small basis before the pandemic, and the cans would come and go pretty quick,” Braden says. “We don’t want the brewing team to get bored, so our primary objective is to keep rotating beers through and bring back some old favorites and listen to the customers in terms of what they like, but also let the brewers brew what they want to brew. The pandemic certainly brought us into a place where we were canning more than we imagined we would.”
At the time of this interview, Fieldwork was selling about 80,000 cans a month, but as the Bay Area continues to open up, Braden anticipates more people returning to drafts at their local Fieldwork taproom or beer garden.
“We ordered a canning line in November of 2019, and that literally showed up and was installed three weeks before the shelter-in-place order,” Braden says. “We had no idea. It was just serendipity that we had ordered this thing.”
Serendipity, or the result setting one’s intentions?
“A lot of it, I think, comes from what you want to be,” Braden says. “What did you set out to do when you started the business? We set out to build an enduring company, one that we could get our employees involved in and help contribute to their retirement to make sure they’re taken care of health insurance-wise and wellness and all those things and build a company that we can be proud of.”
Cheers to that.