When you open a brewery in or around San Francisco, you make do with what’s financially feasible.
That’s exactly what Viet Vu, 43, and his brother Giap did when they opened Hoi Polloi Brewing (in Berkeley back in May of 2014. (Happy anniversary, guys!) They had looked for a place in the City but couldn’t afford the rent and it seemed difficult so they started exploring options in the East Bay. The brothers had lived in Concord and spent a lot of time in Oakland as kids so it was only natural for them to go back to their roots. One day, they came across their current spot in the Lorin District of South Berkeley. It was an empty shell with no electricity and no water, but they knew it had potential and the rent was cheap.
“The area was growing and we knew it was going to take off within a few years,” Viet said. “Now we are on that track.”
The brothers brewed beer in their Berkeley location until March 2017, at which point they had outgrown their brewing/seating capacity and needed to move their brewing activities to a bigger location. They sold off all their original brewing equipment to a company in Japan and off they went to a bigger brewing facility located in Oakland. They never wanted to get into any sort of contract brewing because Viet said they always want to be in full control through the entire brewing process. They brewed their first batch in Oakland in February 2017. There, they currently have a 7-barrel system with 4 fermenters —enough to supply their Berkeley taproom for the time being.
But how do you go from being a full-time paralegal (until 2010) for a big bank to being a full-time brewer for your own brewery? Well, let’s just say there was a little bit of a learning curve. Viet attended the WBA Master Brewer Program created by the faculty of Doemens Academy and the Siebel Institute in Chicago followed by practical training in Germany. The course takes several months to complete and requires real dedication. Nice work, Viet!
But Viet and his brother didn’t get their passion for beer by mistake. Their dad was also heavily involved in the craft beer scene and was a brewer for other breweries across the country for many years. The brothers put a big emphasis on remaining true to the traditional brewing process for each kind of beer they produce and try to maintain a good variety of brews on tap in their Berkeley taproom. “We try to stay as close to the real thing as possible,” Viet said. He is obviously influenced by his experience in Germany and enjoys good lagers and pilsners on his own drinking time as well.
The future? They are thinking of opening a bigger facility which would have a taproom and a brewery attached. They will, however, keep their original location as they have grown with the community and do not want to let go of what made them who they are today. They are also open to opening a taproom in another city depending on locale availability, but nothing is in the works yet.
Viet said that, no matter what, their focus is to remain a small, hyperlocal brewery. By the way, Hoi Polloi means the masses. Interpret that however you like. He said that bigger breweries have a hard time thriving in the current environment because the competition is really stiff and people don’t seem to have a sense of brand loyalty anymore. “People want to drink beer where they live,” he said. “A few miles from their home at the most.”
You may be a little bit farther away than the few miles Viet is talking about as you are reading this, but I encourage you to pay them a visit. It’s a very small spot and pretty crowded during peak hours, but there is a great atmosphere and the beer is on point! Try to get your hands on the Defender Adachi IPA if you can. It’s delicious!