If you think that Matthew Chrestenson, a co-owner with his brother Ben of the recently opened Union Ale Brewing Company, has been a geeky hophead all his life, you’d think wrong. At a meeting one quiet Sunday morning during the establishment’s soft opening, Chrestenson related, “I absolutely did not drink beer. I was used to shitty beer my whole life; even my brother, who was a beer drinker, drank crappy beer.” Things were to change dramatically, for he said, “About a month-and-a-half before we were to open, I started sampling, and now when I taste wine, it’s not that exciting to me.”
That conversion experience is Union Ale’s goal for its customers. After a first wild weekend of business, the ale house seems to be well on its way to achieving its aims. “This idea was born in this location,” Chrestenson, a fourth-generation Santa Barbaran, claimed. “We sat here 10 months trying to figure out what would work. We did lots of market research and talked to people and figured out this would work. And now it’s the miracle of Facebook, or people are truly excited about us being here.”
Union Ale features 20 taps, offering some of the better beers in the U.S., from the perfectly balanced bitterness of Green Flash Imperial IPA to the zesty, yeasty goodness of North Coast Pranqster. Union Ale also offers four house beers-a California Pale, a Hefe Weizen, a Honey Blonde, and an IPA-made for them by Firestone. “When we started looking for a contract brewer, we tasted everybody we could in the State of California,” Chrestenson said. “We didn’t want to use Firestone as it’s not exclusive product, but for now it allows us to feel like a brew house.”
Chrestenson does have plans for the future, though. “We’re walking into this slowly. We really want to work with Central Coast Brewing, who just renovated last year and so now they have the production facilities that can handle us. They’ve got some great products,” he said. “Then, by the end of next year, we’ll be looking for a place in town where we can brew ourselves.” Other plans for the future are to introduce a series of beer cocktails.
But Union Ale isn’t just about the beer. Manager Mercy McMurry, who also joined in the conversation, said, “The food is a huge focus-it’s so good and it’s been a big hit. It’s a restaurant and bar, not mostly a bar.” As with the growing beer program, the menu is slowly building, living up to the establishment’s tagline: “American-inspired food.” That means little wrinkles in your typical beer-pub favorites: Sure there will be nachos, but they will be made with purple heirloom potato chips; yes, there will be fries, but they come with one of 10 house-made sauces such as roasted garlic gorgonzola mayo; indeed, there will be burgers, but you’ll get to choose from freshly baked daily special buns. And, in an especially homey touch, soon you’ll be able to order slices of freshly baked pies.
In the meantime, there’s beer to drink, and such a variety-from imperial porters to Belgian-style double ales-that the staff “had a beer school,” McMurry said. “One guy came and told us all about beer. The whole staff came and tasted, and smelled, and took notes. It was a really fun three hours.” Taking that knowledge and providing it to customers is half the fun, according to Chrestenson. “You give someone a good beer,” he said, “and their eyes just pop open and they smile.”
He’s also busy undoing the cliche that all beer-drinkers are male. “We’ve been trying to build a beer menu that’s more appealing to the female population,” he said. “We’ve found that they like the breakfast beers; we blew through the Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat in two nights.” Given Chrestenson has done work both for Disney and as a freelance Web designer, it’s no surprise he understands the value of packaging, too. “The only Anheuser-Busch product we sell is the Wild Blue, basically blueberry juice in a lager,” he pointed out. “But a lot of it is in the way you present it. You take away the silly bottle and put it in the right glass and it’s much more appealing.”
Union Ale also doesn’t seem to fear that the location, home to almost uncountable restaurants before, is a problem. “I think we’ve got that jinx out of here,” McMurry said. “I was on the floor a bit and heard people saying, ‘I love it here.’ And it’s a huge age group that’s coming in, from the 20-year-olds to the 60-year-olds.”
Get good grub and sop up some suds at Union Ale Brewing Company (214 State St.). Call 845-8243 or visit unionale.com.