Just when it seemed like the craft-beer scene here couldn’t flow any faster, Institution Ale Company opened on State Street in February, reminding Santa Barbarans of what they never knew they were missing.
Since opening their doors inside the former home of Pierre Lafond and Caffe Primo, Institution has been bustling, with customers spilling out into the front patio and packing the place until the midnight closing time. It could be the welcoming all-glass doors that advertise a vibrant scene inside, or the promise of hot pretzels and pizza, or just the need for another brewery in the heart of State Street, mere blocks away from Night Lizard and The Cruisery. All of these factors add to their success, but it really hinges on one key reality: The beer is delicious.
“I think we do things the right way, which people respect,” said co-owner Shaun Smith, who owns the business with his brother, Ryan, and father, Roger Smith. “We are family owned and operated and passionate about the quality of our beer and food. Many local bars and restaurants have shown their support by carrying our beer on tap, which is awesome to see and I think is a win-win for everyone. We’re stoked to share our beer with such a great community.”
The Camarillo-based brewery specializes in American-style ales and pours 14-20 beers on tap at a time to please many a palate. They have about six permanent, well-loved handles, such as their classic West Coast–style Institution IPA, a refreshing German-inspired RX Pilsner, and the crisp White Walls White IPA. The rest are a rotating selection of seasonal or one-off beers, which have included fun flavors such as Pink-Guava Day Dreamin,’ an invigorating golden ale, or the Flue, a full-bodied porter brewed with smoked malt and habaneros. This array of flavors spices things up for folks like me, who tend to latch on hard to a brewery they love, and keeps things exciting for the brewers as well.
“The beauty of being an independent brewery with family ownership is being able to brew what we love to drink,” explained Smith. “If some beers don’t sell well, I can live with that, because it sure beats having to brew beers just because somebody else told you to or because you need to brew it for business reasons.”
The contagious love for what they do trickles down to the staff as well, who, even on the busiest nights, have shown nothing but ultra-friendly customer service, offering tastes, recommendations, and smiles with every beer. “It takes a ridiculous amount of hard work from our team, but the end result is always super rewarding,” said Smith.
The tasting room also fills a need that many breweries overlook: food. Their soft pretzels hit the spot, arriving warm, doughy, and lightly salted with a delicious duo of IPA mustard and spicy cheese sauce. The thin-crust pizzas feature satisfying classics, like margherita and pepperoni, as well as rotating specials, such as the enticing Spicy Honey Bacon, featuring marinara, mozzarella, goat cheese, bacon, red onions, cilantro, and a spicy honey drizzle.
The original location opened in Camarillo in September 2013 near the famous mental institution, which is where they got the idea for “Institution” as well as their aptly titled brews, such as “Whispers to Screams.” But despite the names, there’s nothing eerie at all about this brewery. With friendly service, consistently delectable brews, and tasty food served in a lively atmosphere, consider me “committed.”
Buckles ’n’ Brews 2019
Institution Ale is one of 30 craft breweries pouring for just 500 guests at the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum (129 Castillo St.) on Saturday, April 20, at the third annual Buckles ’n’ Brews Invitational Beer Festival. There’s also live music, a best-dressed cowboy and cowgirl contest, and an early-entry VIP session. Get tickets at bucklesandbrews.com.
516 State St.; (805) 482-3777; institutionales.com