Santa Barbara’s Biggest Beer Geeks

From Belgian Ales to Defiant Pales, Beer Aficionados Offer a Toast to Their Imbibing Passion

Santa Barbara’s
Biggest Beer Geeks

From Belgian Ales to Defiant Pales,
Beer Aficionados Offer a Toast

to Their Imbibing Passion

By George Yatchisin | Photos by Ingrid Bostrom
June 29, 2023

Veronica Navarron and Erick Moore | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Check out this year’s ‘Indy Hops’ locations here.

They sing the praises of Saaz. They’ll give you a look if you confuse Pliny the Younger with Pliny the Elder. They have carboys and they know what to do with them. Saccharomyces cerevisiae isn’t just Latin to them. 

Welcome to a handful of Santa Barbara beer geeks, none of whom shied away from the term. They frequent our region’s breweries and beer halls, not just in search of the new, but suggesting what places should brew or tap and eager to share their passion for craft beer. You will see them decked out in T-shirts and caps, looking like they are ready to root at a college ballgame. But sometimes it’s just this, as one subject confessed: “Twice I bought a sweatshirt because I got cold on the patio and didn’t want to leave.”

Meet some of Santa Barbara’s biggest beer geeks. 

Veronica Navarro

Veronica Navarro | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Asked to name her favorite hops, Veronica Navarro recites a list that borders on a mystical chant — Citra, Saaz, Liberty, Riwaka, Cryo Hops. A self-admitted hophead, Navarro jokes, “I love to taste all the different hops, the more the bitter.” Her keen palate can savor the distinctions between Riwaka’s herbal and earthy notes versus Liberty’s more resiny character, for instance. Navarro has lived in Santa Barbara for two decades. She fell in love with craft beer working for Barrelhouse 101 in Ventura and since has been sure to not miss local festivals like Surf ’n’ Suds and Zoo Brew.

As part of the beer biz, Navarro insists it’s “very important to me to rep breweries to spread the love to all the hopheads and beer enthusiasts,” so you will see her decked out in gear from her favorites, such as MadeWest and Institution. She doesn’t have a home tap system (“yet,” she is sure to add), but her fridge is regularly stocked with sours — so she isn’t just a hophead — pales, and IPAs. Her family digs her obsession, mostly. She admits, “Sometimes I have to tone it down and hide my beers.”

Her white whale is the Lawson’s Finest Liquids Sip of Sunshine, an 8 percent DIPA out of Stratford, CT. It’s one of those beers made in homage to a previous, even less-available beer called Double Sunshine, made in Vermont, but that’s how beer geekery goes — it’s all about history, roots, connections. The Californian in Navarro makes her cherish the beer’s name; the IPA lover makes her thirst for its hop bill that stars Citra, which she values for its “bright citrus kick that is still approachable and easy to drink.”

How important is beer to her? Well, it’s not just what she loves to drink; it’s her job. She’s the market manager and beer rep for MadeWest Brewing Company.

Mark Belding

Mark Belding has been home-brewing for more than 10 years, so at this point if he attends a festival, he’s generally on the serving side of the table, pouring home-brewed beer of his own or from fellow home-brewers from Santa Barbara Brewing Society and Ventura Independent Beer Enthusiasts (VIBE). This proud half-Kiwi electrical engineer at Sonos also had a very local beer “Aha!” moment. After finishing a long bike ride with friends at Dutch Garden, he ordered the Belgian dark strong ale Gulden Draak. “It was so much better than any of my previous negative experiences with light lagers,” he says. “Just like that, I became a Belgian beer fan! Gulden Draak is still one of my favorite beers.”

While he claims his “palate perceives high hop levels as either unpleasantly bitter, grassy, or both,” he relishes “the yeast character, malt flavors, and boozy nature of Belgian strong ales.” That makes Third Window an easy choice for his favorite local spot, although his home is also stocked with St. Bernardus Abt 12, tripel, and Prior 8; Chimay Blue; La Fin du Monde; Gulden Draak, of course; and, perhaps a bit more surprisingly, Firestone Walker 805 (for when a high-alcohol beer is the wrong call).

Raising a son who just completed 9th grade also keeps him busy, but his son understands his dad’s obsession. “My son has fun buying me beer-themed shirts as gifts and updating the beer inventory chalkboard in my kitchen,” Belding says. “He even helps with some of the home-brewing work sometimes.”

Belding also likes to hit the road for beer. “You just can’t beat the in-person experience of visiting a brewery,” he says. “It’s fresher beer, styles that you can only get there, and sometimes a chance to nerd out about brewing with the house brewer.”

Travis Crowe

For Travis Crowe, beer is all about curiosity and community. “One of the things I love about beer is the huge diversity of styles and flavors, so I try not to spend too much time on one style,” the materials engineer who lives in Goleta explains. “I like to switch up my beer order whenever possible.” It saddens him to think how many wonderful varieties of malt- and yeast-forward styles end up getting neglected.

His favorite local brewery for variety is Third Window. “What initially caught my attention when they first opened was their surprisingly diverse lineup of beers that amazingly did not include a single IPA,” he recalls. “I am not anti-IPA, but I appreciated that as a pretty bold and refreshingly different direction for a new brewery at the time.” He does point out they’ve certainly brewed IPAs since, despite their Belgian-style focus, but concludes, “The beer was excellent, and the staff were all awesome.”

Although he remembers no come-to-Malty-Jesus moment, it was his last year in college at Cal Poly when he began to realize that there was more to beer than the typical domestic light lager and began exploring different beers. That led to collecting, so that his “cellar,” which he confesses is just the shelves in his kitchen, probably holds about 300 bottles.

As he’s not a hophead (since hop-forward beers generally need to be drank fresh), he does highly value letting ales age. In general, he finds aged beer, wines, and cheeses interesting, saying “I would love to go to Belgium and try some 40-year-old lambic. I think what makes this type of thing so interesting to me is that it has a profound effect on the flavor and there’s also no way to shortcut it. A 40-year-old beer takes 40 years to make.”

Erik Moore

Erik Moore at Validation Ale | Ingrid Bostrom

Erik Moore came to the area in 1985 to attend UC Santa Barbara and then never left, so it’s only fitting his first great beer moment takes place in I.V. To celebrate graduation, he and his roomies bought a keg of Bass — the British import was exotic then. He reminisces, “We were the kings of I.V. until it was tapped out.” It was also in I.V. where he originally bought beer supplies from Rafael Maldonado’s basement shop. Home brew is so important to Moore’s story that it was the only beer served at his wedding 30 years ago.

His house now has a full-size kegerator with four taps, but, he’s sad to report, “The lockdown meant I had to drink all the beer I made, as there were no guests and I fell out of the habit of seasonal brewing.”

He admits he’s a hophead, to the point he has even felt Arrogant Bastard, one of the hoppiest beers around when released, seems malty to him these days. West Coast IPAs are his favorites, ever since he made his first batch at a class at the now-gone Telegraph Brewing. “From adjuncts in the water to keeping the malt bill simple, you can really see how to tweak the recipe to make the hops shine,” he says. “I love that bright, clean, hop-forward flavor, and there are so many hop varieties now.”

You are just as likely to see Moore in a concert hall as in a brewery, given that beyond his day job at UCSB — he now manages the campus’s newest classroom building, the Interactive Learning Pavilion — he used to work at Campbell Hall and still works at the Lobero Theatre. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to get to a festival or two. For years he, volunteered at the Oregon Brewers Festival. He happily remembers, “I poured for one long eight-hour shift and basically drank the world’s beer for free for three days.”

Alex Dragos & James Dalton

Alex Dragos and James Dalton are beer buddies joined at the Instagram account @dasbeerreview. As you might guess, they specialize in German styles: pilsners, helles, lagers — as Dalton puts it, “They are so steeped in tradition.” Their job, as they see it on IG, is to bring the #beerporn, so each post leads with a gorgeous photo and then a tasting description. “We love the culture, community, and enthusiasm of craft beer in Santa Barbara,” Dalton explains. So they want to extol all its virtues. Ask them to mention a favorite spot and the list goes on, from the Brewhouse to Institution Ale, with a big shout-out to Lama Dog for the range of California craft they offer.

It was an international trip that highlights the Das Beer Review experience so far. In 2018, a year into their project, Dragos and Dalton visited Germany and landed private tours at Ayinger and Augustiner. “It was so cool to be able to go slow and see the whole process,” Dalton recalls. “It was a trip of a lifetime.” So much so that one of their pours there is still their Holy Grail — an Ayinger Unfiltered Seasonal Zwickelbier. Dalton enthuses, “You heard angels saying, ‘This is it!’ when you drank it.”

Dalton is an educator who has lived in the area for 30 years; Dragos, part of environmental consulting group Blue Tomorrow, has been in Santa Barbara for 20. During COVID, they ran a beer delivery service for people who didn’t want to leave their houses. Now they are working on taking that knowledge to get licensing for a Das Beer Review beer club. The goal will be to help make available hard-to-find beers. “Our love of beer is sincere,” Dalton says. “If it’s a beer we like, we’re going to buy a shirt to advertise.”

Fernando Prado

Fernando Prado’s love for craft beer goes back to the 1990s, when he discovered Sierra Nevada. And although he typically allows new breweries a few months to overcome their growing pains, he was blown away from day one at Draughtsmen Aleworks. Not surprisingly, they recommended him as part of this story, writing: “Fernando quickly became part of the Draughtsmen family. He had a fierce love of beer — not just drinking it, but understanding it. He would have in-depth conversations about the ins and out of how something was created or how a flavor profile came to be.”

That’s not a huge surprise, given he’s an avid homebrewer himself, creating Warrior Monkey Brewing. He’s easy to spot at the many beer festivals he likes to attend, with his signature blue goatee, either pouring his own ales or working the booth for the Santa Barbara Brewing Society, billed as “a home-brew club based on beer … but welcoming to all fermentables.” Prado helped start the group, for as much as he loves beer, he adores his hometown too. As Draughtsmen added, “He is an example of a leader in our community that goes above and beyond for his friends, family, and employees and community, quietly and humbly giving back.”

Prado works at Santa Barbara Paint Depot, a family-owned business, when not brewing or raising a pint with friends. He’s open to all styles of beer, insisting his desires “depend on my moods and the season. Now that summer is coming, my preference is a light, clean, crisp all-day drinker.”

He has a soft spot for another alcoholic beverage too, admitting, “I’m also a tequila connoisseur. My family on my mother’s side came from a small town called Tequila, so I know all tequila. As I would say, I am the self-proclaimed ‘Tequila Grandmaster.’ ”

Carey Villaseñor

Carey Villasenor | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Navy veteran Carey Villaseñor has a true love story with beer — he met his wife at Figueroa Mountain. “I’m very fortunate to have a wife who enjoys beer and understands the quest to find my next obsession,” he says, “so much so that she gifted me a fridge for my ‘investments.’ ” Those investments include pours from both coasts, as a friend brings him goodies back from Connecticut and Massachusetts. That said, his home tap system is currently pouring Defiance Pale from the Brewhouse, “for those days I can’t get down there.” 

When he lived in Japan while in the Navy, he fell in love with the clean, crisp beers produced there. “But it was the Asahi Black that flipped a switch in me and introduced me to a more complex style of beer,” he specifies. “It was the ‘Aha!’ moment.” That love for lagers is back in force currently, too. He claims, “In the past I was an ‘IPA-all-day’ guy but have evolved over the past year toward a lighter style of beers.”

It’s not surprising that Fig Mountain’s Lagerville in Buellton is one of the festivals he most enjoys. “I certainly enjoy attending the festivals that offer something different, with a mix of small producers and local offerings alike.” He’s also been to Zoo Brew and the hard-to-get-into Firestone Invitational in Paso Robles. And he looks forward to the chance to attend the granddaddy of them all, the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, at some point.

Always in search of complexity, Villaseñor also enjoys single-malt scotch and especially wine. “I have one of the best jobs in the world as brand ambassador for Zaca Mesa Winery,” he says. “I oversee sales for all of California and get to drink great wine every day! How could I ever complain?”

Jeff Sieck

You know you’ve spotted a true beer aficionado when they say something like, “How can you not love a place with multiple saisons on tap?” That’s Jeff Sieck’s take on Third Window, one of his local go-tos, along with Figueroa Mountain. While it was a college trip to a German biergarten that opened his eyes to the sudsy stuff, he’s a huge advocate for local breweries, asserting, “They live and work in our communities, and I think local breweries are really at the heart of brewing historically, so I try to support local brewers.”

Sieck, an IT project manager at the Chumash Casino Resort, is an avid home-brewer. He most delights in lagers, such as German dunkels, schwarzbier, and Belgian farmhouse ales, and turned to crafting them himself 20 years ago when those styles weren’t readily available in the States. “I love trying lagers at taprooms because there’s nothing to hide behind,” he points out. “You can’t hide flaws behind a ton of hops.”

Married with three daughters, Sieck jokes that his wife puts up with his beer obsession because “She is a kind and generous woman. Also, my love for beer is not my worst trait, so it flies a bit under the radar!” It’s not a single-minded obsession, either, as he crafts his own bitters for the cocktails he likes to concoct and makes limoncello “based on a recipe I got in Tuscany from a 6’6″, 65-year-old Italian sommelier named Gigi.”

Clearly travel is important to him, too. For instance, while he’s had the abbey classic Westvleteren XII (one of the world’s rarest) in bottle, he says, “Sometimes I wish I’d stayed strong and waited to go to Belgium to try it there. I feel like I cheated — but I’d probably do it again. I think that might still be my Holy Grail: to have a Westvleteren at Brouwerij de Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren.”

Cheers to Beer. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom


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