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Ceja Brothers Open Sonoma Brewery

Family known for California vineyards and winery undertakes new beer endeavor

by Andrew Adams
ceja brewing company
Ceja Brewing Co. is leasing space from Ceja Vineyards.
Sonoma, Calif.—The Carneros Brewing Co. is the culmination of three years of work by the Ceja brothers, but it was the life-long goal of one brother in particular.

In 1987, Jesus Ceja graduated from the brewing program at the University of California, Davis, while his two older brothers were tending the 13 acres of vines they had just planted. Ceja would go on to rise through the ranks of the brewing world while his brothers established and expanded the family’s vineyard and wine business, Ceja Vineyards.

“You find your passion, and my passion is brewing,” Ceja says while showing off the newly opened brewery at the intersection of Highway 121 and Burndale Road on the Sonoma County side of the Carneros AVA.

After graduating from UC Davis, Ceja secured a six-month internship at Coors Brewing Co. in Golden, Colo., where he learned every aspect of brewing on an industrial scale. “What I did there was just phenomenal,” he said.

Brewing with the big boys
Ceja then worked with a yeast company gaining a thorough understanding of yeast propagation and development. He said yeast plays a far more important role in achieving the sought-after flavor profile in brewing than in winemaking. In 1996, Ceja joined Anheuser Busch, where he worked as a brewmaster and later traveled the world establishing breweries and sourcing raw materials for brewing. “It was a lot of fun,” he said.

But after Belgian brewer InBev bought out Anheuser-Busch in a $52 billion deal in 2008, Ceja left the company to pursue his life-long ambition of running his own brewery with his brothers, Pedro and Armando, who still help run Ceja Vineyards, and Manuel, a mechanical engineer in Los Angeles, Calif.

The brewery in Carneros is far smaller than what Ceja was working with at A-B. He said he found the seven-barrel brew system in Florida, where a chain of brewpubs had dropped the “brew” from their business model. The system had been manufactured in Santa Rosa, Calif., by a company that’s now defunct.

Since their start in the late 1980s, the Cejas’ wine business has expanded to 113 acres of vines in Carneros, Napa Valley and the Sonoma Coast. The winery produces 10,000 cases of wine and operates a tasting room in downtown Napa, Calif.

Armando Ceja makes the wines and offers custom crush at the same property where the brewery is located. Jesus Ceja said Carneros Brewing Co. is leasing its space from Ceja Vineyards, and workers are finishing a larger production space and hospitality area for the brewery.

The current brew house is set up with four temperature-controlled fermentation tanks. Ceja said fermentation takes five to seven days to complete, and once the beer is finished it’s carbonated in a pressurized tank in a 35°F cold room.

Brewing for balance
Jesus Ceja
Jesus Ceja, brewmaster and principal at the new Ceja Brewing Co., says 5%-20% of the hops he uses are estate grown.
Ceja said the plan is to build the brand locally and then eventually expand both production and distribution. The brewery makes a Cerveza Pilsner, Jefe-weisen, Morena Ale, Carneros IPA and a Negra IPA. Ceja said he is looking to make beers that have plenty of flavor but are not so extreme that they don’t pair well with food. 

The beer names reflect the family’s Mexican heritage, something that has defined the Ceja brand in the wine industry and also sets them apart in the small but fast-growing world of craft beer. Of the more than 2,300 craft breweries in the United States, the Cejas say only three are owned by Latinos.

The brewery has a couple of restaurant draft accounts, and demand is growing quickly. In addition to kegs and growlers, Ceja said he plans to sell beer in ceramic 22-ounce bottles within a few weeks. The brewery includes a tasting area that’s open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day of the week.

Some of the hops used for the Cejas’ beer are grown on site. Ceja said he’s growing CTZ, Saaz and Hallertau hops. He added that about 5% to 20% of the hops he uses are estate grown.  “The malt is the body and soul of the beer, and the hops are the spice,” he said.

One popular trend in craft brewing is the use of barrels or casks to age beers. Ceja said in the future he plans to brew some special seasonal offerings that will include cask-aged beers and Belgian lambic beers.

The brewery will host an opening party Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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