Local brewer buys Heineken’s stake in beloved Sonoma County brewery Moonlight

In an unusual trajectory, one of the Bay Area’s most beloved craft breweries severed a partnership with a global beer company and instead took on a smaller-scale, local partner.

For the past six years, Heineken International has owned half of Moonlight Brewing, the 30-year-old Santa Rosa maker of popular beers like Death & Taxes and Reality Czeck. On Friday, Moonlight announced that it had transferred that 50% stake to Patrick Rue, the former owner of Southern California’s Bruery and current owner of Erosion, a Napa Valley wine and beer producer. .

“Moonlight is preserved,” said founder Brian Hunt, who will step back from day-to-day operations while retaining 50% ownership.

The partnership aligns two highly respected figures within the California craft beer industry. Hunt has long had a devoted fanbase among beer industry insiders for its subtle-tasting beers and refusal to jump on brewing fads. Rue has developed a cult following at the Bruery, which he founded in Orange County in 2008, through his experimental beers and exclusive membership program. He moved to Napa and started Erosion after selling a majority stake in the Bruery to a Boston private equity firm in 2017.

Rue has been drinking Moonlight beers since he was in college, he said, and has long admired Hunt’s approach. “Moonlight is a brewery that thrives despite not chasing trends, or perhaps it thrives by not following trends,” he said. As Moonlight’s half-owner now, he planned to “keep Moonlight what it is”, he said, and “provide (Hunt) resources to grow at a patient pace”.

Brian Hunt sold a 50% stake in his Moonlight Brewing to Heineken International six years ago. Now he’s passed that on to Patrick Rue, a local craft brewer.

Ramin Rahimian / Special for The Chronicle 2018

When Hunt sought a partner for Moonlight in 2016, he was looking more for a succession plan than a capital injection, he said. He wanted to find a partner who could continue the business after his retirement. He sold half of his business to Lagunitas, another Sonoma County brewery, which at the time was itself half-owned by Heineken. His main point of contact at the time was Lagunitas founder Tony Magee.

The following year, however, Heineken took full ownership of Lagunitas. Magee eventually left the company. The nature of the deal Hunt struck in 2016 suddenly changed.

For the past few months, Hunt said, he’s been looking for a new partner. He was convinced that Rue was the right person. The two men share an approach to beer production, Hunt said, centered on “art and vision.”

“I really didn’t want Moonlight to become less personal and more institutionalized,” he added.

Erosion is first and foremost a wine company, albeit an unorthodox one. Rue produces high-end canned wines, sold at a tasting room in Saint Helena. Some of its wines borrow from a craft beer philosophy, using additions of ingredients atypical for the wine industry such as cocoa nibs. He also makes a small amount of beer in Erosion.

The Erosion and Moonlight brands will remain separate, operating their respective tasting rooms in Saint Helena and Santa Rosa. No personnel changes are planned at Moonlight; Hunt’s daughter, Erin Latham-Ponneck, will remain general manager and Zach Greenwood will remain chief brewer.

Moonlight’s beers are currently only sold in Northern California, and production cannot keep up with demand, Hunt said. He hoped Rue could help update the brewery’s infrastructure to make beer production more efficient and grow the distribution footprint.

Hunt said with Rue, who is around 20 years younger than him, he could feel confident taking a step towards retirement and traveling more. “Patrick has visions of how a beer tastes,” he said. “It’s not that he said ‘we need to fill this shelf space with the kind of beer that’s missing in this portfolio.’ It speaks of vision and beauty.

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected]

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