One of Sacramento's newest breweries—and only the second production brewery on the grid—talks beer, business, and big dreams.
In September of 2016, one of Sacramento’s newest breweries opened its doors: Big Stump Brew Co. Founded by Downtown Sacramento residents Alex and Larissa Larrabee, Big Stump’s taproom and entire brewing operation are located at 1716 L Street in what was a furniture store dating back to the 1930s, but which is now owned by Old Soul Co.
Big Stump, named for both Sacramento’s political prominence and its urban forest, was designed to appeal to the tastes and passions of Downtown Sacramento: Dogs (and children) are welcome, you can bring your own food from any of Sacramento’s many great downtown restaurants, and it features the diversity of beers that Sacramento’s customer base demands.
Unsurprisingly, Big Stump immediately caught the public’s attention, and has been featured in the Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Business Journal. Somehow, Alex and Larissa have managed to quickly grow Big Stump into a thriving business, despite the husband and wife team both holding down day jobs: Alex is a practicing lawyer specializing in consumer class actions and commercial litigation, and Larissa working for Gap, Inc. as an inventory planner and analyst.
On a recent Tuesday in June, I sat down with Alex, Larissa, and Big Stump’s sales manager Patrick Nash—over a pint, of course—to learn more about Big Stump, why they chose Sacramento, the challenges of staying competitive in California’s competitive brewing industry, and what lays in store for Big Stump Brew Co.
Alex: This was my hobby actually. I think a lot of people started [this way]: I got a ‘make your own beer’ kit.
Larissa: Before that though, you were always a big connoisseur of beer and wine and really interested in the processes. So I think as you got more interested in the process, that’s when you got really antsy to make your own.
Alex: It was a pretty quick scaling up. We did the first… you mix the extract with the water on your stove top…
Me: I’ve got a couple friends who’ve done that. What’s really fun is when it boils over.
Alex: Oh yeah yeah. Definitely happened.
Larissa: That’s when I became part of the project!
Alex: We did about two of those, and then I was like, “This isn’t cutting it. We’re gonna buy an all-grain system. The bug got me really quick.
Me: What about it appealed to you?
Alex: The science side, and the art as well. I think the science is the biochem and the technical process, but the art is really ingredient selection. It’s also enjoyable, and everyone likes alcohol.
Me: Had you ever had an interest with cooking?
Alex: Yeah, I’m the chef and she’s the baker in the relationship, I would say. Always been a big foodie growing up in SF as a kid. Lots of opportunities [for exposure to diverse culinary tastes]. I was in law school and started going to Russian River in Santa Rosa. Back then you could still get in! That also kind of showed me how good it could be. It was a big inspiration for us, I would say. She also just kept saying, “Yes,” at all of these junctures. And that’s how it got started.
Alex: A healthy tolerance for risk. No! [laughs]
Larissa: I think that one was two-fold. We were both working corporate [jobs], and Alex came home one day and said, “If we’re working this hard, I want to work for ourselves.” And I said, “Well okay, what do you want to do?” And he goes, “Let’s open a brewery!” Not exactly the answer I thought I’d get from him, but it had been a hobby for such a long time and something that was clearly a passion.
Alex: We’d just read Tony Magee from Lagunitas, his autobiography, and so I think that had a little bit to do with it.
Larissa: We made a deal, and that deal was, “Okay, if we’re really serious about this… Alex decided to enter into a series of Northern California homebrew competitions, to start getting some feedback on his beers. Which was really great, because with homebrew [competitions], it’s very technical. You have to follow certain styles and guidelines. We decided to move out of San Francisco at that time. Save up some money by moving here. And during this time he’d enter into all of the homebrew competitions. And he just kept on bringing home gold medals. In 2014, Alex won Best of Show for his hefeweizen [at the California State Fair].
[According to a 2014 News 10 broadcast, Larrabee bested nearly 700 competitors with his Haight St. Hefeweizen, which is now one of Big Stump’s staple products.]
Alex: We incorporated in… fall of 2014.
Larissa: So it was just right after the State Fair. We were working with banks…
Alex: Investors and banks started getting interested at that point, because there are a lot of home brewers that pitch projects, but unless you can hang your hat on something, it’s hard to generate a lot of interest.
[Winning the State Fair] gives you credibility… There are so many breweries and so much quality beer in California, and so just getting noticed is a big part of the picture as well.
Larissa: You have to be positive and work hard to get where you want to be.
Alex: I think there’s always room for real high quality product though.
Larissa: If you’re still open, you’re successful. You go through a time where it’s really terrifying and that you have to make a lot of really hard decisions, and so for all the breweries around here that have opened and have their following and are operational, that’s really incredible, and I respect everyone that’s done it.
Larissa: We did a lot of research on this actually. We decided we needed to move out of San Francisco—it’s just too expensive. But really, we didn’t have to go anywhere in particular, we weren’t bounded. So Alex did a ton of market research on [various cities]: “What’s the ‘per capita?’ Do people drink beer? How many breweries are currently in the area?”
Alex: If you look at comparable markets, Sacramento’s the fourth largest metropolitan area in California, with San Diego being the third. San Diego’s got three times as many breweries than Sacramento.
Larissa: Two years ago there was even way less than there are now.
Alex: Yeah, we knew we wanted to be downtown, as well. We come from bigger city life, I think.
Larissa: I used to live on the Grid, so we really like walking. We wanted to very much be a part of the community. That was really important for us.
Alex: And that was before it had really heated up with the [Golden 1 Center], so we felt like there was a lot of opportunity and great spaces like this. Although, this was law offices, with stucco from the 80s and drywall covering all the brick and wood and everything.
We looked at a lot of places.
Larissa: We came close to a couple deals. But nothing that we could really finalize. We got really fortunate.
Alex: Financing came together and this place came on the market.
Larissa: Actually, we were just walking and we saw the lease sign… We obviously met the Old Soul team and we had a lot of discussions with them and it ended up being a really great space for us.
Alex: Craig Hausman, who is the man.
Larissa: He was awesome. And for us, what was so alluring about the space was just the originality of it, that is part of Sacramento and part of the culture and a specific point in time that was unchanged. The ceiling’s original, the walls are original. We did a ton of demo to get it back to this point.
Alex: Oh, it took some vision.
Me: Tell me about the history of the building. It was built when?
Alex: 1930. It was a high-end furniture store originally. It had a Moroccan/Spanish kind of theme on the front. Actually, we unearthed these series of concrete arches that have been covered up for about 50 years, and the center arch was the original doorway to 15 foot swinging doors in the middle, and there was stained glass in the smaller arches.
Larissa: The tile floors are actually original as well. That was really important for us to preserve them, so we didn’t take anything out.
Me: I noticed that some of the tiles are decorated.
Alex: Yeah, the fleur-de-lis. Actually, that’s where we get [our beer] Lion’s Crown from—there’s the lion with the crown on one of the tiles.
Well one thing also, just going back to why we decided on here and being properly in Sacramento on the Grid, there’s also a lot of opportunity for us to be not only part of the community, but partner with the community. And that was important for us. And for the Sacramento Art Walk, we have different artists who have been approaching us, and we’ve been rotating in and out different local artists so they could express their artistic creativity, and also on Sundays we have yoga at the brewery. It’s just another way to partner with the local community.
Me: Who do you partner with for that?
Larissa: Stephanie Dodds. She was kind of brought to us by another family friend and local business owner just across the street, [Capital City Beads]. The second Tuesday of every month we partner with her, and we have a “Beads and Brew” class. And so every month she’ll pick out some kind of charm or trinket or bracelet or necklace and she leads a class here. So there’s a group of people that would probably not be our normal business customer, but it’s a great way to experience both dynamics of [the two businesses, and] this being a really cool community. That we can all come together in different ways, with different interests, and share that same experience. We’ve done some different things and are always looking for different opportunities and ideas that come our way.
Alex: The only way I’ve been able to see the numbers work is that there’s two models to make a craft brewery function as a business. One is running a taproom like this, direct to consumer. The other is wholesale distribution, pairing with DBI or someone like that, but doing an eight- to ten-fold increase in the volume [of production]. Those are very different ways to make a successful brewery. I think sometimes people try and split the difference, but you really need to base your business model off one, and then whatever your second line is, that’s just icing on the cake.
Me: If my understanding is correct, you’ve gone with the taproom model, and you’re using that as a means of stepping up into wider distribution.
Alex: Yeah, we self-distribute. California’s one of the few states where breweries are exempt from traditional three-tier distribution laws, and so we self-distribute our product right now.
Me: So basically, California’s one of the few states where you can have a guy in a pickup truck if you want.
Alex and Larissa [simultaneously, laughing] That’s Patrick right there! [Both point at Patrick, seated at a nearby table, and comes over a minute later.]
Alex: He’s the guy pounding the pavement, getting us into accounts right now, yeah.
Larissa: Right now we’re just local distributions, local grocery stores.
Alex: We’re growing right now, there’s been a lot of interest. [We’re in] Raley’s, Safeway, Corti Brothers, Compton’s, La Riviera… Patrick would know better. We have about 8 to 10 smaller, kind of boutique [outlets]… Oh yeah, Sac Co-Op and Natural Foods Co-Op. Big shout out to them.
Me: What was the very first store to sell your beer?
Alex: Curtis Park Market.
Me: A couple of the biggest stores you mentioned were Safeway and Raley’s. Those are big chains. Were you surprised at the fact you could self-distribute to them?
Larissa: They’re big entities, which is really great, but they both [source products at the individual store level].
Alex: The general managers at the stores buy the beer and have a really strong preference for local [beers].
Larissa: So you have to go to each store.
Me: What are the challenges you’ve faced in getting Big Stump’s foot in the door with some of these businesses?
Patrick: There’s just a lot of breweries out there right now. Partially, being able to build relationships, partially knowing the market and what’s going on.
Alex: We work as a team. I do the legal and regulatory compliance and Patrick [handles] the relationships and is the face of our distribution.
Larissa: And I make sure everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing!
Alex: The two main suppliers are either—there’s really not that many options actually!—are BSG and Country Malt. I think most people in the United States source their [ingredients from them]. They’re the vendors for the majority of craft breweries. They have a list, you know, if you want two-row brewers malt, they have 30 different malts.
Me: It’s pretty much a catalog.
Alex: That’s exactly right. They’re aggregators. All of the hops, with the exception of our stout, are sourced from the Pacific Northwest—Yakima Valley in Washington.
Larissa: Aside from our ingredients, we do try our very best to partner and source needs and collaborations with local businesses, obviously. It’s really important for us to work with local people and give them the chance that others have given us, being a small business.
Patrick: We did a collaboration—a coffee stout—with Old Soul for Sacramento Coffee Week last year. I think it turned out really well. It got a lot of great feedback. It was awesome because we share the building with them.
Larissa: Also, we’re [working] with a local artist that’s going to be doing our window paint for our signage. Our interior design is [the work of] a good friend—a Sacramento-based designer—Amy Aswell, who’s fantastic. That was really much a part of [creating] the taproom aesthetic. Also, [our architect] Craig Hausman is locally located downtown. Our labels are from Fruitridge Printing. So we try to source what we can locally.
Alex: [We’re planning on] making the jump to a second facility, which is kind of the three to five year plan.
Larissa: This would be all brewing and distribution.
Alex: A production facility, maybe have a small taproom out there. We’ll see.
Larissa: This is the clubhouse though.
Alex: Rubicon’s such a great inspiration to us, actually, and I think really forged a model for success in the local area. I mean, successful taproom…
Larissa: They’re the only other production brewery on the Grid. We’re the first ones to open up after 30 years, behind Rubicon. Rubicon did it 30 years ago and we’re just the next [brewery] that’s been able to crack it.
We still have a lot of steps to [navigate].
Alex: Yeah, a lot of hard work, and a lot of growth still. It’s kind of never-ending. It’s how far do you want to take it, right?
Larissa: And we try to just really acknowledge each level of accomplishment that we’ve made to get to the next.
Alex: I thought Beer Week this year, though was just… a fantastic for us.
Larissa: Definitely got us a lot more notice in the community.
Alex: We were just packed the entire week, and then that entire month was just nuts. We should have done more events, to be honest. I think we only did seven out of the ten days.
Larissa: But we had to get through our first Beer Week!
Alex: We opened with two beers… We have ten styles on tap right now. We actually need to put some more tap lines in as well. We just did an expansion and they’re already filled up.
Me: How many tap lines do you want to have within the next few months?
Alex: We’re going to put it up to 18, but I think it should be 24! The shanks and the spouts cost $100 a piece though, so if you want to have 12, that’s $1200 just for the little handle.
Me: What is your goal for one year out? Where do you want to be this time next year?
Alex: We’re going to add a food program… and then we’re looking at doing some outdoor seating with the two parking spaces, installing a parklet, actually. Sacramento has this parklet program. Instead of taking over sidewalks [with] seating and putting tables and chairs out there, the city will actually allow you to file for a permit to remove the [parking spots in front of your business], and then we can build out an outdoor—whatever that is, 10 by 40 feet across—outdoor seating area.
Larissa: Those are the two projects we’re working on.
Alex: We’re working with Craig right now on the architectural design. I think it’s a shame [the parklet program is underutilized], because the parklets would be so good for Sacramento, because people are outside, it makes it more pedestrian-friendly.
Larissa: They’re getting pretty popular in San Francisco.
Alex: There’s three or four hundred in San Francisco.
Larissa: So we also hope to be a model for the community. That people become more aware of this and other businesses possibly try to do the same.
Alex: We want to be a statement about Sacramento and be architectural, so we’re working really closely with Craig Hausman on that.
Me: Where do you see the beer scene in Sacramento being in the next five years or so?
Alex: I think we’re going to go through a lot of growth. It will be interesting to see this next generation of breweries, because I think there’s something like 10 to 20 slated for opening in the next year or two in the Sacramento area.
Unfortunately, there simply isn’t the space to publish the full interview. In the future we may post a second blog post featuring the rest of our interview, in which Alex gets “in the weeds,” (as he put it) about brewing processes, his love of sours and pilsners, balancing private passions against consumer tastes, and what’s on tap for the future.
But if you’re curious about Alex and what Big Stump has to offer, just head down to 1716 L Street in Downtown Sacramento and find out for yourself. You’ll discover that Big Stump Brew Co. is wonderfully inviting, with a staff that—when time allows—will be happy to talk shop, discuss what’s next for the brewery, and make suggestions as to which beer you should try next.