For 50 years — since he was 15 — Homer Smith has been dispensing priceless advice to the Bay Area’s home brewers and amateur vintners at Berkeley’s Oak Barrel Winecraft. In his five decades at the shop, which first opened in 1957, Smith has seen it through changes galore, including five different owners. Most recently, longtime home beer brewer and former digital marketer Stacy Stevenson has taken Oak Barrel’s helm, with a plan to bump up the longstanding shop’s social media presence, open a bottle shop and launch classes for the next generation of aspiring beer and wine makers.
Oak Barrel Winecraft
1443 San Pablo Ave. (near Page Street), Berkeley
Stevenson took over the business in November 2020, purchasing it from Bernie Rooney, who bought Oak Barrel in 1992. Back then, the business going through a rough patch financially, but the craft beer trend was just getting started. Rooney took a bet on the business, which paid off for decades. He told Nosh that he still loves the beer and wine business — which he basically learned from Smith after an initial career in commercial real estate — but was ready to move on and feeling the pressure from online retailers.
But Oak Barrel has two things no online supplier can beat: a sense of community and Smith’s vast experience.
“Everyone who started a brewery in Northern California learned home brew from Homer,” said Rooney during a recent phone call. “And no one can outshine him in wine.” You may have heard of some of his pupils; they’ve made careers out of what they learned from Smith, founding notable businesses like Rosenblum Cellars, V. Sattui Winery, Triple Rock Brewing and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Equally as important to Oak Barrel are its non-professional customers, many of which have been shopping there for decades. “The people who come here, they don’t leave,” Stevenson told Nosh from her Oak Barrel office, where she continues to work on plans for events once COVID-19 case rates drop in the area. She’s hoping to start in-store classes on brewing beer, winemaking, and cheese making when it’s safe. Eventually, she said, the shop will conduct neighborhood wine and beer tours during which participants will be able to check out local drink-makers who Smith has influenced.
Looking further ahead, Stevenson wants to open a bottle shop inside Oak Barrel, one that will sell drinks produced by former and current customers. Next fall, should conditions permit, an Oktoberfest celebration is in the works.
For now, those event plans are on hold. Even so, Oak Barrel is still bringing in new customers, many of whom have taken advantage of the extra at-home time over the past 18 months to take up a new brewing hobby.
Curt and Susan Schooling took up brewing beer in June 2020 after Susan, a teacher, bought Curt a starter kit at Oak Barrel.
“They’ve been very patient with us,” said Curt, a technology professional, over the phone. “They’re just so nice and really walk you through it.” They’ve brewed seven batches so far and enjoy sharing the fruits of their labor with friends in the yard of their Oakland home on weekends.
Meanwhile their son, Bryce, 24, began his own Oak Barrel-founded adventures with brewing when he started dabbling in mead in early 2021. “I’ve always been fascinated by it because it’s one of the earliest drinks humans created,” he said. Mead is not for those who are in a rush. “I’m still on my first batch, it’s in the process of cleaning.”
Susan says it’s brought them all closer together. “It’s a hobby together as a married couple and a family,” she said.
“It’s just a nice afternoon. When you’re brewing you can sit out there and read a book and enjoy the day,” added Curt.
Oak Barrel’s classes will commence when COVID-19 case rates allow, and will be led by Smith, Stevenson, and guest teachers. Follow Oak Barrel on Instagram for more details and a schedule. Meanwhile, stop by the store for their starter kits, which include recipes; basic to advanced equipment; grape varietals on order; bottles, barrels, and kegs; and more.