After 36 years, Berkeley’s Triple Rock brewpub is going strong

Berkeley’s groundbreaking brewery is one of the oldest in the U.S.

A flight of Triple Rock beers can span brews from across the decades. Credit: Triple Rock/Facebook

Triple Rock Brewery and Ale House
1920 Shattuck Ave. (between Hearst Avenue and Berkeley Way), Berkeley

Reid and John Martin had a heady goal: to make and serve great beer across the bar. As pioneers in the burgeoning brewpub movement, they are a study in how to make a dream come true. Triple Rock Brewery and Ale House has been serving house-brewed beer since 1986, a forerunner in the brewpub movement that began in the 1980s. Part of its claim to fame: Triple Rock is the fifth oldest brewpub in the country. It is also the oldest U.S. brewpub still owned and operated by its original owners, or with its original equipment.

One person behind the movement — related to the coinage of the term “brewpub” — is none other than Tom Bates, California State Assembly member and Berkeley’s 21st mayor. Before 1983, it was illegal for brewers to sell their products directly to consumers. When Bates’s groundbreaking bill, AB 3610, became law on Jan. 1, 1983, it was just the second brewpub-boosting law in the country. Because of the new California law, brewers could make their own beer and serve it in their establishments, if food was also served.

A bit of microbrewery/brewpub history:

“Brewpubs had existed in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” according to local author and beer enthusiast Bill Yenne in San Francisco Beer: A History of Brewing by the Bay. “However, after Prohibition, it was illegal in most states…to both brew beer and sell it directly to the public on the same site….The first American brewpub since Prohibition was opened in Yakima, Washington, in 1982. It was America’s first brewpub in more than a century.” In California, as of July 2021, there are more than 1,000  brewpubs in operation across the state. 

The former mayor has said the legislation came about when entrepreneurs and beer enthusiasts appealed to him to change the laws affecting small craft breweries — but, on a more personal note, he recalled returning home from his military service in Germany in the early 1960s and discovering that “you couldn’t get a good beer in the United States.”

The Martin brothers began as home brewers, bottling beer in their apartment. As anyone who has tried this knows, the process of making beer can be fraught with peril. (Pro tip: bottling too soon could cause the bottled brew to explode.) In order to learn how to avoid disaster and produce good beer, Reid sought out the expertise of Professor Michael J. Lewis, the lead instructor in the Brewing Science program at UC Davis Extension. If you’re going to learn, learn from the best. (Now Professor Emeritus, Dr. Lewis is featured in a showcase that is part of  the permanent “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.) Lewis is described as being “one of the most transformational figures in the beer industry.” His brewing program “emphasized yeast fermentation science and the study of the complex processes involved in converting malted barley and hops into beer.” Triple Rock was only one of the “from-the-ground-up craft breweries” that Lewis helped design. 

A legal battle with a big brewer meant Roaring Rock became Triple Rock in 1989. Courtesy: Triple Rock

From ‘Roaring’ to ‘Triple’

Triple Rock was not literally built from the ground-up, though; the Martins’ father owned the building at 1920 Shattuck Ave. Originally slated to be a restaurant, the brothers located the necessary brewing equipment and began the arduous process of getting the required permits for a relatively new type of business. The building had to be reinforced and improved structurally. The neighbors were worried about noise. It took a lot of work to get the space into shape to open in mid-March of 1986.

Initially, they called the place Roaring Rock, but after a legal tussle with a major brewer with a similar name, they landed on Triple Rock in 1989. When asked about the choice of “rocks” for both the name of the brewery and the first three beers they produced, Reid said, “Mostly we just liked the word rock and wanted it in our name. When we had to change our name, ‘Triple’ was inspired by our three standard brews,” Red Rock Ale, Black Rock Porter and Pinnacle Pale Ale. In the early days, all their regular and special beer names were related to rocks and minerals, but as the sheer number of special beers increased, they ran out of clever rock-related names and moved on.

Triple Rock’s first brew day was Christmas 1985; the second was January 1, 1986. As with any learning curve, the first few brews were not drinkable. But when the brewery opened with the first three potable offerings, Reid and John discovered they were not ready for the demand. “It was a good problem to have,” John says. 

In the early days, Triple Rock was a regional draw; people came to see what a real brewpub was like. Before Triple Rock opened, the location on Shattuck was a “no man’s land” and the Martins were advised to start their brewery in a more industrial area of Berkeley, instead of the historic building on the north edge of downtown that used to house UC Glass. But over the years, the area has filled in  with bars and restaurants, making it more of a destination, and today construction looms throughout the neighborhood. As more brewpubs catch on, the Martins said it’s fun to watch the industry grow; in fact, many of their brewers have gone on to start their own successful breweries.

Reid and John were pioneers in making their brews on a small scale. At the time, most suppliers were geared toward the big breweries. The Martins were fortunate to forge a relationship with Homer Smith, the ultimate source of all brewing wisdom at Oak Barrel Winecraft in Berkeley. Homer remembers well the early days of Triple Rock. In fact, he remembers the name of the first customer who walked through the door of the brewery: a Berkeley police officer. (When asked for a few tips for those interested in experimenting with home brew, Smith said, “The most important thing you do is cleaning and sanitizing. Every brewer is a glorified cleaner. It’s not always about the recipe.”)

As beer styles evolve, Triple Rock keeps adding new brews, with one rotating special. Credit: Risa Nye

Growth and expansion

In 2016, Triple Rock expanded next door. The new airy contemporary structure features a glass garage door-like window that opens up to the street side. The most distinctive feature of the addition are six metal columns with isolation bearings within that are designed to withstand a 1906-intensity earthquake. A small sign on the building states “During a large earthquake the bearings allow the upper floors to move up to 24 inches horizontally.” The lived-in old side of the brewery adjoining the sleek and spacious addition reflect the eclectic mishmash of architecture typical of Berkeley.

What’s the secret to success in brewing? The Martin brothers acknowledge the importance of keeping all the brewing equipment scrupulously clean and absolutely sanitary. “Stray microbes make bad tasting beer,” John said. Which leads to the subject of good tasting beer. The brewing of beer has evolved over thousands of years, reflecting the culture, politics, and habits of each age. The history of beer is as old as agriculture itself. It continues to evolve and change as tastes change. 

And as with anything else, preferred taste is completely subjective. A person might assess the appearance, aroma, flavor and mouthfeel of a beer and develop a preference. There is a universe of ways to describe these observations: hop aromas run the gamut from tropical fruit to earthy, while malt aromas can be anywhere from toast to toffee. A beer’s “body” can vary from weak to strong, light to heavy, and thin to full. It’s all a complex matter of balance and taste. There is not world or time enough to imbibe all the current offerings at Triple Rock, but the California Red ale, with its promise of aromas and flavors of strawberry, toast, grapefruit and tropical fruits — lives up to its description.

As beer styles evolve, Triple Rock keeps adding new brews, with one rotating special. “People always want something new,” the Martins said. Homer Smith concurred, adding that some brewers are making beer with lower alcohol content because, “People want a beer they can drink a lot of.” The current menu features twelve brews, ranging from IPAX West Coast IPA (7% ABV) to Fiddler’s Wink Scottish Export Ale (5.5% ABV), including their legendary Monkey Head Arboreal Ale (only available on Thursdays). Want your brew to go? Triple Rock offers both 64- and 32-ounce Growlers and 32-ounce Crowlers (a growler in a can, for those who had to look it up). Guest beers featured currently are Drakes Wild Hundo and Sudwerk’s Pils.

With no real kitchen equipment when they opened, Triple Rock mostly served simple foods like nachos and sandwiches. The grill was put in about 10 years ago. Today’s menu has vastly expanded to include an array of fries, sandwiches, salads, burgers, appetizers and small plates. The kids’ menu offers typical kid favorites. For those wishing to choose alternative libations, Triple Rock also serves wine, cocktails, ciders and non-alcoholic beverages. 

To encourage returning clientele after the last couple of years, the Martins added a parklet out front. Combined with the bar area, the rooftop garden, and the large expansion, patrons can spread out and enjoy their brews in comfort. New serving tanks have been added over the years, but otherwise nothing essential has changed at Triple Rock from the days when two brothers dreamed of making good beer.

Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She writes mostly about cocktails, but occasionally hops off the barstool to write about historic East Bay establishments and other things.