When ‘Keeping it fun’ turns into a craft brew revolution: Talking shop with Humble Sea

The historic Cremer House in Felton
The historic Cremer House in Felton will be the second Santa Cruz County location of Humble Sea. But they assure they won’t be painting it sea foam green out of respect to the history behind the 1874-built structure.
(Courtesy Humble Sea)

Co-founder Frank Scott Krueger says expansion of the four-year-old operation is indeed fun because it makes it easier to get their beer into the hands of the people who crave it. But they’ll admit, even they didn’t see this “surreal” adventure unfolding four years ago.

The mountain crew that started Humble Sea Brewing in 2017 swears up and down their intention was never to become a Bay Area beer scene Goliath.

“It was always just about making sure we kept it fun,” says co-founder Frank Scott Krueger.

But when your kind of fun resonates with more people than you can reasonably accommodate, it’s time to to spread that fun out over a bigger geography.

At least that explains the ambitious — yet still fun, Scott Krueger promises! — predicament Humble Sea finds itself in: Set to take its self-reverential kookiness up Highway 1 to another beach-and-mountain town in Pacifica in May; prepping for a mountain homecoming for the San Lorenzo Vallley-spawned brewing triumvirate along Highway 9 at the Cremer House in Felton this summer; and still plotting a South Bay expansion that will take its product straight over 17 and direct to Humble Sea’s most passionate fanbase. (At least that’s what the data tells them.)

Scott Krueger took a few moments away from spec-ing out a paint overhaul on the new digs in Pacifica on Friday to talk about the excitement all around him.

Frank — you guys are going big. How did that happen?

Krueger: Yeah, that is a really good question. With both Pacifica and Cremer we just sort of fell into some super-cool scenarios. With these spaces opening up, it just made a ton of sense. With Pacifica, the town and the brand and the whole beach scene and the location — all that is perfect. And then with the Cremer, we’re from that area so we’ve always loved Cremer House and we’ve been watching Felton become more and more of a popular destination over time. We’ve talked about it since the beginning, even before Swift, that Felton would be a really cool destination.

And you were already working on it before Cremer came along…

Krueger: Yeah, we were actually already working on moving into Chopstix, the Chinese restaurant right across the street from Cremer, right before the pandemic. We were extremely close to making that one work. We already had the designs for the tap room. A few months later, we talked to Bob Locatelli, who was Nick and Taylor’s football coach back in high school, and he owns the Cremer building. It was sort of that small-town connection. When we heard that it was open, we asked him if we could move in there, and he said “Yes, come on in.”

Frank Scott Krueger, Nick Pavlina and Taylor West
Frank Scott Krueger, Nick Pavlina and Taylor West have built a delightfully kooky craft beer darling in four years. Now they’re expanding to be able to bring more beer to their Bay Area fanbase.
(Michael Hanson/For Lookout Santa Cruz)

How turnkey will that setup be?

Krueger: Extremely, it’s in great shape. They did an amazing job renovating it, totally kept its integrity and the history of the spot. But it’s fully functional. We would make some subtle changes but we wouldn’t want to change much. I’m standing in Pacifica right now and we’re painting all the walls and redoing everything, because we want it to feel like Humble Sea and be on brand. But with Kramer House, we’re not thinking of, you know, painting the entire building seafoam green and do our kind of ridiculous pastel fun brand over a building that was built in 1874 — that would seem ridiculous and sort of disrespectful.

It’s pretty dialed in honestly. As soon as we get the ABC license, it’s ready to go. The reason why we’re choosing to open it in early summer instead of like now is because we’re working on Pacifica now and we really want to get that open. May 1 is what we’re shooting for. And after we get that dialed then we’ll work on Cremer, staffing the place and having everyone trained.

Fun names and colorful branding have been a key staple of Humble Sea's popularity.
(Courtesy Amber Gaeta/Humble Sea)

And then when you guys have time, you’re still looking for a spot over the hill, right?

Krueger: We still really want to expand to the South Bay — that’s definitely a plan. We had a spot lined up in Campbell and it fell through. We really thought that we had the whole thing dialed in, but last minute, we actually decided not to go with that project. It wasn’t wasn’t perfectly on brand for us, it felt a little bit forced. The reason why Cremer and Pacifica kind of fit perfectly within our ethos is because we kind of like to think of our places as a destination experience, Santa Cruz and specifically the Westside is like a place where a lot of people come from all over the Bay Area, and California, to have a relaxing day at the beach or a relaxing weekend and get away. Or they hit the world famous waves and mountain bike trails and they come to have a beer.

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There’s this destination vibe to it and so we want to keep that. It makes perfect sense in Pacifica because we’re literally on the beach, we’re actually nestled between a surf break and a really amazing mountain bike trail — our two favorite things to do in the world. But we don’t only want to just do beach destinations ... we were like, no, let’s do some mountain destinations because it’s the same idea and the same vibe of visiting the mountains or being up in the woods or being out in nature going for like a big long hike or a bike ride at Henry Cowell and then coming over to the Humble Sea Tavern for a cocktail or beer is exactly the kind of experience we want, so those all make sense.

But the San Jose experience will be different?

Krueger: The South Bay is right in the center of everybody, it’s right in the very urban or suburban. It’s not the destination place. But looking at all of the data that we have, shipping data and delivery data, it’s clear: The epicenter of our fan base is in the South Bay. So, you know, we do want to provide an awesome experience for our fans and bring Santa Cruz to wherever we go into the South Bay.

Are you trying to return the original Humble Sea to the locals?

Krueger: I mean that’s a huge part of it too. We hear from people ‘I’d love to come to your spot, you know, on Saturday or Sunday, but there’s just too many people.’ And, yeah, I wish we had more space — that’d be amazing.

SeaGull
(Courtesy Amber Gaeta/Humble Sea)

So you’re trying to spread this thing out ...

Krueger: Yeah, exactly. We scaled up our production in the very beginning of shutdown and got a canning line so we’re making more beer and rather than going the traditional distribution route with like a fleet and sales people and all this stuff we want to create more experiences that we can design ourselves. We did about 6,500 barrels last year and we’re on pace to push that to close to 10,000 barrels by the end of this year. So we’ll have enough beer to supply our retail locations and we’ll distribute less wholesale wise. And then in terms of making more beer, we’re going to be pretty tapped out. I mean we already can’t meet demand. We’re looking for another production facility so we’re hoping that we can build out another brewery and scale that up.

Both places will have full kitchens, which is a new thing for you, right?

Krueger: Yeah, we’ve tried a million different food concepts over the years, and in our opinion, we’ve never really nailed it. But we do have some data on what works. And really what works well is comfort food. People who are drinking beer, they want good comfort food, kind of classic American style gastropub. So, we’re just gonna take that and put our own twist on some American classics.

Gimme your favorite Humble Sea beer name ever.

Krueger: For me, sticking to like the core of who we are, I love ‘Socks & Sandals’ because it’s pretty self-referential. You know it’s like we’re a tourist town, we’re all kooks who work here we have a bunch of tourists that visit us and we were sort of all making fun of each other and ourselves and our demographic and I just enjoy that fun.

Will Nick’s grandma (whose Ben Lomond garage the three began brewing in) be among your first Cremer House guests?

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Krueger: Definitely, yeah. Grandma Joyce will be. There is only one saison that we repeat, and it’s named Rejoyce. She gets her own beer. But the first sale will go to Nick’s dad Lou Pavlina because he bought the very first beer at Swift, and we have the receipt for it so we’ll do the same thing at all of our locations because Lou is essentially the godfather. He’s an old homebrewer who got Nick started.

You guys must all have tons of family in that zone.

Krueger: Oh, definitely, and that’s how we’ve been able to make it work. Initially getting it off the ground with little to no money, just having a support network of family and friends.

So with all this new fun work you’ve taken on, how will there be any time for the other fun stuff you guys are into?

Krueger: You mean like surfing, mountain biking and traveling and all that stuff?

Humble Sea has colonized what used to the Devil's Slide Taproom in Pacifica.
(Courtesy Amber Gaeta/Humble Sea)

Yeah that stuff.

Krueger: I mean honestly — and I’m gonna knock on some wood here — we’re opening Pacifica and I’m like killing myself but these have been great experiences so far. We’re facing a business where it’s getting more and more fun because we’re at a level where we can hire people who are leaders who are so much more experienced than us as founders to help bring this business to the next level. We don’t want to be the kind of classic founders that hold back the business because we know as much as we know and that’s it and no one can kind of like supersede us.

So we’ve hired Joe White as director of hospitality and he’s got insane experience opening restaurants, running multiple restaurants at one time working for large restaurant groups and hotel groups, running Michelin starred restaurants as part of his portfolio. We’ve not got the ability now to hire amazing humans and so we’re here to support them — and when we’re not working, we’re out biking and surfing.

It doesn’t seem like Humble Sea imagined, or set out, on this type of trajectory.

Krueger: No, we have grown organically past what I could ever have even imagined being in the end, let alone in a matter of four years. It’s kind of surreal.