Missing the bus: It’s been a COVID travesty not seeing the Brew Cruz’s mobile party pass you on the road

Annie Pautsch and her vintage converted school bus.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

After a year’s hiatus, the iconic buses of Brew Cruz and Annie Pautsch quietly await their return. Times worth celebrating will be here again and Pautsch said she will be there to great the moment.

For beer lovers — or just lovers of fun, camaraderie, and freedom from deadly airborne viruses — perhaps the most poignant symbol of pre-pandemic Santa Cruz is “Betty Jane.” She’s the 1989-vintage converted school bus that serves as the primary vehicle for the popular pub-crawling service known as Brew Cruz.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was pretty much an everyday experience to spy Betty Jane on the road or at a stoplight somewhere in the county, often full of grinning, laughing, high-fiving, even occasionally singing people fresh from one local brewpub and headed for the next.

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Such a sight, however, was unthinkable in the year of masks and social distancing. Brew Cruz — which also includes the smaller but no less charming hunter-green-and-white VW bus named “Slowboy” — was just one on a painfully long list of things Santa Cruzans missed in 2020.

As the pandemic’s vice grip gradually begins to loosen, locals are wondering: Will Betty Jane, or Schoolboy, roll again? And, when?

With a sense of good news/bad news double meaning, Brew Cruz entrepreneur and driver Annie Pautsch said, “My buses aren’t going anywhere.”

Annie and Slowboy, ready to roll
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

As of now, that’s literally true. Brew Cruz has been almost entirely out of action for a year, and the priority for March is to replace the diesel engine in Betty Jane to comply with new California regulations.

But “Captain Annie,” as she’s known, is also saying that Brew Cruz is in no danger of succumbing to the pandemic shutdown. “I’m definitely not planning on closing up shop.”

The Brew Cruz has been chugging along across Santa Cruz County for six years, leading tours to any of the more than a dozen breweries and tap rooms between Watsonville and Santa Cruz’s Westside, including Humble Sea, Discretion, New Bohemia, Beer Mule and others.

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In the early months of 2020, before the stay-at-home shutdown, business was never better for the Brew Cruz fleet. Winter is normally a busy time for pubs. South County brew pubs were especially drawing attention in the early months of 2020.

Pautsch was leading tours four days a week and the spring had several tours already booked. Business was so good that she was, in fact, in the middle of planning for an expansion.

Then, everything changed. At first, Pautsch welcomed the shutdown as a breather to do some much needed maintenance on her vehicles, perhaps some painting. But the breather soon became an indefinite hiatus.

“We were at a standstill,” she said. “My business advisor was telling me, ‘You better strap in. This one’s going to last for at least six months.’”

In the fall, when she was allowed to by state COVID-19 standards, Pautsch reopened the tour with reduced capacity and safety protocols in place. She did only six tours before the service was shut down again.

Even then, the Brew Cruz experience was greatly restricted, both on the bus and at the few beer pubs they could visit. The behind-the-scenes peeks and the tastings at the breweries were all suddenly big no-nos.

“People were happy to be on it again,” said Pautsch. “But, to be frank, most of the joy of the Brew Cruz is the freedom to relax and have an awesome day and bond with other people. (When that’s restricted), the main magic element is gone.”

It will be semi-filled and back on the road again soon.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Four months after the second shutdown, Brew Cruz is quietly waiting to get back on the roads. Slowboy and Betty Jane can often be found chilling in the parking lot of the Dream Inn. Still, Captain Annie said she’s cautious but optimistic. She’s tentatively planning to resume tours at the end of March or beginning of April.

She also believes that the free-wheeling sense of abandon and good times that characterized her tours, including the hugs, high-fives, and mask-free laughs, is all going to come back — one day.

All things wining, dining, brewing and agriculture, from the mountains to the coast.

“That’ll come back,” she said. “There’s no way you can stop.”

She’s also aware of the powerful symbolism of her buses. Once Betty Jane is again rolling down West Cliff Drive with a busload of revelers, that’s as good a sign as any that, to quote the old post-Depression song, happy days are here again.

“Yeah, I’m hopeful,” she said. “I know that everybody talks about it soon being the ‘Roarin’ Twenties.’ Well, Brew Cruz is the perfect way to re-integrate yourself back into that lifestyle, and see people again in the capacity that you’ve been dying to see them. I definitely envision having it all back like it was.”