Survivors & Thrivers: How Brett Tate, Brett Honoré & Don Oliver Helped Grow Dust Bowl Through Pandemic

Sitting on the edge of its current capacity, Dust Bowl Brewing is about to burst at the seams in its home base of Turlock, California. That issue is being solved quickly this spring thanks to the addition of new outdoor fermentation tanks. It’s all a part of a small step toward growth inside its regional status that the brewery achieved during the pandemic, with more than 20% growth in 2021 and topping 19,000 barrels in production output.

“We’re in the Top 2.5% in the United States and in California as far as sales and production go,” said co-founder Brett Tate. “I would call ourselves seasoned but we are totally about innovation and staying fresh.

“We’re never too big to get stagnant. We’re not going to allow that.”

Saying he’s happy with around 40,000 barrels of yearly output in the future, the brewery understands that regional growth is the best bet and shooting to be a national brand just isn’t what it used to be as the craft beer industry has shifted to a more hyper-local aspect. A management staff that includes co-owner Brett Honoré and Brewmaster Don Oliver along with Sales Director Marc Jalbert and Communications Manager Michelle Peterson, Tate says they are happy with the growth they have seen but they don’t expect huge leaps and bounds anymore after going from 6,000 barrels of output in 2016 to the 19,000 in 2021.

“That’s where we feel comfortable, if something happens and we’ve developed some beer style … some beer that is being pulled across the nation or being pulled elsewhere then so be it,” Tate said. “But we’re in that game to that 40,000-barrel range is where we kind of want to be.

“I think that’s the sweet spot. You don’t overextend yourself at that point. And it’s a sustainable deal. And we’re okay with that.”

Creating themselves as a local brand in a 70-100 mile radius can be successful. Working with distributors and creating key partnerships along with targeting areas to place taprooms to show a local face instead of being a brand on a shelf has helped the brand survive and thrive despite the circumstances thrown at Dust Bowl the past few years.

Other than “blips” of product drops in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and now Northern Nevada — where the Dust Bowl story is well known and a part of American history — the bulk of sales thrives heavily in California’s Central Valley, from Sacramento to Fresno, and a little bit beyond.

Creating the public face for the company is a two-fold approach with opening taprooms away from Turlock has been successful in Monterey and Elk Grove with plans to open a fourth taproom including the Turlock home base with a new spot planned for Livermore later this year.

Creating those taprooms, which Dust Bowl hopes to eventually have six total over the next few years, helps generate community support and fortify its reputation as a local institution .

A great story for the brand and its wonderful connection with its distribution partner recently happened during the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in early February. ​Tate said they were watching early coverage of the event on TV and saw cans of their beer, Hops of Wrath IPA, being enjoyed by the crowd.

“I wondered if they bought it at the taproom [in Monterey],” he said, “or then they snuck it into the course. We go there on Saturday, and it’s all over the place!

“It’s in the concessions. It’s everywhere. But it was our distributor that made that happen. It was magnificent seeing the PGA Tour, the weather, ​and ​people walking around with cans of Hops of Wrath. I mean, all the stars aligned. But that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the taproom in Monterey. Let’s just be honest. It wouldn’t have happened.

​“​So brand awareness, brand building are all part of these satellite taprooms.​“​

​Dust Bowl likes​ to focus on ​its distributor and the relationship that ​they have with them

​“They’re in it to win it and so are we​,” Tate said. “And we hope that we, together, can get retailers to see the benefit of having our beer. And that’s the goal, right? We didn’t pay for that​ placement​,​ we got lucky. And we were fortunate.

​“I think it was because of our brand awareness at the Monterey​ ​taproom.​“

Honoré added that Dust Bowl is trying to grow the taprooms, but not go too far away from Turlock.

“Where we have good distribution and good partners, it kind of builds them up on top of each other,” he said. “But taproom building is no joke. They’re a sizable investment.

“Typically you don’t own it, you lease the property and if things don’t work out, you’re just leaving all those fixed costs there. So it’s a big cost we incur doing this. But part of the reason is that we try to do everything as best as we can. We try to buy the nicest furniture, the nicest equipment, everything we can get, just to make the experience right. I think that’s a big part of our success, at least in Monterey and Elk Grove, so far, is just trying to really make the best experience we can and not, not try to cut any corners.”

There are definitely regional differences​ in producing beers for each place Oliver pointed out​.

READ MORE: ​3 ​Strategies that Have Helped Dust Bowl Bloom

​“​Here in Turlock we don’t move a whole lot of Sour but it flies off the taps in Monterey​,” he said. ​“​Across all three of the existing taprooms now, ​Peace​, Love, and Haze IPA is constantly in the ​Top 5 beers being poured. That one’s pretty consistent. Taco ​Truck ​Lager moves around a little bit, usually in the ​Top 6 or so. ​Then Hobo Pilsner, we don’t see a lot of small​-​pack sales on ​it​. It doesn’t sell out of this ​taproom very well. It does okay in Monterey, and it’s in the ​Top 10 at Oak Grove now.

​“​The Sacramento region is buying up more Pilsner. And that’s where we saw some of our draft going out toward the north is where the Pilsner tends to go for it. I love seeing it in the ​Top 10 ​because it’s a classic Pils​.​ It’s a brewers’ beer. But there are definitely a lot of regional differences. So we kind of put it out there to see what’s going to work well and divert it to the people that care about it.​“

Tate added that there’s a different palate for everybody so Dust Bowl looks to try to hit all those styles.

“We’re not the trendiest brewery that you see, because there are people chasing those things a lot,” he said. “But we will eventually do something like a trendy beer we’re going to try to do it the best we can.

“We’re not jumping on it right away, I would say. We kind of take our time, and we try to do it right.”

That mentality, coupled with a rebranding effort in 2019 plus the onset of the pandemic and closure of the taprooms in mid-2020 helped put a focus on packaging and sales through distribution.

The original business plan wasn’t much of a plan, Oliver joked because when the brewery started in 2009 he and Tate had bought a 10-barrel brewhouse and threw it in a warehouse that had no taproom and no real place to sell the beer, starting with Hops of Wrath.

“We were trying to push one IPA out there in a small town in the Central Valley. It was a little bit challenging when you look at the capital that was put out to make that happen,” he said. “Now, as we add taprooms, then we can have more fun and more realistic sales in the area and get to play around with those beers. That was a really good aspect to it.”

When they built the Turlock location and graduated to a 60-barrel system, Oliver said they thought they would see much larger growth within the first few years.

“But it was at the same time, a lot of other breweries our size were making the same exact move,” Oliver said. “A lot of them didn’t realize the type of growth they wanted. We were expecting like 35-40% growth or something like that because we had just seen it. Well, so did a lot of other people. They put it in their 50- and 60-barrel brewhouses and then things tapered off.

“I mean, slowing down wasn’t bad, because it was still growth, we still had a more reasonable growth rate. But now with Marc Jalbert on board as Director of Sales, we have better plans in place going until now and looking into the future.

“We topped our growth rates that we were targeting last year, and had 21-plus% growth, that’s way better than healthy. If we can achieve even half of that (going forward) we’re at a good growth rate going into next year. And these external tanks are going to help us get to that point with the goal of shooting for 40,000. And hopefully selling 25% of that to our own taprooms.”

​Added Honoré: “We are now kind of filling into those shoes. And it’s looking much more like a blessing than a curse when we first kind of got opened.”

Photos courtesy Dust Bowl Brewing

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