Zack Frasher clung to a secret the first time he shared his homebrew with Dan and Karen Powell in 2015. The Powells had invited Frasher to the warehouse in Auburn, California, where they were planning to open Moonraker Brewing Co. They wanted Frasher to see their homebrew system while they sized up his potential as a brewer. Frasher—who was working part-time at Mraz Brewing Company and at the homebrew store where the Powells shopped—regularly traded beers with friends and family across the country. He was especially fond of the hazy IPAs popular in New England, and he was dialing in his own recipes at home, where he often had four or five hazy IPAs on tap.
But on that first visit with the Powells, Frasher poured a classic West Coast double IPA and never uttered a word about those hazy, New England–style IPAs.
“The hazy IPA, I was kind of holding in my back pocket because I didn’t know them too well yet, and I didn’t want to reveal any crazy secrets,” Frasher says. “It was like, ‘Oh, I’ll share this hazy IPA, and then you guys don’t hire me.’ ”
Fortunately for Frasher, the Powells were so impressed by his double IPA that they soon hired him as head brewer. And fortunately for Moonraker, Frasher eventually shared his vision to brew New England–style IPAs and package them in 4-packs of 16-ounce cans. The Powells embraced the idea, and Moonraker became one of the first breweries in California to produce and sell canned hazy IPAs. “Now it’s the fad,” Karen Powell says, “but in the beginning our consumers were saying, ‘Why would you want to put it in a can? You want to put that in a bottle.’ We made a quality product, we were innovative and brought something new to the table, and it helped us get our name out there.”
Notoriety flooded the young brewery. In late 2016, customers lined up by the hundreds for the release of beers such as Yojo, a juicy New England–style IPA brewed with Thomas Fawcett pearl malt; flaked wheat and oats; and Mosaic, Simcoe, Citra, and Galaxy hops. In early 2017, the brewery garnered several awards at the RateBeer Best competition, including best new beer for Yojo, best new brewery in California, and ninth best new brewery in the world.
Moonraker earned early acclaim for classic beer styles, too. The brewery won a silver medal at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival for Miss Conduct in the golden or blonde ale category and another silver medal in 2018 for imperial IPA with Northern Lights. But perhaps the most noteworthy accolade arrived in 2017 at The Bistro’s Double IPA festival in Hayward, California. Moonraker had yet to celebrate its first anniversary when it won first place in the triple IPA category for Extremis, a beer that Frasher and his assistant brewers had brewed only twice. In second place was the storied Pliny the Younger from Russian River Brewing Company (Santa Rosa, California).
“The media thought it was exciting that we dethroned the king,” Dan Powell says. “If Pliny the Younger hadn’t been on the list, it wouldn’t have mattered, probably.” The impact was evident at Moonraker’s tasting room 40 miles northeast of Sacramento.
“That weekend after we won first place, I wanted to pull the fire alarm,” Powell says. “There were so many people in here, and it was crazy—all drinking a triple IPA. It was out of control. But it settled down after a while, and we got better at dealing with big crowds. Now it’s just fun.”
As Moonraker prepares to celebrate its third anniversary, hazy IPAs remain integral to the brewery’s success. Yojo remains its best-selling beer, and it’s common to see almost twenty hazy IPAs on tap in the tasting room. But thanks to a recent expansion and additional capacity, Moonraker brewers are dabbling beyond hops-forward beers. Frasher is most excited about crafting imperial stouts such as Hollow Bones, a 13.3 percent ABV beer brewed with maple, coffee, maltodextrin, and dark Belgian candi sugar. “Our new brewhouse is a 20-barrel system, but we have a 30-barrel mash tun, so we squeeze a lot of malt into that mash tun,” Frasher says. “We can max it out with a ton of malt.”
In the near future, he’s aiming to increase production of barrel-aged stouts and brew more pastry stouts. “We’ll shoot for monster stouts that have a fair amount of real adjuncts in them, not extracts,” Frasher says. “We’ll try to go the authentic route, not the confectionary route.”
Later this year, Moonraker will launch a line of sour and wild ales under an offshoot brand, Moonraker Oceanic. The brewery recently invested in two 20-barrel foeders, and according to Assistant Brewer Aaron Copelin, the first offering from Moonraker Oceanic will be a mixed-culture saison.
The Powells plan to open an Oceanic-only tasting room within steps of the brewery, and they hope to open a Moonraker satellite tasting room by year’s end, most likely near the San Francisco Bay Area.
All of these moving parts suit the Powells.
“You have to be constantly changing to stay the same,” says Dan Powell. “In today’s environment, kids need to be constantly entertained. Everything you do has to be constantly changing. We have to constantly come up with new beers, change the labels, change the environment. Everything is constantly in motion. And that’s what keeps bringing people back. It’s the excitement.”
That all this excitement swirls around a brewery whose head brewer lacked extensive commercial brewing experience isn’t lost upon Frasher. He admits to being a “nervous wreck” in Moonraker’s infancy and credits Kyle Leddy, now the head brewer at New Glory Craft Brewery in Sacramento, for helping him in the early stages at Moonraker.
“I thought I could do a recipe pretty well,” Frasher says, “but to run a facility and manage everything from yeast management to people management to hops management to raw materials, and being on that higher volume scale—yeah, it was nerve-racking.”
But the Powells recognized Frasher’s intuition and creative ability from that first pour and trusted that the technical expertise would follow. Dan Powell, who managed a solar company and designed golf courses before opening Moonraker, saw a parallel in one of his previous careers. World-class golf courses are carved with bulldozers, but the bulldozer is just a tool. It takes a creative mind to create an artistic work, he says, and you can’t teach someone how to be creative.
“It was that instinct that made me look at Zack in a whole different way,” Powell says. “Anyone can learn how to brew on a big system because that’s just the tool. He had the creativity, the insight, and the talent.”
The proof may be hazy, but Moonraker’s future appears to be clear and bright.