Picture yourself in the echo-ey padded, womb-like space of a climbing gym. There’s chalk dust in the air, there’s a guy with a man-bun slacklining (like tightrope walking, but less tight); Animal Collective is playing. You’ve just completed a killer “abs for climbers” class, or mastered a challenging route on the wall. What’s on your mind? If you answered, “a frosty brew,” then Touchstone Brewing Company, a brewery adjacent to and owned by Touchstone Climbing (the parent company of Sacramento Pipeworks) is your dream come true.
Pipeworks is part of the Touchstone family of 14 indoor climbing and fitness gyms, the largest chain in California, and its new venture is billed as the first combination of climbing gym and brewery in the region. It’s a natural linkage, according to founder and head brewer Ryan Campagna, who is also a long-time climber.
Campagna got his start as a home brewer, fed up with his corporate job. His brother had prospered in the tech industry — “basically printing money,” he says — so he offered him cheap rent to live with him in San Jose, quit his job and pursue his dream of full-time brewing. After doing well in homebrewing competitions, in 2012 he started helping Strike Brewing Co. brew beer at another brewery and went on to help build its first dedicated brewing facility in San Jose in 2014.
As that operation got rolling, Campagna met Diane Ortega, then the manager of the San Jose Touchstone climbing gym and now the manager of Sacramento Pipeworks, to plan some “fun events that incorporated beer and climbing and community and everybody getting together.” From there, Strike began sponsoring climbing competitions at Touchstone gyms throughout the Bay Area, and Campagna continued to make connections with people at the company.
On a climbing trip in Bishop, Campagna, Ortega and Lauren Claassen, then the marketing director of Touchstone, got to talking over campfire beers. “They had always thought about building something,” Campagna says. “A pub or a beer bar or something to be a community space for people to grab a drink, maybe some food after climbing and continue the evening.”
The group stopped by Pipeworks in downtown Sacramento on the way home from the Eastern Sierras and noted that the large space and multiple buildings would lend themselves to “almost anything.” He put together a proposal for the brewery and got the green light from the owners of Touchstone.
Campagna moved to Sacramento in 2016 and started working for Touchstone and managing the build-out of the space. But as the climbing company grew, the brewery got a bit back-burnered; add in a pandemic and it’s been a steep climb.
Although the full, 2,600-square-foot restaurant and tap house is still a work in progress, Campagna built a compact seven-barrel (approximately 200 gallon) brewing setup, a smaller version of the one he had at Strike. He started selling cans of beer out of a rollup garage door adjacent to Pipeworks in October 2020. He and his assistant brewer, Mat O’Connell, now sell draft beer and cans to-go from a small tap system on Thursdays and Fridays.
On any given Thursday or Friday afternoon, athleisure-clad 20-somethings, along with the more typical brewery crowd of over-30 folks rife with dogs and babies, sit at rough-hewn picnic tables outside Pipeworks. They hoist pints and partake of food pop-ups, most notably the gloriously squishy pizzas made by Chef Jodie Chavious. Cans can also be purchased, at a discount to Pipeworks members, within the gym seven days a week.
The small batch size allows Campagna to rotate through a large selection of beers, from “nice, mellow, easy-drinking” lagers to the hoppy and hazy beers that continue to dominate most brewery menus — although he says the higher alcohol by volume that can go with styles such as double and triple IPAs are not a hit with the “fitness-oriented” clientele.
The most remarkable beer on the roster might be the Off Belay, a dry-hopped .75% ABV pale ale that scratches the brew itch with barely a buzz. The most popular is the lemon cherry gose, named It Gose Boys, in homage to a remark “It goes, boys,” uttered by climber Lynn Hill when she made the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Nose.
This gose, a sour style brewed with wheat and salt, is a favorite of gym manager Ortega, who laughs uproariously when asked if she likes to drink beer. She is not involved in the day-to-day of the brewery operations but is highly supportive; desk personnel sometimes staff the brewery, and she’s held work parties there. She emphasizes the theme of community that consistently comes up when talking about the Pipeworks vibe.
“There’s nothing better — if it’s your thing — to get a cold beer after some rock climbing, to extend that social element from here out there,” she says. “I think that barriers get broken down out there; it is a more fully social setting. The gym can be social, but it takes a little more effort. If you’re at the brewery smiling and laughing, climbing partnerships and friendships can get made.”
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