This feature is part of the CN&R’s 2023 Entrepreneur Issue.
When Bill Weller crafts a new beer recipe, he has an unofficial litmus test for its success.
If his wife, Kristin, takes a sip, tilts her head, and politely says something along the lines of “Oh, it’s OK,” then he knows, “that’s not quite it,” he said.
“Back to the drawing board,” Kristin added with a laugh.
The couple, who own and operate Farmers Brewing Co., sat at a table in their newly built Chico taproom and restaurant in Meriam Park on a recent January morning and shared stories about their journey.
Bill can’t exactly pinpoint why he wanted to start brewing back in 2011—but he enjoyed the comedy Strange Brew in his adolescence and is a fan of lighter beers, he said. (Natural Light was his go-to as a college student.) He attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he received his bachelor’s in agricultural engineering technology.
After Bill brewed his first successful batch, the Wellers knew they wanted to create a local brewery, an undertaking that involved renovating an old barn at their family farm in Princeton (on the Glenn County side), a small town of about 300, approximately 30 miles southwest of Chico. They got their license in 2017 and sold their first glass in January 2020 at their taproom in Princeton, which is surrounded by the family farm.
The Wellers’ beers are made “farm to glass.” They use the wheat and rice they grow and harvest—along with some of their other crops, like almonds, on occasion—to create their beverages.
Rice can be more difficult to make beer with, Bill said, as it requires special equipment and techniques for brewing. “It’s a whole other animal,” he said, but “gives it a super clean, crisp taste.”
When it came to their signature beer and best seller, Farmers Light, “it took around 50 batches to get it brewed exactly where we wanted it,” Bill said.
The Wellers are both fifth-generation farmers. Kristin grew up on a family farm in Artois, and Bill on the Princeton farm—established by his family in the 1800s—where he started helping out with chores when he was 8 years old (e.g., cleaning shops, mowing grass, repairing combines and driving tractors).
The two knew one another, but didn’t become close until their mothers (who were friends and went to the same hairdresser) made sure they reconnected.
“It was a setup,” Kristin said with a playful smile.
“They pulled a fast one on us!” Bill added.
The couple have a son and daughter who, like their parents, have been involved with the family farm since they were young. Both are high-schoolers who participate in Future Farmers of America. In fact, their daughter was responsible for helping get the color just right for their limited release Daughters Wit.
Bill and his brother started operating the farm in 1996, and it has since grown from 700 to 6,000 acres.
“So it’s been busy there, then throw a brewery on top of it and a restaurant,” Bill said.
The brewing company has grown rapidly since its founding in 2017, now with two taprooms, approximately 40 beers, and distribution spanning from just south of the Oregon border throughout California cities as far south as Fresno. During the interview with the CN&R, the Wellers were giddy with excitement over the fact that their first truckload of beer made it across state lines and into Nevada.
Indeed, according to an analysis of data from the Brewers Association published by Axios, Farmers Brewing Co. was the state’s fastest growing brewery of those that produced at least 5,000 barrels in 2021, with a 140 percent increase in sales that year. They started out brewing eight-keg batches, and in 2022 sold 13,000 beer barrels (equivalent to 26,000 kegs), Kristin said.
Overall, this year they’ll be focusing on expanding their distribution within current networks—adding more stores in regions where their beers are already sold, for example.
But they also have a few exciting projects in the works: They’ll be releasing 19.2 ounce cans (of Valle Mexican Lager and Sun Up ’Til Sundown IPA, initially) and continuing to experiment with new brews that will be available in their taprooms.
The limited releases are often playful, such as a brandy porter infused with cherries dubbed the Mariah Cherry, and a pickle beer, Ol’ Slapperman, a lager using cucumber and dill from their farm.
“The pickle beer was kind of a joke, and then we [put] it on tap and people really liked it,” Bill said. “Everything we do is more on the subtle side.”
The Wellers have also stayed local when hiring graphic designers, working with Chico artist/illustrator David Selkirk, as well as well-known Chico-raised screenprint artist Jake Early.
The journey hasn’t always been easy, especially navigating opening a new business during a pandemic. It’s resulted in “a lot of gray hair that wasn’t there a few years ago,” Bill joked.
“But Bill loves the challenge,” Kristin added. “It was perfect for him.”
Plus, they’ve got a really good team, she said. “We feel humbled by how far we’ve come after three years of opening our production facility and couldn’t have done it without our talented team of employees who work exceptionally hard every day.”