Imagine yourself in the echo-padded space of a climbing gym. There’s chalk dust in the air, there’s a guy with a slackline man-bun (like the tightrope walker, but less tight); Animal Collective plays. You have just completed an abs course for rock climbers or have mastered a difficult route on the wall. What’s on your mind? If you answered “an ice-cold beer”, then Touchstone Brewing Company, an adjacent brewery 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 gyms and gyms, California’s largest chain, and its new venture is billed as the first combination climbing gym and brewery in the region. It’s a natural bond, according to founder and head brewer Ryan Campagna, who is also a lifelong rock climber.
Campagna got his start as a home brewer, fed up with his corporate job. His brother had thrived in the tech industry — “basically printing money,” he says — so he offered her cheap rent to live with him in San Jose, quit his job and pursue his dream. to brew full time. After doing well in home brewing competitions, in 2012 he started helping Strike Brewing Co. brew beer at another brewery and later helped build its first dedicated brewing facility in San Jose in 2014.
As that operation unfolded, Campagna sat down with Diane Ortega, then director of San Jose Touchstone Climbing Gym and now director of Sacramento Pipeworks, to plan “fun events that incorporated beer and climbing and community and everything.” the world came together”. From there, Strike began sponsoring rock climbing competitions at Touchstone gyms throughout the Bay Area, and Campagna continued to build connections with people at the company.
While on a rock climbing trip to Bishop, Campagna, Ortega and Lauren Claassen, then Touchstone’s marketing director, got to chatting over campfire beers. “They had always thought about building something,” says Campagna. “A pub or a beer bar or something like a community space where people can have a drink, maybe some food after climbing and carry on the evening.”
The group stopped at Pipeworks in downtown Sacramento on the way back from the Eastern Sierras and noted that the large space and multiple buildings lent themselves to “almost anything”. He crafted a proposal for the brewery and got the go-ahead from the owners of Touchstone.
Campagna moved to Sacramento in 2016 and began working for Touchstone and managing the construction of the space. But as the climbing business grew, the brewery slowed down a bit; add a pandemic and it’s been a steep climb.
Although the full 2,600 square foot restaurant and faucet house is still in progress, Campagna built a compact seven-barrel (about 200 gallon) brewing facility, a smaller version of the one he had at Strike. He started selling beer cans from a roll-up garage door adjacent to Pipeworks in October 2020. He and his assistant brewer, Mat O’Connell, now sell draft beer and take-out cans from a small tap system on Thursdays and Fridays.
Every Thursday or Friday afternoon, young people in their twenties in sportswear, as well as the typical brewery crowd of more than 30 people plagued by dogs and babies, sit at picnic tables roughly hewn outside Pipeworks. They hoist pints and participate in food pop-ups, including the gloriously squishy pizzas made by chef Jodie Chavious. Cans can also be purchased, at a discounted price for Pipeworks members, in the gym seven days a week.
The small batch size allows Campagna to rotate a wide selection of beers, from “nice, smooth and easy-drinking” lagers to the hoppy, hazy beers that continue to dominate most brewery menus – although he says that the higher alcohol volume that can go with styles such as double and triple IPAs are not a hit with the “fitness-oriented” clientele.
The standout beer on the list might be Off Belay, a dry-hopped 0.75% ABV pale ale that scratches the brew itch with barely a buzz. The most popular is the lemon-cherry gosé, named It Gose Boys, in homage to a remark, “It’s okay, boys,” uttered by mountaineer 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 director Ortega, who laughs out loud when asked if she likes to drink beer. She is not involved in the daily operations of the brewery, but she is very supportive; the office staff sometimes takes care of the brewery and she organizes working groups there. It emphasizes the community theme that comes up constantly when talking about the Pipeworks vibe.
“There’s nothing better – if that’s your thing – to have a cold beer after a climb, to extend that social element from here to there,” she says. “I think the barriers are broken down 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, escalating partnerships and friendships can be made.
Stay up to date on business in the Capital Region: Subscribe to the Comstock newsletter today.