Walking from one end of downtown Amador City to the other takes about 10 minutes — and that’s if you amble down the street, taking time to peruse the “Amadorable” graphic tees and vintage handkerchiefs displayed in shop windows. The historic redbrick Imperial Hotel, founded in 1879, stands sentinel at the north end of the short thoroughfare. There’s a stretch of awning-covered sidewalks leading to a restaurant, a couple of wine-tasting rooms, and a handful of boutiques. On the south end, there’s the rough-hewn Western facade of Break Even Beermakers — though the sign out front uses only one word: tavern.
Highway 49 technically bypasses Amador City, which sits on traditional homelands of the Sierra Miwok and was later settled by a group of gold miners in the 1850s. It claimed all of 200 residents in the 2020 census. But despite the municipality’s pride in its reputation as California’s smallest incorporated city by area — it’s 0.3 square miles in its entirety — there’s an ambitious brewery putting down roots in town.
Since Break Even Beermakers got its start nearly three years ago, the project has grown to encompass a taproom, brew house, and small farm where the team plans to grow and harvest fresh hops, stone fruit, and citrus to imbue their beers with the flavor of the Mother Lode region. Beer maker Aaron Wittman says that kind of farm-to-table approach to beer-making is what sets Break Even apart. “It gets back to my philosophy of beer-making: What’s the difference between a beer-maker and a brewer?” asks Wittman, who, although there is no technical difference between the two, considers himself the former. In his view, “it’s being in touch with every aspect of the process. Growing the hops and being able to go out to the fields and see the barley in the fields. There’s not a lot of brewers that get to do that.”
Break Even founder Kevin Carter found his way to Gold Country from the Bay Area by chance. He was working and living in San Francisco when he started looking for a place to purchase property — ideally somewhere close to the city where his dad could relocate from the Pacific Northwest and still be nearby. He looked first in the North Bay around Sebastopol without finding anything in the right price range. Then someone suggested he look around the greater Jackson area. About three hours east of San Francisco, two hours west of the ski resorts of South Lake Tahoe, and two hours north of Yosemite National Park, the region immediately sparked his interest, Carter recalls. So he traveled out and drove the dusty backroads, taking in the verdant rolling hills, reaching oaks, and glittering creeks for the first time.
That was when he came across the century-old wooden structure at 14166 Main Street, known to those in town as Schaffer’s Diggins. At the time, the small but locally iconic building was home to Jamison’s Ale House, a mom-and-pop beer house and barbecue restaurant. The owners put the building up for sale in 2019; Carter bought it along with a 40-acre plot of land about 20 minutes away. Carter, a successful Silicon Valley investor, wasn’t initially sure what he wanted to do with the space, but eventually came around to the idea of opening a small brewery and began to look for a partner with brewing experience.
Through a friend, Carter connected with Wittman, who’d brewed previously at San Francisco’s Cellarmaker before working at Berkeley Yeast among a team of scientists designing and testing new yeast strains for commercial brewing and winemaking. Wittman was already working on plans for a rural brewery and the duo quickly connected over a shared interest in creating a brewery that would apply the ideas of California cuisine — including using local and sustainable ingredients to showcase the flavor of the region — to beer. Over the next two years, the vision began to take form: They dreamed up a small brewery, taphouse, and kitchen in downtown Amador City. The plan was to have the entire operation supported by a small farm where Break Even could grow hops and other ingredients to be used in the beer and food.
Avid bikers and snow sportsmen, the pair knew they wanted the business to support both the land and the Amador City community, so plans included using the brewery as a way to encourage more people to get out and explore the western Sierra Foothills — either by bike or on foot — by hosting group rides that start and end at Break Even’s taproom. All growing would be done with sustainable and regenerative practices in mind, including dry farming when possible and increasing the farm’s biodiversity by planting a wide variety of trees and native plants; the brewery would also have its own water treatment facility to reduce waste.
When it comes to beer-making, Wittman favors brews that fall outside the boundaries of traditional categories. For example, you likely won’t find an IPA on the tap list, though hop heads would probably appreciate the Head of Joaquin Murieta, which Break Even bills simply as a “hoppy beer.” Wittman says shying away from familiar labels is part of his commitment to making beers representative of California Gold Country. “I’m not brewing a traditional German Kölsch because I’m not using German malt. I’m using California malt so I don’t want to call it a German Kölsch,” he says. In general, though, drinkers can expect Break Even beers to be mid- to low-ABV, drier, and sessionable — “more quaffable, something you want to sit down and have more than one of,” Wittman explains.
Almost everything Break Even is brewing right now gets sold directly to consumers out of the Amador City taproom, where customers can find selections like Jawbone, a dry saison-like brew with floral and citrus notes, and Wry Pastiche, an amber-hued beer made with oats and rye to produce spicy, barley wine flavors. They don’t expect to distribute widely, though you may be able to find cans at State Bird Provisions, Anchovy Bar, and The Progress in San Francisco; the Rake in Alameda; and Good News Wine in Sacramento.
For now, Wittman is brewing out of Promised Land Brewing Company in Gilroy while Break Even completes construction of a new brewing facility across the street from the Main Street taproom. The team recently purchased the former Andrae’s Bakery space with plans to turn the white clapboard building into a 10-barrel production space and kitchen — with a patio and bar spilling out back next to a small creek. It’s a major expansion considering the small footprint of the city, but Carter and Wittman hope it’ll help encourage more visitors to venture out to Amador, which relies heavily on tourism dollars. The Amador City Business & Community Association works to draw attention to Break Even and the handful of other Amador City destinations including Small Town Food + Wine, natural winery the End of Nowhere, and 3 Fish Studios. (The well-known design firm closed its Outer Sunset art gallery during the pandemic when owners Annie Galvin and Eric Rewitzer moved out to Plymouth.)
When it’s complete, hopefully by late summer, the showpiece of Break Even’s new production space and kitchen will be the vintage copper Vendome boil kettle and lauter tun sitting just inside the space, visible from the street. Wittman picked it up in 2018 in Arkansas, not knowing at the time what he’d do with the rare piece. Now it’ll give Break Even the opportunity to boil their wort — essentially unfermented beer — over live fire, which Wittman hopes will give some of Break Even’s beers deeper caramel notes.
The kitchen will serve food meant to highlight ingredients from around the region, including some of what will be grown on the small farm located on Carter’s ranch. This spring, the team planted its one acre of hops on a sloping grade of the foothills above the taproom; they hope to have a harvest to use by later this year. On a nearby peak, young saplings mark where a future orchard will give olives and apricots, too. With the goal of increasing the biodiversity of the soil over time, the team’s bringing in a herd of goats to graze among the bushy manzanita trees.
Twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, dozens of bikers will set out from the taproom to ride down the dusty back roads before returning to the tavern for a cold pint. “The way I look at it, beer is just a vehicle to bring a community together,” Wittman says.