What do an eruption of the volcano Eyjafj allajokull in Iceland, a business trip to Scotland, and a late-night tasting with a renowned whiskey master have in common? A life-changing affair: These three events led Chicoan Kris Koenig to his new career as a distillery owner and creator of fine craft spirits at Golden Beaver Distillery.
An Emmy award-winning, longtime documentary filmmaker, Koenig had made a presentation at the 2010 International Science Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. Due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland, his flight home was postponed a number of days. The coordinator of the festival is related to whisky expert Charlie McClean, who just happened to be hosting master classes in whisky appreciation during Koenig’s layover. Two master classes, during which Koenig appreciated twenty drams of whisky at each, followed by dinner and whisky-related conversation, piqued Koenig’s interest. Furthering this experience, the pair spent time at McClean’s Scottish farmhouse, where they partook of vintage whisky that McClean keeps stored in Robotussin bottles lined up in wooden boxes. This treasure trove of whisky held samples from all the distilleries in Scotland, some dating back to the 1800s. “I was blown away by all the different flavors from the exact same ingredients,” Koenig said. He was hooked.
MOONSHINE STARTS A NEW CAREER
Upon returning to Chico, with a whet appetite, Koenig continued to sample a wide range of scotch. As his knowledge increased, he decided to try his hand at making his own. It turns out not all moonshining takes place in wooden sheds nestled deep in the hills of Appalachia, though some say this is where it was born. After the American Revolution, there was a heavy tax placed on alcohol, and to avoid this expense, people began making their own illegal liquor under the cover of night, thus the name moonshine. “The first thing about moonshine is you don’t talk about moonshining,” Koenig joked. Koenig’s still in his garage produced a really good quality moonshine. Encouraged by relatives and buoyed by the excitement of his newfound passion, he decided to take the plunge, and Golden Beaver Distillery was born.
Koenig recruited friends and family to invest and attended courses at Moonshine University in Kentucky to sharpen his skills and deepen his expertise. Making the distillery a family affair, his son Nils joined the operation as his apprentice. “It’s going to be a family legacy, and I love the whole process,” said Nils.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales in the spirits category have grown exponentially over the past ten years. Whiskey is the spirit that has seen the highest increase in consumption, more than ten percent. Craft distilleries, those making under 100,000 gallons of spirits annually, have popped up across the country and found their niche. Even with these facts and the dazzling sales outlook, Koenig knows that success will not come easy. “There are seven million barrels of bourbon in Kentucky, so why get into this business?” he asked. He answered, “To start with, you have to love it.” Listening to him talk, it is clear that he does.
Koenig is creating a repertoire of spirits, brewing with locally sourced ingredients, and planning a long-term vision and niche of his own for the distillery. This repertoire includes variations of moonshine made from local honey and malted rice, as well as handcrafted vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, and rye.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
Since bourbon should age for two years minimum, a new craft distiller must be creative while waiting for whiskey-filled barrels to be ready. “You have to find collaborations and have a ten-to-fifteen-year view,” said Koenig. Luckily, a chance meeting at a barbershop with one of the owners of Orland’s Olivarez Honey Bees created such an opportunity. Golden Beaver’s first product uses Olivarez honey to produce moonshine made 100 percent with honey. There are two versions, Keeper’s Platinum, which is unaged, also known as “white,” and the aged style called Keeper’s Rested. “It has the mouthfeel of tequila, a floral nose like gin, and a smooth tequila-like finish,” Koenig described. This type of commercial moonshine variant is finding favor as people seek artisanal options in both drink and food categories. Koenig notes that moonshine is “one of the most popular beverages nowadays.”
Breweries and distilleries often work with a professional maltster, who is an expert in germinating and roasting grain. In deciding to create products using locally sourced supply, Koenig knew that rice was an obvious choice for use as a primary grain in his recipes. Chico is home to Eckert Malting, the one and only rice malting facility in the world. Jim Eckert is working with Golden Beaver, providing malted rice, and is also collaborating on what they hope will be a wildly successful rice whiskey product that will be sold in the U.S and Asia. “I’m pretty impressed with Golden Beaver and very hopeful for the collaboration. We are looking at large-scale production” said Eckert. Koenig concurred, calling this his shot to create a new category of whiskey with their rice product. “The most valued liquor in the world is a rice spirit sold in China. People already love rice spirits,” noted Koenig. They anticipate that the first barrels of rice whiskey will be bottled this summer.
Since moonshine is essentially unaged whiskey, Beaver Likker Moonshine is the 90 proof, ready to drink version of their rice whiskey and is available now. This clear powerhouse of a drink is beautifully bottled in glass etched with a beaver, backdropped with birch trees.
If we had more beavers, we also would have fewer problems with forest fires, as beavers provide a natural fire break.
WHY THE GOLDEN BEAVER?
Koenig’s wife Marianne came up with the name for the distillery. Pre-Camp Fire, she volunteered at Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise. There, she became aware of the demise of the Golden Beaver in northern California. “At the turn of the 1800s, The Hudson Bay Company came in and hunted golden beavers to make hats,” recounted Koenig. The 49ers also diminished the numbers of what he called “a keystone animal of our area.” Koenig explained: “The features of this part of the state can all be attributed to the beaver, the watershed, wetlands, sloughs, eddies, and marshlands. We have abundant fish and bird life due to these features. If we had more beavers, we also would have fewer problems with forest fires, as beavers provide a natural fire break.” The Koenigs’ affinity for the beaver led not only to the naming of their distillery, but also to their efforts in supporting reintroduction and protection of the species. A portion of distillery proceeds is set aside for donation to The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center for its Bring Back the Beavers mandate.
PRODUCTION AND PRODUCTS
The size of the warehouse near the Chico Airport housing Golden Beaver Distillery’s production reinforces the Koenigs’ plans to ramp up ramp up production to a barrel per day. Seven stainless steel fermenters and two pot stills, “Harold,” which holds 300 gallons, and “Maude,” with capacity for 730 gallons, fill the space. The new vodka still, “Eileen,” so named because she rests at a bit of a slant, was recently installed. Barrels full of aging whiskey are stacked in the new Golden Beaver rickhouse, a structure to hold this bounty. Like an heirloom passed from one generation to the next, barrels bring a history that lends flavor to characterize each product. Oak helps to provide color and flavors like vanilla and caramel, among others. Koenig explained that once the bourbon is bottled, the used barrels are mostly shipped to Scotland to age scotch, which takes between ten and fifteen years. Many of these barrels then find their way to craft distillers and brewers, who “look for barrels with lots of history,” said Koenig. The final stop for a good number of bourbon barrels is south of the border, where they will age Mexican tequila.
Beyond moonshine and rice whiskey, Golden Beaver’s other products are all named to pay homage to the natural beauty of our area. Chico Creek Rye and Butte Creek Bourbon are a couple of examples. Of special interest is their Honey Run Honey Flavor Whiskey, the sales of which are totally dedicated to helping rebuild the Honey Run Bridge in the wake of the Camp Fire. In two recent fundraisers, 730 bottles of this whiskey sold out completely, raising close to $40,000 for the bridge.
When a few locals pulled up stools to sample Golden Beaver Distillery’s handmade blends, spirits high in service for this article, Kris and Nils Koenig served them drams in distillery-branded glasses. Though you can taste anything you choose, a full sampling begins with Beaver Likker Moonshine, followed by Chico Creek Rye, Butte Creek Bourbon, and Pacific Flyway, and finishes with Keeper’s Platinum. When tasting whiskey, it is recommended to first smell the spirit, then sample a small amount, rolling it around in your mouth before swallowing. Unlike wine, swirling in the glass does not make a difference for whiskey. With whiskey, experts suggest “a little water be added, which allows the spirit to ‘open’ and let the flavors reveal themselves,” explained Nils.
This day, one taster with fifteen years’ experience tasting scotch found himself partial to Keeper’s Platinum, the honey moonshine: “The nose is super sweet with nice notes. I am not used to drinking pure unaged spirits. I’m excited for the aged version,” he said. Another nodded his head as he tasted Pacific Flyway Whiskey. “Nice, really nice,” he commented, before complimenting he view of the shiny copper kettles through the window into the production area.
The tasting room is ready for customers as soon as the state’s Covid guidelines allow it to fully open. The room will feature a “Tennessee Thumper,” a chain of mason jars that act as a moonshine still. The plan is to create a unique moonshine brew each week with fruits and botanicals. “As you sit on the stool, you will be able to watch this process and see the distillery action through the window,” said Koenig. No need to travel to Appalachia, with Golden Beaver Distillery now joining the others right here in Chico and close by.
Golden Beaver Distillery
13464 Brown’s Valley Drive, Chico
BOURBON, SCOTCH, RYE, WHISKY AND WHISKEY: WHAT’S IN THE NAME?
Bourbon, scotch, and rye are all technically categorized as types of whisky (or whiskey). Geography and variations in ingredients and processing differentiate the spirit name and spelling of this brew. Whiskey/whisky must be made from grain. The type of grain and process varies by country and results in different taste and flavor profiles. The spelling variation seems to have been a way of differentiating Irish and Scotch spirits back in the 1800s. Much debate about this has ensued over the years. Generally, whisky, without the “e,” is made in Scotland or Canada, while whiskey is made in the U.S., England, Japan, and Australia, among other places. Bourbon is a United States’ product using a recipe minimum of 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. Kentucky is a well-known homeland for American bourbon, though it is produced nationwide. Rye is also whiskey, made with a minimum of 51% rye as its base grain, at least in the U.S. Rye made in Canada may or may not be made from rye. Scotch is made from malted barley, and the Scots are the world whisky leader, producing the most whisky for longer than the past 100 years.
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.