By Julie Horner
Craft beer lovers will be stoked to notice that a new brewer has come to town in the Live Oak district of Santa Cruz. Former Boulder Creek locals and KBCZ 89.3 FM Community Radio alumni, Leslie and Matt Buchanan and business partners Stephanie and Nate Murphy have signed the lease in the East Cliff Village Shopping Center near Portola and 17th and created Balefire Brewing Company. Just around the corner from where the sunny Live Oak Farmers Market is held year round, Balefire launched with a word-of-mouth soft opening on October 14, 2023. The packed house enjoyed a well rounded initial offering: two IPAs, a blonde ale, and an Irish red. “It’s Santa Cruz, it’s California, IPA is king,” Leslie said. Surprisingly so far, the red is their top seller. Leslie wants to bring in some lagers and pilsners; they’re also eyeing a hazy IPA and have just tapped a chocolate-vanilla stout, the “House Porter.”
Burgeoning with Good Beer
Leslie and Matt were part of the early days of KBCZ and built the studio located in the Burl Building in Historic Downtown Boulder Creek. Matt “Slayershoes” hosted two shows on KBCZ, “It Came From the 80s” and “Matt’s Altered State.” The two have been big craft beer fans all along.
Leslie learned her chops at Steel Bonnet Brewing Company in Scotts Valley and soon became head brewer there. She and Nate brewed together at Steel Bonnet, forming a notable synergy before Leslie found another appropriately challenging role at Highway 1 Brewing Company. It was a shared dream for these friends to create their own place. When the opportunity arose to buy the brewing equipment and establish a business, she grabbed Nate and Stephanie and hubby Matt, and they jumped in as a team.
Their specialty, Leslie said, is “good beer.” And variety. “We’ll do a lot of styles but only if we can do them well.”
BaleFire has a seven barrel, open flame brew system with four fermenters and one temperature-controlled pressure-rated brite tank where the final product rests before it is served. “We can turn out a lot of beer,” Leslie said, noting that systems like this are used to brew English, Irish, and American style ales. This is the same equipment in the same location that James Hrica, Joe Evans and Jon Moriconi christened with their East Cliff Brewing Company in 2016 and which Greater Purpose Brewing Company used from 2020 until July of 2023.
A Call to Gathering
The company’s logo adorns the front windows. The design, a hop blossom, worked into a Celtic knot embraced by an arabesque of graceful vines, was created by Nate’s father, Alan, or “Papa Murph.” Aiming for that ‘pub feel’, Stephanie describes how they came up with the name, Balefire. Often associated with Beltaine or Winter Solstice, she said, “It’s the tradition of having a big bonfire, bringing together all the villages. They would all light their torch at the balefire and bring it back to their communities as a sense of everyone being together.”
Tucked into a quiet corner at the edge of a laid back dog-walking and bicycle friendly residential neighborhood, the coastal air smells fresh as you settle into your pint beside one of the gas fire pits on the patio. Both of the IPAs are excellent. Waves crash in the distance. Dog families mingle, a young dad in jogging shorts is on baby duty pushing a stroller. Inside, Balefire offers a variety of pleasing seating arrangements with local art on the walls and the shiny array of steel tanks in view. This is a community space where people can meet and experience the beer and not have to scream in each other’s ear to have a conversation. And a live music program has just begun.
“This is so much fun, Leslie said. “As a woman, I feel kind of like a badass — I can do these things in a very male-driven, male-dominated field. It wasn’t always that way. Women traditionally brewed the beer for the home. But on the industrial scale, even for us as a nano-brewery, I do feel pretty confident and pretty ‘Rosie the Riveter’. It’s a good feeling to feel confident in what you do, no matter what it is.”
Balefire Brewing Company, 21517 E. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz.
M-TH| 3:00 – 9:00
F | 2:00 – 10:00
S | 12:00 – 10:00
S | 12:00 – 9:00
Julie Horner writes about art, music, and the local business scene in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Photos by Julie Horner
Featured photo above: The BaleFire Brewing team, l to r: Nate Murphy, Stephanie Murphy, Leslie Buchanan, Matt Buchanan
Have something to contribute? The San Lorenzo Valley Post welcomes your Santa Cruz Mountains news, story ideas, photos, and letters. Send us an email.