Giancarlo’s Brew

Giancarlo's Brew

After two and a half years of homebrewing, I’m finally feeling ready to put my beer out there for the general public, at least one brew, anyway. I did on Saturday, and it one of the most bittersweet days of my life. The Home Brew Fest, part of the annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California should have been a day of fun conversations, of compliments, of success—and it was. I loved when a woman came up asking, “Is this where we can get the mate beer we’ve been hearing about?” But, the story of the yerba mate-infused blond ale that I wrote about brewing a couple of months ago, took a tragic turn the final day of March. For reasons that may never be known, Giancarlo Vigil, the dynamic 23-year-old owner of The Mate Exchange, took his life on March 31 in Durango, Colorado.

In the weeks before his April 24 memorial service in Arvada, the Denver suburb where he grew up, I lost count of the Facebook posts from his friends and acquaintances. So many poured out stories of how Giancarlo had impacted their lives for better. An estimated 400 people attended his memorial service. The police report still is not final, and many questions remain as to why a young man with so many accomplishments and no signs of depression would end his life.

Because Giancarlo imported his mate from southern Brazil, I had initially planned to enter the beer in our local homebrew competition with the name Ipanema Blond. After the service, I phoned his grandmother and my long-time friend Marta about renaming it Giancarlo’s Brew and using a photo from the memorial service. “It would lead people to ask what happened. Are you okay with that?” I asked. Marta was highly enthusiastic in her response, as Giancarlo’s mother Denise was later. Both want Giancarlo to continue touching others’ lives.

So on Saturday, off I went with my trusty assistant brewer and husband Hugo and five recently brewed gallons of Giancarlo’s Brew. The biggest challenge for attendees at any beer festival is being able to drink only so much beer. For servers, festivals are a lot more involved. The Steinbeck Fest ran from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., which meant arriving between 8:00 and 9:00 to ice down kegs and bottles, set up, chat with fellow homebrewers and try a few samples of their work.

Serving Huy Vu a sample before the doors opened

Serving Huy Vu a sample before the doors opened. Huy’s jacket has Miracal, the name of his homebrewery.

Walking in the door, I was feeling intimidated. Mark Fisler, president of the Redwood Coast Brewers Association in Santa Cruz, who has brewed over 200 batches, was bringing several beers. Huy Vu, who had given me great advice about brewing with tea, had said he planned to bring five beers. Coming off a first-place win in the first round of the National Homebrew competition and looking to go pro, Jon Ezell would be pouring, as would Duane Shimabukuro, owner of Bottoms Up Homebrew Supply. All these guys are wonderful people, but their brewing skills and their beers were way beyond my skills and my one beer.

And then there was the matter of decorating. Several days earlier, Jon Ezell had spent fifteen minutes on the phone answering my last-minute questions. “Some people go all out on decorating their booths,” he advised. I hung up and started brainstorming.

Displaying our Grainfather brewing system would get people’s interest. One second later, I decided that having scores of people wanting to touch our $900 machine was probably not a good idea. Maybe I’d take my Argentine boleadoras, traditionally used by mate-drinking gauchos to capture cattle. And the leftover bag of mate might interest people. I made a sign, and decided I’d exhausted my decorating skill.

Attendees check out Argentine boleadoras and dried mate

Attendees inquire about Argentine boleadoras and dried mate

Saturday dawned overcast, windy and chilly—crummy beer festival weather. Luckily, we were assigned to a large room inside the Steinbeck Center, while the Fisler’s and multi-ribbon winner Erik Hickok were on the patio and Jon and Duane were in a courtyard. “Here’s your sign and your bag for best-of-show tickets,” an organizer said as she checked me in. I took my place between Big Bear Chainsaw Brewing, with a jockey box, a fruity watermelon wheat beer and a gorgeous framed sign, and La Cantina Brewery with their jockey box and a killer Coco Lav Porter. Who knew we were supposed to name our breweries?

We were hardly set up before fellow homebrewers were stopping for samples. The mate made for a great story behind the beer, but it was the people who asked about the name and Giancarlo’s photo that made the day unforgettable. Some turned somber, other near tearful. One gently touched his glass to the photo and murmured, “Cheers, Giancarlo.”

Toasting Giancarlo

Toasting Giancarlo

Over the five-hour festival, Hugo and I poured one sample after another, sometimes with a line and a lot of folks coming back for seconds. When Duane, the homebrew shop owner, stopped by to say competition results should come out within a week, he confided that the judges had voted Giancarlo’s Brew through the first round of competition.

By the time Hugo left for another commitment at 3:00, I felt perfectly capable of handling our booth. Still, I was happy that my homebrewing neighbor John and his son Chris had volunteered to stay and help haul things to the car. When 4:00 rolled around, two 16-ounce bottles were all that remained of Giancarlo’s Brew. Those and a lot of fantastic memories.

Pro brewer and two-time Great American Beer Festival winner J. C. Hill samples Giancarlos Brew

Pro brewer and two-time Great American Beer Festival winner J. C. Hill samples Giancarlo’s Brew

Before heading home, I celebrated for a couple of hours at Alvarado Street Brewery’s Salinas production brewery, where owner J.C. Hill very generously supplied free beer and tacos for a patio full of homebrewers ready to party.

Three years ago, an adventuresome college junior went off to Argentina for nine months and came home in love with yerba mate. Little could he or I have known where yerba mate would take us.


  1. This was so beaitiful

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