The Camino de Santiago, two bicycles, and a tale with a head
Here’s a story: A group of pilgrims on the road, walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The year is 1200 and a storm is closing in. Our band of travelers has many miles to go before they reach the next town. Where can they take refuge? The winds batter them—and there, a faint light in the distance! They push on, toward the light: a glow from within a juniper grove. They venture toward the light and behold: the Virgin Mary, in the center of the grove. With her, they find shelter from the storm.
This is the legend behind Bosque de Milagros, a juniper saison. Camino Brewing Company is the crafter of this beer. In the parlance of the beverage, call this a complex, refreshing take on the craft pale ales that dominate the West Coast beer scene. Nathan Poulos ’00 is the teller of the tale. He is master brewer at Camino, on South First Street in San Jose.
Poulos is a towering, bearded man whose attitude toward his current work was shaped by his first career as a public defender. “We’re telling a story here,” he says—both in the taproom and in the courtroom. “To be an effective advocate in trial, you’ve got to tell your client’s story.”
Cheers to that, counselor.
It was in law school in Sacramento that Poulos met good friend and now business partner and Camino CEO Allen Korenstein. They opened Camino Brewing in April 2018, though their journey into hops began an ocean away—in Spain, cycling their way along the Camino to Santiago, and wanting to bring home the sense of community they found among strangers along the way.
On the Road
Brewmaster and CEO each bring something different to the brews. “We’re Poulos and Korenstein,” Poulos says. “He’s Jewish, I’m Catholic. He’s from LA, I’m from Northern California.” But for both of them, he says, law school was tough.
Here’s a story that Poulos tells as we sit in the corner of Camino’s modern and sleek taproom. It’s the year 2006, and he is working for a law firm that contracts with Placer County to provide public defenders for the indigent. His first year in the job, the firm loses the contract. Poulos loses his job.
“I really fell in love with being a public defender and being that voice for the voiceless,” Poulos says. “People who wouldn’t normally have anyone standing up for them in the first place. That’s something I discovered in that first year and then, all of a sudden, it was gone.”
He finds a new job—again as a public defender, but in Santa Barbara, California. He has a month before he starts.
If someone gives you a month, where do you take it?
Poulos recalls the pilgrim routes he first learned of in a course in medieval history at Santa Clara. After a bit of research, he decides on the Camino de Santiago—a sprawling collection of trails that lead from around Europe to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. According to legend, there lies the tomb of Saint James, in the Catedral de Santiago.
These days, many still journey on the Camino out of religious devotion. It is the journey—physical, spiritual—and not just the destination that matters. Others are just looking for exercise: walking or riding for weeks. For Polous, in this journey, the Camino is an opportunity to ride the road with Korenstein and to clear his head.
They start at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, just across the border from Spain. They ride 180 miles or so and reach the Spanish town of Burgos. They each explore the city solo. Poulos visits the Catedral de Burgos and discovers that El Cid, the famed Castilian military strategist, is buried there. The friends meet up again and share stories of finding connections with strangers on this route. There is something simple and profoundly spiritual about that.
“There’s something about the Camino that just kind of calls to you,” Poulos says. “Something about being out there, not quite sure where you’re going to sleep, not sure where you’re headed that day, who you’re going to encounter, or what you’re going to accomplish.”
On they ride. They meet a priest biking from Rome to Santiago. This, too, is pretty cool. They return to California but they know the road is not done with them.
On the Road Again
The two friends return to the Camino in 2009. This time, Polous and Korenstein follow the priest’s route from Rome. It is a good journey. But making a living calls. For Poulos, there is work. There is also getting serious about his interest in home brewing. And there is, what if.
“From more or less the moment that Allen and I met, we were trying to figure out something to do with our lives other than becoming lawyers,” Polous confesses.
They have mused in the past about opening a brewery. But it’s a copper kettle dream, to coin a phrase. Until one night.
This is the aha! moment. As Polous tells the tale, his face lights up once more. “I got out of bed one night and called him up late and said, ‘Dude, we gotta do it.’ He said, ‘Do what?’ ‘We gotta open a brewery, man.’”
What makes this story different from any other story of two friends having the “Dude, let’s buy a bar!” conversation (perhaps a beer-assisted conversation) is the story that Poulos tells Korenstein: “Those memories, that feeling, that spirituality, that ethic we feel we want to live in our own personal lives,” Poulos enthuses. “We can create that for ourselves. We can do that through beer.”
Togetherness—like on the Camino. That could work. Sit at the long bar or at tables in the airy, sleek taproom. In front of you: A glass of Saint James Star—a rye IPA. Or a Cafe con Leche—a coffee milk stout. Or perhaps in the heat of summer, an Agua Fresca—a gose with cucumber. Beside you: strangers and companions on the journey of life.
The brewmaster likes to say that beer brings people together. “How many times across Spain or Italy or France did we sit there over a beer,” Poulos says, “talking with people from all over the world about the common experience that we were having, even though we had maybe nothing in common until that point?”