Not-so-Secret Trail: Four years of brewing off the beaten path


Ian Hilton

Secret Trail Brewing Co. flies high, four years and counting.

Tucked away from major streets and foot traffic, a Chico gem is thriving. The word is out about Secret Trail Brewing Company; staff and patrons alike feel the momentum, and owners Michelle and Charlie Barrett are enthusiastic.

The Barretts are hands-on operators: Charlie’s passion as head brewer is unquestionable, as is apparent upon the first sip of his suds, and Michelle’s dedication to streamlining the business is impressive. This couple has their hops together.

Charlie, a long-running home brewer, said his dream of opening a brewery is not an uncommon one among his ilk; his retirement provided the opportunity to spark the blaze that would become Secret Trail Brewing Co.

“I’ve always liked getting out and going hiking in the woods,” Charlie said, “and I think the concept of finding a secret trail is really intriguing. I thought it would even apply to beer because you could make a beer that’s, you know, off the beaten path.”

Barrels of aging beer teasing the sitting room at Secret Trail Brewing Co. Photo by Ian Hilton, 10/31/2021

Secret Trail’s selection mirrors this sentiment. While classic favorites such as IPAs, lagers and ales are among the 20-tap rotation, there are handfuls of nuanced and novel brews offered, appropriately coined “explorer beers.”

Two or three varieties at a time can also be found at retailers, but “we also try to keep something that you can only find here,” Michelle remarked with pride.

“It’s hard to do,” Charlie said, “because [an explorer beer] just means more work, but it’s worth it. Our customers appreciate it.”

Charlie’s assessment of customer appreciation isn’t just a hunch.

“I think our following is really strong,” Michelle said. “We have an average of about 11 new customers a day, and on the weekends with events it’s even more.”

These events drive home the mission of Secret Trail — cultivating community. While live music, both local and not, frequent the location on weekends, the brewery also hosts trivia, a service industry night and, most recently, open mic nights where customers can showcase talents ranging from poetry to comedy.

Chico State recording arts graduate Cameron Ford provides both sound engineering and artist-hunting services.

“[Ford is] always looking to bring in new talent from people traveling through the area,” Michelle said.

She added that “it’s not that we don’t have wonderful music right here in Chico. Be clear about that. It’s amazing how much talent there is in this town but he’s also always looking for those one-off shows that come through.”

Also on rotation is a variety of food trucks that almost rival the popularity of the beer. Grub slingers Panini Machini, Indulgence Pizza, The Black Kettle and Chicobi’s serve customers throughout the week.

Michelle succinctly described their relationship with the food trucks as symbiotic:

“We don’t charge them to be here. We just ask them to come during the hours that we’ve selected; they sell their food, plug into our power, use our trash and provide their services to our customers.”

Ultimately though, it’s about the beer and the service. Secret Trail’s ever-evolving varieties exist because of the considerable talents accumulated by the Barretts.

Through ProBrewer, Charlie recruited Clayton Rudd, award-winning current assistant brewer previously of Lost Coast Brewing Co. and Bear Republic Brewing Co. fame. Chris Chandler fields sales and delivery in addition to his brewing duties, and Taproom Lead Kayla Hemken keeps the service glassy-smooth.

The bar staff is hired by word-of-mouth, keeping the Secret Trail family tight-knit and consistently cordial.

Selection and quality in abundance at Secret Trail Brewing.

Fans of Secret Trail have another event to anticipate: expansion.

Following four years of successful operation in the face of regional fires and COVID-19, the brewery is stretching out into the adjacent building around the start of 2022, offering additional seating for 50.

This extra space will allow bands, trivia lovers and open-mic-ers the opportunity to get out of the Chico heat and cold, relieving the otherwise engaged main taproom. Further, private functions can be facilitated.

Additional locations, either in Chico or beyond, are not in the game plan according to Michelle.

“We just want to make this place the best it can be and not worry about trying to keep someplace else supported as well,” she said.

For now and in the future, this self-described “mom-and-pop shop” is interested in focusing on quality over quantity; in that effort, they seem to do no wrong.

“We’re a very welcoming, accepting place,” Charlie said, smiling. “We don’t like to think that we’re hoity-toity or anything. Just bring your dog, bring your family.”

Secret Trail Brewing Co. throws two annual parties: One in October to beat the weather in honor of their Nov. 17 grand opening anniversary, and another in May. The next will be on May 14, 2022.

If great beer, food, music and events are your jam, follow the Secret Trail credo: Live and drink off the beaten path.

Secret Trail awaits – discover it. Photo by Ian Hilton, 10/31/2021

Ian Hilton can be reached at [email protected]