A Barrel Full of Insights and New Brew from Almanac Beer

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan were covered in strawberries when we recently met in the parking lot of Hermitage Brewing in San Jose. The two founders of Almanac Beer were plugging 1500 pounds of fruit into 16 wine barrels under a blazing sun. Skin block and baseball caps were in full effect, as they shuffled around the crusty blacktop. With a little elbow grease and twelve months in barrels, a strawberry lambic will be born. The process is no easy task even in the best conditions, but they seemed to cherish the work, driven by excitement for what’s to come.

Almanac Beer is about to hit a growth spurt. After one year of business filled with four seasonal releases to date, the duo is unveiling a new line of California Table Beers on August 31, which will be available year-round. Billed as a more casual offering, the series will include two beers. A Honey Saison made with Marshall Farms honey, fresh local ginger, that was aged on French Oak, and a Extra Pale Ale made with Mandarin oranges from Blossom Bluff Farms aged on American oak, that was dry-hopped with Cascade and Columbus hops. Both beers were made with 100% California malt.

In addition to the new series, Almanac is also ramping up their barrel program. By the end of the year they hope to have 250 barrels in stock, filled with a vast assortment of beer, fruit and wild bugs. It’s an ambitious plan, which Hermitage Brewing is backing up with a capital investment. They’re currently building a cool space just for them. In case you don’t know, Almanac doesn’t have it’s own brewery yet, so they work at Hermitage’s facility on a contract basis.

After a year of business and so much going on, it seemed like a good time to hear how they’re doing. Between scoops of strawberries we talked about their barrel program, approach to making fruit beer, and what stresses them out in the professional brewing ranks.

So what types of fruit are currently aging in your barrels?

Jesse: We have a bunch of one-off barrels. It’s a mix of oranges, Meyer lemons, Buddha’s Hand, plums, persimmons, pumpkins, ginger, and maybe one or two others.

Damian: Even amongst those, we have three different kinds of oranges, a few different types of pumpkins that we actually roasted, all 250 pounds. There’s just a huge array of stuff in there. Then we have a couple that are plain sour.

Jesse: Yeah, there are a fair number of those too, which are for blending options down the road.

 

Will the beer mostly be kegged at this point, or will it go in bottles?

Jesse: No, we definitely want to bottle it eventually, and we’re working on putting that together right now.

Where did the fruit come from for the strawberry lambic?

Jesse: It’s all from Swanton Berry Farm, which is down in the Watsonville area. It’s a small family run farm and we were able to buy direct from them. In this case we purchased it and had the fruit frozen, which allowed us to really get the absolute peak of season fruit. The freezing and unfreezing process makes it a little bit more accessible to the yeast.

 

Could you talk a little about your approach to making fruit beer and the unpredictable nature of the barrel-aging process?

Jesse: I think there are a lot of different approaches. We’re really trying to use fruit as a seasonal component. That’s really where our focus is. We’re really looking at how the fruit ties into a sense of time and a sense of place. Right now, it’s the height of summer strawberry season and these beers are going to taste like it when they’re done. For us, the fruit gives us a direct through line for connecting to the farms. There’s flavor, mouthfeel and a color, all of those concerns, but really so that the beer creates a sense of time and place. It also creates a sense of terroir where the fruit is from. As for the barrel aging process, in many ways were just a steward of the yeast, bugs and fruit. We just sort of put it all together and set it loose.

Damian: That’s exactly right. Brewing tends to be a more controlled exercise when you’re making what I would call a conventional beer. I mean, look at what we’re doing right now. We’re out here in 80-degree weather filling old wine barrels full of unpasteurized fruit. Then we’re going to pour a bunch of wild yeast and bacteria into it, and just kind of cross our fingers and hope that it turns into something special.

Damian Fagan

Are there any beers out there that really get you excited about making fruit beer?

Damian: That’s a great question. Well I think one of my favorites right now, and I’ve had it many times, is the New Glarus cherry beer. That’s a great beer and I hate to say it, but when I first got into craft beer a long time ago, I use to appreciate the sweet Belgian lambics. Back then I thought they were really interesting. Now I find them way too sweet and sort of syrupy. They taste a little synthetic. Epic makes Brainless on Peaches, which I also currently like.

Jesse: Cascade as well. They’re doing a ton of really fruit focused stuff. They’re doing all lacto, which is really interesting. They’re hitting the nail on the head with all their fruit integration.

Are you concerned with distinguishing yourself at all during this industry wide barrel-aging fever, or do you just concentrate on making the beer and not worry too much about that?

Jesse: I think it’s a matter of priorities, in that we’re out here with 1500 pounds of fruit, that’s come direct from the farm and picked at the height of the season. That’s really going to come through. I think with a lot of this stuff, breweries are more in competition with themselves than anything else, it’s like being a restaurant. We’re making all these barrels in such limited quantities, that in order to sell out, it’s a very small amount of beer in the larger scheme of things. So for us it’s less about what the other guys is doing, and more about how we’re doing. It’s your own yardstick.

 

Is there any fruit that you guys haven’t used that you’re dying to try?

Jesse: All the other ones (laughs). What’s really exciting about what we’re doing, especially with some of these barrels, is we have the ability to experiment and try new things. We can start some one-off barrels, and come back around and expand on different fruits as we work on them. The barreling process is so complex and there’s so much that changes. It’s really exciting to see what comes out of these programs and what flavors are being generated by the different barrels.

Jesse Friedman

What do the farmers you’ve worked with think about the process and resulting beer?

Damian: I think the initial reaction is “What? You want to do what with the fruit?” It’s pretty clear they haven’t been approached for the type of quantity we’re looking for. When you come back and hand them a few bottles of the beer, a finished product, it all sort of comes together and they say “Ahhhhhh.”

Jesse: Especially after the check clears! I think that’s exactly right. A lot of these farmers, they sort of send their food item to restaurants that they’ve never been too, much less eaten at. What’s great with the beer is that we make a real point of making sure we get some good beer back to those farmers and they love it every time, because for them, it’s something they can share with friends and family, and literally taste what they put into it.

Damian: It’s fun too, when you give them the finished product. We highlight each farm on the labels, so it’s great when they get excited seeing the front of the bottle and the name of their farm. It’s a nice way to give them credit for what they deserve, what they’re doing and putting out there, that we have access too.

When I’ve talked to you guys in the past, you’ve said the most stressful part of being a hombrewer was worrying about carbonation. Now that you’ve gone pro, what do you guys stress out about now?

Jesse: Carbonation. It’s those little tiny things at the very end. We get all the barrels. We get all the fruit. We let it mature for eighteen months and then you package it all together, but if it’s flat, all of it’s sort of for not. So it’s really every little detail that matters when it comes down to the end, because from consumers point of view the story’s great, but it has to be delicious.

Damian: I think that’s right. There’s the technical aspects of beer making that you never stop worrying about, whether that’s carbonation, a barrel going rancid, or even finding a barrel that you can’t blend because it’s gone really funky. Those are all things that we worry about from a technical aspect, and then at the end of the day, when all of this is done, you’re still running a business. You still need to make sure that you’re putting a product out there that people enjoy. In our case, I think it’s important that people kind of know what we’re doing, because of how small we are and the way we’re making beer. We kind of have to ask for a little more money for our product, and if you can’t justify that either through the message of the story and the quality of the product itself, then you’ve really got a problem. So far so good though. The response to what we’re doing has been pretty phenomenal, and we’re only a year old now, but we’ll see what the future holds. We’re really excited about it.

The Northern California Craft Beer Guide, Behind the Book Interview

Anneliese Schmidt and Ken Weaver

Last month you may have read that Northern California finally has a craft beer guide. It’s a long overdue resource for Bay Area beer drinkers and thirsty tourists. The book was created by Ken Weaver and Anneliese Schmidt. Ken handled the writing, while Anneliese snapped the photos. Together they devised the concept and content in less than a year and a half, all while juggling day jobs.

Before they set off on a promotional tour at local breweries, bookstores and bottle shops near you (see calendar), I sat down with them to chat about their strategy, the book’s structure, challenges, and to get their perspective on what’s new and interesting about the region’s craft beer scene.

How did the book get started and what was your creative strategy for tackling something so big?

Ken: We were approached by Cameron + Company maybe a year and half ago, in the spring of 2011. During the first six months we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we could do, how we wanted to package it a little bit differently, and how much work would go into it. Once things actually got started, probably around late July or early August of 2011, we had about four and half months to gather and write material. One of the biggest challenges was looking at our budget of vacations days. She was working full time and I was working part time right up until the last three weeks of the project. We started with the far away stuff so we could fit it into our schedules. For each region we figured out what we needed to do in terms of cursory research and what places we needed to visit. In some cases we would visit ten, fifteen or twenty places in a day. Most of the time we weren’t drinking.

That takes a lot of energy.

Anneliese: It’s a lot of driving from one place to another.

Ken: There’s no other way to do it. It’s nice when we did sample because you can leave beer on the table. We did maybe five breweries in a day, which if you talk about it in terms of wine, it’s nothing. We would start at eleven o’clock when places opened and then just cycle through stuff and hit up a lot of bottle shops and beer bars along the way since we didn’t have to drink there.

A lot of guidebooks follow a particular structure. What was your approach to organizing all the information?

Ken: So we basically divided it up into eight total regions. That was the structure for the chapters and then we knew we were going to have all the listings. They are the core of the book, but that doesn’t really encapsulate the beer scene. We knew we were going to have pictures, not necessarily how many, and some sidebars where we would be able to talk about things like Lagers, Moonlight Brewing and barrel aging beer. There were some things that just didn’t fit into the typical package. Then the other thing we wanted to do was address beer styles. Most beer books and guides have this weird section on styles that are usually three or four pages, its short, and no one reads it. So we wanted to repackage the style section. Living in the Bay Area, we have these archetypal beers that we can use and teach people with, like Anchor Steam and Pliny the Elder. That’s how we handled the beer style sidebars. That was the one additional thing we liked and thought was a bonus. The sidebars gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of layout, breaking up the text, and we could talk about anything, like bottle cap art or whatever.

Anneliese: We were able to talk about things that didn’t fit into the listings.

Ken: All the quirky things that fit into the beer culture worth highlighting. They’re things that aren’t necessarily a place, like food pairing. The maps and instructions were pretty much a given.

Anneliese: We wanted the layout and design of the book to be something we would buy, so we basically made it for ourselves and we’re actually looking forward to using it!

Did you go out and grab a bunch of other beer guidebooks for reference?

Ken: Our publisher picked up a ton of them and I had seen quite a few. Lisa Morrison’s book, Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, was definitely one that we gravitated too. I think her book is pretty different than ours, but hers is very user friendly with a similar vibe in mind. It incorporates things beyond just the breweries. We wanted to include the larger brew scene.

How worried were you about trying to capture it all?

Ken: I’m still worried (laughs). I’ve been completely neurotic. I put my negative perfectionist tendencies to the test when doing something like this. There are 280 listings. I’ve updated them so many times and have been annoyed at finding changes. It’s a given that things are going to change and there will be things you can’t fix because it’s a print book. There’s new stuff that’s opened up, but it was a really exhaustive search to try and make sure we didn’t miss anything.

Anneliese: It was great because once people heard what we were doing, they would say, “Oh, have you heard of this place or that place.” Most of the time they were next on our list.

Ken: For instance, we’ve heard of Russian River Brewing. “We’ll get there eventually.” (laughs) People were happy to share that sort of stuff. It would be hard to do the research from afar. It’s great when you’re in the brewery and asking people what’s going on, trying to figure what beer bars just opened up, especially when you’re talking about stuff that’s outside the Bay Area.

Are you concerned at all about how people might interpret your work? Have you received any complaints?

Ken: I haven’t gotten any complaints yet, but I’ll certainly get them I’m sure. It’s generally a positive book, I mean it’s a very positive book throughout and I think where we needed to be honest to our readership has really drained me. It’s been an emotional burden in terms of just feeling bad we couldn’t say nicer things. That’s something that I struggled with. We wanted to include all the breweries and there are some who aren’t doing good stuff. Some of those have are already closed. We didn’t want someone to pick up the book, a regular at a place we didn’t like, and say, “Ken Weaver says your beer sucks, I’m not drinking here anymore.” I never wanted to do that and I think that’s why we handled it very delicately. You know whether or not we’re really fond of a place. You can’t take that sort of cut and dry approach to things, so our focus was trying to find the really good stuff and calling attention to it. I think we did that with the style sidebars.

What was it like to work on the book together?

Ken: It was good, it was easy and it was fun. It worked out perfectly.

Anneliese: We spent a lot of time travelling together so that was great.

Ken: We made it as fun as we could, but a lot of it was really fast paced travelling and I’m really glad I didn’t have to do that with anyone else. We tried to incorporate some of our friends, but it was too hard. We really tried hard to focus on the beer, atmosphere, and draw that out in the listings as much as we could. There wasn’t a lot of other time to do stuff. She was taking photos and I was reviewing beer, so we couldn’t incorporate visits with friends.

Did everyone welcome you with open arms during your travels?

Ken: We had very few problems, but we didn’t go out of our way to make our presence known, just because we tend to be quiet.

Anneliese: We wanted to see what the perspective is for the future guidebook owner.

Ken: We also just didn’t have time. If you have to do five breweries in a day, you can’t schedule more than one or two meetings, otherwise you would spend three hours there. We’re really looking forward to using the book ourselves and spending more time at the places we really enjoyed.

How did the Ken Grossman foreword come about?

Ken: I didn’t talk to Ken about it. It happened through our publisher. It’s one of those things that I didn’t have to do, but I suggested him. He ended up being the best fit. Ken’s still active and it just made sense. It’s the biggest brewery and it maintains all the necessary components of craft beer. For some reason he decided to do it. I think it was just easy to get people behind a project like this because it needed to be done. That’s what we found time and again.

Since you traveled so much and got a full perspective on brewing in Northern California, did you start seeing themes, regional identities, or other things you thought were unique to a particular area, such as styles or personalities?

Ken: That’s a good question. One nice thing about doing something like this, is that it gives you a perspective on a beer scene that you couldn’t possibly have otherwise. As for particular geographic regions, it’s hard for me to say. Sure, San Francisco had more food focused stuff, Oakland, the North Bay and San Francisco also have smaller nanobreweries opening up, whereas the larger outside regions are slower to adapt, but there’s also fewer people and things out there. I guess the biggest thing that was exciting to see was the breadth of approaches people are taking. It looks like everybody’s doing IPA and all these other hop focused beers, but it was nice to sort of see what was underneath that in certain places and see some non traditional things, like at Redwood Curtain in Arcata. They’re entirely focused on Belgian beers. You go to Oakland and see Dying Vines, and you find someone entirely focused on British styles. You see Strike Brewing in the South Bay and they started out doing small session beers. All these places give you a sense of how significantly varied Northern California actually is. If I look hard enough, I can find something that really scratches an itch that nobody else is really scratching now, whether it’s cask beer or something really assertive.

Anneliese: For me, each region had one place that kind of epitomized the area.

Ken: When you’re traveling in the Bay Area, I think there’s a tendency to forget how lucky we are. There’s so much good stuff. There’s a surplus of it. But when you go outside and see some of these other places, you’ll find even more people who are constantly trying to make great craft beer. If you have notebook, are asking questions, and you’re really excited about what you’re drinking, you get a reaction that’s one of the really fun parts about beer traveling. You can actually talk to the local folks in a more calm and relaxed manner. We’re in a city and it’s a very different feel compared to the breweries and beer bars farther out. It was calmer, less crowded, and people were excited that you cared about craft beer. In the Bay Area, over half the people coming in are hugely excited about craft beer. It just sort of encourages you to go beyond the suburbs. People are psyched to talk about it because they don’t normally do that in the middle of Central California, Mammoth Lakes, or Etna.

Were there any shockingly good surprises?

Ken: Dust Bowl Brewing.

Anneliese: We just didn’t know anything about them. There wasn’t much information available. Their taproom just recently opened a few months ago.

Ken: They opened maybe six weeks before we had gotten there.

Anneliese: There wasn’t any press about them. We knew they existed and that’s about it. They blew us away.

Where are they located?

Ken: Turlock.

Turlock? Where’s Turlock?

Anneliese: Between here and LA (laughs). Just south of Modesto on Highway 99.

Ken: That’s a good example of the benefit of going out to these places ourselves. From the Bay Area perspective you see one thing, their Hops of Wrath, which when I look at the numbers on RateBeer.com, is considered mediocre. Part of that is probably related to freshness and bottling issues that they had early on, which is misleading. When we were there they had maybe fourteen beers on tap. One was a barrel-aged blend, one was a phenomenal Helles- type Lager, and one was Hops of Wrath, fresh. They just had a tap list you wouldn’t expect driving down the I-5 and seeing all the other breweries out there. There’s no way to know about it because no one ever goes out there and does the reconnaissance. It was just amazing stuff across the board. The brewer, Don Oliver, won the Samuel Adams Longshot Homebrewing Competition back in 2006. There was an article maybe a year ago that featured some industry mavens who picked the next round of great American craft brewers. Jim Koch of Sam Adams picked Don Oliver at Dust Bowl as the one to watch. You don’t get that from the slightly stale IPA bottles.

Anneliese: The project gave us an opportunity to refocus on Northern California beers, especially since we spent so much time on the East Coast. There are beers I know I’ve had, but I wasn’t really paying attention. For the book we had to start paying attention again, and now all my favorites are locals. Now I’ve forgotten that there’s beer outside of Northern California.

Ken: It’s been hard to get out of that pattern.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the book that you wish you had space for?

I wish I had a time machine. That would have been awesome.

The Northern California Craft Beer Guide is now available in book stores and online.

New Brewery Calicraft Celebrates The Golden State

Have you seen a bear clutching a barrel? If so, either you’re way too drunk or you’ve spotted bottles from Calicraft Brewing Company, one of the latest players in the Bay Area’s explosion of new breweries.

Calicraft was officially launched in May 2012 by Blaine Landberg, a veteran homebrewer, Walnut Creek family man, and founding employee of Honest Tea. I first met this ambitious but approachable entrepreneur after midnight at a brewers’ conference where, despite the late hour, he exuded enthusiasm, local pride, and love of beer. It’s easy to get caught up in his excitement, particularly when he talks about his commitment to using California ingredients when possible. Even Calicraft t-shirts will be made in-state, not in China.

The fledgling brewery came out of the gate strong with three beers: the refreshing Cali Colsch, the hoppy Oaktown Brown, and Buzzerkeley, a honey-accented Belgian/American mashup that’s already getting plenty of…well, buzz. (Sorry.) I predict Calicraft will have a substantial following by the time it opens its Walnut Creek tasting room.

Landberg took some time away from brewing, beer delivery, and his general daily hustle to answer some questions via email. An edited version of our exchange is below.

You talked about wanting to start a brewery since you were 14. Most 14 year olds are not drinking anything inspiring. How did you get a goal like that at that age?

Living right outside Chico in Willows, CA, the success of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was a sense of regional pride. As I was growing up I saw that sense of pride as something that I wanted to create…but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just trying to recreate Sierra but start a new movement like Sierra did in the ‘80’s

I come from a family of homebrewers. I remember the moment I realized I wanted to be a brewer, when my uncle brought a beer he made to a family function. It was called Bell and Bear Brew – Hopping Good From Down Under and the label had a kangaroo peeing in a bucket. As a teenager this was hilarious. At our family holiday functions it was always a treat to see who would bring the most interesting craft brewed beer to the party. Though I couldn’t partake, maybe a sip here and there, I loved what it stood for. A symbol for a social gathering, a form of expression, and a sense of family and friends…to me these are the core values and reasons craft beer and craft products in general are so meaningful and why I’ve chosen to pursue them as my life’s work.

When/where did you brew your first batch of beer? What was it?

I brewed my first batch of beer in the kitchen of the dorms in Unit 1 at UC Berkeley. It was an extract brewed pale ale. I added honey to it and called it Buzzerkeley Brewing Virgin Ale. I was only able to brew down there twice before it got out that a 19-year-old was brewing beer, not good. I took a hiatus for about two years and started heavily brewing when I got an apartment with my girlfriend at the time, now my wife. I cobbled together five pots and pans and started brewing extract beer. I made pretty much everything under the sun and I constantly tried to experiment with beers using honey, spices, fruits, and woods. After about two years of fairly consistent extract brewing I started to all-grain brew and that is when my hobby became an obsession.

Do you still homebrew?

I definitely still homebrew. I think that is the foundation of craft brewing. Especially at the stage where I am, it’s important to keep creative and constantly try to improve on concepts and new products. Homebrewing is the best avenue for this.

Since you have beers named in honor of Berkeley and Oakland, can you talk a bit more about your connection to these cities?

I went to school at Berkeley and started brewing in Berkeley. The initial name I thought of for the brewery was Buzzerkeley. I liked that it was a play on Berzerkeley and with the use of honey in some of the beers the play on words was perfect.

While living in Oakland in our little Rockridge apartment I came up with the basics of Oaktown Brown. The idea came to me as I was training for a half marathon and running about Lake Merritt. I would try to daydream about brewing to take my mind off the pain. At that time I was frequenting Barclays, Ben and Nick’s, and Cato’s where I grew a strong appreciation for hoppy beers but also loved a good brown, porter or dark lager. I also felt like there wasn’t a consistent beer on the market that used oak in balance with hops and brown and I loved the double meaning of “Oaktown.”

Can you talk briefly about your other experience in the workforce, including what (if anything) tea taught you about selling beer?

I was one of the first people to join the team at Honest Tea. I started as an intern in 1999, the second year of Honest. I started selling Honest out of the back of my car, similar to what I’m doing now with Calicraft. I purposely chose working for a start-up in the beverage industry because the fundamentals of brand building through distribution and retail are the same. In fact, up until 2008 we mostly worked with Miller and Bud distribution houses in the West. From my car to the end of 2008 we put together a network of over 50 beer distributors in the West and covered all 13 states.

Please describe each of your beers, including any ingredients you’re willing to divulge.

Cali Colsch: We use California-grown base malt from the Klammoth basin by the base of Mt. Shasta. We blend it with some European Pilsner malts to form a base that is clean, smooth, subtly grainy and bright. We then use a blend of American and German hops to bring out noble spicy and fruity characteristics while giving the beer a hint of American hop flavor at the end. The Kolsch yeast we use adds complexity through notes of peach and pear. It finishes bright, playful and clean. Our goal is to not push this beer out of style, but push the beer to the edge of the style, keeping it drinkable and balance.

Oaktown Brown: Redefining traditional brown ale, this is a hoppy, malty, deep and soulful brown ale. We use California-grown organic Cascade hops that give this beer a flavor reminiscent of an IPA. The California grown hops express flavors of orange and marmalade vs. pine and grapefruit from the Pacific Northwest. We then ferment the beer with a blend of three oaks with the foundation of the oaks being American. The beer starts bitter and roasty with subtle smoke. As it warms, layers of chocolate, toffee and caramel begin to shine. The use of oak during fermentation gives this beer structure that lays in your mouth similar to a great cab or zin.

Buzzerkley: Blurring the lines between beer and wine, Buzzerkeley is beverage unto itself. Fermentation with Champagne yeast adds a subtle tartness to the finish. Our combination of pure California starthistle and a blend of Belgian and American malts support the spicy fruity esters of the yeast. The honey sugars are almost completely fermented, drying out the beer similar to a Belgian golden strong or dry champagne. Its best drank cold and in a tight narrow glass.

Where are the beers brewed now and what are your plans to open your own brewery?

Currently we brew our beers in San Jose at Hermitage. We subscribe to the tenant brewer philosophy: much like you would become a tenant at an apartment and make it your home, this is the way we view our relationship with Hermitage. The people at Hermitage have been incredible to work with and are solid partners in business.

In the next 12-24 months we will be building a small 10-15 barrel production system in Walnut Creek. We are currently working with the city to get the area known as the Shadelands rezoned for food production. We will run the brewery much more like an experimental winery with a tasting room than a traditional brewery. You’ll be able to get small batched limited produced beers using local partnerships. A few restaurant or beer-centric bars will get some of the products coming out of Walnut Creek.

In the short term, where can people find your beers?

Bottled beers are available at Berkeley Bowl, Ledgers Liquors in Berkeley, Whole Foods, Jackson’s Liquors in Lafayette and other independent grocery stores. On tap we’ll be rotating at local beer bars and restaurants in the area including Gather and Revival in Berkeley, Handles in Pleasanton, Beer Revolution in Oakland, Tender Greens and ØL in Walnut Creek, and Pete’s Brass Rail and Chow in Danville. If we’re not on draft, ask :)

Brewer Spotlight: Morgan Cox of Ale Industries, Part 3

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

In the final installment of my interview with Morgan Cox, we discuss the origin of the brewery’s name and logo, how production pressure has forced him to cut back on festival participation, his search for a new brewery location, brewing philosophy, the future of craft beer in the Bay Area and more

If you’re just checking into this interview, be sure to read part 1 and part 2.

So tell me about the name of the brewery and how you came up with it?

So I really like the idea of not having such and such brewing company, because if you look back a few years ago, every single company was something brewing company. I was out fishing on the Delta with a bunch of friends and it was a late night, we were drinking and somebody said, “Why don’t you just call it Ale Industries?” It instantly stuck. I thought it was an absolute stroke of genius, but it does give some people the impression that we don’t make lagers. When I kept hearing people ask if we did, we made a lager. I didn’t want the main thought process for people to be the name of the brewing company. I wanted people to think about Ryed Piper, Orange Kush and Uncle Jessie. I want them to think about those individual beers.

The logo has a really nice handmade quality. Why did you choose that style of design?

We deliberately wanted that look and feel. The funny thing was, as soon as we did it, we got two different sets of feedback and both sides were really passionate once again. At this point now, whenever I get really passionate positive or really passionate negative, I know that I’m staying true to Ale Industries, because that’s how it seems everything goes. Regular Joe Shmoe people, they like the logo. Anyone who has anything to do with design hates the logo. I get probably, once a month, people writing saying “I came up with this logo for you, because yours stinks.” I always write back and say they really need to change their sales pitch. Graphic designers are always noticeably upset with the logo.

When I have designers or someone else who’s not happy with it, I always challenge them to look at the logos of the top one stock market hundred companies. I ask, “Would that be something you’re proud of? All their logos are just crappy, but that’s not the point. The point is remembering, and if people are passionately for or against it, they’ll always remember the next time they see it. They’ll say, “There’s that goddamn logo.”

Has the popularity of your beer affected how and what you brew? Do you have enough room to experiment?

The summer time is rough. We’re doing less then half the amount of beer fests then we did last year. I think we’re doing four this year? It’s just tough to consistently tell customers that I don’t have any beer for them, and then go and give away two kegs of beer at a festival, that’s great free advertising I don’t need right now. We’ve kind of cut that out. That’s a way for us try and solve a problem. We also aren’t doing the Oregon Brewers fest this year, that’s twenty kegs. We’re not doing the Lafayette Art and Wine Festival like we have before. That’s another twenty kegs. We’re also saving our pennies and we should be able to plant a few more fermenters in here by mid to late July, which will be a little tight, but we feel we’ll be in this spot for another twenty to twenty five months, so we’re actively looking for a new space throughout the East Bay.

Will you stay on this side of the Oakland Hills?

We’re looking at buildings on this side, and we’re also looking at buildings on the other side of the hills. I think if we were closer to BART and Oakland, I think whatever the difference in our lease would be, is well worth it. It’s all about balancing things. We’re in our fourth year here and I was with EJ Phair for eights years, so twelve years I’ve been brewing beer her in Concord. There’s a part of me that wants to keep brewing beer in this area, but it doesn’t have to be Concord. I have a lot of regular customers who’ve been buying beer for their kegerators for the last decade. They come in every three or four weeks with their keg and I still have a crusty check somewhere as a deposit for the keg. I would hate to lose those people. I have good relationships built up so far.

So when he fall comes around you’ll be able to make a few more different beers?

You know, that use to be the way we looked at things, it’s just our growth speeds up in the summer. It slows down in the fall, but we’ve basically put the brakes on adding new accounts, expanding our area, until we get more tanks in. If we can get them in place and online by fall, that will take care of some of our main beers and hopefully will be able to play around more. What we have done though is made space for seventy-two barrels, which is one of the reasons we hired Jesse Warren, who’s helping to spearhead our sour program. As a homebrewers he’s done some fantastic sours and he’s come in to start playing around with a few I have going and do some blending.

How would you describe your brewing philosophy? Are you the kind of guy that shoots from the hip, or do you see yourself as someone who brews a certain range of beers?

I always try to brew beers that I like to drink. Up until recently, I went on a two and half to three year experiment only drinking what I brewed. I didn’t drink other people’s beers because I always found it brought me back to a center, and I was like “Oh yeah that’s right, that’s how beer is supposed to taste,” which would change what I was doing. I finally said, “Okay, just stop it. Do your thing and study what you’re drinking. Drink your beer only.”

There are certain beers I don’t brew. I don’t make Belgian beers. It’s just the phenols that don’t work for me, so it would be tough for me to brew it and put it out. I don’t brew a lot of stouts. It’s not something I drink a bunch of.

Is brewing a creative process for you?

I think so, but it’s really a science. When you look at it just as an art, it reminds you really quickly that it’s an exact science when you dump a batch. I guess you lead yourself on your own journey with it.

What’s your perception of current state and future of craft beer in the Bay Area?

On a consumer basis, the actual end customers, their tastes are rapidly catching up with Bay Area’s creativity in brewing. I think they’re raising the bar on us.

So they’re forcing you to experiment more?

Absolutely. Once a month we go to Portland for sales events and it’s such a night and day difference, because the consumers there have been pushing the industry for six or seven years. That hasn’t happened yet in the Bay Area. Portland has sixty-two breweries supplying 600,000 people, compared to 2.7 million people in the East Bay, which has seven production breweries. We need more tank space soon. Not at the moment, but soon.

There are a lot of new companies in the Bay Area that are trying to fill the void by contracting their beer, but that doesn’t fill any void. That just rebrands beer that would have been produced anyways. We need brick and mortar tank space. All the people who are doing that, I applaud them if their direction is to get a brand launched and open their own brick and mortar brewery and start doing it. In the next ten years we’re going to see a major bottleneck when it comes to Bay Area Beer. Lagunitas is expanding super fast, but people can’t just drink Lagunitas.

Brewer Spotlight: Morgan Cox of Ale Industries, Part 2

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

In part two of my conversation with Morgan Cox we delve into when and how he started brewing, his experience working at EJ Phair, what it was like during the first six months of operation and how the far East Bay beer scene has changed over the last four years.

Did you miss Part 1? Check it out here.

So tell me how you got into beer and where you got started in the industry?

I actually had a neighbor who was a homebrewer. I had always been interested in it and when I turned eighteen he gave me his old Charlie Papazian Joy of Homebrewing book for my birthday.

He highlighted right in the preface that in the United States you can be eighteen years old and brew your own beer legally. He also took me down to the homebrew supply company, which at the time was Hop Tech located in Pleasanton. So I went with him and bought myself a beginner’s kit. He kind of helped me out with the first couple batches and I just took off from there.

I was never one of those teenage kids that drank. I think I drank like one time before I was eighteen. So because I was getting really into homebrew, I was also never a kid who grew up on Coors Light or Natural Light. I never had that transition like starting with Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada Pale. I never had that. I was always just drinking homebrew.

Lucky you!

I have a rule that when I go to somebody’s house and they offer me a beer, I always say yes. If it’s a beer that I don’t particularly care for I smile and drink it, but I’ll never accept the second one! So anyway, I started homebrewing and I just went head over heals with it. By the time I was twenty-two I left the job I was working binding books.

Binding books? Was this on a small or large scale?

A large scale. The piece of equipment I operated was about the size of our brewery. It was a six million dollar piece of equipment and I was in charge of twelve workers. For a twenty-two year old without a college degree I was making more money then my dad was. It was pretty neat.

I remember telling the owner of the company when I put in my six-month notice, in a very cocky fashion, he said, “Well I tell you what. My parents own a winery. You can’t just become a brewer or a vintner. You have to go to school and stuff like that,” and I was like, nope, I’m going to do it. He asked me to retract my notice and instead tell them when I got a job, but I refused. So the time came, I left, and didn’t get a job in brewing until four months later when I ended up cleaning kegs for EJ Phair, which was in this exact building.

You ended up buying their equipment correct?

Yup. I worked for JJ, the owner of EJ Phair, for eight years and we brewed out of this location until they wanted to move. My job as the brewmaster then was to get the equipment setup at the new spot and sell the equipment here, and I kind of had that light on, aha moment, “Wait a minute, maybe I should buy this equipment?”

So tell me what it was like during your first six months of operation.

It was crazy. I think the thing that came to light was that any connection I had in the brewing world before opening up and having beer ready to sell, didn’t matter, especially on this side of the tunnel. I went into a lot of businesses and distributors had a lock down on them. I would go in and they would say, “Oh, you’re self distributed? No, no, no, I can’t do that. I only do stuff by the law.” And I was like, “No it’s legal, here’s our license and it allows us to distribute,” and they would say, “No, no, we only go through distributors. I like to keep things legal.” I actually saw a brochure that was put out by the California Distributors Association that talks about the illegalities of buying directly from breweries and according to the Constitution of the United States it’s a three-tier law. It also said they should buy from a distributor, and by buying from a distributor your supporting local business, as opposed to buying from these mega corporation breweries. I was reading this and going, “Oh my god.” So this is what we deal with in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Danville, San Ramon, Pleasanton, but you get over into Oakland and whatever those distributors have been trying to do over there is wiped out now. Oakland is an absolute hotbed of craft beer in the Bay Area I would say.

How has Concord and the overall region changed in the last four years since you opened?

It’s a slow, but steady growth. Basically the growth is in new businesses coming in and opening up, it hasn’t been existing businesses loosening their ideas on where and whom they should buy from. On the other hand, I can go fifteen miles over the Oakland hills and it’s a night and day situation. They welcome you with open arms and they call us. It’s a completely different story. This area is jammed full of Applebee’s and Chili’s for a reason, so I think it really is consumer based.

When you first started out here, did you see this location as being advantageous due to the smaller number of breweries?

I was oblivious really to what I was going to be dealing with (Laughs). I thought it was going to be an advantage for me, but I didn’t really appreciate the severity of the beer drought in this area. I guess the thing I saw as an advantage was the equipment already being setup. That saved me forty grand, but being in this area has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales I’d say. If we were Ale Industries from Temescal and selling our beer in Oakland and San Francisco it works. Being in Concord, we go into San Francisco and sometimes people wonder, “Where’s the brewery? Concord? Is that over by Chico?” And I’m like “No, it’s Concord by Walnut Creek,” and they’re like “Ohhhhhh yeah, I had a friend that went out there once.” That’s some of the feedback we get in San Francisco. Now we just say Bay Area.

Read Part 3