Brewer Spotlight: Morgan Cox of Ale Industries, Part 1

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Right now, countless homebrewers are racking their brains over business plans, they hope, will launch them into the professional ranks. Some will succeed, and sadly, others won’t. Funding, marketing and distribution are just a few factors that contribute to success. Just making good beer isn’t enough, and a lot can change when the rubber hits the road. Morgan Cox, brewer and co-owner of Ale Industries in Concord, drove that point home in a very honest conversation we had back in April. During the wide-ranging discussion he told me how he got started, what he’s learned along the way and about the future of his brewery.

Like many breweries in the Bay Area, Ale Industries is growing fast in just its fourth year. Soon, Cox will be adding fermenters that will move total production from 700 to 1200 barrels per year. One particular beer, Orange Kush, has been driving that growth and now accounts for nearly 60% of the brewery’s sales in California, Oregon and Washington.

The success of Orange Kush, its peculiar love it or hate it status among consumers, and how it was born out of a hop shortage was the first topic of our discussion. Cox also talked about the difficulty of selling certain beers to new accounts.

Due to length and plentiful insights, the entire interview will be published in two more digestible portions over the course of the week. Part two will cover Cox’s brewing origin, what it was like during the brewery’s first six months, the difficulties of self-distribution and his thoughts about operating in the East Bay.

Every brewery seems to have one hot beer that pushes growth. Is that the case with Orange Kush?

Originally, that’s how it was for us. It’s what we started brewing first and then we added Ryed Piper. We began with Orange Kush because right as we were opening the whole hop crisis happened. We’re a self funded, zero debt company, so that means we didn’t have 50K to setup a hop contract. We buy spot market hops and at that point spot hops were about twenty-seven bucks a pound! Orange Kush is basically a gruit and the reason why we used some hops in there is because gruits, at one point, were looked at a little bit differently taxation wise than beer. It couldn’t be labeled as a beer. It had to be labeled as a malt beverage, which we didn’t want, so there’s just a little bit of hops built into it.

So the hop crisis basically forced you to create something that in essence became your best selling beer.

If you look at the whole brewing industry, a lot of what’s been created was driven by what brewers had available to them. You can look at all kinds of different breweries and see the same thing happened. There’s a reason. It’s not always just somebody’s whim. That’s one of the cool things I’ve learned about business.

With the summer approaching Orange Kush must be in high demand.

Yeah, and the neat thing about it is we have a huge core group of people that on Fridays send me pictures of their refrigerators stacked with Orange Kush.

Really?

There are also people that are way into the beer industry and they’ll be like, “Sure, I’ll try a taste of it,” and then say no thank you.

Orange Kush seems to be a love it or hate it kind of beer.

You’re absolutely right. I think it’s a coriander thing like with cilantro. Some people just hate cilantro. A lot of people blame it on the chamomile, but as soon as they smell chamomile when I give them a chance, they’re like, “Oh my god, that smells so good.” Then I think there are some people that are just put off with the whole concept of it. They’re like, “I don’t want to be that person who enjoys light refreshing beer, I want to be a imperial drinker and only drink Russian imperial stouts or IPA’s.” It’s the same with Ryed Piper. Some people love rye beers, seek rye beers out, but there are other people that just flat out won’t order a rye beer.

The Ale Industries’ tasting room

You must have smiled a little bit when Sierra Nevada swapped out Glissade in their rotation for Ruthless Rye.

Sure. We’ve been pretty lucky here. It seems like we’ve been able to get ourselves into a position that’s mobilized within the market before something becomes a trend, like with Orange Kush being a 4.4% session beer. We’re in our fourth year and have been making it since we started. Back then we were preaching about session beers.

You’re still obviously a firm believer in the session beer movement.

I think there is a time and a place for every beer out there, including Russian imperial stouts, session beers, double IPA’s, pilsners and everything else. I’ll always have at least one beer to sell that’s a session beer. I just think that it makes sense. If you’re going to convince somebody to keep buying one of your beers, sell them a second one, you know? You may as well. When we started out we were doing draft, so I was thinking about when I go into a place it’s really rare for me to have a second beer at lunch. If my first beer is 4.2%, I’ll convince myself to have a second one. I think that things are opening up.

During the summer we’ll make Bliss, which is a mild, and it’s a shame that it’s called a mild because that turns people off. I tend to not even call it a mild anymore. I simply say its 3.1% alcohol. When we first started coming out with it I would say, “I’ve got this beer, it’s really neat, it’s light brown, it’s got this pistachio nuttiness to it and the Vienna malt is all built up.” Then people would say, “Great, great, but what’s the alcohol percentage? People would just flat out pass on it when I was going from bar to bar trying to sell the beer. So we learned to not even mention the term session. Now it’s definitely getting a lot easier. There are other companies pushing it as well, like Dying Vines. Not every beer they make, but their primary focus is session beers and I appreciate that.

Do you think the push back was because the bartender or bottle stores were trying to focus in on the high alcohol trend, or did you think it was just and out and out discrimination?

You know, my original goal was to simply open up a brewery. When I got it open, after the first six months, I realized I was spending a lot of time in the office and that what I had actually done, is start a business that happened to make beer. So these bar owners, they’re not making the decision because they don’t like lighter beers or because they think that those beers don’t sell well. They’re making a decision because that’s flat out what the consumers go for. A businessperson isn’t going to shoot themselves in the foot, at least industry wide they’re not going too.

Sometimes there can be lack of education and that’s what we’ve been working on. Our pitch to them is, “You’ve got the person in your door, so sell them a third beer that’s sessionable. You can sell them a third beer, where normally they’re going to leave after one or two otherwise, which gives you the chance to tack four more dollars on their tab.” As soon as you sell them with that concept, they’ll give it a shot.

When you’re running a brewery your customer is not the end consumer. Your customer is the person who runs the bar or the beer program, which is what’s nice about our taproom here. It actually gives us an opportunity to meet with the end customer and get feedback from them and find out where they go to drink.

Read Part 2

 

Organic Beer Q&A with Bison Brewing’s Dan Del Grande

This Sunday marks the 42nd installment of Earth Day. Tree planting ceremonies, rallies and fairs promoting conservation will take place throughout the Bay Area. Craft beer drinkers can get into the act by heading over to the Organic Beer Revolution in Oakland on Saturday, where an impressive group of organic brewers will be taking over all the taps at Beer Revolution.

One of those brewers is Bison Brewing’s Dan Del Grande, who’s the leading proponent of organic beer in the Bay Area. His Twitter feed is a constant source of sustainability facts, organic beer revelations, and healthy lifestyle tips.

Organic beer has been experiencing impressive growth, but still faces a few challenges. Del Grande provided some insight by answering a few questions over email.

What’s preventing more breweries from switching over to organic ingredients? Is it cost, lack of education or the stigma of taste inferiority?

The biggest impediment for brewer’s switching to organic is securing a hop supply. You need several years of planning to attain significant amounts of hops. The next biggest impediment is realizing how much it costs to brew organically, since we can’t pass on the full cost to consumers to maintain the margins of typical craft beers. Organic brewers are in it for the passion, not the profit.

If a large number of breweries were willing to make the switch to organic, are there even enough producers of organic malt and hops?

No. It will take time to accommodate growth of organic beers. It takes a farmer 3 years of “transitional” agriculture where they spend all the money making barley and hops organically before they can label it as “organic”; this time lag is to let any chemicals in the earth dissipate. I expect farmers are planning on new “organic” organic growth gradually at something like 15-20% per year.

When some people hear the word organic, they equate it with higher prices. Is that true with beer and if so, how does the cost of organic ingredients affect how you brew if at all?

As I said, most organic beers are made with less margin in order to hit a price point of no more than $9.99 to 10.99/6-pack. The cost of our two row malt is 52 cents per pound and I think non-organic contract is something like 32 cents per pound.  Organic hops run from $12 to $19 per pound, whereas non-organic hops are at $4 to $8 per pound on contract. That’s why I don’t make a double IPA.

Incidentally, I can’t understand why people won’t pay $2 for a bottle of world class craft (non-organic) beer that takes two weeks to brew, keep cold, package in glass and colorful 6-pack cartons, while they’ll pay $3 for a hot 12 ounce cup of coffee served in a paper cup that took two minutes to brew. OK, rant over.

A few weeks ago you sent out the following tweet: “Brewing ingredients are like crayons. Organic brewers have less crayons in our box, but we can still draw the same pictures.” Less crayons makes it sounds like you’re limited in some way. Could you elaborate on this a bit more? 

I like to use the analogy that an organic brewer has 24 crayons in our box, the same 24 colors as non-organic brewer, so we can draw the exact same picture (and it will taste the exact same given the equivalent talent of the brewer). What non-organic brewers have is an additional 40 colors for highlights, like some specialty malts and hop varieties not (yet) available organically.  If you don’t like an organic beer, go blame the brewer, not the ingredients.

Where do you see the organic beer movement in 5 years? 

If beer trends like the organic food market, I expect organic beer to be 4% of the US Beer Market within 10 years, with dozens of brewers and a full compliment of 64 Crayola colors. In five years, 1.5% of the US Beer Market.

Dan Del Grande / Photo © Brian Stechschulte

The Story Behind Cervecería de MateVeza

Jim Woods & Matt Coelho / Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Imagine it’s a sunny summer day and you’ve been relaxing with friends all afternoon in Dolores Park. The crowds are starting to blot out the sun and you need a beer and snack to satisfy the munchies. You could head over to Bi-Rite, but the thought of rubbing elbows with grocery store shoppers is unappealing. Jim Woods and Matt Coelho think they have the perfect answer for you at the corner of 18th and Church Street. They’re opening the Cervecería de MateVeza on April 7, a nanobrewery, bar and bottle shop that sits on the edge of the park.

Woods is the founder of MateVeza, which for years has already developed a solid reputation for making craft beer infused with yerba mate, a naturally caffeinated herb from South America. He currently contract brews at Mendocino Brewing to produce a Black Lager, IPA and recently created a category defying beer in collaboration with Mill Valley Beerworks called Morpho, which incorporates hibiscus, bay leaves, and of course, yerba mate. With the advent Cervecería de MateVeza, he’ll finally have a place to call his own where he can meet customers, develop test batches on a 20 gallon system, sell bottles and serve empanadas.

Matt Coelho is a long time friend of Woods and a bartending veteran who’s plied the trade at venerable institutions like City Beer Store and Church Key. Woods thought his experience made him the perfect partner and together they started developing the vision for Cervecería de MateVeza back in 2011. After searching the city for available space the current “prime” location popped up and they jumped at it.

After several months of careful planning and construction they developed a cozy spot to serve MateVeza beer alongside a large selection of other brands on tap and in bottles. The space is small, but it’s filled with character and personal touches that support MateVeza’s image. They’ve incorporated reclaimed lumber, vintage windows from Urban Ore to make a curio cabinet, shipped a chandelier from SoCal via Craigslist rideshare, and Woods backed the bar with his grandmother’s old mirror, which was replaced in her home by a flat screen TV.

Earlier this week I sat down with Woods and Coelho to talk about how the Cervecería concept evolved, how it will serve as a laboratory, their interest in serving empanadas, and how MateVeza was born.

 

Why did you decide to open a home for MateVeza and how do you see it functioning?

Woods: I really wanted to have a physical location for MateVeza. I’ve been brewing for a long time at Mendocino Brewing and they’re a great production partner, but thought it would be great if I had a place I could call my own. I thought Matt was the perfect person to partner up with on it. I talked to him about what I had in mind and then we started looking for spaces. We weren’t really crazy about anything we saw and then this place became available and I remember sending him an email with the title “Holy Shit.” So we just jumped on it. We see it as a place where we can brew small batch beer, experiment and do interesting things, pair it with empanadas and then we can take those recipes and scale them up at Mendocino. We also thought that this area was a little underserved in terms of having good craft beer and I think we met a need here.

Coelho: We looked at some places in Russian Hill and further out in the Mission. We were looking to maybe serve the Mission Dolores, slash Noe area, which like Jim said are underserved, and when this place popped up it was a no brainer. We’re right between four or five different neighborhoods, we’ve got MUNI, we’ve got foot traffic with people coming and going from the park walking their dogs, it’s a corner location and it’s small and manageable for people who are new to owning and operating their own place. I’ve been serving a lot, but I haven’t been managing. Having to keep an eye on what’s moving quickly in the fridges and what I need to order in a place this size is a good start for the both of us to try our hand at a brick and mortar location.

When you thought about opening this place, what did you want people to get out of it and what were the most important design features?

Woods: It’s a blessing and curse, I think mostly a blessing in how small this place is, but its got a great layout and frankly it kind of gave us comfort that we could wrap our head around it. I think the important thing for us was creating a really comfortable environment for people to come and relax, incorporate brewing, food and bottles in a way that doesn’t have somebody’s head exploding.

Coelho: One of things we kept in mind the most was the flow around the space. We asked ourselves how can we make sure this place, in spite of its size, is still a fun place to shop or hang out? We wanted to make sure people can come in here and relax at the bar or in the window with a beer and empanada, while someone else can get at the fridge, pick out a beer and maybe ask us a few questions without having to crowd around people hanging out drinking beers.

 

I’m surprised to see you selling a lot more beer here then just the MateVeza brands. Could you talk a little about that business decision?

Woods: I think MateVeza is a different type of beer. It sounds like I’m shooting myself in the foot, but I don’t have many customers that drink only my beer the whole night, so I think the people that really enjoy MateVeza, are the ones that have two or three maté beers and maybe two other beers. I think putting it in a environment with other awesome craft beer is really a way to make it grow.

Coelho: I think it also shows the way we see ourselves. We’re both cicerones and beer geeks first. We geek out about a new beer just as much as anybody else and when we go and hang out at beer bars we’re excited about all the different beers. MateVeza just happens to be the brand we’re behind because we’re big maté fans as well. I think it’s a good thing when you see a MateVeza sitting next to a St. Bernardus. We’re excited about having the other beers next to the MateVeza beers. It allows us to explore our beer geekdom and help us talk about our brand and get people more familiar with it.

Could you talk a little bit more about how this place will be a laboratory for test batches?

Woods: Yeah, right now my laboratory is my homebrewing setup, which is great but this is going to be a better system with the steam jackets and we’re also going to have an awesome little focus group. We can have people sit here, try new beer in front of us and they can respond to a Sour Mash Saison, or if we’re doing something different and people are really digging it then we’ll know we’re onto something. Or, if we’re not doing something so great then we’re not going to brew a hundred barrels of it and go “Wow, maybe we should have done our homework on this?” It just makes a lot of sense. I think it’s great that some people can put together the capital and build a production brewery, but I didn’t think that was for my brand. We have a great production partner in Mendocino and we’ll continue to utilize that. In the meantime this will be the creative engine for the brand.

I’m curious about your interest in yerba maté and South America. I’m not sure a lot of people know and understand why? Could you explain how this interest evolved?

Woods: So when I was in college my cousin introduced me to yerba maté and I loved it. I just loved the ritual, the cup, passing it around and how it brought people together. It’s kind of like the green tea of South America. It’s prevalent in Argentina and Brazil. I’ve been down there to experience it first hand as well and visited where maté is grown. So I was drinking maté one day and then a little bit later I had a pale ale in my apartment and I just felt the bitterness of the mate and the bitterness of the hops. They seemed to be doing similar things, so I thought what if I brewed with mate, toned down the hops and created a different type of bitterness? Then I started to experiment with different styles and after several iterations I approached a brewery and scaled up the recipe and took it to market. That’s kind of the genesis of the brand. People are gravitating more and more towards maté. It’s doing really well in natural food stores and co-ops. The health benefits are awesome. It’s filled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I think the time is coming for MateVeza especially with yerba maté blowing up.

 

Your food program seems like a natural extension from your interest in yerba maté.

Woods: That’s exactly right and we also think that empanadas are an overlooked type of food. For this location, the convenience made sense and we’ve done a lot of test pairings. The Morpho goes really well with the polo empanada, while the carne and mushroom go well with the black lager. We approached El Porteño. The founder, Joseph Ahearne, learned how to make them from his Argentinean mother and he started making them here in the city. He has a kiosk at the Ferry Building. He uses a lot of awesome local ingredients and they’re really delicious. We just thought he would be a natural fit. He knew the power of this location for the brand and was really excited. He’s going to deliver them and then we’ll bake them here.

Steep Brew Opens at Whole Foods Potrero Hill, Meet Manager Wesley Anderson

Wesley Anderson / Photos © Brian Stechschulte

It’s official San Franciscans, you can finally relax with a pint of liquid courage before playing bumper cars in the grocery store aisles at Whole Foods in Potrero Hill. On March 9th the beer taps started flowing at Steep Brew, a bar and cafe run by the grocery store chain at the corner of Rhode Island and 17th Street.

Inside you’ll find 16 rotating beer taps, wine, coffee and a seasonal menu of small plates geared towards beer, such as charcuterie, and large items like burgers and salads. Customers can also drink bottles found inside the store for a nominal corkage fee, but you can’t shop while tipping back a beer due to licensing, which is probably for the best.

The atmosphere is part bar and quaint cafe. A TV is mounted above the bar or you can find a little privacy near the kitchen in a booth. Tons of natural light pours through the wall of glass windows, filling the two story venue, which is open daily from 11am to 10pm. Happy hour is from 5pm to 6pm Monday through Friday and be on the lookout for a steady stream of special events. The grand opening happy hour celebration is March 30 from 5pm to 7pm.

The man in charge of this multifaceted operation is Wesley Anderson, who’s been stacking beer on shelves at Whole Foods for several years before moving into his new position. Anderson can be regularly found at beer events across the Bay Area and has developed a small following on Twitter, which he uses to drive sales at the store with in-stock updates and news about new releases.

Now seemed like the perfect time to learn a little about his background, his experience at Whole Foods, how he uses social media to sell craft beer and what he sees on the beery horizon.

How did you become interested in craft beer and get started at Whole Foods?

I’ve always respected craft beer, brewers and breweries. I love how creative it is and how much love goes into it. Craft brewing is an art in my opinion.  I started buying beer over 6 years ago at a mom and pop grocery store for two years and then I came to Whole Foods where I’ve been doing it for the past 4 plus years and couldn’t be happier.

Do you remember your first craft beer?

Yeah, I remember my first craft beer and it was Anchor Steam. I grew up in the East Bay and I’ve always been drawn to local and Californian, but to be honest, the first beer that I considered craft, or at least much different than the norm, was New Castle Brown Ale. It’s what my friends were drinking and I was just pretty much going with the flow up until I got that beer and it changed my life and love for beer. I became the guy showing up with Anchor six packs and not drinking the other beer that took up room in the fridge.

You’re pretty well know on Twitter locally for using it as a tool to announce new products, tell me how that got started and what it’s been like communicating with customers over social media? Do you find it to be successful?

Twitter actually started as a joke. I was telling my girlfriend one day that I was going to create a Twitter account just so I can talk about beer and food, which is mostly what I do on it, but I never went through with it. It came to life because I had a customer looking for a certain beer and I told him it would be coming in soon and he asked me how he would know. At that time all I could say to them was call the store, but he asked me if I had a mailing list. I didn’t and also told him that a mailing list could be hard, but Twitter would be super easy, and well it is. And yes its very successful and helpful not only for me, but the customer and beer fan. I have customers telling me all the time they follow me on Twitter and that makes me happy cause I know it’s working.

As helpful as Twitter can be, I’m sure it can also stir up so much excitement that a beer sells out very quickly, disappointing late customers. Doesn’t that risk make you a little nervous?

I do worry about disappointing customers who follow me on Twitter when it comes to special beers and it selling out before they get a chance to get it. I want everyone to get their hands on these special beers. I actually stopped posting about special beers that I feel will fly out of the store after I post it. I still use Twitter to tell people about new beers, but if I only get one or two cases of something I either leave it off Twitter or leave it up to luck, or I post on Twitter how limited it may be. That’s all I can do really.

What part of Steep Brew’s operation excites you the most?

The part of Steep Brew that excites me the most, besides the obvious of running a beer bar, is working with local smaller breweries such as Pac Brew Labs, Magnolia Pub & Brewery, Almanac Beer and Dying Vines. I’m also looking forward to working with breweries that I’ve always loved like Anchor, Lagunitas, and Speakeasy. I’ll be able to do events like tap take over’s, meet the brewers, bottle release parties etc. That and Steep Brew is a working restaurant and coffee bar. We got a whole new lunch and dinner menu that complements beer, which Potrero’s awesome prepared food team came up with.

If there was one thing you wish customers understood about how your section of the store operates or how the craft beer industry works, what would that be?

Craft beer is special and it wouldn’t be if it were massed produced and so occasionally some beer will be out of stock or in limited supply. But, that’s why I’m here to help customers. I can maybe point them towards a beer like what they’re looking for or show them something new.

Since you have first hand knowledge of what’s moving off the shelf, what beers or styles seem to be the most popular and do you see any upcoming trends on the horizon?

I’m sure we all know the most popular style of beer right now is the IPA and all the forms it comes in, Double India Pale Ale, Black India Pale, Wet Hop IPA, etc. The IPA in the craft beer world, especially in California, is the king of craft beer right now. I also see a growing love and appreciation for Belgian sours and also see Schwarzbier, one of my favorite beer styles, on the rise.

Brewer Spotlight: Steve Donohue at Firehouse Brewery in Sunnyvale

The South Bay doesn’t get a fair shake when it comes to craft beer in the region. Maybe there aren’t enough breweries consistently stirring the pot of innovation? On the other hand, maybe people need to take a closer look and set preconceptions aside? In spite of the debate, high quality beer can be found at breweries and bars in the shadow of Silicon Valley if you take the time to explore.

One brewer who consistently garners attention and respect from the beer obsessed is Steve Donohue at Firehouse Brewery in Sunnyvale. He’s won a string of Great American Beer Festival (GABF) awards and his fan favorite, Hops On Rye, is starting to take on cult status. His success is proof once again, that you don’t need to be big to make waves in the craft beer world.

I spent the afternoon with Donohue last December to get some insight into his past and where he’s headed. We talked about his origins in homebrewing, his goals, approach to brewing, how he’s dealt with success and the why the South Bay’s reputation lags behind.

When and where did you start brewing?

Professionally I started in 1996 down at Coast Range Brewing in Gilroy. I basically worked there for free for a couple years and then went to Lost Coast brewing company for another two years. I then came to Stoddard’s, which is the current location of Firehouse, and brewed here for almost five years until they went under. When that happened I went back to Gilroy for another year. When Firehouse opened I came back here and I’ve been brewing here for almost five and half to six years now.

Did you start out homebrewing?

I did. A buddy of mine in college got bored one day at three or four an the afternoon and was like “What do you want to do? I don’t know? What do you want to do? Let’s make some beer. Alright.” We went to the homebrew shop and bought everything we needed to make beer. I thought it was awesome. It was fun and the first product was drinkable. I wouldn’t say it was good. Like most people I’m sure. For the first batch we had a little extract can and it had a list of instructions that we didn’t deviate from.

The second batch we were like “screw that,” let’s just put in some extra hops and just play with it, and that’s when I found out that you don’t necessarily need to follow the instructions, you can just do what you want to do. At that point I was hooked. My dad and I had a cigar store in San Jose and one of my customers was from Coast Range. When we sold the store they told me to come down and work for them. That was the beginning.

So did you just pick up brewing knowledge as you went along?

After about two years of brewing I did end up going to the American Brewers Guild for their correspondence course, just for my own education. I knew what was going on, but I just wanted to know why? It’s been almost sixteen years now, which is hard to believe.

What are your goals for the beer coming out of Firehouse?

I basically want to challenge the people that come here. I want to make them think there is other stuff out there. Hence the motivation for brewing Hops on Rye, a Barleywine, Imperial Red or even the Cluster Fuggle, which people are shocked to learn is less then 4% alcohol. It’s not an extreme beer. It’s fun-brewing beers like that. It’s a challenge to brew a beer with limited ingredients and get that much flavor.

I tend to lean towards brewing huge beers sometimes like Imperial Stouts and I’ll be doing a Barleywine in a few months, which I haven’t done in 5 years. I’m motivated to push people here towards other things you can taste and try and hopefully they’ll think about having it again.

I should also point out that this brewery’s kind of annoying at times because I only have four serving tanks. So I’m very limited at what I can have on tap. I’ll occasionally read reviews of the place and get absolutely ripped on for my lack of beer selection and it’s just a function of the brew house. There’s really not a lot I can do about that. In 1993 when this place opened as Stoddard’s, having four house beers was huge. There was no one around here doing that. There was Los Gatos and Gordon Biersch of course. Fast-forward to 2012 and people are like why do you only have four beers? I don’t really have room for a lot of kegs. I have Hops On Rye on tap right now in kegs and they’re clogging up my space big time. Hefe and Pale are always on tap here. They’re the crowd pleasers, Hefe especially. During the summer time I’ll go through twenty barrels of that in a week, week and half. It’s crazy how much we sell of that. The other two or three beers I serve depend on what I feel like brewing.

With fewer brite tanks and a smaller system is their extra pressure when you do experiment to get it right?

No, I use to kind of freak out, but I don’t really care about it anymore. I care if it sells obviously. I’m going to throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. If it doesn’t stick, then I’ll move on and do something else next time. I tried that with the Barleywine I did five years ago and I was expecting that thing to sit here and it sold well. The first batch of Belgian IPA I did sold out in three weeks during the summer time. It was 90 degrees and 9% alcohol and people were just throwing it back. You just never know? If I come up with something new I don’t brew small batches of it first. I do twenty barrels of it. So that’s does kind of stop me from doing something really funky. I would love to have a brewery that’s half the size and twice the number of serving tanks, but I don’t.

How would you characterize your approach to brewing?

That’s a good question. I don’t know.  I’m a traditionalist to a point, but I also get board with tradition, kind of. I will never brew a fruit beer here unless it’s in a barrel or something like that because I don’t really like the traditional fruit beers, not traditional, I mean the new fangled fruit beers like wheat beer with raspberry. So I’m traditional in a sense that I just use the core ingredients except when I do a Belgian styles I’ll throw candy sugar in their and my Imperial Red has brown sugar. Experimentation is fun. So my approach to brewing is basically making sure stuff sells, but I also want to brew stuff that challenges people. Sometimes I’ll get an idea and just say screw it, I’m going to brew it I don’t care.

The Barleywine I’m going to brew is something I’ve never done before. It’s going to be a one percent two row mash that’s very light in color. It will be typical brew day mash in, do my thing, send it to the kettle, clean the mash tun out and set the kettle at about 195 degrees to 200 degrees and go home and just let the burner click on and off all night long and caramelize. I’ll come in the next morning, fire it back up again, boil it for another four hours, and hop it as needed. I want all the color and the vast majority of the flavor to come from kettle carmelization rather then crystal or any other malt. That’s the plan.

Have you heard of anyone else doing that?

I’ve heard that’s how Thomas Hardy does it, but I don’t know that for a fact, but I figured why not give it a shot? You can get into the routine of brewing and get bored doing Pale Ale and Hefe constantly. You’ve got to keep yourself interested, entertained and excited. Coming up with new styles of beer that I’ve never done before, that’s when it’s fun again. I have a great time trying it out of the fermentor occasionally to see how it’s coming along. With the Hefe I don’t really do that. I know what it’s going to be like.

When did you win your first GABF medal?

My Porter won silver in 2008. Then my Baltic Porter won a bronze in 2009 and Firehouse Porter won a bronze in 2010 and that won silver again this year.

You’ve had a steady stream of awards.

It’s been shocking. I don’t know how the hell it’s been happening. Its cool and it’s awesome, no question about it, but its still kind of humbles you every time you get one.

So when you won your first GABF award what was the reaction around here and how did it affect your psyche?

It was completely unexpected. I was insanely hung over that morning. Just out of it. I walked in with a giant bottle of Gatorade. That award pretty much took care of the hangover. Then Bill Brand came over. I still miss that guy. He was awesome. He came over and took some pictures and the San Jose Mercury news did this big article on us. They put me for whatever reason on the section cover and my phone was ringing off the hook with people telling me I’m in the paper. It’s going to frighten people away! All the regular customers I have here who are friends were absolutely fired up.

It was nice and unexpected. It’s unexpected every year. Getting validation from my peers was also nice. From a marketing standpoint it’s obviously good for Firehouse. That’s not how my brain works. My brain works like wow, I made a beer that people like. My main motivation is brewing beer for people in the restaurant that they can enjoy. Winning awards is awesome no question about it, but seeing people face to face every day, drinking and enjoying it, that’s what its about it for me.

How much added pressure comes with success?

Well everyone thinks we’re Firestone Walker. “Can I have a double Jack? Yeah we don’t make that here.”

Really? You’ve had that many people come in and ask?

Yeah. Even at GABF I was right next to them the last few years. People would ask for a Union Jack and I would say, “That’s them.” Then occasionally people would walk up to Firestone Walker and say I’ve heard I have to try your Hops On Rye, and they’re like that’s this guy next to us. Yeah I don’t know if there’s any added pressure. It’s still stressful the morning of GABF medal day. I shouldn’t say you couldn’t take it too seriously, because its obviously very serious and nice to win, but I try not to put any pressure on myself. If I win something that’s awesome, it’s great. If I don’t, you know, I’m still making beer.

You’ve been around the South Bay beer scene your whole career, how has it changed? Have you seen more of a reception to craft beer?

Yeah, definitely. People think of the South Bay as a complete beer wasteland and to a certain extent their right. All the breweries down here are doing really good stuff, but not a lot of them are pushing the envelope. They have their niche and they’re filling it. People are enjoying it and if it gets people away from drinking Stella and Bud thinking this beer has flavor, then maybe it’s a stepping-stone to trying more new beer? So they’re all doing really good work, but there are no craft beer bars, like Beer Revolution or City Beer Store that have a wide selections of beers. They simply don’t exist around here. Now I’m hearing people talk about opening some, which would be great, but the only problem with the South Bay and I think one of the reasons that contributes to it’s reputation is geography for starters.

San Francisco is easy to get around. Oakland’s got BART, but down here we have no public transportation. Caltrain is very limited. There’s no easy way of getting from place to place after drinking. You can rent a limo or try and take the buses, but if I went to Faultline from here it would take an hour plus. That’s not fun. That’s the main reason the South Bay is the way it is. You have to drive and it’s not cool to have a few beers and get behind the wheel. That’s the main thing working against it. Demographics are a little different down here too. There are a lot of high tech people from other countries who don’t drink.

So it’s a cultural thing?

To an extent. I’m not trying to pigeonhole this whole area but there are parts of it where a lot of people don’t drink. It’s a cultural thing, but I think its mostly geography,

That’s the first time I’ve heard that reasoning.

Well another thing is there’s not a lot of downtown. Sunnyvale is block long. Santa Clara doesn’t have a downtown. Cupertino doesn’t have a downtown. Los Gatos has a nice downtown, but it already has a brewery. It’s a lot of strip malls that don’t necessarily draw a lot of people. Real Estate is just as expensive as anywhere in the Bay Area. It’s a combination of all those things I think. It will change, I hope, because I want to go places more often and try other people’s beer. I’m tired of drinking my own beer. You know?

Other then the Barleywine, what else are you interested in brewing down the road?

Well, I’ve got Scotch Ale already brewed and chilling that should be on tap in two to three weeks. I’ve always wanted to do a Weizenbock and I’ve never done one. So that’s on the agenda at some point. I just don’t know exactly when. I’ll probably try some other Belgian styles. It would be kind of fun to do a Berliner Weisse or a Gose, just something completely out of the norm down here. Nothing is off limits.

Last question, what’s your desert island beer?

There are so many damn good beers. I don’t know. It would have to be something pretty hoppy. I’d say Hops On Rye, but I drink that all the damn time. I would want something different.

How about a particular style?

Probably an IPA or something that’s relatively thirst quenching and flavorful. A nice balanced IPA. There are just so many damn good beers out there. I don’t have a favorite beer. If you went into my cellar or my fridge there are so many different styles of beer from a bunch of different breweries. I guess if I had to pick any beer that’s always in my fridge this time of year its Celebration Ale. I’ve always loved that beer along with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is such classic pale ale that is so damn good after thirty years.