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.