Road Trip: An Afternoon with Barrel Aging Pioneer Todd Ashman

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains through Donner Pass on Interstate 80 you can find Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA. By my standards it’s the middle of nowhere, especially when gas stations become few and far between.  This small brewery with a big reputation sits a mile outside of town near the Truckee-Tahoe airport.  You might think you’re lost when seeking it out (I certainly did and Google didn’t help much), but just keep going down the road and you’ll see a big grain silo on the left emblazoned with the Fifty Fifty logo.  I arrived after a light snowfall and being unaccustomed to snow, thought a foot-long icicle hanging from the brewery was going to break off and kill me.

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

The inside of the brewery’s restaurant was all hustle and bustle.  The recent snowfall attracted a large winter sports crowd, surprising the staff, which had to work at full tilt in a packed house.  Seventy percent of Fifty Fifty’s revenue comes from the busy winter season when people are looking for calorie-heavy pub food and a strong ale to relax their bones after a long day on the slopes.  Calling it pub food might actually be a disservice though, it’s not often you see steamed mussels in the high Sierras.

Despite the madness of the crowd and his busy schedule, Brewmaster Todd Ashman found the time to talk to me a little bit about his career and the brewery.  He was leaving for Germany two days later to accept a Silver medal at the European Beer Star competition for his barrel aged Eclipse, but acted as if he had all the time in the world to chat.

The first thing I asked Todd was how he got started and ended up in Truckee. Of course it all began with a passion for homebrewing out of college, which led to a stint with the Sonoma County Beerocrats and then enrollment in the UC Davis Extension Program for brewing. Since then he’s worked at Bison Brewing, Kegs Brewery in New Mexico, Flossmoor Station in Chicago (where he became a pioneer in bourbon barrel-aging), Titletown Brewing in Green Bay, the Brewers Supply Group and now Fifty Fifty.

He took the job at Fifty Fifty Brewing when it opened in 2007 itching to explore new recipes and push barrel aging even further. Since then he’s garnered even more awards and accolades, primarily for his Eclipse Imperial Stout series, which has become a must try before you die.  If didn’t sign up for futures this year you could always check eBay for a “collector bottle” from years past, but be prepared to pay.

It turns out Todd is actually in favor of rare beers being sold on eBay.  His reasoning, which like an idiot had never occurred to me, was that if a beer cannot be found at retail then it does have some extra value to consumers.  If people are going to pay for it, then there must be demand.  My own feeling is more like “don’t be the wine industry,” but it makes sense that someone who’s been aging a beer, of which only a few exist in the world, could command a higher price.  That’s just simple business.  As for people selling beer online for crazy prices, which can be found at retail, he’s dead set against that.  All in all, I have to agree with his philosophy.

While we were talking I also inquired about his decision to sell Eclipse futures this year. Last April, Fifty Fifty sold out of its entire “planned production.” The concept was the brainchild of brewery owner Andy Barr, which took a few people by surprise. There were even some complaints, but once you see how that money was applied, you can’t help but think it was a great idea.

Once we finished talking over a few beers, Todd gave me a tour of the brewery, which is the size of a postage stamp.  I’m not kidding.  I don’t know how he produces so much beer. Their entire brewing system could fit in my living room with room to spare. The gap between fermenters can be measured in microns and stacks of Eclipse barrels sit in the restaurant. Unfortunately, drunk people sometimes pull out the bungs and ruin an entire barrel.

Due to the space crunch, proceeds from the Eclipse futures was invested in four rental properties around Truckee for barrel aging.  You’d think there would be just one big warehouse they could rent and cram everything into, but then you wouldn’t be in Truckee.  I don’t even want to know how they plan on cramming in the new bottling line they’re getting for the Eclipse release on December 8th.

I followed Todd by car to one of the barrel rooms located in a seemingly abandoned retail area and every foot was taken over by barrels, each containing $6,000 in Eclipse beer. The drinking devil inside me wanted to invest in a crow bar and rent a semi-trailer. The number of barrels blew me away and my head was spinning at the thought of more locations around town.  The resin was slowly seeping from the oak, forming solid teardrops that I had to suck on like candy just for the heck of it.  Seriously, try it.

Future plans for the brewery include expansion, but Truckee’s water constraints could be a problem.  The town has a small treatment facility that’s been struggling to keep up with the population boom over the last few years.  Factor in how much water is actually used in the brewing process (yes, all those “save water, drink beer” t-shirts are lying) and you get one stressed out water department.  Performing their own water treatment doesn’t make sense for such a small brewery and it will be interesting to see if they limit growth or contract brew somewhere else.

Despite their small size, Fifty Fifty has made a big impact on the craft beer industry and culture. Todd’s successful barrel-aged beers have inspired many other brewers and the style sector is getting much bigger.  I just hope that Fifty Fifty can find a way around their water issue and crank up production of their wax-sealed goodness (yes, some bottles have pink wax, get over it) so more people can have access to what they are doing.  In the meantime, buy futures.


City Beer Store Reflecting on 5 years of Business

Beth and Craig

Nowadays, it’s pretty easy to find craft beer in a corner store. There may not always be great stuff, but decent options nonetheless. Five years ago it wasn’t that easy when City Beer Store opened up in San Francisco. Craig and Beth were curious about this hole in the marketplace and filled it with their bottle shop and tasting bar in SOMA. It’s a casual spot for friends to gather and chat while sipping beer. Bombers and six-packs line the walls in addition to the five fresh taps.

The store is now a mainstay in the craft beer community. During events, elbowroom is often tight and their stock of Pliny the Elder flies out the door. Last week ranked their humble shop 31st among beer retailers worldwide.

On a recent afternoon, BACB sat down with Craig to chat about Unicorn beers, the store’s origins, challenges, upcoming Anniversary and plans for SF Beer Week.

Did you envision a career in craft beer early on and what triggered your interest?

I wanted to pursue the beer industry coming out of school, but when I was attending Indiana University I moved around between departments. I have a business minor but ended up with a history degree by taking my mom’s advice. She told me to do something I enjoy since I had access to a great educational system and could figure everything out later.

While I was in school I took an overseas trip to the Czech Republic and one day my friends and I had a beer that caught our attention. It was something to pay attention too, not just drink. I couldn’t believe how much was going on in that beer.

Coming back from Europe in 1997 the craft beer movement was really hitting Indiana and I remember my first pitcher of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I didn’t know anything about hops at the time. Guys were also coming back from spring break in Colorado with 22 oz’s of Fat Tire and Indiana University had its first beer festival that year. It was good timing.

Did you see this business filing a void in San Francisco?

In San Francisco there wasn’t really anywhere to buy good beer, but one factor, and this may sound a little hokey, was 9/11. It played a role in our decision to open. It affected everybody, especially if you lived in the urban city. We didn’t know what was happening?

I was in my mid 20’s wondering where I wanted my life to go? There were changes a lot of people thought they probably needed to make. In 2002 I took the day off just to think and relax. I reflected on everything I went through during the weeks after 9/11 and felt I hadn’t done anything. From that time on Beth I decided we were going to make a change. We both quit our jobs and took a year off to travel. We took half that time to work at different places, like waiting on tables and moved around.

During that time we decided to start a small business. We had a bunch of different business plans. One plan was for a paper shredding business, another for a bed and breakfast, and the beer store, which was the first one. When I did the first beer store analysis I determined it wasn’t feasible. It didn’t add up. I tried to do some research, but couldn’t find any similar beer bottle stores combined with a bar like the one we wanted to open except for this place in Chico that I found on the Internet, but it was closed.

Ultimately, we decided to try and find a way to make it work. Also, the timing was good. A resurgence of beer was right around the corner. When I first came out to California I sold wine, beer and spirits and worked for Pete’s Wicked Ale as a customer service rep working with wholesalers, so I had a good sense of the industry. Now I have almost a decade of experience, all of which was a factor in deciding to start this business.

A lot of people have this romantic vision of owning and operating a beer store. What’s the biggest challenge you face running the store?

The thing that I probably underestimated the most was the physical work. Moving stuff around and even just standing on your feet for 10 to 12 hours a day is exhausting. Anyone interested in running a bar like this should work somewhere similar for at least 6 months.

Also, it’s a challenge learning how to run a small business on the fly. If something doesn’t work you have to figure it out. If the windows need to be cleaned or are broken at 3 in the morning, you need to clean it up. When you go on vacation it’s like having a pet. You have to have people come by and make sure things don’t get vandalized or a cooler doesn’t break. You don’t think about these things at first.

How has the industry changed since you opened?

The industry is completely different. I think it’s almost over crested right now. I’m trying to be optimistic, but I experienced the previous bubble and it feels a lot like the mid to late 90’s.

I just read an article about a drug store chain in New York that put a beer store inside their Williamsburg location just to be a part of the neighborhood. If it was a Walgreens or something people would’ve protested, but because they formulated it around beer store they could open their doors.

Now that may sound natural to some people, but for a guy who did a business plan seven years ago and didn’t see much of anything, it’s amazing. Its gotten to a point where not only does a large chain know about the craft beer movement but formulated a plan around it to sell band-aids and Pepto-Bismol. Whole Foods is also doing the beer bar concept now in Santa Rosa and its weird. It’s kind of strange. It happened so fast. It’s really the last 2 years.

Has it been difficult keeping up with changes in distribution and pricing?

It is. When I started it wasn’t that hard. Now I have to redo my math all the time because prices change so quickly. Distributors just don’t know or aren’t telling people. I think its a little of both. That’s what I spend the most time on in addition to working with breweries to find the next new thing.

That’s what you pay for when you come here. I do the research. It’s actually a wine philosophy that I’m adapting to beer. We taste all the wines so that you don’t have to. You can trust us. If it’s in here, it’s a good beer. It’s worth whatever the price is. You can make that determination, but I wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t think it was worth someone’s hard earned money. At the beginning I just bought everything because it was available. Now I think about what’s different that nobody else has. I’ve tasted a lot of beer and now I have a profile I’m comfortable with.

So how are you going to celebrate your big 5th Anniversary?

We’ve decided to celebrate West Coast brewing and asked five brewers to reflect on the last five years and brew something they had in the back of their mind, but weren’t sure if it would have a large production appeal or couldn’t get around to it. We wanted them to take a look back. When people do that its pretty cool. It’s historic. We also wanted to be a part of the brewing process as much as possible.

Who did you ask to participate?

We chose brewers that we have relationships with or they had a hell of a five years, like The Bruery in LA. They weren’t even around five years ago and look where they are now. We met them at the Boonville Beer Festival and we were the first store in San Francisco to carry their products. We’ve benefited tremendously from their reputation and success.

We also chose the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild. We have great relationships with all the breweries and inviting only one would have been a challenge so we thought working with the whole Guild made the most sense. They were some of the first supporters who embraced us and told people to visit our store. We were the first store to receive 21st Amendment cans. Shaun O’Sullivan was here and it was a great experience.

For the third brewery we decided to go up the mountain with Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee. They’ve also blown up in the last 5 years. The owners have a similar story to Beth and I so that connection made sense.

Then we went to Portland and talked to Cascade Brewing. They’ve been around more then 5 years, but 2005 is about the time they started their barrel-aging program. They were already successful and had this idea to put money into barrels with the hope of selling it to a market that didn’t really exist like it does now. They weren’t the only brewers with this concept but it’s been very successful.

The final brewery we chose was Midnight Sun in Alaska, who we totally dig and get along with. There history goes back farther then 5 years as well. We came across them while looking for Unicorn beers.

What are Unicorn beers?

They’re beers or breweries you here about or might be able to see, but are hard to get. For example, people would go up to Alaska and bring back bottles of Midnight Sun and it was awesome, but I couldn’t get their stuff in the store. It took about a year and a half to get their beer down here.

So is the whole project going to culminate in an event?

The actual anniversary is May 2nd and we’ll have an off-site party on that Saturday to serve the beer. It should be a lot of fun. We think we have a SOMA warehouse lined up and were going to invite some of the talented people who visit our store to perform 2 or 3 songs. This neighborhood has so many people like that. We haven’t completely solidified that concept with the venue, but we hope to bring together the whole local community since all the businesses support one another. In some ways SOMA is a small town.

How are your plans for SF Beer Week shaping up?

This year we’re trying to collaborate a little bit more. We kind of did that last year. We’re doing two big events this year.

The first is a dinner at Citizens Band Restaurant with 12% Imports and Stillwater Artisan Ales. It’s going to be more of a wine style event. Instead of having the hosts talk before each course we’ll have two seating’s that are staggered by 15 minutes and you’ll be able to follow the pairings at your own pace with the hosts approaching each table like a wine steward. If you want more interaction with hosts you’ve got it or you can just relax and have a good food and beer experience. I’m excited about that because it’s something different.

On the same night we’ll also have Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey here in the store and then Bloodhound across the street will be doing a desert thing. The idea is that you can come down to this block and go around between each establishment and enjoy yourself.

The other big event is on Friday and it will also be off-site at TCHO chocolate with Eclipse Beer from Fifty Fifty Brewing. It’s a ticketed event because the beer and space is limited. The other days will function like our normal brewery nights but were going to stagger two each night to disperse the crowds. We’ll be closed on Valentines Day.

Is there any particular beer that you would like to carry but can’t get your hands on?

I would like to get more beer from the Midwest like Founders, Three Floyds, and Bells. There’s some really cool stuff there. I took a 5-day trip out there awhile back and tried to convince them. I thought I had a good solution but they weren’t ready for it. Once we get one of them all of them will follow suite. Once a truck is coming its easier to get the rest of them moving in this direction.