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

Practice, Determination and a Little Luck Sets Beltane Brewing Apart

Alan-Atha-Beltane-Brewing-Focused

At the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban Novato sits a garage with a split personality. Cars aren’t welcome on most days, pushed out by exercise weights, bicycles, carboys, steam and water that trickles down the driveway. The space is the center of Alan Atha’s creative universe, where he either molds athletes or coaxes barley and yeast into Beltane Brewing beer.

Atha is one of many homebrewers in the Bay Area with Nanobrewery aspirations, and he’s working hard to make it a reality with only three years of brewing experience. The short time frame may be cause for skepticism, but his beer has garnered several awards and he’ll be competing this fall in the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) Pro-Am competition.

Alan-Atha-Beltane-Brewing-Garage

Opening a brewery is just one of many different career adventures Atha has pursued since he left the U.S. military years ago. He’s worked as a commercial photographer shooting architecture, raced bicycles, and in the last fourteen years turned to training and coaching fellow riders after moving to Marin. “I needed some work and I also needed to get back into shape since I was taking some time off. I went to the local gym and saw what the trainers were doing, and I said there’s my new job.”

His interest in homebrewing developed alongside his work as a trainer when he realized the two activities were both rooted in science, physiology and creativity. “I’ve always been an artist and an athlete, so combining the two made sense. Now beer is my palate.”

He started out brewing with a friend who also had a passion for Belgian beer. That’s how he learned the basics, but before long struck out on his own and started entering beer into local competitions. According to Atha the feedback was helpful, but he didn’t take it too seriously.

“You look at the score sheet and you either take the criticism or you laugh at it, one of the two. In some competitions you get great tips and other times they’re subjective. You have to piece through it in a lot of ways, and at a certain point, as long as your beer doesn’t have any flaws, go with you heart. That’s what I do.”

Atha currently has six recipes he feels are solid enough for commercial production, a Belgian Pale, Triple, Double, Black IPA, and Double IPA. Clearly he doesn’t shy away from making big beers, but he won’t be pushing some boundaries. “I’m trying to be fairly traditional in my methods and then just tweak a little. I’m probably not going to be the guy that goes pumpkin guava.”

One of his recipes recently caught the attention of Christian Kazakoff, brewmaster at Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax. Kazakoff hosted and judged a competition between members of the Sonoma Beerocrats. Atha is a member and president of the homebrew club. Winning the competition meant Kazakoff would brew the winning recipe and submit it to the GABF Pro-Am competition on behalf of the winning brewer.

According to GABF rules, qualifying entries must have won awards in competitions sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and the beer must be produced and served by the host brewery no later then August 19th.

Luminesce

Working on a short timeline the club entered a bunch of beers into the competition. Atha submitted his Belgian Triple he calls Luminesce, brewed with Belgian pilsner and fed with Westmalle yeast. The finished product stood up to Kazakoff’s standards and now Atha is headed to GABF in Denver where he’ll also be celebrating his birthday when awards are dolled out on October 1.

The beer was produced at Iron Springs on July 21. Atha assisted in the process and the beer will be served to the public at the brewery on August 18, one day before the deadline.

Atha believes his success is due in part to practice, but he also knows serendipity has played a role and he still has a lot to learn. “It’s been part luck and I wouldn’t say that I know everything, but at the same time sometimes the more you learn the stupider you get because you have to ask more questions. That’s how I look at it. I learn something new every day, whether it’s in my training or brewing.”

When Atha isn’t making beer or coaching a would be cyclist, he’s been working his way through the licensing process and searching for place to setup a business. Both tasks have proven difficult. “It’s a crazy process and it sucks, but if I do it right it will work.”

At the moment Atha is wavering between two different business concepts, one geared towards a café and another that’s simply production oriented with retail. He would love to open a beer café serving small bites of Trappist cheese and charcuterie, but it might not be financially in the cards.

As for location, he would like to put down roots in Novato near the 101 freeway, so according to Atha, “Everyone going up to Russian River Brewing can easily hit me on the way up or way back.” Unfortunately, two promising locations have slipped through his fingers for one reason or another. The city council has been helpful and he’ll keep trying, but he may have to move onto a different town.

Adversity may keep testing his resolve, but Atha appears capable of dodging punches with determination and a good sense of humor. For the time being he’ll keep brewing away in his garage, tweaking recipes and working towards a brewery, that with a little more of Atha’s Celtic luck, you may visit in the very near future.

Q&A with Bay Area Ex-Pat and Homebrew Competitor Dwight Mulcahy

Dwight-Mulcahy-Portrait

In his nearly five years in the Bay Area Dwight Mulcahy discovered homebrewing, entered dozens of brewing competitions and brought home quite a few ribbons for his collection. In December, however, this “intensely competitive” homebrewer left the Bay for San Antonio, Texas. Now, nearly 6 months away from the place where he learned to love brewing and competing, Mulcahy talked to BACB about the Bay Area homebrew community, competitions and how he’s come to further appreciate the Bay Area beer scene after being away.

How long have you been brewing?

I’ve been brewing for 6 years now thankfully most of it in the Bay Area so I learned a lot.  I find myself brewing about every 2 weeks now.  I give away more beer then I drink!

What is the benefit for a homebrewer to compete?

Several.  If you are new to homebrewing it gives you an idea of how well you are able to brew the style in question.  If you are a seasoned homebrewer it gives you a measurement against your fellow peers, especially in the Bay Area.  The level of competition in the Bay Area is world class.

Why do you compete?

In the beginning I had challenged myself to create and design recipes that would win medals.  It has also been great to get the kudos from some of the county’s top BJCP Master level judges. I originally started because my club was having a “HomeBrewer of the Year” competition, which I won. I’m increadibly competitive, and it has since become an addiction.

Could you say a little about the culture of craft beer and homebrewing in the area?

The amount of world-class craft beer available in the Bay Area is only topped by a couple of areas in the country.  The availability of craft beer from Russian River, Moylan’s, Firehouse, Anchor, and many more help drive the creativity of homebrewing in the Bay Area.

The level of competitors in the Bay Area is unheard of: Jamil, Tasty McDole, Mike Riddle, Nathan Smith, Aryln Jones, etc.  You have to bring out your best to get any ribbons against these guys.  Although the level of competition is fierce, the respect, sharing and help any competitor will anyone is one of the driving forces in giving more people “the competition bug.”

What is one of your favorite homebrewing competitions in the area?

World Cup is fun because it is one of the first competitions of the year, and everyone comes out beers a blazing!  They have a party over at Trumer Pils after the judging with food and music on site.  They announce the awards there and give out a lot of swag for the winners.  It’s a great way to spend a day with your homebrew friends.

The CA State Competition is also close to my heart. The competition is tough here since this is one of the last comps of the year and everyone has fine-tuned their beers.  The final judging is done at Stern Grove in San Francisco, so again the best of the best get together to party, talk beer and congratulate the winners.  They also give mugs if you get a first in your category.  I love all the ones I have.

What’s one of the most useful things you’ve learned about brewing from going to competitions?

How to make better beer.  Not from the competitions itself, but from discussing with my competitors on how to brew better beer.  I would typically get in touch with winners of the styles that I’m interested in and discuss how they did it. More often then not they would be forthcoming with suggestions on what they believe helped them win.  I mean really, as a homebrewer all we really want to do is talk about beer while drinking a well-made beer.

How does San Antonio’s beer scene compare to the Bay Area?

In San Antonio there are only three breweries/brewpubs within city limits:  Blue Star, Ranger Creek and FreeTail.

Blue Star has been around since 1996.

Ranger Creek is the only Brewery in San Antonio, but they are doing some exciting things.  They also are doing distilling on site.

FreeTail has recently opened in the past two years, and their flavor and charm comes from their Head Brewer Jason Davis.  He worked as a brewer for Celis till they closed.  You can see the influence in the experimental beers they brew.

Also, there are only two BJCP certified judges here in San Antonio (you read that right).  Luckily when an event needs judging there are some more in Austin and Houston area but they still typically only have one BJCP judge per table, it makes for interesting score sheets.

There are only about eight competitions during the year it doesn’t give you the same level of competition.  I have only personally entered four competitions this year, at this point last year I was probably at about 10-12.

How do you handle the big change?

Lucky for me, the Bay Area’s beers are just one shipment away (don’t tell!).

An Evening with the Silicon Valley Sudzers

Photos by Kelsey Williams

“Everyone, we’re goin’ to the barrel. She needs to be initiated.”

Mildly nervous and extremely curious, I allow myself to be led into the deepest depths of the Los Altos Hills house, tasting glass in hand. At the bottom of the stairs, in a bare concrete room sits a lone barrel. Its true contents, I’m told, are not describable using mere words; I would have to taste.

I take my portion and step out of the way to let the rest of the group have their turn at the barrel. As everybody else fills his or her glass, I carefully put my nose in the glass, trying to gather a clue as to what I’m about to taste.

“Ok, everyone, cheers.” I tip back the glass and the light red brew hits my tongue.  The flavor is on the extreme of sour. I watch the rest of the group laugh and make faces as they try once again this batch of beer crafted by one of their own that has over time become sour enough to make me imagine it would make a pretty good salad dressing… Sudzers sour beer vinaigrette.

The Silicon Valley Sudzers, a local homebrew club of roughly 25-30 intrepid homebrewers meets the first Friday of every month to share a common love of do-it-yourself beer geekery. This was my first meeting, and I needed to be initiated.

Silicon Valley Sudzers Group Shop

The group is diverse.  Young and old, men and women, experienced brewers and newbies, come together to share their techniques and drink homebrewed beer.

With the initiation over, everyone troops back upstairs to cleanse their palettes with some of the homebrewed beers that turned out better than the sour concoction in the basement. Gary’s high gravity IPA is on tap and a collection of growlers litters the bar filled with myriad different styles from Keith‘s Cascadian Dark Ale to Doug’s classic farmhouse saison.

Each person has his or her own preferences. Robin just made her first brew, a dry cranberry mead, Nathan has brought his latest IPA or “concentrated hope juice”, and Nick offers his general opinion that every beer could use more Simcoe hops, the varietal that gives Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder, its distinctive crisp, bitter hop flavor.

At one point in the evening, someone proposes they make Sudzer t-shirts playing off the old SNL cowbell skit. On the front, “You know what that beer needs…” On the back: “More Simcoe”

Each month the group gathers to discuss their latest batches, but the discussions go beyond just drinking. This month they held a workshop on pint glass etching. In the corner sits a projector and a screen, which is used at many of the meetings for formal presentations on the beer of the month.

Brewer to brewer they will suggest steps in the process for changing a beer’s flavor: longer boiling, dry-hopping, different grains, hop ratios. The give and take brainstorming lasts for about an hour, and you can see the beer recipe cogs turning as they taste and talk.

Hanging with this group is a crash course in beer knowledge down to the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of what it takes to make a good beer, and for good reason. The group will often come together for homebrew competitions throughout the area, and the team needs to be well represented.

But even if you have no plans to compete and have trouble following the conversation when it gets into the details of boiling times and yeast fermentation, one thing is for sure: if you love beer and go to a meeting with the Sudzers, you will learn something new and drink some good beers. Just be warned… you just might need to be initiated first.

Bung Brewers & Bison Brewing Announce Homebrew Competitions

Attention homebrewers. Are you ready to test your finest beer against some competition?  Bison Brewing and the Bung Brewers are hosting events with wonderful prizes that will surely boost your street cred if you’re up to the task.

The Organic Brewing Challenge Pro Am Competition, hosted by Bison Brewing, is open to all members of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA). The winning entry will be commercially produced by Bison Brewing and submitted to the Great American Beer Festival. Here’s the basic info:

  • Entry Deadline April 2, 2011
  • 5 Style Categories
  • Only All-organic beers accepted
  • Winning beer will be packaged in 22 oz. bottles and commercially released
  • Winning homebrewer will receive tickets to the Great American Beer Festival
  • Contestants must be AHA Members at the time of entry
  • Entry period is March 14, 2011 to April 2, 2011

Visit the competition website for all the rules and guidelines.

The First Annual Napa Homebrew Challenge is being run by the Bung Brewers and judging will take place at the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery on February 12. You’ll need to act fast to meet the upcoming deadline.  No specific awards are mentioned. Here are a few details.

  • Entry Fee:  $8.00 Per Entry
  • Deadline: January 17 and January 29, 2011.
  • Entry Requirements:  Submit 3 twelve ounce bottles

Once again check the competition website for all the details.

Best of luck to all of you who enter!