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.
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.