Wednesday, October 19, 2011

AN INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN THOMPSON OF TELEGRAPH BREWING

In 2007 I read a great Los Angeles Times article about the up-and-coming breweries of California’s central coast. Firestone Walker were already fairly firmly established on that map, and were called out as such in the article, but it was a newcomer – TELEGRAPH BREWING from Santa Barbara – that really caught my eye. It just so happened that we were vacationing there soon afterward, and I made a beeline for a tiny Santa Barbara liquor store that happened to carry their 2 beers at the time – CALIFORNIA ALE and GOLDEN WHEAT ALE. Both blew me away, and I did my best to start championing Telegraph Brewing on my then-beer blog Hedonist Beer Jive that year and thereafter. I even conducted an email interview with founder & lead brewer Brian Thompson back in November 2007 that you can read here.

So here we are in late 2011, and we thought it made sense to check in with Brian again. He’s continued to come up with world-beating beers, and now even has some Great American Beer Festival medals to show off for all his & his team’s hard work. When and if you see a Telegraph beer, I implore you: pounce. They are for my money the best (really) small brewer in America, and as the following new interview with Mr. Thompson makes clear, they’re not slowing down for anyone.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Last time we talked this way in 2007, Telegraph Brewing were a small Southern California-only brewer with virtually no distribution outside of California’s central coast. What have been the biggest changes in your world since then?

Brian Thompson: Well, there have been lots and lots of changes since 2007. Most importantly, we’re getting the beer further and further out of our local market. Los Angeles is now our biggest single market. LA has gone crazy for craft beer in the last few years, and we’re extremely happy to have been able to be a part of that. Our beers are widely available throughout greater LA now. We’ve added markets beyond Southern California too; the Bay Area/Sacramento is a growing market for us, and we’re sending very limited amounts of beer to Chicago as well. We’ve just signed up with a distributor in the Philadelphia area and will ship our first pallets of bottles there this month. We also had limited distribution in Arizona until earlier this year. Unfortunately, the small distributor we were working with in Phoenix went out of business, so we’re talking to some other distributors there about picking up Telegraph.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What’s the one Telegraph Brewing beer that you feel has put your brewery on the map, and what about it do you think resonated so well?

Brian Thompson: It’s hard to identify just one beer that has garnered us attention. I’d like to think it is our whole portfolio of beers that has put us on the map - we try to make consistently interesting beers. Certainly the Telegraph Obscura line—our sour, “wild” beers—have gotten us some attention. Our Reserve Wheat Wild Ale - he first sour beer we released, and still our most popular wild ale—has proven to be very popular. But we did just win two medals at the 2011 GABF, a gold for our flagship California Ale, and a silver for our Petit Obscura, so that has gotten us some attention very recently. And just looking at our sales numbers, the California Ale and our White Ale are our most popular beers, the most widely distributed, and the most widely available, so I think almost all the beers we make do keep us on the map. I’d hate to think we’re just a one-hit wonder with just one beer that really resonates with the craft beer community, and I don’t think that is the case.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Are there plans to begin bottling in 12-ounce bottles and 6-packs, and if so – why – and if not, why not?

Brian Thompson: As of now, no plans to bottle in smaller packages. I would someday like to have 12-oz bottles of some of our core products like the California Ale and White Ale. But for a tiny brewery like us, small bottles are just not a cost-effective way for us to package the beer.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Tell us a little bit about Gypsy Ale, since it’s one of the greatest beers I’ve ever had, and which I saw once and never again. What’s the story behind it, and do you intend to keep making it?

Brian Thompson: Our Gypsy Ale was born from a conversation at the brewery over some beers. Paul Rey, one of our brewers, has very eclectic musical tastes. He had some Roma Gypsy music playing one day and we got to talking about what a Gypsy beer would be like. Definitely wild, we thought, and rustic, with some less common grains, like rye. And we remembered a Serbian guy we know who, at parties, always pulls out these re-used plastic water bottles full of slivovitz plum brandy he brings back with him from visiting his mother. Since I have a big plum tree in my yard, it clicked. We would add plums to a barley- and rye-based strong ale, and age it with Brettanomyces.

We only did a single batch last year and it proved to be very popular. We have done another couple of batches this year, it’s all bottled and aging at the brewery now. We’re waiting for some more of the Brett character to develop. The fruitiness and “rustic-ness” is there, but it isn’t quite as tart as we’d like, and it needs some more of that barnyard funk. We hope to release it this fall.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What about your line of Obscura Ales? What are those about, and where do you intend to take them?

Brian Thompson: The Obscura line of beers emerged from the desire we had to make a clear distinction between our wild ales, which we’re making more and more of, and our core non-sour beers. Some of the wild ales that we’ve made for a while, like the Reserve Wheat Wild Ale, and the Gypsy too, have their own names and identities, but going forward most, if not all of our wild ales will be branded “Obscura Something”. So far we’ve done the Petit Obscura, which is our sour-mash small beer that won a silver in the Experimental Beer category at this year’s GABF, and the Obscura Arborea, which was a bigger, oak-aged, brown ale sort of in the style of Belgian Oude Bruin. We’ve also done some very small-batch (like literally one wine barrel) Obscuras like the Obscura Vulpine, which is a barrel-aged red ale, and the Obscura Fortis, which was a barrel-aged Belgian Strong.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Have there been beers you’ve brewed or wanted to brew that have been near-misses or just flat-out didn’t work – or even things you’ve actually put onto tap or in bottles that didn’t quite “find an audience”?

Brian Thompson: Our Golden Wheat Ale never found an audience. I think it was a poorly named and poorly marketed beer—die-hard craft beer drinkers thought it would be boring and casual beer drinkers often said “I don’t like wheat beers”—and it never sold well. Which is too bad, because it really was a very nice, complex wheat beer that had quite a lot of flavor. It was a misunderstood beer, but that is our fault.

We also did an IPA once, just because I was so tired of people asking us when we were going to release an IPA. And unfortunately, it didn’t turn out well. It wasn’t a bad beer, it just wasn’t what an IPA has to be if you’re going to call it an IPA. And then I reminded myself that we’re not a hop-driven brewery and we haven’t brewed one since, and I doubt we’ll give it another try. We love IPAs, but that style is not at all what Telegraph is about.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What has been the most rewarding thing about the last half-decade spent brewing – and what’s the one thing you’d have changed?

Brian Thompson: The most rewarding part of the last five years is meeting people who I have no connection to at all and having them tell me how much they like Telegraph’s beers. It’s one thing for my wife, or my friends, or my parents to tell me they like our beer, but for a beer drinker in LA, or San Francisco, or Chicago, or wherever, to choose to spend their money on a bottle or pint of one of our beers, when there are so many great beers to choose from, really makes us feel good about what we do.

As for things we’d change or do differently… I could talk for an hour about that. We’ve made mistakes, I think it’s hard to run a brewery, or any business really, and not make mistakes. The important thing is that you really take a good look at every bad decision or mistake and you make damn sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Finally, what’s the greatest single non-Telegraph beer known to man?

Brian Thompson: Well, that is an almost impossible question to answer! It all depends on who, what, where, when… I’d be really hard pressed to pick one single great beer because there are so many great beers out there. For example, today after work we cracked open a couple Pliny the Elders at the brewery. It was a hot day, we really worked hard, and that beer really hit it just right. Crisp and hoppy, but still very refreshing. But over the weekend, I was drinking Spaten Oktoberfest with my dad. It was exactly the beer for that moment, malty and rich, and so smooth. I’m really looking forward to the cool weather this fall so I can start drinking some bigger, darker Belgian-style beers like Unibroue’s Trois Pistoles. One of my all-time favorite beers though, and one I don’t drink often enough to be honest, is Orval. It’s an outstanding beer, with so much complexity, and I love how it changes in the bottle as it ages. If I really had to pick just one beer, Orval may be that one.

5 comments:

Mark said...

"We’ve just signed up with a distributor in the Philadelphia area and will ship our first pallets of bottles there this month."

Huzzah! I've heard a lot of good things about Telegraph, so I'm happy I'll finally get to try some soon...

Nat said...

Thanks for this interview. I'm a Telegraph fan, too. I think it's great Telegraph doesn't brew an IPA, there are too many on the market anyway. We need more sours and interesting beers. After reading this post, I went to Pizza Port Ocean Beach, and tried Petit Obscura. What a great beer, sour, bitter, refreshing, full of flavor and only 4.5% abv. I also have a Gypsy (bought on your recommendation) and an Obscura Arbola(?) in my beer closet.

Cousin Creep said...

Nice interview Jay, I have enjoyed these guys work for a while, and their Mission St. Hefeweizen brew they make for Trader Joe is perfect.

Jay H. said...

Cousin, I'm 99.99% sure that Telegraph doesn't make that one. Firestone Walker, perhaps? (same area)

Cousin Creep said...

Ouch, yeah it's Firestone Walker - best to let embarrassment pass - I saw Paso Robles and confused the two...