Wednesday, August 21, 2013

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALMANAC BEER CO.'s DAMIAN FAGAN

If there exists a holy trinity among new, west-of-the-Mississippi brewers in the United States right now, I'd certainly cast my personal lot in 2013 with the hallowed trio of Prairie Artisan Ales, Sante Adairius Rustic Ales and San Francisco's ALMANAC BEER CO. Several years ago that list might have run something like this: Russian River, The Bruery and The Lost Abbey – all of whom, of course, remain world-class. Never in any of our lifetimes have we been so spoiled for choice when it comes to magnificent, genre-busting craft beer. Thus, it makes sense, to me anyway, to single out and sing frothy hosannas to those brewers who are working the hardest to innovate; who work with the most fresh and the widest array of ingredients - and most importantly, who make the most rocks-off beer on the planet.

ALMANAC BEER are absolutely among the planet's finest, over two years running now. I am wildly overdue in interviewing one of the two prime movers behind Almanac, Damian Fagan. This fella practically lives down the street from me, and is a true man on the scene in San Francisco beer and a Great American to boot. Two years ago, I was nervous that his little Almanac venture, grown out of his own homebrewing and graphic design forté and co-founder Jesse Friedman's brewing prowess and beer management, might end up just being a cool little one-off that only beer dorks myself might appreciate. After all, that first beer was flat-out amazing, but its relatively high (if wholly justifiable) price point, barrel-aging, and insistence on locally-sourced, fresher-than-all-get-out fruits might have ended up being a moral victory but a financial wallet-drainer. As it turned out, these guys were successful from the word go, and their beer is beloved not only where they live, but in the many new places they're struggling to make enough beer to get to.

I sent over a list of questions to Mr. Fagan to see how things were hanging with Almanac, two years & several months after they blew me and others away with the first of many amazing beers. Here's what we talked about in our online, emailed banter.

BEER SAMIZDAT: You guys evolved very quickly from an esoteric, hyperlocal almost-nanobrewer into one of the more popular and most talked-about specialty craft brewers in the country. I see people debating your beers online and clamoring for them in cross-country trades. That sure didn't take long. What are your biggest challenges dealing with that sort of growth?


Damian Fagan: It's been a wild couple of years to be sure and we're humbled by the response. We're producing on a relatively small scale, particularly the barrel-aged beers, and I'd say the hardest thing to manage right now is meeting demand and making sure the beer is allocated across territories evenly. We have really great distribution partners which makes a huge difference, but unfortunately the demand is outstripping supply so ultimately we aren't able to get everyone beer. We're working hard to expand our production capacity, however, so we hope to make the beers less difficult to find over time, i.e., we are currently bringing online 200 additional oak barrels, bumping our oak program up to about 500 barrels.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Almanac started with a mission to try and elevate beer's standing within restaurants. How do you think that's worked out so far – both for Almanac and for craft beer in general?

Damian: I think all you have to do is walk into a decent restaurant for the answer. Places that wouldn't have given beer a second thought a couple years ago now have well curated beer programs on par with their wine programs. In fact, there's an amazing new wave of very successful beer-centric restaurants and bars that are inverting the old wine paradigm and focusing exclusively on beer. Better beer is seemingly everywhere these days and that's a great thing. Beer culture is changing, growing up and beer is moving off the sofa and onto the dinner table. Almanac has always been focused on promoting that message and we're proud of having done our part to communicate the culinary merits of good beer.

BEER SAMIZDAT: When you guys debuted your first several releases all came in large caged-and-corked 22-ounce bottles, but everything subsequently has been much smaller. Has Almanac definitively moved away from the bigger format, and if so, why?

Damian: If there's one thing that's consistent in our business, it's that you never know what's around the corner. A year ago we hadn't even thought about using 375ml bottles, then we put out a couple beers in them in February this year, and the response was so positive we decided to stick with it. The smaller formats, both 375ml and 12oz, simply make for a more convenient size in many situations. If you're alone, you may not want to crack a 22oz or 750ml of a sour or barrel aged beer, or any beer for that matter. A smaller size just makes sense. It has the nice side effect of bringing the shelf price down, too. But that doesn't mean we aren't going to be using the 750's anymore--in fact we'll be releasing 3 wet-hop IPAs in a week or two in the 750ml format. It really just depends on the beer we're putting out and whether or not we think it makes sense in a larger format.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Generally speaking, Almanac beers are released, they sell out, and they never come back again. How important is scarcity to Almanac's marketing, and do you have an official two-tier strategy in play like many brewers do, with one-offs complimenting a core of beers that you plan to keep around for a long time (e.g. Honey Saison)?

Damian: Almanac's focus has always been on working with California farms to provide ingredients -- which, to some extent, can limit how often we can re-release certain beers with any kind of traditional schedule—ie, when strawberry season is over, it's over and we wont be able to produce more strawberry beer until the next season. So, on some level the one-off releases are a function of seasonal sourcing limitations. This isn't always the case as we obviously produce year-round beers, too, but depending on the ingredients it can make continuous brewing impractical. Make no mistake, as brewers and beer geeks, we love experimenting and putting out one-off and unusual beers just for the fun and creativity of it, too. I still go to great lengths to get my hands on special or rare bottles of other breweries' beers for the same reasons we like to create our own.

Creating our California Table Beers has allowed us to have beer available year-round—which, as demand was growing—became an increasingly difficult thing to do with seasonal-only one-offs. The 4-packs are also what we consider a more casual product, an everyday beer if you will. Or what I affectionately call a lunch beer. Something I can have with my sandwich that isn't going to make me want to take a nap (they're 6% abv or under). As the brewery has evolved, so have our beer offerings.
 
BEER SAMIZDAT: The Farmer's Reserve series of barrel-aged sours is up to four now – are you planning to keep this series going, and will it continue to have other branches, a la Dogpatch Sour and Barrel Noir?

Damian: Yes, to both questions. We have two main product divisions, Farm-to-Bottle, which are the fresh beers and Farm-to-Barrel, which is any beer that sees oak. Both the Farmer's Reserve beers and the other barrel-aged beers fall under the Farm-to-Barrel banner. The Farmer's Reserves are essentially our one-off sour beers while releases like Barrel Noir and Dogpatch Sour are beers that may come back around sometime in the future. For example, we plan on releasing Dogpatch Sour roughly twice a year, slightly modifying each batch every time we brew it.

BEER SAMIZDAT: I know you guys experimented with a Chinook-hopped IPA during this year's SF Beer Week. What happened to that, and how does an IPA fit in with Almanac's overall aesthetic (what do you do to "Almanac-ize" an IPA)?

Damian: We swore we would never put out an IPA because there are so many outrageously good IPAs in California that we didn't feel it needed to be done. Turns out you pretty much have to put out an IPA -- the demand was simply too significant to ignore anymore. Don't get me wrong, we love IPAs and drink a lot of them. Our challenge was making an IPA that reflected Almanac's ethos. So we teamed up with the Kuchinski's at the mind-blowing Hops-Meister Hop Farm in Clearlake and started sourcing single-origin, California hops to make our IPA. The Single Origin Chinook IPA has been in draft-only production ever since last February, albeit in very limited runs. As mentioned earlier, we also have three fresh-hopped IPAs dropping at the end of August, too. All of the fresh hops; Cascade, Chinook, Cluster (Ivanhoe and Gargoyle) were grown on the same 20-acre plot near Clearlake -- so it's going to be a really interesting side-by-side tasting opportunity. An appellation for hops if you will.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Packaging and label art is a big part of Almanac's overall appeal, and I know that's sort of your personal corner of the business. Tell us a little bit about what you're going for in your label art, and why it's important to Almanac to get this right.

Damian: Almanac is a very small company, so we all wear lots of hats. One of the things I do is the design and branding—which was my background previous to Almanac. Jesse and I both felt that Almanac had a great story to tell, so we wanted to make sure people noticed the packaging, picked it up and read it. We knew from day one our visual appeal had to match the quality of what was in the bottle. So, we've put as much thought into the messaging and appearance as we have the beers themselves. I think people appreciate that there's a unique ethos and story to the company and our beers and it says so right there on every bottle. And if they happen to look good in your fridge or on the dinner table, too, well, there's nothing wrong with that.

Aesthetically, the idea was to bridge old world (i.e., etched engravings) with new world (ie, modern typography, vivid colors) which is much like how we brew—starting with traditional beer styles and layering our own Northern California twists on top.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What are your distribution goals – and can you ever brew enough beer to get there?

Damian: Almanac is evolving and we don't have a set size goal. As it stands, we can't meet demand which some would argue is a good problem to have, but to us it's still a problem. We're such a small brewery that I think we have a while to go before we have to contemplate not growing anymore. In all of last year, for example, we produced roughly the amount of beer that, say, Lagunitas, produced in about two days. So, we definitely have 99 problems but a pause ain't one. OK, I need a beer!

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