Nearly two years ago I took a flyer on a new local Double IPA called "Hill 88" from the hitherto-unknown HEADLANDS BREWING and was hitherto blown away. Every hophead needs his or her #1 go-to ale, the one they reach for on a quiet Tuesday night when flavor is called for but xtreme beer dorkery is not. Some people, it's Pliny The Elder. Others, West Coast IPA or Sculpin or Heady Topper. From that first day for me, it was "Hill 88", and my garage beer fridge has rarely been without a ready & waiting 4-pack of said beer ever since. HEADLANDS' other two core beers - the Belgian RyePA "Groupe G" and the "Point Bonita" pilsner - are also spot-on and delicious.
They've been contract-brewing their way into the hearts of many Californians and are planning some big moves in 2016. Before the year ended, I was able to lob a few questions over to co-founder and president Phil Cutti, who owns & operates the joint with co-founder and CEO Patrick Horn. Both men have deep tentacles reaching back over the last decade or two of San Francisco Bay Area craft beer history, and are actively plowing new inroads in the never-ending quest to pound new innovation and flavor out of beer's core ingredients.
This interview w/ Mr. Cutti was conducted over email in December 2015.
BEER SAMIZDAT: To start with, what's the brewing philosophy behind Headlands? Is it to simply make beers you like, beers that reflect your locale, beers that might actually sell, hoppy and/or refreshing beers....? Or is that philosophy developing at its own pace?
Phil Cutti: Headlands is about building a community. We feel that beer is a cultural and social drink that fuels adventures, conversations and ideas. Our beers reflect the area in which we live and the lifestyle we enjoy - being outdoors and living in the moment.
BEER SAMIZDAT: I know you guys have both traveled a pretty active road from your homebrewer roots to your current gigs at Headlands, and you, Phil, even run a collective for homebrewers looking to make the jump to commercial brewing. When - and how - did you guys know your creations were ready to make the jump?
Phil Cutti: I was lucky enough to learn how to brew from the guys who started Speakeasy when they operated SF Brewcraft in 1995. I tinkered and brewed and tweaked and entered competitions and tweaked and tweaked for 18 years. There are probably 15-20 solid recipes that we could roll out. But to really answer your question, I didn’t know any of our beers would sell until they did and then there were reorders.
BEER SAMIZDAT: Your three core "tall boys" - Hill 88, Point Bonita and Groupe G Belgian RyePA - have been a pretty stable lineup now full well over a year, with no new introductions that I know of. Are you just happy keeping things as-is for now with those three, or are there active plans for more?
Phil Cutti: Yes, on the retail side we have focused on these three offerings. We feel that it is best to deliver consistent products rather than continually brewing new batches that rotate quickly. With that said, we do offer a few one-off/seasonals in draught-only formats. This year we did Hawk Hill Hefeweizen for summer and Pt. Diablo Dunkelweiss for fall. Winter will bring Pan Toll Porter and Bay Trip to the tap. And we will of course release the next version of Lightship Sour Solera for SF Beer Week. Other than that we focus on the core beers. It’s possible that the seasonals transition to retail as well, but not likely for 2016.
BEER SAMIZDAT: Hill 88 in particular stands out so amazingly in a West Coast world crowded with phenomenal hopped-up Double IPAs. At the risk of immodesty, why do you think that is?
Phil Cutti: Thanks! We get a lot of great feedback on that beer. My thoughts on why Hill 88 has a burgeoning cult following are based on a few factors. In no particular order: it is balanced; has an amazing West Coast hop aroma; even though it is higher octane, it’s approachable.
BEER SAMIZDAT: You did a one-off project with the Mill Valley Market that I was fortune enough to try, a barrel-aged version of Hill 88. How did that come about, why was it with that particular market - and do you see anything similar coming out in the near future?
Phil Cutti: Mill Valley Market was our very first retail partner. There’s nothing like walking to your local market and seeing your beer prominently displayed. I’m proud of that and owe many thanks to MVM for their support. We have had a great relationship with them and Chuck Brinkley in particular. The market has a partnership with Four Roses Bourbon for private label bottles. Part of that relationship opens up an opportunity to get a barrel every once in awhile and we jumped at the chance to collaborate with MVM on a beer. Chuck and the MVM team wanted the Hill 88 aged in the barrel to offer to their beer club and then the public. Feedback was fantastic and we look forward to doing more projects like this in the future.
BEER SAMIZDAT: Where does Headlands brew these days, and are there plans for a permanent location?
Phil Cutti: Our contract brewing partners are top-notch. They know we aspire to have our own place and have helped us with our beers as if they were their own. We brew Pt. Bonita at Sudwerk in Davis and the Groupe G, Hill 88 and seasonals at Devil’s Canyon in San Carlos. With the rapid growth finally taking hold in the Bay Area we are looking to secure our own brewhouse and taproom in 2016. With a name like Headlands, it would bode well to be in Southern Marin. The Headlands are an incredible playground and dramatic backdrop that we hope will be in our backyard soon!
BEER SAMIZDAT: Your cans were in Whole Foods Markets in the SF Bay Area really quickly, particularly for a new, small brewer. What do you chalk that up to, outside of the obvious quality of the product? What's it like to distribute with them?
Phil Cutti: Yeah, our relationship with Whole Foods started early. To be honest, I think the relationship works because they identified us as aligning with their company’s ethos - local, quality and entrepreneurial. Their consistent support has definitely allowed us to appear bigger than we actually are. We are in every NorCal Whole Foods. That’s pretty cool! Our retailer relationships are what we owe our growth to. They really get behind our product and are advocates for small, local businesses. Distribution in general is all about managing logistics. If that is one thing we have learned, it’s managing logistics!
BEER SAMIZDAT: What's the current distribution scene like, by the way? Are the fights for shelf space much worse than they used to be or are there simply more shelves than ever before? What are some of the pros and cons for beer distribution in December 2015?
Phil Cutti: We could have a whole interview just on this topic. Headlands self-distributes. There are pros and cons to this. An obvious pro is that we get to connect with our customers and accounts on a daily basis and establish relationships that help build both the account and Headlands. Yes, the growth in the beer industry has increased the demand and competition for attention and beer space on the shelf. Self distributing has allowed us to be present at a key level as our industry grows. On the other hand, self-distributing has its limitations. We are a small company and can only service so many accounts in a day and in a certain geographical region. We have done the Santa Cruz to Livermore to San Rafael to SF delivery route and it’s challenging to say the least. Moving into 2016 we are evaluating signing on with a few distributors that can expand our footprint in the Bay Area as we increase production.
BEER SAMIZDAT: You're undoubtedly both beer aficionados and have tasted some pretty mighty ales & lagers of late. Who's making beer that blows you away right now, and in particular, which beers?
Phil Cutti: Locally I enjoy the beers from New Bohemian down in Santa Cruz. The various lagers Dan is creating in that brewhouse is amazing. The smoked schwartz beer is amazing. The Smell from Social Kitchen is one of Kim’s best beers. It never disappoints. Smog City down in Torrance always has something to quench my thirst. I particularly like the Amarillo Gorilla and Sabre-Toothed Squirrel. Falling Sky in Eugene just keeps pumping out beers that you want to savor over a good meal. And further north in Tillamook, De Garde’s wild fermented ales are outstanding. Black Project/Former Future out of Denver is the a place to seek out and keep an eye on. James and his team are at the forefront of the beer scene in Denver. I could go on for days, so I better end there. Cheers!