Monday, April 9, 2012

Modern Times Beer - Pro-Brewing Here I Come

If there is one question that I get asked more than any other, it is some variation on "Why don't you open a brewery?" While I love the idea of brewing professionally, I also like having a stable salary, health insurance, and a comfortable life. What I enjoy doing is brewing, not running a brewery. When I first started working for the government, I would occasionally trawl classifieds looking for entry level positions. After sending a few dozen resumes and getting a couple interviews, I was offered a job by Flying Dog. After considering their offer to come on as a cellarman for $10 an hour, I decided I was happy being a homebrewer. Over the five years since then I haven’t applied to work for a brewery, or even seriously thought about changing careers.

Over the last couple years I've received a couple offers to work for upstart breweries, but none of them have been enough to change my mind. I’m always happy to talk to brewers and lend my opinion informally when someone asks. So when Jacob McKean sent me an email a few months ago saying he was opening a brewery, I was happy to hear what he was up to. He and I had swapped beers a couple years earlier. I couldn't say no to exchanging a six-pack of my homebrew for bottles from Alpine, Lost Abbey, and Alesmith. Until he left to start filing paperwork, Jacob was employed as Communications Specialist at Stone Brewing.

We talked on the phone for an hour about his plans for Modern Times Beer. He offered me a job as a brewer if I was willing to relocate to San Diego. I was reluctant. I have a comfortable life. I don’t mind my job, I like my friends, my house is full of carboys and barrels, and my girlfriend will finally be returning to DC in a couple months after two years at grad school. "No problem.” he said, “how about being a consultant?" Being paid to travel to Southern California a few weeks every year to brew beer at a cool brewery, how could I refuse that?

The more I have talked to Jacob since then, the more I'm convinced that I waited for the right opportunity. Whether it is the impassioned op-ed he wrote for a few weeks ago, his emphasis on putting quality first, his business sense, or his spot-on analysis of the homebrew I’ve sent him. Jacob’s plan is to open with a 30 bbl brew house, canning line, and tasting room (including a pilot system). He is looking to places like Surly Brewing in terms of the business plan.Of course all of this depends on a much money he can raise, a process that is just now beginning in earnest.

As I wrap up the research for my book on American sour beers, the more I am cognizant of the limitations imposed by my homebrewing batch sizes. Especially the ways they constrict my blending options and ability to introduce controlled variations (different microbes, barrels, fruits, etc.). Helping develop a decent sized commercial barrel aging program is the next step logical step in this craft for me. In addition to working on this aspect of Modern Times, I will be helping to develop recipes for clean beers. I will also have a hand in writing for the brewery’s blog/website.

Jacob and I have been kicking recipe ideas around and I've started to brew some test batches (like the India Amber Ale) that will end up in the hands of some potential investors. Jacob is still scouting locations. While San Diego already has a dense local beer scene, most of the breweries are well outside the city. His plan is to locate the brewery within the city's limits. Jacob is also vetting potential brewmasters. Hopefully the person he hires will be able to juggle the demands of making consistently excellent year round beers, with all of the fun stuff I’ll be pitching.

If all goes well, then the first Modern Times beers should be available in mid-2013. As for a full time role at the brewery, we'll see where consulting leads, but anything like that would still be years away.

I’ll certainly be posting the occasional update here, especially when I brew test batches (like the coffee oatmeal stout I brewed yesterday), but if you want to stay completely up-to-date you should follow Modern Times on Twitter or Facebook. Cheers, and thanks for all of the encouragement over the last five years!


JC Tetreault said...

Congrats Mike, what a wonderful opportunity, very well deserved.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It would have been nicer if the brewery was closer than 3,500 miles away, but if I have to go somewhere three or four times a year it might as well be Southern California. It is amazing how many homebrewers like us are taking the leap.

-- said...

Congratulations. Sounds amazing.

JC Tetreault said...

"closer than 3500 miles away" ...let us know when you're in boston, would be quite happy to fire up the kettle

Ben said...

Congratulations, Mike! It's been great reading your blog for so long--and listening to you on Basic Brewing. I've wondered if/when you were going to take the leap.

Btw. Two things struck me as I listened to Solera Tasting Part II, with you, Nathan, and James Spencer (and all of his friends):

1) You inspired me to pitch this guy! Hoping it eats everything in sight and gets my strong belgian ale down below 1.008--as long as it doesn't eat through the barrel, that is.

2) Also, what do you mean by, "It is amazing how many homebrewers like us are taking the leap."? What would the process be from homebrewing to going pro? I mean, unless you're a bartender at a microbrew pub, or have a degree in brewing, what could you do but send potential employers a few bottles and pray for an interview?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I'm not sure I've ever heard of 3711 stopping above 1.005, you'll be fine.

That line was specifically directed at JC, who is in the process of opening Trillium Brewing up in Boston (I'm certainly game for helping on a batch).

It was also more generally about all the homebrewers in my cohort who have gone or are going pro, people like Chad Yakobson (Crooked Stave), Brian Strumke (Stillwater), Nathan (Right, Proper), Sean White (Jackie O's) etc. People that I drank beers with, or swapped recipes/advice online with when we were all just brewing five gallon batches.

There are two primary ways to get into the industry. Start a brewery, or get an entry level job at an established brewery (relevant classwork, brewing school or otherwise certainly helps). Plenty of great brewers have worked their way up starting as keg washers though. All depends on where you are and what you are willing to do.

Jeff said...

I'm happy that you will have a hand in beer made in my city, even though it is trek for you. The pro brewer scene in San Diego is very friendly and cooperative. Best of luck. My 2 a brewery in South Park or Golden Hill.

Ben said...

Thanks for the advice, Mike. And good luck with Modern Times!

Dank brewer said...

Congrats Mike! I'm lucky enough to have a brother living in San Diego so I get to come out there a few times a year. Can't wait to taste some of your creations eventually and tour Modern Times!



Chris said...

Huge congrats! Your blog has been a great source of info and will continue to be a reference in my homebrewing probably forever.

Cheers! (And let us know if any of your West Coast beers make it to DC/NoVA)

Jason said...


Nice post and congrats on getting into the industry. I sincerely hope this leads to bigger things for you.

I've been in a similar boat and need a position that would be able to support family and lifestyle.

Consulting could be a way to go but I think I need my name to get out there more.

Congrats again,


Jeffrey Crane said...

I think your style of beer has a place in the San Diego beer scene that hasn't been filled by the other 40 breweries. To be honest in San Diego, the sour and funky beers are usually a rare seasonal with the exception of Lost Abbey beers.

Please update with your status of Modern Times and give us a heads up when you make a trip out this way. I have quite a few beers that you have inspired and I'd like to share with you.


Murray McCain said...

Congratulations! Glad you've found a 'fit' for you and hope it grows or remains an engaging and rewarding opportunity. I began following you when you had less than 50 followers or so, about 5 years, sort of feel I grew along with you as a homebrewer (to be fair I stopped far short of your strata for a myriad of reasons best described as 'life'). However I am currently putting together a business plan, more a feasibility study, for a nanobrewery. At this point its more a certainty of not opening than it is of opening, but we don't know what is possible till we fully explore our options. It's probably safe to assume you recognize that sentiment. Good luck and congrats on the GREAT news.

Murray McCain said...

Btw may I ask if you or some of your follower know of a nano brewery up-sizing etc. that might be looking to get rid of some equipment, particularly fermenters and brite tanks (probably a bit early, but it rarely hurts to ask). Also I'll just be looking for advice on the best means of handling various issues such as kegging vs serving tanks, etc.

synaesthesia said...

Congrats dude, long time reader, first time poster. I have been a homebrewer for years and am now making the jump and going commercial, it'll start as a nano brewery in of all places that are not known for beer, Toronto Canada! The difference here is full on barrel aging, bugs, casks and other craziness that we have developed over the years. You have been a great source for reaserch and inspiration, so thanks and good luck, looking forward to the book.

concerned fan said...

I really enjoy your blog, your creativity is very inspiring and your openness with techniques and knowledge is very refreshing.
As for going pro, I think your cautious track is a good one, and I hope you are not investing of your money into a startup brewery. I'm only saying this as the scene is very saturated in SD, and a cursory look at the state's ABC site shows no fillings from a Modern Times brewery. On top of it, the website is registered to the author of the beer pulse piece who lives in LA. The Beer Pulse piece really struck me as marketing, and seeing he's a LA guy makes me suspicious that he's trying to cash in on San Diego's reputation.
Best of luck and thanks again.

confictushome said...

Long time lurker, that is just getting my hands into the sour scene because of the crazy things I read about you doing. Wanted to say, sounds exciting and I hope to hear more. I'm really excited to see more barrel aging, and sour blending in the marketplace. I think we are in for some exciting times in the future as the craft ales figure out the palette of American Beer drinker can tolerate more than Bud Light!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Talking about saturation is tough, nationwide craft beer is still only about 6-7% of the market. Even in the hotbeds I’ve seen estimates of 20% of the market at most. Clearly with recent announcements from New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Lagunitas the big guys think there is room for hundreds of thousands of additional barrels. Always tough to figure out if it is better to open in an established market with competition, or carve out a niche in a less developed market. For the sorts of beers I like brewing I think I’d have to be somewhere with educated/passionate beer drinkers.

I can assure you that Jacob is very much on the level. While he is certainly starting to churn out marketing, he is starting the brewery as a beer nerd first and foremost, but it is still a business. He is wrapping up the paperwork that will allow him to raise money from investors (which will not include me). I’m not sure what you need for ABC approval (Labels? A brewery? Federal approval? Etc.), but that will come eventually. I’ve shipped beer to him at his address in San Diego several times over the last few years, not sure why it would show that he lives in LA (maybe he is using his lawyers address or something).

Jacob McKean said...

Jacob McKean here, just wanted to chime in and answer some questions. Great to see so much support for Mike and the project from his readers.

While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, it is my view that San Diego is nowhere near a saturated market. Those of us who have been involved with craft beer for a while inevitably see today's market as bursting at the seams compared to what it was when we first got into craft beer, even if that was only a few years ago. Even so, most people I know in the business believe that craft is about 10%+ of the San Diego market; good compared to some places, but nowhere near saturated. Furthermore, while the market has turned more local in recent years due to increasing demand, most large breweries don't distribute more than 30% of production in the local market. So even if San Diego is saturated, I believe there's a large and enthusiastic market for the beers we'll be making in many other places. But again, being constantly informed about the state of Southern California craft beer distribution while I worked at Stone for the past 2 years leaves little doubt in my mind that there is still tremendous room for growth locally. Many people forget that while some famous breweries are located here, taps and shelves in San Diego didn't really make much room for craft until fairly recently.

In order to file for an ABC license, you need a location. In order to have a location, you need a lease. In order to sign a lease, you need money. I am currently in the process of raising the money necessary to do that. It'll take a few months, at least.

The website is registered to a Los Angeles location because that's where the host is located. Like lots of people, I didn't want my home address to be listed as the site's owner, so I registered it "anonymously." That's not uncommon. I live in San Diego, and have since I moved here over 2 years ago to work as Communications Specialist at Stone.

The responses I've gotten from the Beerpulse piece have been anything but cynical, and it certainly wasn't intended as "marketing." Sure, it helped get the name out there, but the content of what I wrote in no way hyped the brewery. Perhaps "concerned fan" misunderstood my point, but the goal was to persuade people who might be interested in starting a brewery just for the money to reconsider, and to encourage people who are truly passionate about beer to get into the industry. No one else has expressed any cynicism about what I wrote, so I think you might want to give it another read. Also, I've gotten to know Adam Nason pretty well over the last few years, and I'm confident he would charge me for the privilege of marketing my brewery on his website. As it is, he's asked me to write another column.

Thanks again to everyone who chimed in with their support. I'll explain how this all came about in greater detail later, but I'm just excited that we'll be able to share Mike's beers with a much wider audience in the future.

Robert said...

Come to San Diego, we need more funky/sour beers here. Put your mark on the city.