I first met Executive Director and Specialty Brewer, Colby Chandler, when he came to Chicago a little over a year ago to help founder, Jack White, and Chief Commercial Officer, Earl Kight III, launch Ballast Point into the midwest. We grabbed some al pastor tacos at Big Star and dug into the backstory.
But it was almost a year later when I would bump into Colby again, this time in the back of a Sierra Nevada Beer Camp bus rocketing across the desert on its national tour — the power (and the AC) kicking on and off intermittently. Since then, I'd witnessed the rise of Sculpin, their almost-double IPA and a line of spirits as good as anything you'll find on the market. One bleary morning as we rolled through Iowa, Colby (the red-headed party animal sitting between the blue-shirts above) whipped up a dozen Bloody Mary's with their Fugo Habanero Vodka, and we got back to talking business. So what's the future look like from his perch in San Diego? According the Chandler, the future looks a lot like a brewpub. Or a distilling pub. Whatever you want to call it.
Why do you think this Sierra Nevada Beer Camp tour matters?
I think there’s a two or three things. Nobody’s really talked about the type of beers that were made in the twelve pack. I think you’re seeing how the pendulum is swinging a little bit. You know? Did we all make double IPA’s? Did we all make big huge barrel aged beers? No. We went for Belgian Singles, rye bock, alt bier — well, I guess we did do a double India Pale Lager, but, you know. Just one. Someone had to do a hoppy beer in there, right? But I think that also is foreshadowing where the industry is going a little bit too.
At Ballast Point we like to make beers that we like to drink, but I always feel like we’re eight years ahead of the curve. I can see that in the Sierra Nevada mix pack that they did. I think the other thing is the fact that a brewery had the balls to do something like this. To set up such a huge program. They could have just stopped at the twelve pack. But then having the bus tour and everything. I’m kind of hoping that this is the new tap takeover. You know? Hopefully we’ll see these bus tours continue through the next few years. I don’t know if Sierra Nevada will do it again. It’s a logistical nightmare! But it’d be fun on a regional basis to kind of do this. They stopped in the Southwest and all the different places around the country. I’m seeing this project being done with San Diego, LA, San Francisco, and we do a California bus run or something like that. That I think might be a marker for the craft beer industry. Regional tours like this might be kind of fun.
You enjoy being a brewer about as much as anyone I’ve ever met. Why?
One of my favorite things of being a brewer for the past seventeen years is giving adults new flavors. Your taste buds change every three years. As your taste buds die off you like stronger and stronger flavors. Adults are so jaded so when you give them a special beer with flavors in it that they’ve never had before you literally see the light bulb go off. You know what I mean? That’s, I think, really what drives the passion behind craft beer drinkers. Looking for that new sensation over and over again because they didn’t really get to experience it until they had their first craft beer.
Are you still able to do that in a market like San Diego? There’s almost no stone left unturned out there.
All the time. We just opened up a brew pub in Little Italy. Since November we’ve literally done a hundred and eight unique recipes at the brewery. So, every week we put on three brand new beers. It’s all over the board from a smoked jalapeño maple IPA to a low calorie light lager. It goes all over the board. So, yeah, there’s tons of new flavor in there. We educate our staff. We have a huge employee brewing program. We’ve had ninety percent of our two hundred and ten employees come through and brew on the system already. It gives them a lot of ammo to talk about it. It drives their passion. It’s fun to be a part of a company that’s actually investing in that kind of an education too.
It seems like so much of what craft beer is all about is constant new variety, new flavors, like you said you love introducing people to new flavors all the time. Do you think there will ever be another Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a flagship of that scope? Or has that come and gone?
It’s going to be hard. I think you’re asking more of a production brewery question. Are there going to be more production breweries? To be a production brewery you need a brand that pays the bills. That’s exactly what you were just talking about. The Pale Ales, the Boston Lagers…
But they did it at a time where there were so few breweries that if you scaled up you could own major regions of the country.
Right. I still think it’s going to have to swing back to the brewpubs. I think you’re going to see a brewpub in every town and I think they’re going to find those little niche beers that are going to make them popular and make them a destination location.
So do you think that most people will have the thing that they’re known for but it will probably not get to a national scale again?
Well, there is only so many tap handles and shelf space on retail stores and bars and things like that. To put your own product out you’re going to have to be selling it over your own bar. That falls right in to the whole brewpub philosophy of it. Nano breweries are a good hobby to get started with but I think sooner or later you’re going to have to step it up. And it’s responsible to have some food along with the beers as well.
What do you guys do as a brewery to make sure you’re getting tap handles?
With the big boom in the brewing business right now: quality and shelf-life is what’s going to set people apart. We’ve invested hundred of thousands of dollars in lab and lab employees. We test everything possible that we can through the whole process. I think it’s going to be important for us and any brewery that our beer tastes just as good in San Diego as it does in New York as it does in Sweden as it does in Japan. That’s what’s going to create repeat customers.
So, on the surface it sounds like there’s a bit of a conflict there in terms of a brewpub in every town, owning their tiny little market, but then places like Ballast Point who wants their beer in New York and they want it to taste just as good. Those are two different plays. How can both of those exist at the same time for you?
The way we consume food now is completely different than it was twenty years ago. The farm to table kind of movement is really moving along. Faster than anybody thought it would. Everybody talks about the craft beer bubble. I think that there won’t be a bubble if there are brewpubs. I think that’s the squeeze, basically, where it might get tighter and tighter on the production brewery level. I think there can literally be endless amounts of brewpubs in every single town. So people can kind of own their own local flavor.
So why would you want to have a production brewery that’s producing enough to ship it around the country versus a tiny little brewpub where you kind of just stay in your little market?
I don’t know. It’s probably a… if you’re ADD or you know what I mean? It is a business and people love running businesses so…
Most people want to grow their business at some point.
Right. It’s probably going to be the pendulum swing again. We’ve had a lot of production breweries opening up recently then it’ll probably go to brewpub then it’ll probably slide back to production breweries. There’s going to be a little bit of an ebb and flow over the next two decades.
Does that just shake people out along the way that either can’t compete or come up with the right plan?
I would hope so. I don’t know if it’s the competing but I think it’s going to be the product. Whose making the best products will probably be around the longest. People don’t buy bad beer twice.
Right. But in beer, they buy anything once. I wonder if that’ll start changing as well.
Yeah! Put a good name on it. They’ll buy it. Tastes like crap — they’re not going back.
Let’s talk about distilling. We talked about this the other day. That’s another area that a lot of craft brewers are going in to and Ballast Point is doing it really well. But I worry about breweries diversifying too much and getting away from their core. Their incremental spirits products are going to have to compete with stuff being made by massive, historical producers.
That sounds oddly familiar! We’re mentally set for that!
Do you think you’re set for that in terms of skill, talent, knowledge? Big producers in spirits aren’t just macros, they’re kind of definitive.
I think craft distilling is much like the way craft brewing is. We use quality ingredients, small batches, and we’re putting out the best product we possibly can. I’d like to see some craft distillery pubs. You know? Just like a brewpub where you can go in and you can pair their cocktails and their spirits with their food. I think that’s got a huge market for right there. Much in the way that the big breweries really ran the show for many many years there’s big distilleries out there that are very comfortable right now. They’re missing some of the niche’s, some of those one-off styles that as a distiller we can kind of start to attack a little bit. It’s a really natural progression for a brewer to become a distiller. We’re already doing mashes and washes and all that good stuff already. But, I think we have the advantage of being sterile and clean as well. There’s a lot of distilleries out there that use inferior products and just kind of work it through. I think we’re making very clean spirits. A lot of that comes from our experience in the brewing industry.
Is there a particular spirit that’s easy to make and one that’s difficult to make for you?
Well, almost all distillers start out with a white spirit whether it’s going to be gin, vodka, rum…
Why is that? Certainly there's speed to market, but is there something else that's inherent to these spirits that makes them attractive to a start-up?
Age. Time. Rent. Barrel space. All that kind of stuff. I think it’s just quicker to market for the most part. We kind of went backwards because we started the bourbon and the malt whiskey program and we had all those in the barrels for many years before we ever did the moonshine. Usually that’s kind of the opposite for people. We really wanted to release the brown, the good brown stuff, because that does make the world go round. We wanted to release that first and then draft off that because we knew we wouldn’t have the volume. It’s got such a great reputation already. To be able to come behind with the devil’s share brand as a whiskey moonshine. That was kind of important for us. We started doing the gin. We’re doing it old school. We’re packing botanicals in to the tower. We’re not using any extracts or anything like that. Quality base for the gin. The rum we’re doing organic cane sugar, which is the top of the sugar chain rather than molasses, which is the byproduct of bleaching sugar, at the bottom of the chain. I think it comes through in the overall products. We’re using our proprietary house beer yeast to ferment some of the spirits out as well so you’re getting some of those fruity nuances from that yeast. It’s fun. We’re doing a bunch of cool stuff.
If you had to pick one of your spirits where you think you guys are just killing it right now, which one is it?
The malt whiskey is delicious. We just don’t have very much of it. But, I think what we’re really pushing the limit is with our barrel aged rum. Again, with the quality ingredients that go in to the white rum and then we put that in to a number three alligator char Missouri Kentucky virgin oak barrel, age it for three years. It’s a sipping rum that tastes a lot like whiskey with a nice sweet tropical hint of sugar on the background.