Signifiers

A Handshake Changed Everything Except the Focus—San Diego’s Alpine Beer Company

Driving down Alpine Boulevard, past Harbison Canyon along the edge of the Cleveland National Forest and just barely a half hour northeast of San Diego proper, it’s not difficult to cruise right by the nondescript, white brick building—even at the posted 35 mile-per-hour speed limit. The original Alpine Beer Company pub and brewery occupies two opposite sides of an old building, surrounding a small bookstore and a beauty shop. This is the self-proclaimed “Home of Pure Hoppiness,” the place where Pat McIlhenney, a longtime homebrewer, opened up shop after learning to brew professionally at AleSmith Brewing Company, about 40 minutes west down the hill in San Diego. If you’re into hoppy beers and IPA, this is the spot. This is Alpine.

AlpineCollage1.jpg

Walking into that old pub for the first time is a game changer for a beer geek. The hype, the acclaim, the rare, the cool—all of it is on display in the most unassuming way possible. On a Sunday at 11 a.m., the place is dead quiet, but the beer speaks loudly. The small, cozy pub space exits out onto a tight patio, with concrete landscaping and sunshine.

Shawn McIlhenney—Pat’s son, and, as of 2008, Alpine’s head brewer—sits back there, enjoying his day off. He talks about the beer he’s drinking—Tuatara, a lightly-yellow-orange, hazy and tropical IPA that clocks in at just more than 4% ABV, quite possibly one of the true progenitors of the session-IPA style. Shawn is no stranger to experimental Southern hemisphere hops. Pat discovered Nelson Sauvin on a vacation to New Zealand in 2003, and Shawn cut his teeth brewing Nelson, Alpine’s insanely popular Golden Rye IPA. Still, Shawn’s excited about Galaxy, the hop he’s playing around with in Tuatara. He’s also excited about how flavor-forward the beer is at that utterly drinkable ABV. The beer may be ahead of its time, but it’s only a taste of things to come.

“Category 52: American India Pale Ale, with an amazing 203 entries this year,” announces Chris Swersey of the Brewers Association. It’s the 2012 Great American Beer Festival Awards Ceremony. “The Bronze: Duet, from Alpine Beer Company, Alpine, California.”

“It was phenomenally cool,” Pat says, recalling what wasn’t the first piece of national recognition for Alpine, but certainly one of the most memorable at the time. “When the announcer actually stopped the awards ceremony to talk about the incredible number of entries, the three rounds of judging, and the popularity for the style, it was very rewarding to medal.”

Alpine was born as a contract brewery. Pat started brewing McIlhenney’s Irish Red in 1999 on AleSmith’s equipment. “I was working for AleSmith for free for so long, I was so involved and important to their production, that when I wanted to contract brew some beer there on my own, it was impossible for them to say no,” he says.

By 2002, he had everything in place to open in Alpine. In 2003 and 2004, he won GABF medals for Irish Red and Mandarin Nectar. He was solely in charge of production until 2008, when his son Shawn came on to serve as lead brewer. With a clear focus on hoppy beers, Pat and Shawn medaled at the 2010 World Beer Cup for O’Brien’s IPA and Duet.

By 2002, he had everything in place to open in Alpine. In 2003 and 2004, he won GABF medals for Irish Red and Mandarin Nectar.

Alpine’s acclaim for IPA came at a moment in time for beer in the United States that would see the beginning of explosive growth and demand for IPA. The “hop shortage” of the late-aughts was seemingly over, and with expanded production levels of trendy hops like Citra, Simcoe, and Amarillo, even traditionally non-hop forward breweries were noticing the winds of change and were jumping into the hottest category. Recognition at GABF in 2012 only helped perpetuate the reputation of Alpine as one of the world’s best IPA producers. And by then, Alpine was producing Nelson, Hoppy Birthday, Pure Hoppiness, Exponential Hoppiness, Duet—a cadre of hoppy beers that reflected the brewery’s culture and attitude.

In turn, people actively started seeking out Alpine. Increased demand put a strain on the brewery in more ways than one. Long lines at the pub for food and beers. Increased production on an already overworked 12-barrel brewhouse. Limits placed on growlers and bottles of beer to-go. The brewery was bursting at the seams. There were decisions to be made.

Momentum can impact a brewery in very different ways. Demand drives a brewery to to choose one course over another. On internet forums, in trade circles, at San Diego County bars, and regionally throughout in California, there was demand. San Diego beer bars that once thumbed their noses at the brewery were now clamoring to pour Alpine beer.

“People wouldn’t drink Alpine beers, because it had the reputation of being East County swill,” Nate “Islander” Soroko told GBH of that time. But the demand changed everything, and it started feeling like everyone wanted Alpine.

All these people wanted our beer,” he says. “It’s always humbling to see that.
— Pat McIlhenney

Pat noticed the change. “All these people wanted our beer,” he says. “It’s always humbling to see that.”

But Alpine could never satisfy local demand, and that says nothing about the regional or national outcry for Alpine’s beer. Pat recognized that the small 12-barrel brewhouse in Alpine wouldn’t cut it forever. But he’d been thinking about alternatives and exploring options for some time. Change was coming.

 

“Good water is extremely important for the beers that I am interested in brewing,” Pat says. As it turns out, the water in Minnesota is great. That fact is one of the reasons that, by mid-2013, negotiations between Alpine and The Gopher State’s Cold Spring Brewing were getting serious. Pat also liked the idea of distributing Alpine nationally, and Minnesota was a good jumping off point for shipping beer throughout the country.

But there were also some hesitations. Pat had heard about issues 21st Amendment Brewery had when they were contracting through Cold Spring. His concerns got too big to bear one day in the early fall. “We were so close to Cold Springs,” Pat remembers. “But then I got a call out of the blue from the new guy out there. He wanted to start everything over from square one. He asked in a rude, presumptuous tone, ‘I hear you are looking for someone to distribute your beer?’ I said, ‘No.’ He then asked, ‘So I hear that you are looking for someone to brew your beer.’ I laughed, ‘Not anymore.’”

It’s not a secret in the beer industry: if you piss off Pat, it’s game over. He walked away from the Cold Springs deal after lining up literally tons of hops contracts, inordinate quantities that would never scale to a 12-barrel pub system. Fortuitously, a handshake deal with Green Flash “fell into [his] lap, within days.” The San Diego company had just completed its expansion into a new facility in Mira Mesa, and they weren’t lacking for capacity. Green Flash founder and CEO Mike Hinkley recognized the opportunity to align Green Flash and Alpine, even informally, and he approached Pat about brewing some of Alpine’s beer there, for cost.

“This partnership really solved a lot of problems easily,” Pat says. “It took care of the hops issue and it got our beer in the market.”

It would increase Alpine’s production by 200% instantaneously. It was one hell of a handshake.

The new business relationship brought Alpine’s big three—Nelson, Duet, and Hoppy Birthday—into the brewhouse at Green Flash. It kept Alpine in San Diego County. It would involve Brewmaster Chuck Silva, a brewer who had built a name and reputation as the man behind “West Coast IPA,” a fantastic beer but a very different IPA from the IPA that Alpine was brewing. It would increase Alpine’s production by 200% instantaneously. It was one hell of a handshake.

 

The Alpine Beer Company pub, the original spot located just two doors down from the brewery, is crowded. It’s also hot. A fan futilely whirls overhead. Hanging lights illuminate shaker pints of beer, as food ferries from the kitchen in wax-paper-adorned baskets. People are smiling, laughing. Everyone knows everyone.

Well, almost. A large group spread across two tables in the corner is loud and boisterous—a bachelor party. Pub manager and heart and soul of the joint, Danielle Faught, eyes the group skeptically. Finally, the crew gets up and starts to leave. Guys stagger, bumping into tables and chairs.

The kitchen staff takes notice, and before long, the whole pub catches on. Led by the Alpine crew, the assembled clientele erupts into a standing ovation, cheering the bachelor party out of the door. Once gone, the pub falls back into its normal, Saturday swing. Peace and beer and laughter. The space is still overcrowded—capacity is only about 35 people altogether. But it works. For now.

 

“It was a nice surprise to see the reaction the Green Flash team had after we partnered up,” Pat says. “Those guys were literally dancing on the brew deck, singing ‘We are brewing Alpine beer!’”

Mike Hinkley also noticed that the brew crew was ecstatic. He knew he had to pursue this, create one big family. He made Pat and Val an official offer. Mike wanted to acquire Alpine and bring the brewery under the Green Flash family.

“[The acquisition offer] was a good starting point,” Pat nods. “It worked.”

This deal was one of the first, and still one of the only of its kind. Craft buying craft. San Diego beer buying San Diego beer. The deal brought more recipes into the Green Flash fold—beers like Pure Hoppiness, Alpine Ale, and Captain Stout alongside Nelson, Duet, and Hoppy Birthday. The deal brought Shawn over to the Green Flash production side, working to scale up each recipe and dial in process and recipe formulations. The deal brought equipment into the mix.

“I abhor filters,” Pat says. “So Green Flash had to buy a centrifuge. A filter strips out too much of what I am after in a hoppy beer, it’s an injustice to the brew.”

The deal also meant a giant hopback, a piece of equipment that allows you to run off wort directly from the boil kettle and through a massive charge of hops on way to a fermentor. It was a necessary piece of equipment to brew Pure Hoppiness, a double IPA with a recipe that called for a larger late-hop addition than Green Flash’s boil kettle could realistically handle.

 

The official acquisition also came with a public backlash. If not exactly direct and open, there was certainly some talk deep within the beer-geek circles. Rumors and accusations flew—was this version of Nelson brewed at Green Flash or at Alpine? Was this beer “Alpine Alpine” or “Green Flash Alpine?” Was one better? Can you taste it?

Then came the “Nelson*” debacle, an incident where Nelson followed by an asterisk (supposedly indicating the beer was actually brewed at Green Flash) was listed on Alpine’s draft list on Facebook. Several employees—from both the Green Flash and Alpine side of operations—waded into the fray. It got ugly.

People are terribly loyal to beer, and they’re incredibly committed to their brewery. Even with batch-to-batch inconsistency, there was and is a mental gap that needed to be bridged in order to stay true to what Alpine meant for so many people. Even Pat admits there were issues with some of the beer out of Green Flash.

“I remember when Sierra Nevada scaled up their system,” he says. “It took them months to get it right. There were batches of Pale Ale that were undrinkable. We’ve always brewed decent beer out of Green Flash, but it’s a challenge to scale up like that. We’re still working on it, and Shawn’s been instrumental in getting it right.”

 

It’s the soft opening of the new Alpine Beer Company pub and the joint is different. Managers Danielle Faught and Leo Valencia, and executive chef Jamie Holst, have retooled everything—the look and feel of the place, the menu, the cook times and the cooking methods for the BBQ, the guest beer list, the bottle selection, the wine selections. They’ve even got seating for 250, including a sprawling outdoor patio with fire pits and an outdoor bar.

There’s a different feel, too. The food is served on a plate—no more baskets and wax paper. There are a lot more employees working, buzzing around and busing tables—it’s not just Danielle at the front of the house and the kitchen staff. The food is delicious and the people are friendly and helpful and fun. It’s welcoming, and not just a destination for beer geeks. It’s a watering hole for the town of Alpine.

FP7A8883.jpg

The news that Chuck Silva was leaving Green Flash came as a surprise to many. Chuck was key in rebuilding the reputation of Green Flash, pioneering many of the recipes. Humble and not one for interviews, he’s an originator of the West Coast IPA. But his departure didn’t ruffle Pat and Alpine.

“Chuck’s brewing style is distinctively different from mine,” Pat says, hinting that Chuck won’t be missed, as far as the recipes and the Alpine brews are concerned. “We can squarely focus on making Alpine beers at Green Flash now.”

Chuck’s departure is just one more wrinkle in the Alpine/Green Flash story. But the beer has seen several rounds of national distribution now, and people in San Diego, New York, and Chicago have been buying and drinking the stuff.

“It’s what we’ve always said, and still [do]: ‘Drink Alpine beer or go to bed,’” Pat says.

Monday of San Diego Beer Week is often the most quiet day of the week. The Green Flash tasting room is relatively crowded, though, and there’s a heavy industry slant to the folks gathered inside the 4,000-square-foot space. There are a lot of Green Flash specialty beers on tap, and for that matter, a lot of Alpine beers, too. Green Flash is celebrating its 13th Anniversary, but this year, they have Alpine to celebrate too.

Hinkley grabs a microphone and addresses the crowd. He’s talking about Hand Shake IPA, the 13th anniversary beer. The beer is symbolic of the handshake deal Mike and Pat made when Green Flash acquired Alpine, just about a year previous. This batch of Hand Shake IPA was brewed by Shawn at Green Flash on the big production system, and the beer is destined for 22 ounce bottles and national distribution.

He’s talking about Hand Shake IPA, the 13th anniversary beer. The beer is symbolic of the handshake deal Mike and Pat made when Green Flash acquired Alpine, just about a year previous.

Shawn and a small group of the guys from the brewery and the pub are listening to Mike’s anniversary speech. They’ve made the trip out to celebrate with Erik Jensen (Green Flash’s new head brewer), Kevin Barnes, and the rest of their Green Flash production brewery counterparts. Mike acknowledges and thanks Shawn, asks him to come up to the microphone to say a few words. Shawn walks up to Mike and is greeted not with a handshake, but a smile and a hug.

 

It’s a cold and rainy Tuesday morning in Alpine. Shawn pulls up to the brewery at 5:45 a.m., ready to start prep on a Double IPA brew day. But something’s different—there are already six people camped out in chairs and blankets down by the old pub, the spot where Alpine’s new tasting room soft-opened about a week before.

As the morning rolls along and the rain continues to fall, a line slowly stretches down past the brewery and along the street. By 11:30 a.m., there’s almost 200 people here for the noon release of a Bourbon-Barrel Aged Barleywine called Great, a beer that takes more than 20 months to produce.

This year’s Great looks different. It’s comes in a 500ml cork and caged bottle, a package that comes via Green Flash’s new barrel-aging facility, a place many beer lovers learned about this year called Cellar 3. The beer inside is something special, as always, though—dark, chewy and viscous, it sports bourbon vanilla undertones along with a hint of oak and some residual sweetness. Boozy and warming, it’s a stunning sipper. Shawn and Scott Holst, Alpine’s assistant brewer, open a bottle and dive into a box full of donuts during their brew day.

FP7A8911.jpg

Up the street in the new tasting room, someone asks if everyone is ready. Alpine’s head of social media, Bobby Mathews, looks back and says, “This is where I get paid to be me.” He starts greeting everyone who’s waited out the line in the rain, making super fans happy, taking pictures, sharing beers.

“Well, we’ve never seen this happen before.” Scott says, shaking his head as he watches the release progress. There’s excitement and energy and a sense of wonder to it all.

“This is cool,” Shawn says, as he starts the whirlpool on the brew. The line continues to build and pour into the tasting room. It’s another great day at Alpine.


Photos in this article were taken on numerous GBH visits by Mike Sardina, Michael Kiser, and Kyle Kastranec. 


Words by Mike Sardina
Photos by GBH Collective

Mike Sardina

Mike is a GBH storyteller who reports on the West Coast, most specifically his hometown of San Diego and his home state of California. Mike is the "Ruler of the Underworld" at Societe Brewing Company, where he does a little bit of everything for the brewery. Mike also currently serves as the Vice President of the San Diego Brewers Guild.

See more stories from Mike

Houses of Craft

Wherever there's a house devoted to the craft, GBH will find them. Big and small, near and far, old school and avant garde, they all play a role in the next generation of beer.

See more Houses of Craft stories