Signifiers

Almanac Beer Co. Prognosticates an Endless Summer for Sour

The natural order of things for one of San Francisco’s most important beer producers has been about as predictable as its farmer-centric namesake. Which is to say, largely a lick and a thumb in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. And that’s been more or less successful, even if it did get caught in the rain a few times—sunny skies ahead, and all that. But nothing has made Almanac Beer Co. more like its agricultural partners in Northern California as much as the moment they dug into the earth themselves, and laid down some roots. 

“They are both part of the grand plan,” says Jesse Friedman, co-founder of Almanac, speaking about his recently opened restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, and a new production space and taproom being built on Alameda Island. “The San Francisco taproom is just an opportunity that appeared out of nowhere, and one that we felt like we couldn’t pass it up.”

Anyone who’s met Friedman knows he’s a guy who can ferret out a great meal. In his multiple visits to Chicago over the last few years after opening the far-away market for his sour beers, I’ve seen him get downright giddy over the prospect of hitting a new restaurant, or even trying a new dish. And when he got the chance to turn his culinary critic credentials—he was beer and food writer in San Francisco prior to starting the brewery—into a restaurant of his own, he predictably took it entirely too seriously. It was as though the years of judgement he’d applied to others’ offerings suddenly rushed in to haunt his own ambitions. It hasn’t defused his excitement, either. A visit to the new restaurant is met with a “now try this, and this, and this” parade of dishes that he’s thrilled to serve.

These two partners, Friedman and Damian Fagan, are a duo built for contemporary craft brewing with all the challenges and opportunities that reward unique models and opportunistic growth. Friedman was a blogger. It’s a word that, at times, makes him blush. But other times, it makes him sit up straight in a defiant posture. His Twitter handle to this day, @beerandnosh, expresses the history of his persona in the Bay Area. His writing was the start of him expressing himself in—and into—an industry that he felt was missing an opportunity to offer a different kind of beer experience. Fagan was a food and beverage designer and brand marketer for brands like Johnny Walker and Diageo who Friedman met in a homebrew club. Until now, he's expressed Almanac's vision through visuals and voice, mostly through stunning packaging. With more real estate to work with, in a literal sense, his vision for the company is being expressed more fully than ever. The restaurant expresses a sort of Platonic ideal for the Almanac brand, bringing food and beer together in a neighborhood spot just a short walk from Friedman’s apartment. 

“Because it was a former restaurant and came with a big, beautiful, brand-new kitchen,” explains Friedman, “we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to really showcase what Almanac has always considered a core part of our identity: food paring. And how for us it elevates the concept of beer as a beverage for the dinner table as much it is for anything else. So that allowed us to execute our culinary vision as deeply as we wanted to, because we had the tools to do it there.”

Down on 24th Street in the Mission, the space nestles into a former Italian restaurant nearly undisturbed between a liquor and convenience store and a nail/waxing salon that could be copy-pasted just about anywhere in the Bay Area. It’s a storefront lost among countless storefronts of the Mission that, from the outside, seem unworthy of even a pause on your speedy walk from bus stop to apartment. But once inside, small culinary wonders are revealed, whether it's the tortillas at La Palma, or the bacon maple donuts at Dynamo, tortas at La Torta Gorda, and ice cream at Humphry Slocombe. Residents of the Mission are trained to track down their treats.

On the Almanac menu, there is this sense of integration—not fusion, mind you—taking place between the beer and culinary worlds. Citra-hop-salt-dusted french fries lead the more fun, and perhaps literal, interpretations, but the larger menu banks on the same seasonal, farm-centric principles as their Farm-to-Barrel beers. Tomales with farmstead goat cheese, strawberries, sunflower seeds, and honey. Summer squash with sunflower sprout pesto, cured egg yolk, and tamari. California “lamb spam” with cucumber, creme fraiche, and mint. Reading this thing invokes one Elaine Benes-esque “Get Out!” after another.

While the restaurant may have been a bit of a turn-key opportunity, the path that lead the brand here was more like divining with a water stick. A lot of false positives and holes dug in the pursuit of something that would spring forth from the earth with a natural momentum. 

Last year, mere months before Friedman and Fagan were tossed the keys to the restaurant, the company’s future seemed to rely on a line of fresh beer six packs coming to market. Those beers provided a core range of easy crushers to balance out the higher end, somewhat pricey sour fruited beers.

We produce a limited volume of beer every month. We come up with our splits and then our sales managers’ jobs are to figure out who gets what. Everything is 100% pre-allocated.
— Jesse Friedman

“We put a tremendous amount of time and treasure into that launch,” Fagan says. “We worked on it for almost an entire year, and the product line was only available for about five months. We are really kind of heartbroken about it.”

Two IPAs, a Pilsner, and a Saison seemed perfectly timed for the market. The reception? Among both consumers and their distribution partners across the country, it was positive. The beers were brewed at Speakeasy, one of the region’s larger craft breweries that recently shut down, forced to sell, and then revived again after new investors came on board hoping to find value in the brand’s equity. It’s fate still hangs in the balance. But for Almanac’s fresh beers, it was a quick death that to this day has the duo feeling reluctant to consider packaged fresh beer in the near future.

“It really reinforced the need for us to have our own production facility,” Friedman says. “We can’t control what happens inside of other people’s facilities. And I think that was probably my single largest learning: we can’t rally control our own destiny with somebody else driving the bus.”

We don’t know what Wicked Weed being a part of AB InBev is going to do to the market. We have no idea about the distribution level. Either short term or long term, no one knows. But there is a lot of anxiety about it.
— Jesse Friedman

Even in just those five months, the fresh packaged beer became a major part of their growth, accounting for about 60% of their 10,000 barrels in 2016. For their distribution partners, this was the kind of momentum that can turn a trickle of sour beer into a steady stream of new growth, especially across their 26-state footprint. Having that spigot suddenly turned off could leave some relationships drying up. 

“It is a lot of states,” Fagan admits. “Certainly we don’t want to be in the position of having to decrease volume. We are hoping that worst case scenario is that we have to level growth. 2017 is a huge year of transition for us. We’re really trying to transition with our own production while also stabilizing or keeping our existing wholesale networks stable, and getting our retail presence off the ground.”

While the quick sunsetting of the fresh beer six-packs was a major loss of investment for the brewery, it did help re-focus the operation on their sour beers. 

“We didn’t cancel the beers because we were making money hand over fist,” Friedman laughs. “Barrel-aged beers are obviously much more time consuming. They are more labor intensive. They require a lot more specialized attention than fresh beers, broadly speaking. And that’s reflected in the marketplace in terms of pricing and margins. Barrel-aged beers have always been incredibly important to us, not just from the what-we-like-to brew standpoint, but from the business side. Getting that barrel-aged beer program and getting the brewery up and running to facilitate that has really been key. Fresh beer was great, but its hard for us to have an objective position on our experience. Our experience was so unusual, and so up and down, that the takeaway from a business stand point was not a great one. But, that doesn’t reflect fresh beer as a business, it reflects the unique situation that we found ourselves in.”

We put a tremendous amount of time and treasure into that launch. We worked on it for almost an entire year, and the product line was only available for about five months. We are really kind of heartbroken about it.
— Damian Fagan

A general lack of control, over the increasingly dry seasons of California, the supply of fresh beer, or over the hot-side of the brewing process even for their coveted sours, is something Almanac has patiently endured since it started. They’ve produced their beer at a variety of facilities. 

“We brewed our very first beer at Drake’s Brewing, recalls Friedman,” citing the San Leandro production brewery. “And that was the only beer we did at Drake’s. And then Drake’s outgrew their ability to do contract beer, so we moved to Hermitage after that [in San Jose]. Our barrel program has basically grown in place at Hermitage until now.”

It’s not just the constraints on their own operation that makes the gypsy model challenging. It’s the impact on others as well. “When you’re making a brew schedule,” says Friedman, “when you’re not the only brewery on that brew schedule, you often-times have to be flexible, especially if something doesn’t go to plan. If something get’s moved around, it impacts other people outside of our brewery under the contract model.”

Despite that perspective, the gyspy model didn’t end there. Almanac needed one last transition. After the fresh beer brewing ended at Speakeasy, they looked to other breweries in the area to keep their taps flowing at the restaurant. “We’re doing some small-batch local stuff for our taproom at different breweries around the bay-area right now,” Friedman explains. 

While the restaurant may seem like a small foothold from which to make a major next leap, for this perpetually nomadic team, it’s providing plenty of confidence in their future. This year, another opportunity presented itself in the form of a WWII redwood Naval structure from 1942 on Alameda Island across the bay. And it came from a micromalster.

Admiral Malting, a new project from Ron Silberstein of Thirsty Bear and Dave McLean of Magnolia Brewing, took over part of the building themselves, focusing on bringing California-grown grains and floor malting into the brewing and distilling process for local producers.

“They asked us what we thought of the idea,” Fagan says. “And we thought it was awesome. At some point further down the road they actually reached out and said, ‘We are only taking one chance on this amazing building. How would you feel about taking the other chunk of it?’ We went over and looked at it, were like, ‘Holy shit!’ and said absolutely.”

Almanac has used very small amounts of locally produced grains in their beers before. “It’s always been in extraordinary limited quantities,” Friedman says. “We’ve only been able to do it once or twice, so having the ability to use locally sourced and malted barley is something we’ve always wanted to do more consistently. Their floor malting process is going to be so unique, doing like a traditional English-style Maris Otter with it. So it will be a really unique product. They are going to be making a very small amount to start. So we are only going to be using it for special projects in the beginning, and we’ll see what grows from there.”

The facility—not the Almanac side—is enormous by any relevant measure to the brand so far. The 30,000 square feet of space will be filled with a 20-BBL JV Northwest system, foeders, and about 4,000 oak barrels of eventual capacity with an on-site taproom and beer garden looking back across the water toward the city.

“This will allow us, I would guesstimate, to about quadruple our ability to produce beer, sort of immediately,” Friedman says. “Obviously, if we build out more infrastructure, there are a lot of good bones in the space to grow.”

Ramping up sour beer production is the terrifying, exciting future of this space for Almanac, as fresh beer will still be mostly brewed for on-site consumption barring a sudden $500,000 windfall for a canning line. Right now, all their wholesalers are on limited allocation for the stuff. 

Almanac9collage.jpg

“We produce a limited volume of beer every month,” Friedman explains. “We come up with our splits and then our sales managers’ jobs are to figure out who gets what. So, everything is allocated. If we make 800 cases of X beer, it’s 100% pre-allocated… We can’t generate any more revenue through barrel-aged beer. When we do open a new market, we have to be very thoughtful about how we move beer around, whether we’re going to send more draft beer or bottled beer. We are dealing with the challenge of how we allocate beers across our network. Expanding our capacity will give us the ability to do that greatly. We see the demand, and we’re trying to meet it. “

With the restaurant and the Alameda taproom likely to be humming along from day one, the Almanac team will be up against two different demand curves for their sour beer. 

“We would love to do between 20-30% of our actual volume through the taprooms,” Friedman says. “We’ve spent the last six years building a 26-state footprint, so we have a lot of mouths to feed from a wholesale standpoint. We want to honor our wholesale relationships and make sure we can sustain what we’ve built over the last six years. There is an obvious attractiveness to selling beer across your own bar. We have a lot more control over how the beer is handled and cared for and making sure it’s fresh. Secondly there is the obvious financial business understanding where we don’t have to work with a distribution network. It’s a balance. We want to be able to continue to grow our brand across our footprint, but also have a nice healthy business across the bar.”

Overhead, the redwood timbers flay out like the keel of a ship still being built. “It’s cathedral-like,” Friedman says with a combination of wonder and nerves in his voice. “It is an amazing blank slate.” 

Outside, the scale of the building facade is likewise impressive, with doors and windows built for the work of ship-building. The docking of military vessels encroaches on tiny humans a surreal dominance.

 

When AB InBev acquired Wicked Weed—one of the nation’s leading sour producers—this past spring, the deal sent ripples through a tight-knit group of brewers who produce funky, sour-culture beers on a small scale. No doubt those beer makers and their closest fans felt the shadow of that war ship being cast over their small niche. But for Almanac, it served as a signal of sorts that they were doing the right thing. 

“We think there are a lot of people out there who really agree: barrel aging beer is difficult, it is challenging, expensive, it is risky, but we love making it and we love the product it results in,” Friedman says. “We’ve been on this incredible trajectory of growth with the brewery, making more and more sour beer, and trying to expose more and more people to it. We absolutely think we are going to fill it with barrels and there are going to be people that are excited to drink it.”

Indeed, the sky may not be falling for sour beer. It may be opening up. 

“We don’t know what Wicked Weed being a part of AB InBev is going to do to the market,” Friedman continues. “We have no idea about the distribution level. Either short term or long term, no one knows. But there is a lot of anxiety about it, and we certainly feel that anxiety too. The only real rational response for us is make the best beer possible that we can, and sell it across our bar, in pint glasses and in bottles, and through our distributors to people that want it. I think you could read the tea leaves and see this situation as a dark cloud or read this as opening up a very bright future as well.”

For years, industry leaders have been asked about what might be “the next IPA” in terms of industry ubiquity. It’s a nebulous term, but “sour “is the answer most people seem to expect in response. The category is certainly seeing some lift, and an acquisition and push from AB may create even more momentum, but it’s unclear if it’ll be to the benefit or detriment of such a traditional, artisanal side of beer production.

“Will it ever be an IPA?” Fagan asks. “I don’t know. I doubt it. But, I think if sour beer can assume 2% of what IPA has become, that’s a pretty astonishing thing. I think given how far it’s come in just the last three years… You know, we’re betting our whole business on it, and we think it is here to stay and continuing to grow.”

Part of that bet hinges on diversifying the sour category and taking advantage of an opportunity to play with the style. “We had one style of IPA,” recounts Fagan, “that broke into a couple of IPAs, single IPA, double IPA, black IPA, session IPA, and fruited IPA. It’s funny to talk about sour beer being this new thing, while it is also the possible oldest thing. These are styles going way back. We’re seeing a big, big diversity of sour beer in the American market right now, and worldwide. With Brett beers and fruited sours, and Methode Geueze beers, and kettle sours, and barrel-aged kettle sours. There is a huge range of sour beers taking a different amount of time and working with different levels of ingredients. And we’re seeing a bunch of different price points. It’s exciting for us see the market and where Almanac fits into it.”

And now that supportive village is being built in-house. "We have a core brewing team now headed by Phil Emmerson," says Fagan "who is our lead brewer and oak manager. He’s going to really be building out his technical team."

For most business owners, taking a moment to enjoy the unlikely outcome of a tumultuous journey, and perhaps even having a laugh at your own expense, isn’t an easy perspective at which to arrive. But over here on an island that looks back on the city you call home, from a massive naval yard building you likely never considered the existence of, and thinking about the thousands of barrels you’re going to be brewing and serving over your own bar in the coming year, well, there’s a healthy remove from the absurdity of it all. 

“We’re doing a beer called Sunshine and Opportunity right now,” Freidman says with an audible smile. “It’s a draft-only sour that we have in our taproom, and then we do a little bit into distribution every month [for] people that want to hold onto it on an ongoing basis. That was created with the idea of highlighting draft sour. It’s Brett-forward, it’s really yummy.

“It’s a 4-6 week blend of oak barrels and oak foeders. We do a Brett primary fermentation and then we dry hop it with about a pound and a half per barrel of Citra hops. So, you get a big, bright, modern aroma with this Brett backbone,” Friedman’s voice trails off into that familiar “then this, then this, then this” mode of excitement.

Oh, and for those of you who were thinking Alameda seems like too far of a stretch for a San Francisco commute, for some $29 growlers of locally-grown-floor-malted-fruited-barrel-aged-sour beer, good news: your ship’s coming in pretty soon. 

“In 2019, Alameda is putting in a new ferry terminal about 100 yards from our front door,” Fagan enthuses. “It will actually be a straight shot to San Francisco. It will be a 15-minute commute from out front door to the San Francisco ferry plaza building. Which will be awesome for us—people won’t have to drive. They can jump on a boat and walk to our front door.”

Words, Michael Kiser Photos, Matthew Rogers