Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I’ve only had a single bomber of each of their 2 bottled beers, but I’m willing to stake what minimal reputation I have on the fact that Santa Barbara, CA’s TELEGRAPH BREWING are one of the country’s finest brewers right now, and will soon be blazing a path to your esophagus by virtue of their creative, experimental, delicious ales. I was lucky enough to find their beer while on a trip to their hometown, but believe you me – the CALIFORNIA ALE and the GOLDEN WHEAT ALE are absolutely beers to trade for, and savor immediately upon arrival.

We caught up with head brewer BRIAN THOMPSON over e-mail (that's him in the middle of this photo), and he was gracious enough to answer our probing questions for Hedonist Beer Jive readers:

HEDONIST BEER JIVE: What do you look for in a good beer, and what do you do to your own beers to make them turn out so well?

BRIAN THOMPSON: I think a good beer is one that stands out of the crowd. There is a lot of beer brewed in the world right now that, technically, is good beer, meaning no obvious flaws, but it often just strikes me as boring. Over and over again, I find the same flavors, the same ideas, and a lack of real creativity. But when I do come across a beer that has a real verve—even if it’s a riff on a common theme, like a pale ale—it stands out. You can tell the brewer took some time to think about what he or she was doing with that beer, that they took great care in their brewing process. You can taste their passion and that excites me.

As for our beers, I’d like to think that that’s what we’re bringing to the brewhouse: passion and a desire to introduce people to new tastes. I’m flattered that, at least to you, our passion for brewing comes across.

HBJ: Your outstanding California Ale is a re-creation of west coast ales of the 19th century. Please tell us a little bit more about these ales, how you learned about them, and what you’ve done to re-create them.

BRIAN THOMPSON: I don’t want to overstate any historical accuracy in our beers, because I don’t think any of us have any real idea of what a California beer tasted like 125 years ago. What we’re trying to do is not re-create those beers, but rather channel the spirit behind those beers, to bring a modern interpretation to that old seat-of-your-pants style of brewing. California brewers in the 1880s undoubtedly had a very tough time getting their hands on top quality ingredients, so they learned to make do with what they had readily available. They probably had to make do with minimal equipment as well. By necessity, they would have been very creative brewers. What I’m trying to do at Telegraph is bring that creativity to our beer. We don’t constrain ourselves by style—none of our beers really fit clearly into specific style categories—and we don’t constrain ourselves by process—we aren’t afraid to try odd ingredients or do something in a way other people would not. But that isn’t to say that we don’t take great care in areas like sanitation or yeast management or equipment maintenance—this is very much a modern brewery in that sense.

HBJ: I also loved the Golden Wheat Ale, and found it far more tart that most ales if its kind. What was your goal with that one?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Our Golden Wheat Ale arose from my desire to have an interesting, lighter bodied wheat beer that combined elements of three classic wheat beer styles: German hefeweizen, Belgian wit, and American hefeweizen. Telegraph Golden Wheat has some of the spicy phenolic character of the German weizen, the citrus-y refreshing zest of a wit, and the drinkability of an American wheat ale. It isn’t necessarily what everyone expects when they order a wheat ale, but for beer drinkers who appreciate complex flavors and sometimes look for something a bit lighter, our Golden Wheat fits the bill.

HBJ: What made you choose to go the brewery route, as opposed to the brewpub/restaurant approach?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Well, on a very basic level, I didn’t want to own and run a restaurant. The restaurant business is very tough and the failure rate is high. Start-up costs for a brewpub are higher and on-going operational costs are higher too. It’s true that a successful brewpub can generate a huge amount of cash flow right from the beginning, and that was something we considered from a business perspective. But, being a beer guy, I was much more enthusiastic about starting a production brewery with a smaller investment up front and accepting the fact it would take a few years to grow the business and start generating sustainable cash flow. That was all baked in to our financial projections and I’m happy to say that we are on track and meeting our benchmarks.

HBJ: What happened in the Santa Barbara area the past few years? I was there two years ago and it was the Santa Barbara Brewing Co., and that was it. All of a sudden there are these innovative brewers popping up and getting rave reviews. Is the market there able to support you all?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Santa Barbara is a great place to be a brewer. This is a city full of people who are passionate about supporting local businesses and are adventurous in their tastes. Whether it is locally grown produce or locally made cheese or locally brewed beer, Santa Barbarans look for interesting flavors and food and beverage experiences that you maybe don’t find elsewhere. There is lots of great beer being made in our area and absolutely the support is here to sustain all of us.

HBJ: Which of your beers are bottled right now, and are there more coming?

BRIAN THOMPSON: The only beers we bottle right now are the California Ale, the Golden Wheat Ale, and in very limited quantities, our Winter Ale, which will be available right around Thanksgiving.

HBJ: What sort of seasonals are you making, if any?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Our big seasonal is our Winter Ale, which is available in bottle and on draft from right around Thanksgiving until it’s gone—usually sometime in January. Additionally, we try to have a seasonal beer available at all times at our tasting room at the brewery; right now we have our Harvest Wheat Ale, which is a dunkelweizen; in the last year, we’ve also had a Belgian strong ale and an oatmeal stout.

HBJ: Have you ever had the opportunity to contract brew for others, and if so, what is that process like?

BRIAN THOMPSON: We’ve done some limited contract brewing, a few batches for a brewpub that is fairly capacity constrained. As for the process, it’s very straight forward. They give us an idea of what they’re looking for and we develop a recipe based on our brew system. It’s our ingredients, it’s our yeast; basically they are buying kegs of beer from us just like any other bar or restaurant, it just happens to be a beer that we don’t brew on a regular basis.

HBJ: Are there other brewers in the US that you’re drawing inspiration from?

BRIAN THOMPSON: When I look at other brewers for inspiration, it’s less about the beers they are making than the businesses they are running. There are lots of breweries out there that I admire for various reasons, one that immediately comes to mind is Dogfish Head. They have built an incredible brand around their being, as they describe themselves, “off kilter,” and everything about them, their beers, their website, their t-shirts, their ads, everything hews to that off-kilter image and attitude. It’s a very cohesive message they get across. Another brewery that inspires me is Firestone Walker, right here on the Central Coast. Their head brewer, Matt Bryndilson, has an incredible focus on quality and consistency and I think every brewer out there should aspire to that. We certainly do.

HBJ: What sort of distribution plans do you have outside of the California Central coast?

BRIAN THOMPSON: We just started working with a distributor in the L.A. area and our beer is now on draft at several places in Southern California including Father’s Office in Santa Monica, Stone Brewing’s World Bistro and Gardens in San Diego County, and a few places in Hollywood. We’ll continue to push harder in the L.A. market in the coming months. We also just purchased a bottling line, so starting in early 2008, our 750-ml bottles will get wider distribution including a few select retailers in the Bay Area.

HBJ: Finally, what are your personal favorite beers for drinking only, not necessarily for “inspiration”?

BRIAN THOMPSON: I have lots of perennial favorites: Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Orval, Fuller’s London Pride (although it’s impossible to find fresh here on the West Coast), La Fin Du Monde, Saison Dupont, Hitachino Nest, Allagash White, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Craftsman 1903 Lager… should I go on?

1 comment:

Steve said...

Very nice interview. It's good to know when a brewer isn't trying to really brew to style. I'm looking forward to when we can find their bottles in the LA area.