Brewmaster profile - Michael Altman
Today marks the inaugural celebration of International Brewers Day, a holiday of sorts inspired by the graphic that greets you as you enter San Francisco's 21st Amendment brewpub, a logo that asks: Have you hugged a brewmaster today? Conceived by local beer writer Jay Brooks to coincide with the feast of the brewer's patron saint, St. Arnold, the idea is to simply take a day to give credit where credit is due: "celebrating the contributions to society of the men and women who brew beer." In honor of the occasion, I thought it would be fun to participate by profiling our friend, fellow Fairfaxian, and local publican, the inimitable Mike Altman.
However, not only have I not indulged in a straight up Q&A interview since 1997 (having then proven quite conclusively that it's not a strong point of mine), we also decided to eschew the typical format as he's been the subject of similar interviews by the local press in recent years. Something besides beer that Mike and I have in common, however, is a love of music. Mike hosts free live music at the pub at least once, if not twice a week, has named his brews after local musical luminaries, and has decorated the pub with various musicalia. For those reasons, it seemed like a strangely appropriate idea to have this profile revolve around music by
The Freight Hoppers, "Trouble"
Rob: So, this makes it easy to start talking about bluegrass, eh? Did you pick up on your love for
bluegrass when you were working in Colorado?
Mike Altman: The last year I was in Portland, there was a guy that I was working with who was really into bluegrass, got me into Bill Monroe, and then when I got to Colorado that's when it really exploded, I started playing banjo...
R:And when you went to Colorado, you went to brew for...
MA: Actually, when we'd gone out there, it was for Rockygrass, just going out for the festival. I'd just made the call, gotten all the passes and everything for the festival, put the phone down, and then like fifteen minutes later, I got a call about some guys out in Boulder looking for a brewer, and I thought, that's funny, I'm headed out there next week for a bluesgrass festival. I wasn't planning on going to Boulder, but decided to go out for an interview, the best interview of my life, and got the job at Mountain Sun. There was a really strong tie between Mountain Sun and Planet Bluegrass, their office used to be right next door in downtown Boulder, and it was a connection I really jumped into and took to another level. The last two years I was there we were doing all the backstage catering for them.
R: So what was it about bluegrass that got you so into it?
MA: The fun, the rhythm, the music. It's just good, good dance music.
Paul Simon, "Crazy Love, Vol. II"
MA: That's a good story. I was the private chef for Paul Simon's record producer, Phil Ramone. And Simon and Garfunkel, I was listening to them when I was like four or five years old. Bridge over Troubled Water, he had the 8-track.
R: It's pretty obvious you've taken music from when you were growing up and still play it in the pub, follow the musicians... Was there anything like that for you with beer, anything you've brought with you from growing up?
MA: Actually, no. All my friends who've known me since high school think it's hysterical that I became a brewer. I was always the first one out in quarters games, throwing up, the one who couldn't really handle his beer.
R: So when did it happen, then?
MA: When I moved from New York, I was a private chef, we moved to Portland. I was going to school, I was going to be a teacher. McMenamins was just getting off the ground, just as Edgefield was getting built...
R: You were going to be a teacher? Is that why you do so much here at the pub for YES?
MA: Oh, absolutely. It's a profession that's so crucial, yet they get paid nothing. And teachers get so little recognition.
R: What did you want to teach?
MA: 4th and 5th grade. 6th grade at the latest, before they start hitting puberty. So I was going to school, working as a chef, and I started getting into the brewing world. I had so many credits to go, having gone to cooking school and then needing the undergraduates degree and the teaching degree, I just didn't have the patience.
Ozomatli, "Super Bowl Sundae"
MA: Hey, this is a good mix.
R: I need a refresher on this one. This is an interesting one to show up on here, because for me, Ozomatli always walked the line between being a band that was really trendy and one that was going to fall into the jam band circuit.
MA: They're kinda like the Beastie Boys, mixing a lot of different genres, being very salsa, Latin-based, with rap, and hip hop, and rock to create a fun, eclectic music. Sublime is like that, too. I got to see them up last year at the Mystic, whenever they come around I try to see them.
R: What kind of live music do you like to see the most?
MA: It varies, it depends. We're going up tonight to see David Bromberg. We get to go out so rarely.* I'm sort of done with the jam band thing, there's just not a band out there that really excites me in that genre right now. But I like to go out to see this kind of thing, really upbeat, good dancing music.
The Grateful Dead, "Sugaree"
R: Speaking of jam bands...
MA: But that's a classic. This place is here because of Jerry, I'm here because of Jerry. It's such an obvious connection. He's been such a huge influence on my life. I feel like I missed the boat by just a short time. I can guarantee that if Jerry were still alive, he would have played at this pub at some point or another.
R: Is Jerry one of the reasons you're in Fairfax?
MA: No, that's just random. It goes back to the karma thing. We were meant to be in Fairfax, being in touch with the whole Phil community. It has a lot to do with the Phil circles, very small circles.
R: I keep waiting for the "Phil-named" beer. When you named the beers after Barry and J.C., how did they react to it?
MA: Oh, Barry loved it, they both loved it. Well, it started actually with the Chazz Cats, and everybody then wanted a beer named after them. But when I came out here, one of the first beers I brewed was the Yonder Mountain stout, but it just wasn't fitting, it needed a new name, and Sless was on board.
The Vern Williams Band, "Roll On Buddy"
MA: I think that's a Bill Monroe tune, originally.
R: You like the traditional stuff, don't you? Do you think that's reflected in the way you make your beers? You work within fairly traditional parameters; there's nothing bizarre, experimental, strange stuff coming out of the brewhouse.
MA: That's fairly true. I did lots more experimenting when it was on someone else's nickel and we were going through the beers quicker. We have a bigger system here, producing twenty kegs at a time, that only lends itself to being experimented or taken off the deep end once in a while. And for me, with all my back surgeries, my time hands-on in the brewhouse has been a lot less, where I leave that to the brewer to take charge. That's one of the things about bringing Christian on board, I think he's going to do a lot more experimenting. At the beginning, he just wants to brew the beers we've got here, get ensconced in the system, get comfortable. But one of the reasons we brought him on board is we really want to see him build up the cask program and do some bottle conditioning.
R: So what's your traditional favorite, then? What's your Bill Monroe of the beer world?
MA: Traditional? Well, the Epiphany is probably my all-time favorite drinking beer, but it doesn't really fall within a guideline. It's a beer that I've been making since 1990. It was the Hammerhead at McMenamins and was transferred to Mountain Sun as the Colorado Kind Ale, and here I was, having brewed this beer for 15 years, driving out here, my head's spinning, taking notes while driving, recording notes into a portable recorder about opening up the brewpub because there was so much information, so much information that needed to get absorbed. I had to start my contacts all over again, my purveyors, going into a strange community, essentially. And I was on this tangent, on this beer, somewhere in between Utah and Nevada on this stretch of road, and my head is reeling... I was just like, I'm going to make this beer when we get out there, it's going to be our flagship beer, it's going to need a good name, a really good name. I'm going to need an epiphany to come up with a really good name for our flagship beer. Epiphany? That's a great name... I called Anne right away. "I got a name for our flagship beer. It's called Epiphany." And she says, "I like it."
Happy International Brewers Day!
Mike Altman is the co-proprietor, along with his wife Anne, of the Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax, CA, and not to be confused with the son of film producer Robert Altman, lyricist of the M*A*S*H theme song.
* On top of their full-time careers, Mike and Anne are quite busy raising the next generation Altman brewer, their 16-month old son Joey.