Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A new Marin beer destination in the Works

As anyone who balances a 9-5 with a handful of obsessive hobbies can attest, it doesn't take much motivation to find oneself daydreaming, entertaining notions of transforming the "fun" part of the workweek into the "business" part, until the original "business" part becomes utterly eclipsed by non-stop, buck-the-system, financially-gratifying "fun". But in terms of brewing beer, while many homebrewers would find the offer to swap their daily grind with a good pair of boots and a mash paddle deliriously enticing, such (often psychoactively enhanced) delusions of crossing the great divide between 5 gallons and 5 barrels are often met headlong by sobering apprehension over reams of legal paperwork, sparse sources for funding, and the uncertainty whether you've got a clear vision of your business and your market beyond getting compliments at your buddy's BBQ when you show up with the free keg. Despite how much homebrewers may adore their hobby, the vast majority of them will never dare try to parlay it into a living.

Two young brothers from Mill Valley, however, are taking the plunge with Beerworks. And "plunge", at this stage of their start up, probably feels like an accurate descriptor to Justin and Tyler Catalana, considering that what they foresaw as one of their biggest hurdles - getting the town council to approve their bid to open up a brewery and on-premises beer bar in a small storefront at the edge of the downtown square - passed by with hardly a blip of resistance. In fact, the first I'd heard about their proposal was the day they brought it to the council meeting, and watched as they proceeded to update their website three times with 12 hours, from "we're heading to the meeting, would love some support", to "council said they'll review", to "council has approved". Thank our cruddy economy for removing the typical barrier of neo-prohibitionist, NIMBY neighbors: In times like this, a town's desperation for tax revenue and desire to add foot traffic to a quiet edge of downtown's retail area trumps all others.

When asked about their inspiration, the brothers point to their recent travels in Asia as a turning point in both the nature of their relationship with beer, and also in determining the direction they wanted to take in starting a business. They might even argue that it all hinged around one particular beverage they experienced in Vietnam, the "morning brew" known as bia hoi. "They see it as nutritional, as a cereal beverage", says Justin. "What breweries are doing around here, especially in California and down the West Coast, is such a small window of what you can do with grains." And one look at their anticipated bottle list (which they quickly concede is a "work in progress") demonstrates a fondness for otherness, with Danish, Italian, Norwegian and Japanese craft beers, many with strong local flavor, dominating the board.

And while they admittedly also want to feature local beers, Tyler going out of his way to mention that one of his favorite recent beers has been Lagunitas' Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, while also heaping praise on Berkeley's Trumer Pils, the modus operandi behind Mill Valley BeerWorks is clear:

"We want people to try new things," Justin asserts.

Tyler concurs, ""We're trying to set up a business model where people aren't coming to us for consistency." And certainly, showing people the extent of what's possible in beermaking, keeping things fresh and somewhat unexpected, appears to be a core concept of their vision. They talk in terms of art galleries and theaters when referring to what they plan to offer their community, places one goes for pleasure without having a concrete idea of what the end experience will entail. It's a artful move that dissipates one of the cornerstones of Big Brewing, wherein the promise to the consumer is the unwavering assuredness that all preconceived notions will be fulfilled the same way, unvaryingly, endlessly.

"We're going to have a heavy emphasis on outside beers, which is really nice because it means we can be more experimental with the beer that we're brewing, as we're not relying solely on the sales of our own beers." It's obviously attractive to any brewer, being given the space to fiddle around with recipes without fearing the repercussions of not churning out a predictable product. As Justin says, "We want it to be a sort of studio for us. We'll probably have a beer or two that we always have on tap, but other than that..."

Tyler interjects, "We want to be experimental, but not in a way that's just for experimental's sake." I wondered if their enthusiasm to stretch themselves so thin across the plane of what's possible in brewing would dilute their brand, but it's clear that they both see it the opposite way, as a trademark value of their brewing. As Tyler sums it up, "Something for me, a connection between each thing we brew, beers that have some sort of - and I don't want to say we just want to brew uncommon beers - but like that Vietnamese beer, making people aware of these things out there that are really unique."

They then relay the story of recently asking a local storeowner for their impression of one of the beers they were selling, Baladin's Nora, and being told that while the storeowner enjoyed it, he sternly assured them it technically wasn't a beer. "People can have a narrow view here about what beer is. And people’s bad experiences with fruit beers, when they’ve never had a good kriek? We want to show people what’s out there."

In looking for a word that sums up an admittedly ambitious beverage-making wishlist that included side discussions about such things as Russian rye bread beer, African-inspired beers fermented with Schizosaccharomyces pombe, and kombucha, "unique" seems fairly apt. Which is not to say that they want to be entirely defined by being obtuse, but rather as they put it, by taking the chance in "re-popularizing beers that other breweries might not be doing because their brewing systems can't."

"We both like cooking, and it's been a large part of our upbringing, being part Sicilian, and knowing the way cooking works definitely affects our brewing. There's thought behind it, you can change the process, knowing why things are doing what they're doing."

And their desire to have the flexibility to produce a broad spectrum of beers, from sessionable cask ales to heady eisbocks, is driving the size and design of their brewing system (not to mention designing it to share a space just a hair over 1,100 square feet). So rather than it being a hindrance, their experience with tinkering in the homebrewing realm will serve them well, as the 3-barrel system that's being designed for them will be in essence a blown-up homebrewing rig, capable of being switched around and reconfigured to handle a wide variety of mashing and fermentation techniques. They anticipate that those beers will be delivered via ten taps alongside a few handpumps, with the odd bottle conditioned beer coming out of the cellar now and then. And while they won't be serving food, they're eager to connect with local businesses in the same way City Beer and Toronado have, welcoming people to bring in food to enjoy with their drink.

And connecting with local businesses, particularly in the community of Mill Valley, seems like an essential goal of these two locals. "I like Mill Valley," Tyler says, "and there’s a lot that’s cool about Mill Valley." When I comment on how my brief habituation in the town that we lovingly referred to as Ewok Village was marked by a nightlife that shut down around eight o'clock, he reminds me that I probably wasn't the only one wishing there was something more up my alley (literally) to occupy my time with. "There's a lot of people in the woodwork who regret having to go into the City every Friday or to just stay at home."

Despite the apparent ease that they had in getting the town's approval, Tyler admits, "It was hard convincing the town that we're not going to be just a rowdy bar, because we have this emphasis on beer. But we don't want to promote the status quo of current American beer culture, we want to help in changing that, to enjoying beer, versus beer as an auxiliary to various activities." And one of the ways they intend on changing public perceptions of beer is through transparency and inclusion, hosting monthly brewing classes, setting up a few homebrew kits so that people can brew their own beers while the brothers brew adjacently on their system.

As if to dispel any hovering concerns about being accessible, Tyler adds, "We want to have some very cheap beers, like a $2 pint all the time. You're always skating a weird line, people thinking it's 'cheap' because of the price, but it's literally so cheap for us to make it, the mark-up just seems unfair. But for me, when I go to the place where they make the product, I expect the product to be cheaper." They talk about how they ensured their licenses would allow people to bring their kids in, how they intend on always having a low alcohol session beer on tap for folks who're just looking to relax with their laptop, and how they picture the interior being run with communal tables that invite the friendly, sociable attitude that they are fond of in places they themselves frequent.

When asked for the single biggest piece of advice they would share with any other would be entrepreneurs, the reply comes swiftly: "Find your money first." While they do have some major investors lined up, they were blindsided by how quickly they got approval to open shop, and admit that they had expected to use the time waiting for the council's approval to secure their funding. They're also in the process of developing a way for small investors to help get them off the ground. When asked about the "adopt a bottle" section of their website, Justin explains, "What we want to do is be able to people the chance to buy a bottle for $5,000, and that will pay back at a certain percent over three years." While they're currently hammering out the details with their lawyer (they won't be actual "shares" of the company, nor will it be open to buyers outside of California), they're hoping it will provide some help on a local level, and increase the buy-in from the community.

Other than the financial hurdle, though, as far as a pair of enterprising homebrewers go, these two bring some unique experience to the table that may give them edge they need to be truly successful. Tyler's experience in architecture has paid off not only in drafting plans, but also in handling the requisite presentations and being mentally prepared for all the bureaucracy. "There is lots of paperwork," he concurs, "which is intimidating, but not impossible. All the information you'll ever need is on the internet."

Justin points out that while his dad is a contractor, the two brothers grew up in a very "hands-on" environment, a quality they suggest is one of their strong points. Knowing how to do metal fabrication, electrical engineering, and, as he puts it, "being comfortable manipulating things in the physical realm" all contribute to what they envision as being successful in building up their own brewery and bar from scratch. It certainly doesn't hurt that he also studied fermentation science and spent some time at Chris White's yeast lab in San Diego.

They recognize it's an uphill battle, but one that they appear to be masochistically enjoying, recognizing that the act of being good beer ambassadors has begun far before they open their doors, as they try to explain to investors why they decided not to get licensed to sell wine ("What are the women going to drink?") and why don't intend on being open past 10:00 p.m. They're clearly taking pleasure out of dispelling the myths of what enjoying good beer responsibly is all about, and hopefully that positive attitude will serve them well as they encounter the unforeseen but inevitable impediments down the road.

"And don't forget to put in there that we're looking for money," a smiling Tyler reminds me. It's a running theme. "While we've been cautious at every step, we've been lucky." With the big obstacles seemingly melting away (the town's approval, a rental space with an agreeable landlord), and brimming with creative ideas, it looks like the only thing that could stop them from being Marin's newest brewery is if the dollars dry up. Otherwise, it looks like all signs are pointing to us having a unique new place to savor a thoughtfully handcrafted beer amongst the redwoods.

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