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LAist Interview: Craftsman Brewmaster Mark Jilg

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all photos by Wathana Lim for LAist.

Los Angeles may not be know for it's beer. Yet. But if you roll up to a bar with Craftsman on draft, you're about to drink the freshest and most flavorful beer around. So fresh, that it may have found it's way from the fermenting tank to the keg earlier that day. That keg of Craftsman was delivered by Mark Jilg or one of his two full-time employees who brew out of a modest warehouse in a Pasadena business park.

We spoke to Jilg about home-brewing, Prohibition, the microbrew renaissance and it's second coming, Cinco de Mayo, Wolfgang Puck, and mmm.... beer.

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Crack open a cold one and read on for a hoppy Q&A + more photos...

When did you get into craft brewing?

I started brewing out of my house in the mid ‘80s. I used to have a day job at JPL and after two years of home brewing and the regular job, I quit the regular job.

We sold our first Craftsman keg in December 1995 – when we were on Fair Oaks and California.

We moved up to a more professional real estate position in 1997 -- 1200 sq. feet and about four years ago we moved into this building.

How much beer is Craftsman producing today?

Over the last 12 month period we probably made about 2400 half-barrel kegs. But right now we’re going through a really awful and ugly growth spurt and we’re running out of beer. Which is a problem.

How does that happen – are people calling on you?

Well I’m very thin-skinned and I cannot stand doing sales calls. We have a core group of accounts that we give great service to and always make sure that our beer is up to par. We’ve sort of relied on word of mouth. We’re a really teeny company, you don’t have to add too many customers to really bury us. We’ve been trying to install some new equipment and when it’s really busy it’s a bad time to do that. Hopefully soon we’ll get back into our stride of doing more specialty beers instead of just chasing to keep the regular stuff going.

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Is the 1903 your most popular?

The 1903 is a big seller, it probably accounts for one-third of our sales, it’s a lager beer, and actually, if you want a glass, just say so, I’ll go ahead and pour you one.

How many different kinds of beers do you brew in a typical year?

Well we do four beers year round: IPA, Hefeweizen, Pale Ale and the 1903. Then we do two beers that around 6-8 months of the year, Triple White Sage which is a strong Belgian beer, and Orange Grove Ale. Then we try to do a specialty beer once a month, so by the end of the year it’s usually about 20 or 25 different ones.

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It sounds like you’ve hit a tipping point in regards to capacity and demand.

Probably about 3 years ago we started sustaining well and we purchased a bottling line in hopes that we’d be able to do beer in bottles so that people could drink the beer of their choice at the time and place of their choice instead of having to go to one of our retailers.

So you think you’ll be able to brew all of the beers and bottle it in the same 2400 sq. foot warehouse?

The bottling process seems to be like this mirage that’s always been two or three months away but now we’ve leased the space next door so we’ll have double. But again, there’s just three of us and the demand is not slowing down.

Can we expect to see bottles by the end of summer?

That’s what we’re aiming for. When we do start bottling we’ll do 22 oz. bottles that will be crown finished and a separate line of the stronger more specialty beers that will be a 14 oz bottle that’s cork finished in a sort of fancy package.

Why do you think craft microbreweries have become so plentiful and the beer so damn tasty in recent years?

The beauty of the American beer renaissance right now is that most of the practitioners today started making beer at home when it was such a passionate activity. That’s why beer is so creative right now, you have all of these passionate players. Whereas after Prohibition, everybody in the beer industry was interested in making as much beer and as money as they possibly could. That’s why beer culture sort of disappeared in this country, it's just sort of fizz-yellow, uninteresting beer. It wasn’t until the ‘70s until people really started to rediscover that beer actually is flavorful and interesting and exciting.

This Hefeweizen is tasty. Definitely no lemon with this Hef, right?

We put a lot of effort into getting this beer to ferment with that really great clove-y, esthery fermentation flavor and putting a lemon in it wouldn’t completely ruin it but it would completely change it. Putting a lemon in it makes a lot of sense if you’re gonna American style wheat beer which doesn’t have any of that florally, fun fermentation in it.

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So there are just three of you. Do you have distinct roles?

Yeah, there’s Bob, Todd Peterson who is preparing for a big event down in San Diego this weekend, and myself. We have always believed in our product and we’re so small that we’ve just always believed in the product. A good salesman could kill us. We’re a very small company and we need to stay focused on making the beer.

Do you train the restaurant and bar staffs that sell your beer?

Oh yeah, we really try to get the people that retail our products to understand what the beer’s profile, what its supposed to taste like, what qualities it has, what differentiates it from other kinds of beers. That’s really important to us. That’s one of the biggest problems in the marketplace. People are really hungry for great new beer experiences, but there are very few retailers out there that actually train the staff and get them excited about the beer.

So there’s really no middle man, you make, sell, and distribute all of the suds?

That’s one of the beautiful things about being a small brewer in the state of California. We can do our own distribution. And that’s the key because we’re so small that if we had to go through a distributor they probably wouldn’t even entertain us we’re so small.

Why is that different in California?

California was really the first state to license and legalize small brewers that would have the ability to do their own distribution. You need to understand that all of the rules and regulations that apply to beer were written at the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. When the country finally saw the light that having alcohol legal would be better than having it illegal, they were really concerned with organized crime that was selling beer through Prohibition. They didn’t want them to become legal so they came up with all these fair practice rules that would try to discourage criminality and one of those was – if you’re gonna manufacture beer, you’re not gonna sell beer.

And it took 30 years for people to realize that if you’re forcing breweries to be large-scale, industrial operations then you’re not gonna get good, flavorful fun-tasting beer until you allowed much smaller-scale operations and the only way you could do that is to give people distribution privileges.

So we essentially get to keep track of our product from when it’s brewed all the way through the brewing process, aging, packaging, and then distribution. So we really put a lot of effort into it to see that the person at the end of the chain gets as good a beer as they possibly can.

That’s not a trivial thing. Beer really does taste best when it is brewery fresh. And that is a huge, huge deal. When people drink our beer they’re tasting truly fresh beer.

How long does it usually take on between the time the beer goes in the barrel and when it’s tapped?

Well 24 hours, because we do not fill kegs until we have orders. Typically, if somebody phones in an order, sometimes they’ll get filled that day and delivered the next. Sometimes a phone order comes in, we put them on the whiteboard, and as soon as they’re filled they’re delivered – sometimes all in the same day.

Since you can only manufacture so much are you very selective about who you sell to?

Our brand doesn’t really have a lot of recognition even though we’ve been in business 13 years now. So the retailer for us really has to want to be involved in the selling of our beer. So it’s not gonna work in a place where the staff just wants to pour someone a beer and move on. They have to be excited about beer and truly passionate about it. If they are, then they have no problem selling our beer.

So you have turned some places down?

Oh yeah. Also, we’re careful to make sure that people have appropriate draft equipment because there’s nothing more frustrating to a brewer than going through all of this effort to make a quality product and then deliver it to a place that doesn’t keep their systems up to snuff.

How many retailers are you at right now and how spread out are they?

Currently we’re at about 30 and we deliver as far as Santa Barbara and occasionally San Diego.

So do you ever have a day off?

My wife says thank God you can legally only deliver beer six days a week. Believe it or not in California it’s against the law to deliver beer on Sundays. So Sundays is typically the day I don’t work.

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It seems like there are lots of great microbrews coming out of San Diego, but not so much here in LA County. Are we missing something?

Well, there’s half a dozen or so brewpubs and there’s at least two, maybe three other microbreweries – people that essentially just brew beer and then sell it through resellers.

Right now there’s a huge amount of interest in this segment of beverage right now and so I’m sure in the coming years we’ll see a lot more folks getting involved in craft beer in Los Angeles.

Now, San Diego has, bar none, some of the best beer culture in the United States. Pizza Port, Lost Abbey, Stone, the list goes on. San Diego probably has 50 breweries in it and LA probably has 10. There’s like a critical mass tipping point in brewing culture. San Diego had some really successful, down home, completely passionate brewpubs early on. Once you have passionate players the scene just grows. Unfortunately in LA, early on, the people that got involved in brewpubs and craft beer wanted to do it on a big scale.

I mean Wolfgang Puck was involved in Eureka in the early ‘90s and it was a huge operation that it took too much to get people to understand the concept. The scale of the business was so big that they ran out of money, they ran out of enthusiasm. Whereas if they started up smaller, it would have been less of an uphill battle. They could have conquered a few great minds and they would have told their friends about it and it would have worked. It was a huge business and for them to make a go of it, they had to turn on – instantly – thousands of beer drinkers.

And in Los Angeles, you just don’t go zero to 60 instantly, you’ve gotta put in your time, be passionate and get people excited. Unfortunately if you start on a big scale it can get bigger too fast. On a teeny scale, you can take your time, learn how to do it and truly give people passionate service and we’ve take the slow-growth, small is beautiful approach and that’s why we’re still in business and our future looks great.

So what if a Wolfgang Puck approached you and wanted to invest?

Well, it would be fun, but we’ve always had a zero-debt approach and I believe in my beer more than I believe in my ego so I don’t think I could deal with someone else being involved financially in the business.

The do-it-yourself mentality is incredibly important. You tell people you’re trying to open a brewery in Los Angeles and they’ll go, “geez, that place is a beer wasteland.” But I would argue, there are half a dozen or so beer-centric bars that are in Los Angeles and the list of beers and the diversity served there, if you took it to San Francisco, Chicago or any other big city in the country, it would be considered a truly world class bar. But Los Angeles really isn’t known for its food culture other than really high end fine dining restaurants. But Los Angeles is so huge that you can have these little niche places that are really beer focused and no one really knows about them.

But it’s not like you necessarily get that down-home feeling when you cozy up to the massive list at a place like the Yard House or something, right?

The Yardhouse is classic rock, man! It is true that a lot of these places are pretty corporate I guess.

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Did that guy on the phone just say he wants to pick up beer for Cinco de Mayo?

We’ve got a corn beer for Cinco de Mayo. We just made 10 gallons for fun. In Central and South America, there’s sort of an ancient indigenous fermented beverage called chicha. And we’ve fiddled with it. Cinco de Mayo is like all of the horrible things about beer culture. And Central and South American food culture is incredibly rich. I really love a good tamale so I figured, I’ve gotta come up with a good excuse to make some chicha. It’s hard to get people to understand a beer as wacky as fermented corn. But, it being Cinco de Mayo, it’s a little easier to get people to try it.

What other kinds of wacky small batches come out of Craftsman?

The last four years we’ve done the Cabernale, which is a fruit beer that uses Central Valley grapes for the fruit. It has a big malt component so it’s beery and grapey at the same time.

Here’s a beer that we brew in December for release around Valentine’s / President’s weekend called Honesty Ale and it’s a Montgomery tart cherry beer. A few years ago we started aging the beer in an oak barrel and blending some of the previous year’s beer with the current year’s beer. We’ll do an Oktoberfest and a sprucey Holiday Ale as well.

Has there ever been a year where there’s been a shortage of hops like there might be with grapes, or this year, for example, with oranges?

We’re in the midst of a major hop crisis because for the last 15 years there’s been a glut of hops and everybody’s been trying to reduce the acreage. And this year, finally the demand was catching up with production and unfortunately there was a huge fire at a Yakima warehouse and five percent of the 2006 crop went up in smoke. So the craft brewing industry, which uses more hops than the industrial segment of brewing has been growing 15-20% a year so it’s really tight.

Is there an increase in price?

Yes, but this is a commodity. So there’s a lot of pressure on the price and what happens is people try to contract their hops supply and so some of the more desirable hop varieties are harder to get and some of the less desirable varieties are being forced into the alternative substitution market.

Are we gonna see a day soon where a good six pack is $10 minimum?

Well, hopefully, yeah! But that would be driven by hops, it would be people realizing that they should pay twice the price for considered fiddled with cared about craft beer they should pay at least twice what they pay for the industrial stuff that comes out of some factory. People who enjoy wine have no qualms about paying 10 times the price of what industrial wine sells for and it’s just a matter of time before people realize that beer that’s considered and cared for deserve to get a higher price.

We love our healthy, hoppy craft beers.

We enjoy drinking a lot of beer. So, we make the beer for ourselves first and everybody else gets to drink what we don’t drink.

How do we know where to find a pint of Craftsman?

That’s a challenge. Our Web site went up five years ago and has never been updated. I don’t know what to say, just seek it out!

You’re putting us to work here, man!

OK, Barbara’s at the Brewery and the pirate bar – Redwood, which I was leery of at first but it’s actually nice, not a totally schlocky pirate bar like I was afraid of…. Father’s Office in Santa Monica, The Other Room in Venice, The Village Idiot on Melrose and Martel – that’s a cool spot, The 3rd Spot on 3rd and Fairfax. Lucky Baldwin’s, Old Town Pub, Barney’s, Crocodile, the Ritz Huntington hotel in Pasadena, the Rancho, Delirium Café in Sierra Madre… I don’t even have a list – this is, like, comedy.

Craftsman Brewing Company Web site