Alpine Beer Co.
Shawn McIlhenney opens a pack of Newport Lights and politely offers me one; I decline. He, his friends and his co-workers have smoked plenty of cigarettes under this ripped, blue pop-up canopy behind Alpine Beer Company, the brewery that McIlhenney’s father, Pat, started in 1999. The ashtrays are filled with burnt ends of cigarettes. A humming noise radiates behind McIlhenney as he alternates between drags on a cigarette and sips of beer.
McIlhenney has taken over brewing responsibilities from his father, continuing his legacy of making innovative and flavor-packed beers in the desert mountains of Southern California. Last year, it was named one of the 100 best breweries in the world by RateBeer, and its flagship India Pale Ale Duet was named the thirteenth best IPA out of 247 in a blind taste test by Paste. The accolades came even though the beer rarely made it out of Alpine, a town of roughly 15,000 people outside of San Diego in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
A dog wanders from around the corner of the wooden fence that separates some of Alpine’s limited storage and a small beer garden behind its tasting room. The dog has no leash, but it has a tag. Kyle, the prep cook at Alpine’s pub down the road, walks it around the corner to find its owner. That’s the kind of place Alpine is: open to anyone and everyone, including cats and dogs. There’s a resident stray that hopped the fence from the small motel next door. One of its brethren followed it for a few years, but was run over by a car. McIlhenney buried it in a grave in the woods out back.
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“We started by making beers that we enjoy drinking, or taking a style of a beer and seeing how far we can push it,” McIlhenney says. “We try to stay innovative. We want to be up to date on all the cutting edge techniques, process, ingredients. We're just trying to make kickass beer that we enjoy drinking.”
The philosophy has worked for years. The brewery made the best of its mishmash of second-hand tools and tanks. But as the craft beer boom rumbled ahead in 2013, something had to give. Alpine was losing ground not for lack of quality, but because it couldn’t meet demand. In came in Green Flash; then came the backlash.
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Alpine started in a spare room in the McIlhenney house. Pat began home-brewing in 1983 with the hopes of opening his own brewery, back when Bud, Coors, and Miller were the only game around. The few “micro breweries” tended to be local brew pubs specializing in English Ales. There was no beer trading to speak of, and the craft beer boom wasn’t even a dream. But Pat held out hope and worked on his craft, reading, taking notes, and observing trained hands. During his off-time, he brewed batches of beer, working on recipes and researching in the family home, “a tiny shack in the back of a canyon, down a first road, behind a log gate,” Shawn recalls.
Pat decided to go to brew school at the University of California Davis before volunteering at AleSmith Brewing Company. By 1999, he began contract brewing McIlhenny’s Irish Red at AleSmith, and his vision to open his own brewery in Alpine, his hometown, became clearer.
Alpine Beer moved into its home on Alpine Boulevard in 2002, and little has changed in the brewhouse since. The original kettle, the makeshift riggers, tubing, and pumping system are all still intact and used by Shawn to crank out some of San Diego County’s most sought after beers. The brewery’s famed IPA Duet became a west coast trade-weight for Heady Topper, the acclaimed and sought-after Double IPA from The Alchemist in Vermont. Duet was one of the first beers to harness the tangerine notes of Amarillo and marry them with the musk and citrus of Simcoe for a beautiful bouquet of aromas and flavors.
Despite the recognition and later success, when Alpine opened its doors, business was slow. “Early on, it wasn't as well-received as [Pat] had hoped,” Shawn says. With no advertising, Alpiners didn’t even know that the brewery existed. Sure, there were pockets of beer groups, but without Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, word of breweries spread only by direct word of mouth.
Shawn turned twenty-one when Alpine opened. He started working in the tasting room selling bottles and growlers while doing grunt work in the back. Outside of a brief attempt at professional snowboarding (“turns out I'm not that good”), he’s worked in the brewery since it opened. There he learned every aspect of owning and operating a brewery: from bottling, to brewing, to sales. “I’ve paid my dues, man,” says Shawn.
Shawn’s first recipe and solo brew came ahead of the 2006 San Diego Strong Ale Festival. While Pat was working his full-time job at the fire station, Shawn would work on new beers. By combining two of the brewery’s most popular products -- Exponential Happiness and Duet -- he’d created a double IPA called Bad Boy. The beer won the People’s Choice Award and quickly joined the brewery’s rotation. Through Pat’s connections, Shawn worked with brewing mentors, picking their brains to soak up intel about the craft and hone his own skills.
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By 2007, Alpine was struggling to keep up with demand. Its ten-barrel brewhouse restricted Shawn to roughly 550 barrels of beer a year. (For comparison, Stone Brewing produced 67,841 barrels that same year.) With expansion a necessity, Pat worked out a deal to take over a garage behind the brewery and acquired two twenty-five barrel fermenters from Green Flash Brewing, effectively doubling production.
Searching for a way to keep up with demand, the McIlhenney’s opened a pub on the other side of the same strip-mall in 2010. But with customers driving in from as far as twenty minutes away, the 36-seat pub quickly became overwhelmed and was often wiped clean of beer. “We got to the point where we were selling beer faster than we could make it. We were constantly running out or behind,” Shawn says.
Running out of beer doesn’t sound like a bad problem to have, but it’s not the best long term business plan when disillusioned customers might begin to give up on your brand. Breweries like Hill Farmstead,Trillium, and Tree House on the East coast have all braved similar issues, and were forced to expand. For Alpine, space was tight with little room to grow and not enough capital to invest in a new operation. The McIlhenneys found a permanent solution with Green Flash, an investor they trusted could help keep their vision alive while allowing them to grow.
When Green Flash acquired Alpine in 2014, it was determined that Pat would stay on as brewmaster and brand ambassador with a five year contract. Shawn got the same deal, but has taken the reigns as de facto brewmaster and hopes to renew his contract when the time comes.
And yet, even though Green Flash had already been contract brewing Duet and some of Alpine’s other beers for nearly a year, the news of the acquisition caused an uproar amongst SoCal locals who feared Alpine would lose its autonomy. Despite rumblings that Duet had lost some of its luster, Shawn and Pat didn’t buy the negative reviews.
“With scaling up, the recipes changed a little bit, but the consumers are now getting a better-made product,” Shawn says. “It may be that the inefficiency of our equipment made them like it so much [before].”
Nostalgia is powerful -- ask any ‘90s band reuniting to go back on tour and play the hits. Beer is no different: we romanticize how things used to be and how things were better, even if they weren’t. Now it’s easier to get a hold of Alpine’s beer. Is that so bad?
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The sun has set on Alpine. The pioneer town has turned dark and a slight chill has taken over. Shawn and I have made our way into the tap room.
It’s quiet at first. Small groups have gathered, but quickly and quietly a line grows at the bar. As space begins to tighten, Shawn stands in the back, beer in hand. He watches as the crowd from down the road at the new 180-seat pub, completed in 2015, trickles in. The kitchen’s prep cook, Kyle, had joined us out back earlier, and now it seems like every employee has stumbled in after a long day. For the most part, everyone seems to know each other.
Green Flash’s acquisition has changed little for Alpine. The brewery still operates in its own world in the mountains, far from city life. Shawn is free to brew the beer he wants. And he’s making some outstanding beers that straddle style lines between old-school West Coast IPAs and the newer, hazy, juicy stuff from New England that has come into vogue. Now, instead of being bogged down by production, he’s free to let beer take him where it will.
“We’re always coming up with new ideas. We always think we have the next best idea for a beer,” Shawn says. “As long as we still get to experiment, life is good. We're beer cooks.”