with Brendan Moylan of Marin Brewing Co.
Marin Brewing Co., Moylan’s Brewing and Restaurant
I’m Irish, so I talk fast. First generation American: My father’s from Tipperary and my mother’s from Wexford. I grew up in the Sunset District of San Francisco. It’s a great place to live. Shhhh—don’t tell anyone.
How’d you get into brewing?
It was that first six-pack of Coors that I shared with my buddy Dan Mahoney back in the eighth grade. After that, they couldn’t keep me away from the stuff.
You became a brewer. What became of Dan Mahoney?
He’s a police officer, one of San Francisco’s finest. Then, of course, in high school, as a special project for our religion class, me and another guy did a little report on how to brew beer and somehow got class credits for it.
For religious studies? This wasn’t in chemistry class? How’d you manage to put a religious twist on beer?
Let’s be real. One of the most famous fasts in the world was Martin Luther’s Diet of Worms. So what was the poor guy doing? He was slugging bock beer the whole time. I never realized that fasting did not exclude bock beer. So the monks are bragging that they went on these fasts—quite frankly, I would have lined up for it if I’d been one of the monks! Those bock beers are so thick and rich, no wonder they could take 30 or 40 days fasting. The nuns made it sound like they didn’t have anything at all.
When did you start brewing—I mean legally?
We opened up Marin Brewing Co. on April Fools Day of 1989. College-wise, I have a degree in accounting, but me in a tie and suit in an office didn’t seem to fit my personality. I was a beer salesman for a number of years. I remember telling my dad the day I graduated “Dad, I got a job.”
“Brendan, that’s great,” he says, “What firm are you with?”
I said, “I’m going to get a job with a guy named Wolfgang Morandell selling specialty beers!”
He didn’t say anything. He just walked away. I think he asked my brother “Can you make any money selling beer?” He was all distraught: the first kid to go to college out of seven, and he’s blowing off his big career chance to get into the beer world. I never did take any job in accounting.
But you must have the best set of books in the beer business?
Oh, yeah, I’ve got some great books. I also worked at the Jug Shop Liquor store, which is a fantastic liquor store. At the ripe age of 18, I talked the boss into putting me in charge of the beer section. That was in the late seventies. The imported beer scene was really hot, before the exchange rate went to hell about ten years later, and so did a lot of the imported beers. By then, the micros came on.
So you were in the middle of the beer scene way before you went into brewing?
I remember when Sierra Nevada had long necked bottles. I even remember that crazy day when they repealed Prohibition, and we got those little bottles from Anchor. It was like, “What’s in these things, anyway?” (Laughs)
There were breweries like Cartwright up in Portland or DeBakker in my own home town of Novato. There was an old fireman who had a brewery right here. Then there was New Albion brewing Co. So I was around in the early, early days.
How did you go from selling beer to making it?
Just a matter of a lot of luck and running into the right people. My father-in-law had invested in a number of restaurants, and one day he took me to meet this guy he had invested with. We talked for a bit on becoming partners in a brewpub: I could be on the beer side and he could be on the food side.
But he couldn’t actually be on the license, but he had a son my age and that was Craig Tasley who I co-opened Marin Brewing with. With the help of my father-in-law, his father and another partner, we were able to get a limited partnership together. We raised some capital, borrowed and begged for the rest, and I think we opened for about $650,000. I wish I could have opened the next two restaurants that cheap!
Moylans opened in 1995. Then I opened Noonan’s, which is the most fantastic bar in the whole wide world, with an amazing selection of booze. I’ve taken a real liking to tequila and whiskey—I love beer, of course, but there’s nothing like a shot and beer. It goes back to my San Francisco roots. San Francisco’s a shot and a beer town: that’s what my dad always told me. It’s a good old town.
What makes Noonan’s the best bar in the world?
All my bars are long bars. This segment is “Pull Up a Stool,” and I am sitting on a stool at Moylan’s right now. I’m one of those guys, I go to a bar I want to sit at the bar, so I wanted a nice decent bar in each place. At Marin Brewing we’ve got a 42-foot bar, a nice healthy bar. When we opened Moylan’s, we put in a 56-foot bar. And there are still days when I walk in and all the darned stools are filled up. Now that’s a good thing, and I’m not complaining, but when we opened Noonan’s, I put in an 80 foot bar, probably the largest bar in the county. It’s like a bar you’d find in the financial district in a big city.
We have a huge selection: over 300 vodkas, over 300 whiskies, over 450 tequilas, over 120 rums. It’s unheard of.
How do your bartenders guide people?
Well, they curse me every now and then. A lot of times people will ask for recommendations, especially when we have 100 tequilas on the shelf—just the añejos. If it’s not 100% agave, it’s not worth drinking. It’s just like drinking crappy beer: it’s just not worth it.
I love tequila. So many fantastic ones, I’m having so much fun. Chinaco, Chinaco Blanco, the super añejos. Oro de Jalisco has a great 8 year-old añejo. Don Julio 1942, which you can find in a lot of bars, is a great tequila. So is the Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia series.
Of your beers, which is the friendliest to tequila?
I’ve been drinking a lot of Golden Ale lately, but that’s because I have an ulcer. I have to lay low on the hops. I’m steadfast in my belief that, with beer and tequila, I’ll get over the hump. I just don’t know when it will be.
Christmas beers go really nice with a silver tequila. The Christmas beers from both breweries are spiced beers, different, but on the spicy side, so they pair nicely with silver tequilas that has a spicy character to them.
With a nice añejo, something a little richer and maltier, like our Kiltlifter Scotch Ale is a great, great beer. A Chinaco Blanco and a Kiltlifter: you can’t go wrong.
Are you in the brewhouse these days?
I tell people I always thought I’d be the brewmaster and the bartender, which I consider the two best jobs in any brewpub. But unfortunately I’m chief paperpusher and counselor for 250 people between the three restaurants.
We have a crazy wine list at Noonan’s. I’m falling in love with wine, too. Give me a god-damned monster Pinot and I’m in heaven. That stuff’s great. And steak. Protein’s essential.
Where do you relax?
Well, I usually just roll up a big fat one. This is California, after all. No, seriously, a beer at the bar with the boys—the customers, the regulars, the employees, they guys coming off the bottling line.
Pubs are a very social place. I have an obligation to the county, you know, the guys need a place to hang out and have a beer.
I’m very at home at the bar. We have great regulars. You can have a guy with a tie-dyed t-shirt and long hair, a hippy, sitting next to a guy in the three-piece suit. They’ll bump into each other, and it’ll be “Hey, Joe!” “Hiya, Bill, how ya doing?” And it turns out they know each other.
What makes your brewpubs successful?
I’m not going to put up with anything other than what I would like. I’ve heard you shouldn’t do this, but I designed these places to have what I would like in a bar. And if anyone else wants to hang out here, too, far out. They come into my place and they turn their nose up? Cool, that’s no big deal, hit the road. I’m not going to change for you. This is the way we are. People really enjoy themselves here, from little kids grabbing a toy out of the toy basket to grown ups relaxing with a beer before they have to be a parent again.
Which members of the previous generation did you look to for inspiration?
The first time I walked into Buffalo Bill’s in Hayward, it was like “Son of a gun. Look at this shit. He’s got a kitchen, he’s got a brewery, he’s got a bar. This is too cool. Crazy Bill.”
At the time I was selling beer, and he’d always have at least one German beer on tap: Tucher, EKU, Maisel, Paulaner, some nice Bavarian brands. It got me out meeting great people, like Judy Ashworth at Lyons Brewery Depot. Judy was the most enthusiastic pub owner I ever met.
What’s the culture in your brewhouse?
There’s definitely some rock and roll going in the brew house. The bottlers always listen to it louder than the brewers, there’s a little more noise.
I still spend time in the brewhouse, even though I don’t do day to day brewing, I consult with Denise [Jones, brewer at Moylan’s] and Arne [Johnson, brewer at Marin]. I’ve hired brewmasters with really strong brewing skills. I don’t need to tell them much, because they kind of think the way I do to begin with. I just have to make sure everything is fixed, and check their wish list of new toys. Denise has been killing me spending money at Moylan’s, but she’s so strong willed, and she’s always right.
This year at the GABF, Denise won first and second in the double IPA category, which was a coup since that’s quite a hot category. And she took the top two friggin’ spots. She took the gold in stouts and there was no silver, and the bronze went to Third Street where she used to brew, and where they still use her old recipe. She almost swept two categories. Then Arne got four golds. I walked out of there with six golds, and a silver, and the only reason I got a silver is that I already had the gold in that category . I don’t know of another craft brewer who’s done that in the 25-year history of that event!
I missed the whole thing because my ulcer flared—probably all the double IPAs I’d been having the night before. I dragged myself back to the hotel, then the phone started ringing “Hey, Arne’s just got a gold!” “Hey, Denise’s just got a gold!” Pretty soon, my stomach started feeling good, so half an hour later I’m back there, but I’ve missed every award. Seven friggin’ awards. I’m a pretty good ham, and I never got to go on stage
I expected Arnie to get brewer of the year because he got four golds, and he loses on a friggin’ technicality: because only your first eight beers get counted towards brewer of the year, and on his ninth and tenth beers, he got golds. So that’s why he didn’t get brewer of the year.
Are you going to the Craft Brewers’ Conference in San Diego?
You know why I’m going to San Diego, the main reason? There’s a place there called El Agave with over 1,200 tequilas. I gotta to meet Jose, the guy who runs it. Jose is even more renowned than Julio from Tommy’s San Francisco. Jose was given special recognition by the Mexican tequila authority for being such an ambassador, God bless him. So I’m going to be talking a lot of people into going down there and doing shots.