Why Ft. Bragg?
Well, Ft. Bragg… we moved to Ft. Bragg from Devon, England. Merle and I met in San Francisco. She’s English. It must have been 1976 when she and I met. And when she figured it was time for her to go back to England to spend some time near her mother, we decided it would be a good thing if I went, too. So we moved to England near her mum in the southwest for a couple of years. It would have been a difficult proposition for us to remain in England. I was trying my hand at some writing and so I did not have real work…
You weren’t in brewing yet?
And you’d left biology?
Well, I had my degree in zoology and—much to my father’s disappointment—had not yet managed to find a job in my field. And so I was still sort of free and easy, with the exception that I was in this committed relationship and we were over in England. So I had the responsibilities of an immigrant over there. They were pretty serious about that stuff even in the days before homeland security of their own variety. So we decided after a couple of years we’d have to return to the United States because the British government said, basically, “You can’t stay here unless something happens: you get married or someone here decides they can’t continue in business without your help,”—I think that probably sums it up. Or I would suddenly find myself with offers from publishers for my book—which of course wasn’t going to happen.
We knew we wanted to move back to California, but not to the city. I had always had ideas and still had ideas of pursuing a career in marine biology. It had been my dream to work on the coast of California in my field so we looked up and down the coast, to see what made sense, far enough away from the city, but close enough that we could partake of the culture. Of course, you know that with a bachelor’s degree, there’s not a lot of opportunity. With a master’s degree there’s not a lot of opportunity! When I first got here, I traveled up and down and stopped at Scripps and a bunch of places and talked to people about what I could expect to do, and really it was nothing. If you don’t have a PhD and convince people you’ve got work and funding, well forget it.
Four years of college was about all I could handle, and I knew there was no way I was staying around for more just be able to do the work that was interesting to me. On the other hand, the interest was here. All the things that I was interested in studying or learning more about, the marine biology of the Pacific Coast, was here. You don’t have to have a job to study them. Midterm in our stay over there, I came Ft. Bragg and Mendocino, and looked around. It’s such a beautiful coastline, and I thought I could pursue my interest without a job and do some other work.
So we made the decision to move someplace that we thought we’d really love to live, a beautiful place away from the city.
The place we lived in England was absolutely idyllic. It is on the Channel side, South Ham near Torquay, Dartmouth actually, in the Dart watershed, a beautiful little area, and it convinced us we wanted to stay in a pastoral environment. We lived in a 900 year old house. For me, being at home all day long, it was fantastic because there were all the rhythms of the country there. You know, Reg the cow man would drive the cows out in the morning and he’d call them in at night. The only sounds during the day besides the sounds of nature, every now and then a car would go down the lane. So we really wanted to continue that experience here. We made the priority to find a great place to live, and then find jobs and all the rest.
So Ft. Bragg came first and brewing after?
Oh yes, quite some time after. We moved here in 79, and came over with not much of anything. When we came here I lived in a tent for a couple of months till I found a place for us to live and found a job, and Merle and Leanne came over and joined me. I worked in construction and merle started a day care center.
The brewing was done out of necessity to begin with, because I’d really been thoroughly won over by the pub culture in England, particularly being where we were in the country. England’s really different now. We were there a few years ago and I was surprised how grown up it is. At the time, which was 25, almost 30 years ago, it was pretty backward down there in the country. The pubs were very simple affairs, but the beer was really good. And of course our English friends took the responsibility of teaching this American about beer very seriously. When we first got to England, we stayed in this little village of Berry Pomeroy, not much of anything, but the people we stayed with lived in the old poor house. They’d turned the poor house into three apartments. Out in the middle of this field, early in the summer with sheep all around, it was absolutely gorgeous.
And the three guys, every night it was down to the pub, over to the Pig and Whistle. You had to drive through the lanes, and in Devon the roads are very, very narrow with high hedges. They’d take me to the Pig and Whistle and we’d really have more of a drinking experience than I could begin to handle. These guys were serious, really serious. And not just about he volume. I learned a lot. Those were probably the most important lessons that I learned as a brewer, hanging out with those three guys. A very nice way to learn about beer and the role of beer in their society and their culture.
So you came back with something missing from your life?
Well I came to Ft. Bragg . Yes, you can imagine a logging town in the 70s. The bar scene here was as you’d expect, and the selection in the stores was, as you might guess, pretty paltry. So eventually to have a decent beer, I figured OK…In England, a lot of people brew beer, in spite of the fact that it was so easy to get good beer from the pubs. There’re kits and all sorts of things from Boots, so I’d had a bit of exposure to it fooling around with some beer kits and wine kits. I figured well if there was ever a time when I needed to learn seriously how to brew, this would be it. So I joined the ranks of home brewers fairly early, out of necessity just to get a decent pint of beer.
And then comes the moment when someone says to you “This is great, you should go pro.”
Yea, it was actually quite a ways on. There really wasn’t any sort of homebrewing fraternity up our way, so I had to go out of my way. The brewing supplies I used to get down in Berkeley. Early on, I got acquainted with the woman who ran the yeast collection over at Davis, and I could call up and I could get some good help from that direction. That was a big boost, because the stuff you got in the homebrew shop wasn’t very good quality—you’re talking Red Star yeast.
But no one came to me and said you should really do something with this until 1986 or so after Triple Rock opened in Berkeley as Roaring Rock. It was sort of a serendipitous moment. It was a silly thing—ridiculous, really—to suggest that we would have done this in a town like Ft. Bragg. It was not a great idea. It was Tom’s idea. Tom Allen would have an ideal like that.
At the time we met, Tom had bought a bed and breakfast in Mendocino. And the company I worked for was doing a restoration on that building. Tom came to our other partner, Joe Rosenthal, with some photographs from the 1890s and early 1900s of the house and said “I want to put the house back this way.” Joe had put me on the job and we were just doing Tom’s restoration.
Tom got a newspaper article from his daughter Joan in Berkeley. She had sent the article because there were pictures of Newfoundland, dogs, in the paper and they had raised Newfies. On the back side there was this article about Reid and John [Martin] at Triple Rock. Tom found out about this, and said to Joe, “Hey, this is what this area needs. This place needs a brewpub.” And Joe, of course, said “Well, Mark knows how to make beer!” It was one of those “Our Gang” moments
Those guys probably could have been talked out of it at some point early on. They came to me and said half-seriously “What about this? We should do this.” But I’d been doing construction then for seven years: my knees were bad, I’d had one surgery, and I knew this wasn’t how I was going to finish out my days up here on the coast.
You traded construction for carrying huge bags of grain around?
Yeah! (laughs) I sort of took the bit between my teeth and said “If you guys are serious about this, I’ll look into it.” I went to Portland to the 1986 Craft Brewers Conference—I’m not sure what it was even called—there were eight people there. We went from there.
One of the things you and I talk about periodically is your interest in history. And here you are talking about renovating old houses, old beer styles, old breweries—that’s another thread for you, isn’t it?
Yes, I’m the president of our local historical society, in fact (laughs)
And that’s what led you to the Acme brand, as well—the history?
I have a great interest in history. The whole Acme thing has been a disappointment in some ways because I really haven’t had the time to pursue all the materials that’s out there. It was such a huge company. We have talked to some people over the last four to six years who had associations with the company. I’m afraid they’re all dying off without our getting their impressions of what it was like, which is sad in some ways.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this for me is being able to weave things like that in here.
What’s the most fun you’ve had developing a particular beer? Which one has been most challenging and satisfying?
We’ve had a lot of fun with beers that have taken a long time to come to market. Originally, we knew what our portfolio needed to look like, and I did formulations for those beers: Red Seal, Scrimshaw, Old No. 38. That was all pretty straightforward. Even when we added beers, I think everyone goes through the same process: “Our portfolio’s a little bit thin here and I’ve always loved this style of beer so let’s brew one of these.”
What we’ve really found with Old Rasputin and PranQster, I’ll do the design work on paper and in my head, then we brew the beer and its pretty much what we want it to be. There’s not an awful lot of fooling around.
But there have been some beers which have developed not so directly. The 10th anniversary beer we that aged in whisky barrels (back when a lot of people weren’t doing that) was a lot of fun, because we weren’t sure what the hell we were going to do with it. It was an extra 80 barrels of a Christmas ale that the distributors had, um, disappointed us on, so we thought well let’s do something with it. It turned out to be a fantastic beer with just a little fooling around.
There’s another beer, a sort of light Belgian we’d done for ourselves. You know, a drinker, relatively low alcohol, not the sort of thing we thought there’d be a great market for. it was after we’d brewed PranQster, so we called it Gangsta. That beer changed a little bit. Actually, my early recollections of it are different from Patrick and Chuck’s, my head brewers. But we’ve recently used it as the basis for our 16th anniversary beer, with the apple juice in it.
You don’t often use funky ingredients, do you?
Never. That was an unusual step for us. We kept it a secret for a along time because we were very principled about this no flavored beer. No fruit flavors for us. In this case, at 30% of the extract, it was such a big part of the beer it was no longer considered an addition, it was a full-fledged ingredient. That was kind of fun.
We’re doing some things now with the Old Stock: we’ve just brought in a bunch more whisky barrels so we have racks of ‘em in the brewery.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Hubert… robain… Hubert has his distiller in Ukiah and has been there for better than 20 years. His is a fascinating story. He met his partner, Ansley Cole, who was from Mendo County when Hubert and his girlfriend were hitching down from Seattle. And Ansley picked them up. Hubert said he was a distiller from the cognac region of France and he was doing some looking around in America for opportunities. Ansley convinced him to stop in Mendocino County and that he should make brandy from the pinot noir that’s made here in M c. His brandy is thought by some people to be the best in the world.
We’ have met hi, a couple of times over the years, his brandy is a staple in our houses, and we’ve talked about collaborating, and he’s interested in doing some stuff now because he has surplus barrels so this could be a nice little development.
This would be Old Stock?
The Old Stock were doing in whisky barrels now, we’ve got some Old Rasputin aging in whisky barrels because it’s Old Rasp 10th anniversary this year. We’re actually going to put some of this organic Belgian double in whisky barrels. I think it will age very well in there. That’s the Whole Foods beer.
When whole foods asked us to do their 25th anniversary beer last year, that cork and wire thing, we realized there was no way we were going to do that by hand again, so we went out and bought that cork and wire monobloc to put in out bottling line so we can do the cork and wire finish much easier, it takes a few days to change the line over. Having made that investment—it’s beautiful, our Mercedes on the line down there—we realized we going to have to use it, so we’re going to start doing a bunch of these small batch barrel aged beers. We want to do more of the ..I have loved that 25th anniversary Silver Jubilee beer we did for whole foods and would love to do that as a short run under a different label.
Being able to take our time and let a beer find its own way, those beers have been the most enjoyable for us, those that don’t just come out of my head but that we sit around, me and pat and chuck and drink and talk about.
What is your favorite combination of a NC beer and a food?
There are some that really, really work well. WE did a beer and cheese thing at Hog Island in the city, a little reception for the Whole foods guys so they could taste the beers we’re making for them. Cowgirl Creamery is in the same building. We’ve been really interested in the cheese and beer thing. Old Stock is a great beer with really big cheeses, so I would say that one of my most favorite recent cheeses is Old Stock with Montgomery Farmhouse Cheddar. Keen’s Cheddar would be another in the same ballpark.
What do you listen to in the brewhouse?
Well, there’s no music allowed. You know, this is California, and that kind of thing would be considered a dangerous distraction. Just the music of the brewery.
How do you decompress, when you’re not brewing?
I have my dog, Moose, a big German short-haired pointer and he requires a lot of walking. Ft. Bragg has an asset that wouldn’t be apparent to everybody, but the old logging road where originally a railroad ran north of town. The railroad ran along the headlands from Ft. Bragg all the way out to the ten mile river, where it turned inland to go to the redwoods to pick up logs from the logging camps. The railroad was torn up, probably in the 50s, then paved so trucks could go on it. The truck traffic ceased about ten years ago, so now its just a pedestrian and bike road. It’s an absolutely gorgeous stretch of road, seven miles long, right on the ocean, great place to walk the dog, good place to decompress.
Finally, tell me about the tie-in with the Thelonious Monk Institute.
Another one of those things that just kind of came together. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg. The cork and wire monobloc came first, so we needed products to produce that we could put in a cork and wire finish. We were looking at a range of Belgian ales we could produce, and kicking around names. Somehow this one has to be related to monastic themes, so we went through some lists of Latin-sounding names. We came up with Octavius, things like that, and Sheila, the office manager said, How about Thelonius? And we thought “Wow…and guess what?His last name is Monk!” So we had our little pun. Doug, you know, is very involved with jazz here. Tom and I are big jazz fans, and we always had live jazz at the pub until we could no longer afford to do it—too many hep cats sittin’ around drinking tea and taking up the tables.
Doug has a weekly jazz show on local radio, and he is a serious jazz guy, with connections with labels and musicians all over the country. So when Doug caught wind of this idea, the nest thing I know he’s in touch with the institute and proposed that we use the name and make a donation to the institute for every case we sold, and they would use it for jazz education all over the world.
Thelonius Monk’s son is still very much involved… Herbie Hancock is involved, Wayne Shorter, all the big guys. So it’s all going forward, they’re really thrilled about the prospect of partnering up with us. We have for 10 years now sponsored a local scholarship here for jazz musicians in the high school, so this is kind of moving it to another level.
Being able to take advantage of the opportunity the brewery presents us to get involved in these things is really what makes it so much fun for us.