Note: This story originally appeared in Issue 75 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Since then, Alpine has announced that it will contract brew some of its beers at Cold Springs Brewery in Minnesota.
Inside Alpine Beer Company, Pat McIlhenny fiddled with some spare parts and tools as he gave a guarded interview. Outside the small brewery, a line was forming.
Nobody made any announcements, but somehow word got out that Alpine was releasing the highly-desired Exponential Hoppiness – a Triple IPA that bursts with hop flavor and aroma. Back inside, McIlhenny, the brewery’s founder and brewmaster, and general manager Steve Lejman gear up for the onslaught inside the small storefront that used to house a TV repair shop.
This is life at the front of the American Beer Revolution, and it’s forced McIlhenny to do things differently than he ever imagined.
Alpine Beer Company looks like you might imagine a small brewery in a small mountain town might look like. The location is unassuming and snuggled in tight next to an old and quaint bookstore. The site oozes with charm and the scenery is Southern California in all its glory.
This was a dream location when McIlhenny opened it, with his son Shawn as a brewer, in 2002. It was the perfect place to fulfill his very simple goal.
“I opened this place to take care of the town of Alpine,” McIlhenny said. “What it turned into is not of our doing. We don’t advertise. We never will. That’s part of our business philosophy. We let the beer speak for itself. If you like it, great. If you don’t, there’s plenty of other places you can try out. Make good beer. Everything else takes care of itself after that.”
Pat and Shawn have made enough good beer that demand has far surpassed supply. When asked how hard it’s been to keep up, Pat’s response was just one word: “Impossible.”
With an eye toward satisfying demand, McIlhenny decided to find a way to brew more beer. A physical expansion within Alpine’s city limits is still on the distant horizon, but in the meantime he has begun the process of signing a contract to brew 5,000 barrels of beer at a yet-undisclosed location.
“Pat’s been sort of forced into it,” Lejman said. “I don’t think it was ever his intention to have to go this route, but demand obviously you can see if you look out the door there is demand for the beer. It’s much better than the supply. We’ve been telling people no for new accounts for the past five years. We can’t even satisfy our existing accounts – we’ve had to put limits on them.”
McIlhenny was loathe to give up any details of where the beer would be brewed because the contract was not signed yet, but Shawn and he both said it would take place at a location with a water profile very similar to Alpine’s. McIlhenny also said the only beers brewed out of town will be Duet, Nelson, and Hoppy Birthday. All three are in high demand, and none make use of Alpine’s hopback – which will not be available at the contract location.
“I can tell you that the place has a phenomenally good water supply, and that’s the primary reason for picking it,” McIlhenny said. “The water profile will ultimately be very similar to what’s here.”
A Simple Approach
McIlhenny, a retired fireman, started Alpine as a contract operation in the corner of a cold box at AleSmith Brewing Company in 1999. He had been a home brewer for years before, but this was not a willy-nilly foray into the beer business or an attempt at a quick grab of the burgeoning better beer segment.
“In 1983 when I decided I was going to open my own brewery some day, the steps were being put in place then,” he said. “It started by my home brewing. I didn’t look at home brewing as a la-de-da oh geez we’ll see how this turns out – it was purposeful and done with an intent. I took good notes and made entries into competitions and took the judges’ notes on how to improve the beer until I was winning awards. Then I would try to perfect the next style the same way – take notes, perfect it as much as possible, and win it won a significant-enough award I would move on to the next one. I had eight solid beers before I ever opened the doors.”
This calculated and methodical approach did not include a steady and progressive expansion. Many breweries that have been operating since the late nineties have grown in staggering ways since their inception. But Alpine remains settled in its little nook of San Diego County in the same building it’s occupied for the past 11 years.
Part of that is due to McIlhenny’s desire to stay small, part of that is certainly due to the fact that a previous attempt at expansion was thwarted when a 30-barrel bright tank was stolen off a piece of property where Alpine Brewing hoped to build its new brewhouse. But in truth, Alpine remained small for so long because getting big was never McIlhenny’s focus.
“We make good beer. That’s the philosophy,” he said. “It’s not earth-shattering. There’s no revelations there. The thing I learned from my dad is quality always sells. If you make a good, whatever-it-is, you should be successful. You can look at many, many other examples of that in today’s world.
“Is General Motor’s going to go out of business any time soon? Probably not. Their general line is probably mediocre at best, but they have Cadillac. They’ll forever be successful because they have a good, high-quality car that they’re going to sell. Even if their other dogs don’t, they’ve got one that will. That’s kind of the philosophy behind that. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that either.”
That good beer that they focus on making, it’s in demand for a reason. As the beer revolution has swept across the United States, the West Coast has become synonymous with strong, hoppy ales. Be it brewed in Portland or San Diego, a West Coast IPA brings to mind bursts of citrus and herbs, with a sweet caramel backbone.
When it comes to hoppy beers brewed in that West Coast tradition, Alpine does not disappoint.
“We are a bit hop-centric here,” Shawn McIlhenny said. “We do enjoy our IPAs. We like our hoppy Pale Ales and we enjoy the stronger side of IPAs too. But as far as the beers go, we try to use the highest quality malt we can find, as well as the yeast. Having a good, clean water supply doesn’t hurt either.”
According to Shawn, it is the water at Alpine that makes their beers so special. Beers like Pure Hoppiness, a West Coast Double IPA that utilizes Alpine’s giant hopback to get a massive hop aroma; Duet, a standard IPA made with Simcoe and Amarillo hops; and Nelson, a Golden Rye IPA generously hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops bring the hop heads to the brewery in packs.
There are other beers too. Good beers. Beers like McIlhenny’s Irish Red and Captain Stout, and Oatmeal Chocolate Stout, balance out the rotation. But when a line forms outside Alpine before the brewery even announces a release, it’s forming there because hop heads are coming, and they’re coming in droves.