I was, admittedly, a little buzzed. Sitting at the Adelaide Inn in Paso Robles post FWIBF, I dug out a dark brown bomber with a baby blue bottle cap from a watered down cooler. It was The Swirly; a coffee brown with cocao nibs, vanilla beans, and lactose. Among friends, I remarked that I kept hearing about these guys over King Harbor, but I had never tried them before. “What’s their deal?” I asked my fellow beer blogger friends, my leg slung over the arm of my chair, as it’s prone to do in such a state.
“Oh, they’re good,” said my friend, leaving it at that and popping off the blue cap. Pouring a beer of this nature (it has a friggin ice cream cone on the front), I was prepared for a sugar bomb… or at the least an intimidatingly harsh amount of vanilla. Pretending to be more analytical than my senses allowed, I took a sniff (as is customary) and breathed in a surprisingly nice aroma. Continuing with my ritual, the first sip hit my lips and I was introduced to a beer that was, oddly enough, as it should be. Not too sweet, hitting the right notes to capture a chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream, this beer was actually pretty damn good. I made a mental note to investigate further.
Fast forward to mid-June and I pull up to a parking lot off the freeway in Redondo Beach. “Things are a little crazy around here today,” says Will, one of the King Harbor owners, as a I approached the door. “We just got the go-ahead from the ABC for our new tasting room, literally an hour ago, so we’re rushing around to be open tomorrow!” While this was awesome news for them, I wondered, given the timing, if my brewer would show for this interview. “Don’t worry, Phil’s on his way,” said Will. And he was, the results of which make for this blog post.
Although you’ve probably never been formally introduced to Phil McDaniel, head brewer at King Harbor Brewing Company, there’s a damn good chance you’ve been enjoying the beers he’s played a part in for years. Since 2012 McDaniel’s has been cranking out some tasty, quality driven beers by the beach, but prior to manning his own ship McDaniel has taken on big roles at both The Bruery and Stone. McDaniel’s approach to his beers is one that I’ve come to really respect. A production brewer focused on consistency as much as creativity, his experiences have shaped the brewer he’s come to be, and the brewery he’s come to run.
Time to let Phil speak for himself:
Nick: Let’s talk about your craft beer history, from when you first started enjoying beer to what led you to King Harbor?
Phil: My first introduction to beer was probably BJs, I remember that as one of the first non-Corona beers that I had. Going with groups of friends we’d drink BJs beer because that’s all they served, and I ended up really liking it. I still wasn’t really into craft beer, I was more into brewing than the whole craft beer scene. I had a friend that homebrewed and shared it with a bunch of us, I thought one day I’d get into it too; it sounded like a fun hobby. Maybe a year and a half later I finally got around to googling homebrew shops. I bought the whole starter kit, all the ingredients, and a book, How to Brew by John Palmer, which is the book that taught me everything. The first four to five batches were extract but it just snowballed rapidly. All I would do is read homebrew books and build homebrew equipment. Half the fun for me was coming up with new equipment or buying cool stuff off of websites.
Nick: What attracted you to that?
Phil: It’s part building and tinkering; the equipment was half the draw for me. I would scroll or flip through equipment catalogs, just looking at all the cool gadgets. The other half was making something with flavors. Either cooking or brewing, because I enjoy both. Making flavor profiles for myself and enjoying the results, and actually tasting what your idea was.
I moved through homebrewing pretty quickly too. A lot of my friends in the beer industry homebrewed for 10-15 years. I probably did it for a year and a half before I started going way overboard; googling brewing schools and looking into a possible career out of it. I think I signed up for brewing school at Siebel without ever actually being inside a brewery, and the next day I sent out emails to local breweries asking if I could work or volunteer.
I remember one night sending out a bunch of emails, and the next morning at 5am Aaron Barkenhagen from Bootleggers emailed me back and said, “be here at 9am.” I ended up volunteering at Bootleggers for probably 6 months, already being signed up for Siebel. That’s why he let me, he thought I’d go, come back, and really work on things there. I gained experience and really got a feel for what a production brewery was.
Going to Siebel and learned a ton there. After I came back I worked as the only brewer at Bootleggers for a couple months, and then got an opportunity at Stone which I couldn’t pass up. I started at Stone as an assistant brewer and worked my way up on the production side. I pretty much did everything you can do besides bottling. As an assistant brewer I washed tanks, dry hopped tanks, ran the filter, the centrifuge, and ended up being a brewhouse operator / senior brewer. I ran the brewhouse by computer in the control room.
Right before I left I got a really cool promotion that I was looking forward to, Brewery Trainer. I was going to be able to teach everyone how to do everything because I had already run the gamut of everything to do there. That was what I had been working at Stone for, to get an interesting job, not just running around the brewery like a crazy person all day.
But then the Bruery opportunity for Lead Brewer popped up. I had never moved down to San Diego actually, I was crashing with some family in Vista, trying to drive back to LA as much as I could. The idea of being the Lead Brewer at the Bruery was great, and having a normal commute led me to pursue that opportunity. That was another amazing job with an amazing company. Patrick Rue is a great boss, probably the coolest boss… he’s a cool guy and how he runs his company is great.
Working closely with Tyler King; I learned a lot from him and I think our work was more of a collaboration. We’d team up on tasks and it was just insane. The amount of different things all happening at once; having a 3,000 barrel inventory, processing 25 brews a week, and every brew was some crazy wacky recipe. It was just nuts, and very challenging. I learned not just about doing creating beers with odd ingredients, but also how to do it well without just using something for the sake of using it. We would heavily research every ingredient, and source the best we could possibly find. And dealing with all the sour beer was a whole new frontier as well.
I was at The Bruery for exactly two years, and I was very happy with my job there. I would cruise ProBrewer.com as a way to tell what new breweries were opening in the area, because you could see “looking for head brewer for brand new brewery” or something like that. Tom and Will (King Harbor owners) put up a post for Redondo Beach, looking for a head brewer with potential ownership opportunities in the company. As much as I loved my job, that seemed interesting, so I shot them an email and we met a few times and then this is what happened, I joined with them and now we’re here.
Nick: From these different experiences, what did you learn at each that helped you become the brewer you are today?
Phil: I didn’t do this intentionally, but I feel like my experience is the perfect package. And I’m not trying to brag, because I didn’t do it on purpose, but Stone was about being production focused; dealing with efficiency and high-end equipment. Comparatively, The Bruery was much more creatively focused, with the “we can do anything, it doesn’t matter how wacky it sounds we’ll find a way,” attitude. Those two things are polar opposites, and with me being involved in both I feel pretty confident in doing almost anything now.
At Stone I learned what a professional production brewery is all about. Things need to be built and put it place so that if we can do it once, we can do it 10,000 times. No jinky equipment, jinky fixes, nothing we’re barely able to do once. That’s a production brewery sense. Even though now I’m at a small brewery I want to operate it like Stone.
The Bruery; that’s experience hard to get anywhere else. I was working with insanely creative recipes and beers, and learned how to handle beers that were just so far outside the box. Working with a team that was already used to that and seeing their process I was able to contribute to that. If we wanted to do that here we could, it’s not the direction we’re going now. But we could pull bits and pieces of that outside the box recipe building if we’d like.
Nick: Let’s talk about King Harbor, what would you say you guys are about? What distinguishes you guys and your beer?
Phil: It’s funny because we still struggle with what exactly our definition is. I would say, the most broad definition is that we like to focus on moderate alcohol beers that are still creative and flavorful. That’s what we base most things on. Most of our beers are below 6%, and we don’t do a beer that’s just a cookie cutter classic style. We don’t have the classic line up of a pale, amber, porter, and stout. We wanted to have some creativity and give you a reason to try it. And of course, we want them to be really good, you should drink it and think, “wow this is really tasty, I want to keep trying more of their beers.” That’s the broad approach.
Nick: Do you have a philosophy to how you formulate recipes or like your beers to come off?
Phil: Our approach is that there are a lot of great beers out there, and a lot of great categories of beers you can focus on. Here, I think we’re really trying to create a beer drinking experience that is what beer originally was: a thirst quenching moderate alcohol beverage that you can have a few pints of. Black Tuesday, for example, at 19% is really cool, and when you have your little half snifter of it, it’s a flavorful thing. But that’s not the experience we’re going for. We want more of a classic beer experience.
There’s a few examples of it – I’ll just say some of the things I really enjoy doing with beer, like cooking or barbecuing. I love barbecuing something and having a few pints. Or drinking outdoors, like while camping, for example. And then the classic experiences, like German beer gardens, English pubs; something with a large group of people where you’re not by yourself analyzing. You’re enjoying a delicious beer, but the beer drinking experience is also apart of it.
Phil: One of the great things about craft beer is that there’s so many choices to what breweries can do that, and that’s great. When I feel like trying something high alcohol, those are certain breweries I’ll go to. And the outdoor social experience is just one type of experience, I enjoy all different styles.
I’ll say the style of being able to have beers with food or drink a few pints of lower alcohol beer socially is one of my favorites, and that’s why we decided to focus on it. We could have focused on something else, but you have to really focus in on something to do it well. This is what we ended up choosing, but it doesn’t mean other ways of making beer are wrong.
Nick: Was there any particular beer that changed your perspective or moved you forward in your perceptions about what you wanted to brew?
Phil: Every once in a while you have that “a-ha” moment. Drinking good local German lagers in Germany made me realize, not just drinking them but being in a German beer garden, it made me realize that beer doesn’t have to have ten wacky spices and be 15%. I was drinking a liter of Munich Helles at Augustiner, and I couldn’t think of a beer drinking experience better than that. How do you beat that? And it’s a beer that has probably 100% pilsner malt and a little bit of hops. But it’s a well made beer, and it’s part of the whole beer drinking experience.
The counter to that is that after our class was finished in Germany, they took us on a two-week tour of brewery facilities through Germany. One of the spots was Orval. I’d had it before but having it there and meeting the brewmaster; that’s almost an opposite experience. This is a very tricky beer, and it’s also great. And that’s why I say the best thing about beer is being able to have greatness in different ways.
Nick: Let’s talk about King Harbor’s expansion. Tell me about the new tasting room, what does it give you the ability to do?
Phil: I don’t know if I can answer why it’s important, but it was just too cool to pass up. The property fell into our lap. The company managing the area, with the city council, wanted to fill some of the vacant spots and use local businesses, and they approached us. It was literally us thinking, “why not?” We had to do it.
It’s a small tasting room, no brewing. It has ten taps and room for a few more. It’s only our beer, we’re not allowed to have guest taps actually. There’s a few unique things; our servers are all employees of the brewery so they’ll be knowledgeable about our beers, which allows for more beer-focused conversations. The other really cool thing is that because we’re a brewery and it’s a tasting room we can do growler fills. We’ll be the only place down there selling beer to-go. We envision guests having lunch down there or a enjoying a beer at Naja’s, doing the beach / peir thing, and on your way home why not swing by and pick up a growler. We also bought a Crowler machine so we’ll be doing 32oz cans to-go as well. They’re so cool, you don’t need to bring your old growler or baby it and take care of it. Just walk in, grab as many as you want and when you’re done throw them into the recycle bin. We’re really excited about that.
Nick: Is there an issue in brewing right now that’s intriguing you or exciting you? Bothering you?
Phil: I think a pretty common thought amongst professional brewers is that a lot of breweries are opening and new breweries really need to build a professional facilities and produce professional beer. There’s a big concern with quality, and that’s no secret. It’s a very big topic at any industry event.
Nick: Maybe I’m just too involved in it, but most of the time I feel like I’m only trying good beer. I don’t really get around to try a lot of bad beer. Are you tasting that personally instead of just hearing about it?
Phil: Yeah, I am. I see it more, but you bring up a good point. Some of it is tasting a bad beer, but there is also a lot of concern just from what I hear. New breweries always have super nice people, but with no experience or professional education they’re just diving in. If you want to go back to what bothers me; it’s that people think this is easy. This is not easy. You’ll get someone that comes in here and says, “this is great beer, how do you do that? Because I think I want to open a brewery.” If it was that easy everybody would have a damn brewery. So that’s happening where people are diving in and they don’t know what it takes to make high-quality consistent beer.
Nick: Would you say consistency is the most important thing for you as a brewer?
Phil: Absolutely, it’s the most important. But consistently good. I make a beer that is a commercial product, it goes into stores and people bring it into their homes to drink it. It needs to be consistent. You can’t say, “oh, we screwed this batch up a little bit, we’ll send it out anyway.” Consistently high quality is very important. That’s all I do, I come here everyday to make sure the beer is consistently of quality. The creative recipe formulation is great, but that’s pretty much a small percent of what I work on everyday.
Nick: Let’s talk about your beers. Give me an example of a beer you’re really proud of and why it’s special. What’s the process, I’m interested in the saison story you told me earlier.
Phil: My recipe formulation is more of a logical building of flavor. The actual recipe is 100% on spreadsheets and running the numbers and calculating, but building the mental concept is more logical for me. I wasn’t the creative kid in class, I was more the math guy. One of the things I love about brewing is the math and science, but you also need creative recipes, so this is how I’m able to pretend to be a creative person.
At Stone we brewed a beer with lemon verbena, that was the first time I’d ever even heard of lemon verbena. When they brought that bag in it was the most amazing smelling thing I’d ever smelled. It smelled like lemon candy, it has a lemon smell that smells better than lemons. So I always had it in the back of my head to make a beer with that ingredient. And thinking of what beers that would go with, something nice and dry, and a good dry saison was the first thing that popped into my head.
If we were going lemon, why not enhance the lemon? The first brew was actually with fresh lemon zest, which came out even better. But this goes back to my Stone thing, which is that I need to be able to do it 10,000 times. For the pilot brew I sat there and zested lemons, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable, especially because we wanted it to be one of our core beers initially. We ended up using dried lemon peels, which is a common brewing ingredient. The boil would be lemon peel, lemon verbena, and Sorachi Ace hops, which has a lemon character to it. The yeast was trial and error, we tried 4 different strains. I ended up using one that was more subtle, not super belgian ester-y, and nice and dry. That’s how that beer got built.
Nick: From there, let’s talk about how distribution didn’t really grab that beer like you’d hoped. You had to reformulate. What’s it like having to shape things more to fit the market?
Phil: The next brew of that beer will be under the new brand, which is going to be called “70 and Sunny.” We’re taking saison out of the name but in the style description it will say saison. It will still be a citrusy saison but there’s no “saison” in the name anymore.
The beer is actually a perfect gateway beer for new craft beer drinkers. It’s light but still flavorful with a great citrusy character. Whenever a non-craft beer drinker tried that beer, they loved it. The problem is that non-craft beer drinkers don’t know what a saison is. So if it wasn’t at a festival where we could explain it, no one was ordering it.
The other end of the spectrum was craft beer fans that do know what a saison is, generally they’re looking for a little more intensity. They’re looking for more alcohol, a brett-based saison, which I really love, it’s just not what this beer is. So we missed on both sides of the spectrum and the beer just wasn’t moving. But we loved it, and anyone we could get to have a pint loved it. We’re hoping changing the name to 70 and Sunny leads to more “oh, hey I’ll try that.” Firestone 805 doesn’t have a style, it’s just 805. This allows me also to do a few tweaks that I think might help. I decided to cut the lemon verbena just a little bit, and instead of just Sorachi Ace we’re also adding a hop called Lemon Drop, which is a German hop with lemon character. Sorachi Ace as a single hop can get a bit of a dill character, so in going half and half I’m hoping to eliminate that, making it even better.
Nick: Anything we haven’t talked about?
Phil: I really hope the industry stays committed to quality, but it’s the beer drinkers that have to identify that. There’s not a good way to say it, but if it’s bad quality beer, drinkers need to just not buy it. That will make us as an industry realize we can’t just get away half assed. It has to be good.
Nick: The way I see it, craft beer is really tight-knit community. There can be outlying players that don’t feel they fit in, especially if their beer is perceived as “bad.” Is it better to try and get them out of the business or help them along to be better?
Phil: That’s a tricky one, that’s something that no ones really faced yet. The thought of “do we tell these people that they suck?” I don’t think that’s happened yet, and everyone’s dreading the day we’ll be forced to do it. As far as helping, if any brewery asked for help I would 100% help them. I receive help from other breweries too. So definitely, helping is something we’ll always do. But if a brewery is making bad beer, isn’t asking for help, or not wanting help; that hurts us. If you have someone that isn’t a hyper-beer nerd and they get a bad beer, they think this craft beer thing isn’t good and they won’t drink it anymore.
On the positive side, as an industry we’re focusing on quality, so there’s promise in the future to have bad beer reigned in. And I think LA is the next awesome beer area. The South Bay is the hot bed right now. Torrence is now working to be a very brewery friendly city with its regulations and laws; it’s encouraging breweries to open up. We’re the only brewery in Redondo Beach, so we have a whole different set of city rules and laws to follow. It was tough but we were able to do it, so maybe this is another place for people to set up. There’s a lot of greats right now, and there’s a few coming that sound really promising. As long as everything stays high-quality, LA will be a really great place to experience beer.
Visit KingHarborBrewing.com/ for more info. 2907 182nd St, Redondo Beach, CA, 90278. Tasting room Hours are Wed/Thurs (4-8pm), Fri (4-9pm) Sat (12-9pm), Sun (12-6pm)