Macleod Ale’s brew master Andy Black has a style all his own. On the two occasions I’ve met him, his signature style of work-overalls and well-groomed mutton chops has stood out in rooms usually filled with baseball caps and blue jeans… and less well groomed facial hair. I wouldn’t call his style bold, because it comes off as much more authentic than that. Which fits in with Black, and MacLeod Ale’s whole deal, which is to say an old-world style and mentality that’s subtle in some ways yet surprisingly fresh in others. Along with owner’s Alastair and Jennifer Boase, the MacLeod Ale brewery in Van Nuys is offering British inspired ales that are, across the board, low ABV, on cask, and served at a warmer temperature than you might be used to. It’s perhaps the only place I know of in Los Angeles, if not California or beyond, doing these British ales so by the book.
I, for one believe Los Angeles should find itself grateful for a brewery committed to a different kind of beer; one that’s delicate, delicious, and packed with more flavor than you might realize upon first sip. I personally am a big fan of these beers, and have noticed a small resurgence in them that I very much look forward to. As you’ll read, Black has mixed feelings about Los Angeles, and if I had the job of getting these lower carbonation beers out the door to LA bars, I’d tend to agree with him. So, if you come to find yourself a little tired of the West Coast IPA, may I suggest a brief departure across the pond (or into the Valley) to enjoy a lovely pint or two. Cheers mates.
Nick: So tell me about your first introduction to beer, and how did that translate into brewing?
Andy: My first beer was probably a Sam Adams stolen from my basement. I thought it was horrible. I didn’t try beer again until college in Burlington, Vermont. I’m pretty sure my first beer there was a 40 and I ended up drunk in my bed. But Burlington has so many breweries in the area that it really did give me access to a lot of different tasting beers.
The big inspiration in that area was Vermont Pub and Brewery, which was started by the well-known beer author Greg Noonan. He’s responsible for great breweries like Lawson’s Finest and Hill Farmstead and Alchemist becoming the behemoths that they are. They regularly had cask on, and that got me hooked on those styles.
I didn’t start making home brew until after college and like so many people I was bored with my job and incredibly dissatisfied. I needed to figure out if I was going to stay or go to graduate school; I was going to embark on a path of either brewing or culinary arts.
So, I set myself a target… If I can’t win any competitions in home brewing then maybe I don’t have what it takes to continue forward. I’ve always been a devotee of Jamil Zainasheff on the Brewing Network; he preaches process over blind innovation. You have to have a controlled experiment and analyze your process for great beer. You can take anyone’s recipe, but if you don’t have good process you wont make good beer.
Over 8 years of home brewing I only made 4 recipes. I brewed them over and over again. Most of them are on the board here at MacLeod. I did an English pale ale, which went on to become our Little Spree. A dark mild, which is Old Toasty, and the porter, which is our strong porter, at about 8.5% it’s meant for long-term aging. And an American brown ale; our fun beer which is out of left field for us but keeps it so we don’t seem too entrenched. We don’t dry hop anything and this is double dry hopped. Most things here are under 40 IBUs, and this is 55 IBUs. It’s very hoppy, but similar to our other beers as well, so that can mess with peoples expectations.
My porter got me an award. Awards aren’t everything, but there aren’t that many competitions back East…
Nick: But they’re validation?
Andy: Exactly, I set myself the target. But there’s so many competitions out West that every home brewer says, “oh ok, I got a box of medals to pull out. I never thought of going pro. They’re just medals.” And I thought, “Oh… I put so much store by that!
I volunteered for Beer Advocate at their festivals working my way into the industry. I made friends with Dann Paquette at Pretty Things in Massachusetts who is also a huge fan of English beer. He worked in and has a great passion for British beer and beer history. They did a series of historical recipes, a Triple K beer from 1832 where they replicated the recipe as best they could. I hadn’t seen anyone else do that at the time, it blew me away.
Dann told me I was stuck, the industry didn’t have enough space in it, all positions had been filled and no one had time to train anyone. He said, “You love English beers, why not go to England? Get a good education out there and an internship.” The American Brewers Guild had a 2-3 year wait at the time, so at the very least I’d come back to the states and be of interest. I went to the UK about 8 months later.
Nick: And you worked with a brewery over there?
Andy: My main internship was with a place called Roosters Brewery in North Yorkshire. I was out there for only a month at the internship; I wish I had stayed longer. The school was 3 months. It wasn’t enormously long but also wasn’t enormously expensive. It was in a former industrial town in decline, it might be on the road to recovering but at this point I’m not sure what to. It never really recovered from mining and shipbuilding.
Nick: So you came back, and then how’d you end up at MacLeod Ale?
Andy: Like all good brewing relationships, ProBrewer. I spent 4 months after school applying for positions; working with a distribution company one of my friends had started at the time. I had gainful employment but he knew I wanted to brew. I was doing account acquisition and getting new beers for them to sell.
It was fun and engaging, and I could tell people I was a brewer when I talked to them, but then they’d ask me where I brewed and I’d have to say I only went to school for it. It never felt legitimate and was starting to drag me down. Here I am with an education, internship under my belt, formal degree in brewing science… a card-carrying brewer, and no callbacks!
So I posted to the job seekers forum, and I got a bunch of crazy people. But finally these crazy people (Alastair and Jennifer Boase) contacted me… they initially wanted to do 100% cask ale; not even a brewpub but a three-barrel production plant (I talked them off that cliff). They ended up hiring me within a couple days.
Nick: Lets talk about these styles of beer. This seems like the only place in LA to find this style in the way you guys are doing it. Tell me about what the differences are for your approach to brewing?
Andy: This space is set up exclusively for the production of cask ale. We’re not stupid, we know we need to have keg beer to be a production brewery in this market. So our tanks are set up for top cropping, medium temperature fermentation. Our mash tun is sized so our maximum alcohol content is probably about 6%. Everything is geared towards low ABV production. Our yeast strains are chosen specifically for these types of beers, we have one house strain.
I don’t want to make anything else. These are beers that have proven their worth in a different drinking culture. It’s been appreciated by a number of generations of beer drinkers in the UK and there’s no reason why in a beer market constantly searching for the “hippest newest thing” not to introduce something that’s completely foreign. It’s almost a new frontier, but on the other hand we’re not reinventing the wheel on this stuff.
Nick: For people that don’t know… tell me these beers that we’ve been talking about?
Andy: We focus exclusively on, with the exception of the American Brown Ale, on British inspired, lower ABV, low carbonation ale. Most of that is served on premise on cask. We’d love to serve it at a warmer temperature but we need to be a modern brewery and we know what we have to work with.
Ideally, they should be served at 54 degrees, but I would be happy to get 45. We run into so many places that think the supposed best beer temperature is 38 degrees. Many bars are attached to restaurants, so they’re storing food in the same conditions and don’t realize that it’s killing off the beer flavor. Even places that don’t have food stored are still keeping it at 38 degrees, and we’re telling them you don’t need to do that. But, it’s the legacy of what’s come before. We have a lot of minds to educate about these types of lower ABV, lower carbonation British style beers.
What I really liked was when we got stuck selling only in the tasting room for a while, so people had to come here for the beer so we could control how they experienced it. They couldn’t go to a bar and ask the bartender, “What’s this?” and the bartender says, “I don’t know, its MacLeod, it’s what they do.” And the customer goes, “oh, well its gross!”
Nick: Is it soapbox time?
Andy: Ha, okay. I wish bars in LA were better than they are. There are exceptional bars on the East Coast, especially New York and Boston, and people from the West Coast need to go to the East Coast and drink the good beer over there.
You might have some of the world’s best breweries in California, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good things elsewhere. Don’t just go straight to Vermont, I know Hillstead Farms is good and all, but go to New York City. Go to establishments and see what beer service can be.
It’s annoying to me when people want to buy cask ale around here, and they ask where they can find us, and you just can’t. The bars just aren’t good enough. Bar owners need to get their head’s out of their asses and realize they need to up their game because it’s not acceptable to have all these breweries make world class beer, and try to lift the profile of LA, and people are served drivel at these bars. Some of the best beer bars people talk about have dirty beer lines and their staff doesn’t know anything about beer, or know what cask ale is.
Nick: Have you found that educating customers has been working?
Andy: Yes, we’ve been increasing sales month by month. It’s a sellers market right now in LA, and if you can ensure that good beer gets in front of the beer buyer, that’s great. As long as they take the initiative on an unusual style beer and give the tools to the bar manager on how to educate their staff, you’ve done everything that you can.
Nick: Tell me about your philosophy to beer? Tell me your approach and what you like to see out of your beers?
Andy: I’m very new to the industry; this is my first pro gig, so I’m learning a lot. But I do have expectations for myself. I’ve always thought if you didn’t have a strong philosophy behind what you’re doing than you’re just shooting in the wind. When everything else breaks down, you should be able to stand on your philosophies.
I’m very process-focused, I like to make sure that batches are consistent in both flavor profile and tracking data. How is your final gravity, how much malt was used, how much hops? What about the alpha acids in those hops? These are all basic elements in some places but in a newer, smaller brewery it’s so critical to manage. Our brew house is very hands-on so we can very easily have huge swings if we didn’t have good process control. You can easily say, “Well, we ended up with what we ended up with,” but you just cant do that. It’s so much more work managing this kind of brew house; you have to be relentless.
At the end of the day when you sit down with the beer that you made, you have to be satisfied that you put as much work as you possibly could into it.
Nick: And in terms of what you look for out of your beers, from a flavor perspective? What are you looking for throughout?
Andy: One thing I’ve always believed in is spectrum approach to flavor building. That’s when you’re constructing a beer, if you have a certain target in mind you want to build a spectrum of flavors so you end up with more of a rounded beer that’s filled in all of the holes.
It’s almost a different perspective on balance. Instead of having hoppy bitterness on one side, and malt roastiness on the other, you want to build a spectrum. Instead of just two points you build a whole circle. In doing that we probably use more specialty malts than a lot of other breweries do. It takes more time for us to get our grain together, and some of the quantities we’re using of these grains some other breweries might find completely negligible. Maybe at a larger scale dropping them would be logical, but we’ve found in test batching and in our full-scale batches that slight movements of very small proportions of specialty malts make a huge difference when making beers like ours. The beer could end up really empty or boring, so we need to build a really full spectrum of flavors to really lift that beer up. We’re always looking to ensure complexity and drinkability.
I took a lot of inspiration from Allagash, they are an excellent brewery with excellent beers. It is ruthlessly consistent; they’re always trying new things, but all they do is Belgian beer. They don’t need to do anything else because there’s a whole world of Belgian beer. And they just dive into it and they don’t need to get out. And we want to do that with British beer.
Nick: So what’s happening at MacLeod right now?
Andy: We’re going to be moving into the unit next to us starting this month which it adds another 2,500 feet, doubling our square footage. All of it will be devoted to production space. Maybe an office for me, and some lab space, but mostly tank space and at some point a decent bottling line. We’ll start bottling this year as well.
We’re also working on doing a medium strength beer, just for the sake of rounding out our portfolio. Right now it’s really geared at lower ABV beer, which are styles I love, but I see people come in and when we run out of the Little Spree, and someone wants more hops, we go “well shit, how bout this Stout?” We want to be able to bring a little more diversity to people so we’re working a beer that’s about 5%, almost on the edge of an English IPA. It’s a bizarre beer; it’s got corn, invert sugar, and pilsner malt. And 45 IBUs for a 5% beer, so it’s pretty hoppy.
Visit www.macleodale.com for more info. 14741 Calvert Street Van Nuys, CA 91411. Tasting Room hours are Weekdays 5-10pm, Saturday Noon-10pm, Sunday Noon-5pm.