Meet the Boys Behind LA’s Phantom Carriage
Phantom Carriage was a little hard to find initially, but the good stuff usually is. Tucked into an industrial space in the city of Carson, I found my destination and parked my car at a spot drenched in sunlight. Tinted shades still on, I walked through the entrance, doing away with the expected brightness of a Southern California day and stepping into what can only be described as utter darkness.
It took me a minute to set my course. Adjusting my eyes to the dimness, shapes began to converge creating my first impressions of a brewery that, while only a few months old, I’m sure to experience again and again. For a brewery that doesn’t have its grand opening until this coming Saturday, Phantom Carriage was raucous in the best way. A brisket sandwich and homemade pickles (fermented with lacto, of course) scooted past me and caught my attention. The place was packed. I made my way past the horror-film screening room, and up to the bar. Towards the back of the tasting room, two walls stacked with barrels four rows high took my attention away from the tap list.
I was greeted by head of brewing operations Simon Ford and was immediately handed a Muis, a 100% brett fermented wild Belgian-blonde ale. It was crisp and light despite a full flavor and a wildness that I hadn’t expected. It was the first beer they put out, thanks to a past collaboration with Monkish, and it was a great introduction to their line up. In the back I met founder / general manager Martin Svab and assistant brewer Brendan Lake. Martin, as you’ll read, has been in the craft beer industry in some capacity for the last decade, and after three years finally gets to witness the fruits of his labor with the upcoming grand opening.
The first thing you need to know about Phantom Carriage, before you read the interview, is that Simon seems to have a great understanding of wild and sour ales, and it shows. If you’re a sour fan like me, go for the big stuff. The Cushing, a barrel aged strong golden sour, and the Lugosi, a dark barrel aged sour quad, will immediately put a smile on your face. Both in the double-digit ABV range, these will become dangerous beers for me in the best of ways.
The second need-to-know is that the food here is delicious. House smoked meats (I was told brisket smokes for 14 hours) accompany house made pickles. There’s a nicely put together charcuterie board, and a pulled pork grilled cheese sandwich as well. All sandwiches come with a dipping au jus, because hell yeah, that’s why.
The last thing I can’t go without mentioning, before I let Martin and Simon speak for themselves, is the décor and theme. An homage to the days of classic cinema and old horror films, Phantom Carriage derives its name from a 1921 Swedish horror film (Martin is a huge fan of the genre). In fact, Phantom Carriage is such a fan of these films that they have an open screening room that plays all the classics. “What’s playing right now?” asked Simon, as we tasted another beer. “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” casually remarked Martin.
The location isn’t over the top, but enough to keep your eyes wandering. Murals of horror film legends are sketched on the chalk walls; the dark wood and towering barrels tie the whole thing together with a barrel-aged bow. Now, if my writing is shit and you still can’t get a feel for this place, may I suggest showing your face this Saturday for their grand opening, or any other day for that matter? I assure you it’s a trip to die for.
Nick: So we’ll start this interview like all the others, with a bit of background. Martin, what got you into craft beer and how did you start?
Martin: I was born in the Czech Republic, the beer drinking capitol of the world, and came to the US in 1983. European pilsners and wine were always available; my parents encouraged me to drink at the house as opposed to getting drunk off site, especially in high school. Mostly at the time it was Pilsner Urquell or Becks, and sometimes Pete’s Wicked Ale. I was turned on from Pete’s to Sierra Nevada, and growing up in the Bay Area, Anchor Brewing was just around the corner. I remember that my first (legal) beer when I was 21 was a Becks, and I still have the bottle.
Nick: And how’d you start working in beer?
Martin: I spent my first ten years working in the film industry. I got fairly burnt out. It was probably Stone and the San Diego breweries that got me interested. I took a liking to the strong, multi-hop in your face beers. My first job was at Stone but it took forever to get that job. That was in 2006. I started home brewing and making label designs; it was all I could think about.
I was at Stone for two and a half years. At the time there were three of us, we were hired to roll out the LA market. It was great; we had massive territories, and at the time LA was still 10 years behind San Diego or the Bay Area. It was a different beast, great and frustrating, all at the same time. There were a few iconic beer bars like Naja’s Place, Stuffed Sandwich, and Lucky Baldwins, but it was the wild wild west at the time.
Nick: How did Phantom Carriage come about?
Martin: I always wanted to open up either a beer bar or a brewery. At the time in 2009, a good friend of mine and I launched Gentleman Scholar, doing contract brewing. It was a lot of fun, I’m proud to say we made probably the first coffee stout brewed in LA. We ended up selling the brand to Skyscraper Brewing in 2010, but Skyscraper totally went under. It was a valuable lesson learned, it was heartbreaking and taught me the “don’t go into business with good friends” lesson. Contract brewing can be a slippery slope, but it also bought me a lot more contacts and friends. After that I went to Fathers Office for a bit and then went to manage Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach. I was there for three and a half years. Simon and I met through the same homebrew club.
Nick: So Simon, please tell me about yourself.
Simon: How we met is actually by wearing a shirt. I’m a big beer swag kind of guy. I went to the Czech Republic on honeymoon with my wife, and there was a little bottle shop tucked in the middle of nowhere. It was called Pivni Galerie. My wife was giving me so much shit about the shirt, saying, “you’re such a dork, no one’s going to know what the hell that shirt is… such a typical Aquarius always having to be different.” I show up at Naja’s and Martin is behind the bar. He immediately goes “Oh, Pivni Galerie, that’s my dad’s favorite bottle shop!”
To parallel the timeline with being interested in beer, I never grew up in a house that was beer-centric. We had maybe a couple six-packs of Budweiser in the garage that had been sitting out at 90 degrees for the last five years. It was a very infrequent thing at my house. I went to college at the University of Illinois, close to St. Louis. Needless to say there was a ton of Budweiser and Bud Lite. I definitely dove headfirst and drank my fill of macros. I still love macros to this day; I think there’s a time and place for every beer.
But I do remember the very first time I was introduced to a craft beer. I was at a little bar that was about as close as you can get to a nightclub scene in Southern Illinois. It was trying to be a little upscale even though you were in the middle of Urbana Champaign, Illinois. And they had bottles of Fin du Monde (a Canadian Belgian Triple) and my buddy walked up to me and said, “you gotta try this beer. It’s 9%. This will get you totally ripped.” I remember trying it and thinking, “whoa, this is floral and aromatic.” It opened my eyes, planted the seed a little bit.
I went to law school in Santa Clara, and went through the typical phases: IPAs then Double IPAs then Barley Wines, getting my hands on as many different beers as I could. I remember my friend’s place in San Francisco; he’s the kind of guy that has a huge garden in the back, very hands on. He homebrewed but I didn’t know what that was at the time. I asked where the bathroom was and opened up the wrong door into his brew closet. It was stocked with different bottles and his capper, a bottling bucket. I asked, “What’s all this crap?” This was the first time I even realized you could make your own beer. I just thought there was the beer machine that farts out beer and that was it. That exposure planted the seed even more and I started researching online. That was back in 2005-06.
I’ve always been known to have a good sense of patience. I sit on beers for too long rather than drinking them early. So going into wild beers was a good natural progression. I’ve been homebrewing for about a decade, and before you knew it I got a few sour projects going. I started bringing my wife to Santa Barbara to get a barrel to put in my basement!
As Martin mentioned we had struck up a good relationship. I made a point to go by Naja’s every time I came down from San Francisco. One of the reasons was because of our relationship. You know the feeling where there’s a favorite bar and there’s a bartender who knows you, you can always ask “what are you digging right now on tap.” Instead of pointing you to something random they’ll always give you the weirdest, funkiest thing on tap. We cultivated that relationship.
There was one faithful Pacific Gravity meeting, right after I came back from San Francisco down to LA, and Pacific Gravity was coming off its homebrew club of the year award win. One of the early meetings I went to, I showed up with a keg of beer that’s now Lugosi, it’s a 12.5% barrel aged sour quad. I remember people getting a little rocked off that one. Martin came up to me; he loved the beer. About two weeks later I brought over my whole bottle line up to Martin and Jack Wignot (Martin’s business partner). My production element of what I was making synched up with what they wanted to have, and so the rest is history.
Nick: Tell me about Phantom Carriage, the concept and theme?
Martin: Growing up in Europe, the Czech Republic has more castles per square kilometer than who knows. I always liked the gothic old world historic nature of that scene. One reason I got into the film industry was from being inspired by old horror films. We’re talking Nosferatu, Cabinet of Doctor Caligari… and so I’ve always liked embracing the past, bringing it to the present and doing something fun with it.
I was born on Halloween so it just made so much sense. So here it’s very “harvest,” very “old world,” kind of creepy but not. We didn’t want it to be like Pirates of the Caribbean, we didn’t want some kitschy shit. It’s still cool – a nod to old cinema and sci-fi and horror films. We name the beers after old cinema icons and the music that we play all rounds out that world.
Nick: How do the beers you make here interact with that theme?
Simon: I think our beers are very much in line with that theme, in that they’re very old world style beers. Spontaneous fermentation and barrel aging are methodologies for manufacturing beer that have been around for millennia. And it’s only recently that we’ve had very pure yeast strains thanks to stainless and sanitized environments. I’ve always had a soft spot for historical types of brewing. It goes in the same vein; you see an old methodology for making classic horror films, same methodology for classic styles of beer.
However, we put our own twist on these styles. We’re making double-digit percentage wild beers. For me it’s a challenge as a brewer to do styles that push the boundaries a little bit. I think we’re both inspired by the past but trying to be progressive and looking towards the future at the same time.
Nick: For people that don’t know, what types of beers are we talking about?
Simon: We focus on barrel aged wild ales. Wild ales in general is a very broad term, but that’s what we’re passionate about here. We’re passionate about alterative fermentation. Using bacteria and yeast that isn’t that common to the brewing industry. About 99% of all beers today are made with saccharomyces cerevisiae, a standard groomed beer yeast. We like to use its cousin, brettanomyces, and use lactobacillus and pediococcus, which are two types of bacteria to give our beers different flavor profiles.
Nick: Do you have any plans for something like a pale ale or IPA?
Simon: If we do a pale it’ll probably be more Orval inspired. We like creating a bit of variety, especially here in the South Bay. There are a lot of killer breweries doing a lot of killer beers; the IPA game is pretty locked down out here. We’re not trying to throw our hat in that ring; we want to offer a complimentary beverage. I personally love the idea of bouncing around to different breweries; I want to be able to contribute to that overall spectrum, so you can get something completely different than what you had at an earlier place.
Nick: Martin, what made you choose Carson?
Martin: To be honest, most people know Carson for the Goodyear Blimp docking station, and Ikea. We set up an appointment with Mayor Jim Dear and he was totally supportive. Then we met with city planners and they were stoked that we wanted to open up a brewery. While it still took us over a year to open they fully embraced the project. We didn’t have a CUP. They’re big thing was, “brewery, great. But you want to open a kitchen?” And having the kitchen, which was an original idea anyway, (hence the Belgian Beer Café) allows us to do guest beers, wine, and low alcohol cocktails.
Simon: It let’s us dial in beer and food pairings as well.
Nick: Is the food component to you guys important?
Martin: It’s huge, personally. My family has a tavern back in the Czech Republic, and I’m not a fan of food trucks. We wanted to do it right. It’s a small menu; we do lacto-fermented vegetables, a cool artisan cheese program. We teamed up with Steve Frances from Pinkie’s BBQ, which was an institution in the South Bay. Our meats are made in house – Pinkie’s doesn’t exist anymore. Steve came out of retirement to help us out. The food element is huge because it allows people to hang out longer. If you have too much Lugosi you can always order a brisket sandwich.
Nick: You collaborated with Monkish and that’s where you really started getting beer out, tell me about that?
Simon: Henry was really helpful in getting on our feet. We collaborated with him to put out our original beer, Muis. He raised an eyebrow when we were coming in with these wild beers – we gave him a whole rundown with where we wanted to go. In our collaboration he embraced it and now he’s very wild oriented as well. I think it’s been a very beneficial relationship for us all. He helped us get on our feet and we probably exposed him to some of this stuff as well. Even now we have a relationship with him where we source wort for some of our bigger beers.
Nick: Are we going to see any more collaboration beers between Monkish or any other breweries?
Simon: We have nothing planned but I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have another collaboration down the road with them and a lot of our other friends in the vicinity.
Nick: Tell me your thoughts on the LA craft beer scene right now. How you feeling about it?
(At this point there’s some banter about whether this is a soapbox or landmine question. Martin says, “I’ve already gotten myself in trouble a few times for something like this, would you like the PG or the R rated version?” All said in jest. Simon goes first.)
Simon: I honestly think it’s exciting. I think there was a trickle down philosophy where it started in Portland and worked its way down to San Francisco and LA, San Diego being the exception of course. Currently we are finally at the point where we have world-class facilities in LA, people are just trying to wrap their heads around what’s available out here right now. There are so many breweries doing cutting edge stuff, there’s a whole spectrum of people just starting out or doing niche stuff, like MacLeod. There are some great places with a bunch of history that the layperson doesn’t know about, like Craftsman. We’re real lucky to be where we are, minutes away from some world-class facilities. You take it for granted, but now you go anywhere else and people are talking Beachwood, they’re talking Smog City. This is a completely different world than it was 5 years ago.
In the crowds alone the appreciation has changed. They were pouring Pliny at IPA Fest and there was no line, a year later and it’s like someone flipped a switch. The fact that we’re even in business right now speaks volumes about the reception and the crowd that we’re catering to right now. If there wasn’t a positive embracing community we couldn’t be doing this. This type of business model wouldn’t even be feasible right now. It’s crazy that people are trying barrel aged sour quads; it’s very encouraging.
Nick: And how about you Martin?
Martin: No soapbox moment. But my thing is, as someone that’s put a decade into this industry on different sides, we’re seeing a lot of breweries in planning and a lot that have opened up. It’s frustrating because some of them see it as a way to make a quick buck. I’m not comparing it to the 90’s boom and crash, but our philosophy is that LA is pretty F-ing big. If someone wants to open up another barrelhouse making awesome sours that’s fine. Beachwood Blendery is 10 minutes from here, but we love Gabe and he’s been great to us.
The more breweries the better, right? What pisses me off is when breweries open up with people that don’t understand the business, don’t know the industry, and they’re opening up with gimmicky bullshit. That’s where it hurts everybody. I don’t care that you have the cute 16oz can, or made a bad brown beer so you throw it in a barrel with lacto and sell it later for $20 a bottle. That doesn’t do anybody good. Joe-consumer picks yours and it turns out to be barrel aged dog piss, it makes it harder next time they want to try a good beer. If you’re going to do it, do it for the right reasons.
Nick: In the close to three months that you’ve been open, what have you learned and on an emotional level what’s it mean to open your doors after all this time?
Martin: Don’t ever do it again and play the stock market. Just kidding. There are endless moving parts. When you bolt on the retail café, it’s a whole other beast. We started initially three days a week, then we went to four, and now six days a week.
You want to do everything perfect but there are so many variables and challenges. For example we couldn’t get the proper glycol system in place initially because we found out in the 11th hour that our sewer was broken, the main line, and it was a $25,000 gift that gobbled up funds we would have spent elsewhere. So now you’re handcuffed when it comes to carbonating beers, for example.
Simon: There’s a lot of compromise. The hardest sacrifice from my perspective is the compromises that have to be made to just move the project forward. It’s never going to be perfect, you need an infinite budget to do things perfectly the way you want them to be done. As a result there ends up being compromise, and the biggest part for me was coming to understand that you have to make the best product you can with what you’re given and move forward with it. I feel like the stuff we’re putting out has the potential to be world-class, but it’s a matter of making due with what you’re given; it’s the same with anything in life. It’s what you do with it.
Nick: Last question, what do you want people to know about Phantom Carriage?
Martin: Our whole thing is the overall experience. That comes from drinking unbelievable beers, great food, movies and music. It’s about the taverns of the ye olde days. These are the places where memories are made. Some of my fondest memories were at beer bars, and I want to replicate that. It’s a profound thing.
Simon: Mimicking what he said, everyone involved in this project is a beer lover. We’re not in it to make a buck. We’re in it because we’re passionate about not only beer but the pairing of beer, food, and also the cinematic experience of creating this whole unified front that’s a very unique experience for people.
We care so much about our beer. We don’t do it the easy way; we want to convey that this is one of the best things that we can offer.
For more information, visit PhantomCarriage.com. Tasting room open Tues-Friday 11:30a-10p, Sat 12p-10p, Sun 12p-8p. Growlers will be available within 2 months, and there are plans to bottle in the future.