In the past few years, craft beer has boomed in the Bay Area. Beer bars are sprouting up throughout the East Bay, home brew supply stores are forming in the Haight and Portola districts and fellow allies of the brewing community are forming their own microbreweries.
As one of San Francisco’s newer breweries, Cellarmaker Brewing Co. has become a reputable Bay Area brewery in just one short year. Beer geeks and casual drinkers alike are drawn to the abundance of flavors that Cellarmaker achieves in their beers.
Founder Connor Casey of Cellarmaker spoke at length with us about his company, background, current beers and what’s on the horizon:
Winton White: Connor, thanks so much for doing this interview with me! What was the main draw to opening the brewery? How did it all get started?
Connor Casey: What lit the initial spark was my college experience in Colorado, a state well known for its craft beer scene. I took a brewery tour at Mountain Sun Brewery in Boulder. Seeing the equipment, the process and meeting incredibly friendly people was super inspiring. Moving to Northern California after college I started working for a local winery and really geeked out on the different flavors and aromas a beverage has to offer.
WW: So it sounds like you’re really into the education and experience of tasting with your customers.
CC: Yeah, for sure. Everybody’s palette is unique and at different stages. It’s all about a mix of letting people taste familiarity but also offering them some flavors outside of their comfort range.
WW: Where did you meet your brewery partner Tim Sciascia?
CC: At Marin Brewing Company. Tim was working as an assistant to the brewer and I was working front of house. Marin makes some of the best traditional English-style dark beers in the world, their hoppy beers are classic and delicious as well. I know both Tim and I are grateful for what we learned at Marin Brewing Co. The place is an institution and one of the first brewpubs in the country.
WW: You guys are getting more and more popular for your amazing hoppy beers. How do you compete in the craft beer world when everybody is making IPAs?
CC: I was aware that we would be up against many fine breweries that are killing it here in the Bay Area. The main thing that I work towards is freshness. We don’t bottle our beers; bottling complicates things and draft freshness is easier to keep track of. You’re essentially relying on bars to tap your kegs fast so that they can be served fresh. Consumer education regarding drinking bottles of hoppy beer fresh seems to be getting better but many people still may not be aware of the need to consume hoppy beer super fresh. Our kegs are delivered brewery-direct from myself or one of the other brewers. We know they go directly from our coldbox to another bar’s coldbox. We know they never get warm, never sit in the sun and we are fortunate to have a good relationship with the bars we work with. They are awesome about getting hoppy beers on right away, which is one thing we are super grateful for – their enthusiasm for beer in that respect.
WW: Wow, so that’s like what Brian Hunt does from Moonlight Brewing. He brews and delivers them. It shows how zealous you are for your product.
CC: Yeah, freshness is very important to us. Hops tend to fall out in their optimal flavor within a month, some within a couple weeks! If you come to our tasting room, you’re guaranteed that all our hoppy beers are fresh to drink or growler.
WW: You’re keeping production small for now and brewing four beers at a time. How do you come up with the style/concept of the beers you release to represent your brewery? I’m guessing you have to be conscientious and strategic considering your limited output?
CC: We always discuss about what beers we should prep for next. Since we don’t serve food at our brewery (although we have a few snacks), I like to have our draft list to be a good balanced menu like restaurants do. Our blondes and saisons are like the appetizer, hoppy beers are the meat, and the porters & stouts are dessert. We try to make our tap list as balanced as possible.
WW: Amidst this hop-crazed craft beer world, it seems that every brewery nowadays brews IPAs. However, your hoppy beers, ranging from a light blonde ale to a danky DIPA, stand out to me in quality as well as flavor. Can you share with us your hopping method/approach/theory in order to achieve the flavor and aroma in your beers?
CC: People do love their hops. Our hoppy beers are what most people get. We put a good amount of hops at the end of the boil and even more in the secondary fermentation when dry-hopping. We want to get big hop flavor and aroma in our beers rather than bitterness. Our house blonde ale, Daphne, is massively dry-hopped but has few hops in the boil. This is probably the most extreme example of a beer of ours with minimal bitterness but a big hop juicy/citrusy finish.
WW: Oh my gosh, YES! That is my absolute favorite beer that you guys make. And I tend to like saisons and stouts but I can never get enough of Daphne.
CC: Yeah, from the first time we brewed that beer we really haven’t changed or adjusted the recipe. It’s this balance that we got where it’s super hoppy for a blonde ale, but very light and refreshing. Daphne works well for casual beer drinkers as well as the hopheads.
WW: I find it to be excellent that you’re not just a “hoppy brewery”, but a brewery that makes a variety of good beers. So far your opus of beers range from the aforementioned hoppy beers, oatmeal stouts, a lightly smoked coffee porter (that’s a favorite amongst your regulars), a dark brown ale, blonde ales and various saisons – using brettanomyces in some. Can you tell us more about what direction your brewery is going in terms of other styles or projects? Perhaps about the Duality series, potential bottles coming out, future collaborations?
CC: We’re finally at a point now where we can start releasing the barrel-aged beers. They take a fair amount of time to rest in the barrel. When we first opened the brewery, we began filling barrels right away. Slowly filling up all of the barrel space we had by brewing batches of beer that we felt would do really well on tap right away, and then taking a third or half of the batch and putting them into barrels. It was the only way we could keep the beer flowing in the brewery but also fill the barrels.
There were a few times there in the first three months where we’d only see a taplist with five to six beers and even a few days where we got down to four options and I felt really bad about it. A taplist with four beers one day (a taco-spiced IPA, a low alcohol Belgian wheat, a blonde ale, and a stout) is something that most people would walk away from.
There’s a new series of releases that we’ve started called the Duality series. It’s a pale ale where we use a single hop variety during the boil part of the brew and then dry-hop with a different hop. The “Duality #2” pale ale that we just released is a pale ale with Simcoe in the boil and Motueka in the dry-hop. So you end up with flavors of grapefruit, fresh pine and stone fruit, but in the aroma you smell tropical fruit and lime. We’re into the idea of offering beers with hop flavor and hop aroma being distinctively different, seems like it offers more flavors in the overall sensory experience than repeating the same flavors in the aroma.
Collaboration with breweries are happening too! We just did one with The Rare Barrel called “Tangerang.” Those guys are making fantastic sour beers over in Berkeley. We’ve been grateful to be on their guest taps since they first opened. The respect and admiration is mutual on both sides so we were honored when they asked us to provide the hop element of their new batch of dry-hopped golden sour. I’m super proud of how the beer tastes. Kinda smells/tastes like the house flavor of both breweries in an eerie but really cool way.
WW: Awesome. Thanks so much for letting me interview you, Connor. And the Duality #2 is drinking real good!