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Q&A: Beachwood Cofounder & Brewmaster Julian Shrago

The co-owner and tinkerer behind Beachwood Brewing in Long Beach, California, shares his thoughts about variety, the creative drive, and the ultimate goal of building a company whose team can focus on the things about which they’re most passionate.

Jamie Bogner Dec 23, 2021 - 13 min read

Q&A: Beachwood Cofounder & Brewmaster Julian Shrago Primary Image

Photo: Courtesy Beachwood

CBB // As you guys were deciding to start Beachwood Brewing, how did you decide on what kind of beer program to build? Talk to me about how you started formulating what those beers were going to be and why.

JS // I’ve always been a curious person, [and] my scientific sensibilities will drive me to interminable revision, believing that things can always be made a little bit better and never just thinking that you’ve arrived at some kind of final destination. … So when we opened the pub, I knew that I wanted to brew a wide range of beers, but I didn’t know quite how wide. And I was fairly convinced that, like many brewpubs that came before us, we would have a certain number of flagships, and occasionally we’d throw in a twist and do some kind of one-off beer. And I thought, you know what, those are the six beers that I’m always going to brew year-round. But the public had a very different opinion about that. So that kind of changed what we were doing early on.

Another thing that changed what we were doing early on is hop contracting. [It] was something that was fairly easy to do for many, many years—even arguably, decades. And when we opened in 2011, that was kind of on the heels of that hop crisis when everybody was over-contracted—that was when I believe Anheuser Busch decided to abandon Willamette hops—and then, suddenly, there was this glut of this huge crop that was no longer needed. So, hop contracts really got very quickly adjusted tightly. And when we opened, kind of the reaction that I got from our suppliers was, “Oh, you’re a new brewery? Yeah, we’re not going to contract with you.” Or “We’re going to give you a very restricted contract because we don’t know who you are, and you essentially have no business credit.” So I had to buy surplus hops from friends at other breweries.

The first year that we were open, I got my first Amarillo and Simcoe—the two driving hops in Melrose [IPA]—I bought those from Russian River Brewing, and Vinnie [Cilurzo] graciously sold those to me. I was like, “Okay, well, we have enough to maybe brew Melrose every two, three months.” So that whole idea of us having this beer year-round—yeah, it’s out the window. … And almost right away, we were brewing all these one-off beers, and then it became a thing that we did.

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CBB // Just driven because of ingredient availability, and then that sort of driving product strategy?

JS // Yes. So originally, it was out of necessity, and then the customer was stoked because, “Oh, I came into Beachwood last weekend, and you guys have different beers on. There’s something new? I’m going to keep coming in.” So it was almost by accident and just circumstance that that happened. But we saw really early on the value of having a wide variety of house beers.

CBB // It kind of speaks to that nascent and budding exploratory approach to drinking beer. It hadn’t quite gathered full steam; that was still pre-Untappd. But there was still that kind of BeerAdvocate- and Ratebeer-driven, “I want to try different beers.” And that scratches that itch.

JS // It totally does. And variety is the spice of life—not just for consumers, but also for brewers, when you get to do something new and different all the time, and you get to exercise that kind of creative autonomy. It is the ultimate fuel for your fire. And that, I think, is one of the things that has always driven Beachwood. It is an integral part of our business fabric: having creative autonomy and being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want.

CBB // One thing we haven’t talked about is stouts. And yet that is one of the winningest categories for you, especially these dark beers, stouts, with coffee in them. Talk to me about how that developed and then evolved for you.

JS // Well, it wasn’t something that I ever originally sought out to do with Beachwood. It was kind of one of those things that after our first year that we were open, somebody said, “Hey, how did you develop your stout program?” And I said, “Stout program? We don’t even brew a lot of—wait. One, two, three, four, five—shit. We have brewed a lot of stouts. Okay.”

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I like dark beer for a variety of reasons. I think it’s a good way to get a lot of intensity and flavor into not just higher-alcohol beers, but even lower-alcohol beers. My original relationship with intense flavors and aromas began on a trip to Italy, when I was a teen, and I ordered a double espresso. I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker then, but I kind of did it because I knew my parents would look askance at me when I put down that cup of double espresso. But that level of intensity of flavor and aroma and viscosity, that stuck with me. Like, “This is intense, but I like this. I’m getting a lot out of this.” So those same sensibilities and tastes translated to our stouts.

But when it comes to coffee beer, the first coffee beer that we ever brewed at Beachwood was called Tovarish, an imperial espresso coffee stout. In the first batch that we brewed here, our first year in business, I actually hand-brewed three gallons of espresso at home on my stove, into a sanitary food container, and added that to the beer. I was like, “Never fucking doing this again.” It took me several days to brew all three gallons of espresso!

So, the following year … I took a couple of beers into Portola Coffee [Roasters] and met with [the owner] Jeff Duggan. And he tasted my beers and said, “I see what you’re doing here. I kind of get this cerebral sense of your dark beers. And I think I know what coffee I could roast that would complement those flavors.” So the first collaboration we did together was System of a Stout—which is a really crazy beer because it’s a spiced beer, it’s a wood-aged beer, and it’s a coffee beer. And you got all the things. So it’s a big imperial stout spiced with cardamom, and the kettle also has a little bit of blackstrap molasses added to it. It’s aged on oak chips, like Armenian brandy–soaked oak chips, and then it’s finally aged on coffee from Portola Coffee. And that came out just beautifully—we exceeded our expectations. And then we decided that we wanted to start doing more coffee beers.

CBB // In terms of extraction, coffee is an expensive ingredient. Lots of folks have different approaches to this, but certainly there are trends in the way that people have started to like to use coffee. For you, what does that kind of addition process generally look like? Tell me as much as you can without sharing all of your secrets.

JS // I don’t mind because people do different things at different breweries. I’m surprised sometimes how many techniques some brewers share over the years, and nobody else ends up using that information. But with Mocha Machine, it’s changed over the years, and the way that we’ve been doing it for the last couple years is just through the top of the fermentor. So we get coarse-ground coffee from Portola. It’s ground not long after it’s roasted and rested. And we get all the yeast out of the beer—it’s done fermenting—and we add [the coarse-ground coffee] to the top of the tank, usually kind of late in the day or at the end of the day. It’s the last thing we do. And usually within 30 or 45 minutes, there’s a huge coffee component already in the beer. It goes into there immediately. And this beer is fully chilled, down to usually the low 30s [°F]. The very next morning, we blow [the ground coffee] out the bottom of the tank. So it goes in, it drops out, and it’s out of there. So the infusion happens really quickly. We used to do it in fine-mesh sacks in a brite tank, where we would transfer the beer into a brite tank with coffee and cocoa nibs in the fine-mesh sack, and then we would transfer it to another brite tank for clarification and carbonation. We’ve since gotten away from that—not just because it’s labor-intensive, but because we believe these newer techniques that we’re using make a better beer.

CBB // Are there any other special considerations when you’re using a sensitive ingredient such as coffee that you want to express, that you want to get the value out of, and that you want consumers to connect with as they as they taste it?

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JS // My motto is, “Treat everything as an ingredient, and treat nothing as an additive.” You can’t simply take an amazing stout and add coffee to it and think, “Oh, I’ve got this perfectly balanced stout; I’m going to add coffee on top of it.” Don’t add anything on top of anything—add something with. And even with our barrel-aged beers, there are certain components that are augmented or diminished in order to make room for that barrel character. So treat everything as an ingredient, treat nothing as an additive. That’s my advice.

CBB // Let’s zoom out here and talk about that bigger picture for Beachwood. What does success look like for you? And when will you know whether you’ve achieved it. Or, have you achieved it?

JS // One of the things that I never thought about when we opened the brewpub is, really, where we’d end up. I thought we would never can beer. We would never bottle beer. I would be brewing everything with an assistant until the end of time—just to be served over the counter, and maybe a handful of local accounts would get our beer on draft.

But as Beachwood has grown out of necessity, and organically, I’ve been able to hire people and experience amazing help—and help equals resources. So really, as Beachwood continues to grow—as I hope it continues to grow—what’s my ultimate goal? To be able to get a company to the size where it can afford as many resources as it wants, where everybody gets to do the things that they’re good at, and nobody is overburdened with any tedium. And that’s where I ultimately want to get, is where I can focus on the things that I’m super passionate about, and really good at, and maybe even get to focus on things that I never had time for before. So my ultimate goal with Beachwood is to grow it to the point where it has all the resources for all the creative autonomy and efficiency it wants and needs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear Here!

For more from Julian Shrago on creativity, brewing hoppy beers, and more, listen to Episode 204 of the Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® podcast.
beerandbrewing.com/podcasts

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