I’m not one for hyperbole, but I’m a bit giddy these days because I just got to interview a craft brewing legend.
Okay, he might think that a bit grandiose. How about pioneer? Trailblazer? Sherpa?
Whatever, doesn’t matter. Don Barkley has been in the craft brewing game since before there was one, when he convinced Jack McAuliffe in the late 1970s he could use some help running America’s first true new small brewery since Prohibition — Sonoma’s New Albion Brewing Company.
Try as they might, they could only make the venture last until 1982. McAuliffe and Barkley then took the equipment north to Hopland and helped found Mendocino Brewing Company (MBC), the nation’s first on-site brewpub, in 1983.
With brews like Red Tail Ale and Eye of the Hawk, growth followed quickly. But by the mid ’90s, like many breweries at the time, MBC faced a challenge. They needed to expand to keep up with demand, but didn’t have the money.
Enter India-based brewing conglomerate United Breweries (UB), which purchased MBC in 1997. Their deep pockets allowed MBC to expand their own facility, and, UB’s recently established brewery in New York allowed them the possibility of nationwide distribution.
Barkley helmed MBC’s brewing operations until 2008, when the promise of being closer to his ailing father brought him to his current home at Napa Smith.
The brewery was purchased in 2013 by R.S. Lipman Company, a Nashville-based owner of several wine, beer, spirit, and mixer brands. Seeking to expand capacity, Lipman recently moved Napa Smith from its initial home in a business park south of Napa to a former Sears distribution center in northern Vallejo, just off Highways 29 and 37.
[BTW, although the official taproom Grand Opening is still about a week away as I post this (May 20th), the soft opening is well underway. Stop by and say howdy. Look for the giant palm trees in front.]
The combination of Vallejo’s new brewery and Lipman’s Nashville facility, currently home to their Hap & Harry’s brand of ales and lagers, will allow them to eventually take Napa Smith nationwide. Just as with MBC, Barkley will be managing breweries across the country.
Speaking of Barkley’s former employer, United Breweries made recent headlines when founder Vijay Mallya was arrested in London amidst business fraud charges. His extravagant lifestyle in the face of these charges is well documented.
I recently spoke with Don at Napa Smith’s new brewery about New Albion, working for United Breweries, craft-beer sustainability, and Vallejo’s possibilities.
The Beerverse: By the time you finally convinced Jack McAullife to be his assistant at New Albion in the late ‘70s, I imagine he pretty much had the brewery fashioned together by then?
Don Barkley: To some degree. There was continuous improvement at New Albion. Everything was absolutely built from scratch, that was one of Jack McAullife’s fortes — knowing how to make beer, then actually putting it into practice by building the equipment, putting it together and making it a functioning brewery.
I’ve been [thinking about] him the last couple of years with the addition of a lot of people doing really tiny, tiny little breweries — a barrel, barrel-and-a-half, even half-barrel breweries, thinking “What in the world are these people thinking?” And then of course I had to stop myself and say, “Wait a minute! New Albion was only a barrel-and-a-half per batch!”
BV: At least they have some templates to go by. You guys had to figure it out as you went.
DB: Pretty much. There was no equipment anywhere at that point.
BV: Were Fritz Maytag (Anchor) and Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada) good resources for you guys? Did you interact much with them?
DB: Fritz Maytag was a great supporter of what we were doing at New Albion. Ken wasn’t really in the business yet, although he did come by and take a peek.
Fritz was a great help. Once Jack had made a malt bin, we would go down to Anchor to get our malt. All the malt we used for brewing for a long time came from Anchor. Fritz and the whole Anchor gang were pretty interested in what we were doing at New Albion.
BV: What was it like working for United Breweries once they took over at MBC? Were they very hands-on or did they let you do what you do?
DB: They definitely were hands-on. They put a little over $4 million in [the brewery expansion] project which was enough to get it finished, and installed not only the Managing Director but also the CFO on-site. Both of those guys came from the brewing business so they understood brewing and how to make and sell beer in India.
There may have been some cultural differences in learning how to sell beer in the U.S. market, but as the Master Brewer at the Mendocino Brewing Company, I was certainly held in high respect. But I certainly learned a lot in regards to record-keeping and watching the pennies and all that.
The only thing that probably was a little different was the fact they were from a different culture. Making beer around the world is always the same, but selling beer in a different culture is a different type of thing.
BV: Did you have much interaction with Mr. Mallya himself?
DB: Vijay came to Mendocino once a year for the shareholder meeting. He was aloof to say the least.
BV: With nearly 40 years in the industry, you’ve seen a lot of cycles, expansions and contractions. The last few years of growth have been astronomical. There’s lots of wringing of hands lately about what the short term will bring. Your thoughts?
DB: My gut feeling right now is that we’re on the tip-top of the wave. With the amount of capacity coming on, with all the small breweries that have expanded in the last couple years into 100-barrel, 150-barrel brewhouses, those people [already] in the marketplace and those trying to get into the market, we’re going to see some fall-out. It’s starting right now as far as I’m concerned.
BV: The Speakeasy shut-down caught a lot of people by surprise. Hopefully they’ll find a find a new buyer. [Editor’s note: interview was conducted before the buyer was announced.]
DB: Hopefully they will, and maybe draw back a little bit and regroup.
But I think as far as small brewpubs and that kind of thing, I think there’s still room for a lot of that, as far as community establishments. But getting out into the marketplace, there’s almost too much beer right now, too many products to select. You end up with more beer on the supermarket shelves sitting there longer, which is not good for beer at all.
I think we’re pretty much topped out as far as this wave. So we’ll have a bit of a slump as all this capacity comes on and people try to figure out how to sell it all. Then we’ll start to have price wars going on. When you get into the price war business, then those who don’t know how to run a business will start to have a bit more of a problem surviving.
BV: On to brighter things. When did the Vallejo facility come on-line?
DB: We actually moved in in December. On December 1st, we had everything out of our original Napa location. We actually made our first batch of beer in the first week of January, so it took about a month or so.
BV: Were you guys offline for a while? Did you brew elsewhere or just stock up your accounts to cover the outage?
DB: We were offline for about six weeks. We made sure our production was proper, our finished goods inventory was high, our distributors were full of beer, and said, “Okay, let’s go!” It took about two weeks to move the equipment and put it back together.
BV: You’re completely out of Napa now, correct?
DB: Yes. We were in the Napa facility for about 8 years.
BV: Was Napa Smith just starting when you were brought on?
DB: It had not existed before I got there. I got there and basically sourced all the brewing equipment and installed it, and in a fairly short time was able to make some beer. We made our first batch in April 2008.
BV: Any plans for a satellite taproom or some other future presence in Napa?
DB: We have planned to keep a presence in Napa. We are looking for the right location, downtown if possible.
BV: It must be an exciting time for you guys.
DB: The move to Vallejo has allowed us the opportunity of opening up the production side and be prepared to make more beer. That’s a really good thing for us.
BV: Any thoughts of a Vallejo collaboration with new neighbor Mare Island Brewing?
DB: I think as we go along [we’ll look into it]. We haven’t [reached out yet] because we’ve been trying so hard to get ourselves up and operating here. It’s a whole new game for us. And Mare Island, from what I understand, they’re planning on starting to brew at their facility in May, as well.
We hope to do something with Mare Island in the future. We’ll see how it goes.
BV: Outside of the core beers, will you be doing one-offs and other taproom-only brews?
DB: We’ll have some taproom-only, and we’ll do our one-off program now that we’re in our new space. We’ll be looking at bringing new beers in about every six weeks or so. Two days ago we made a Cascadian Dark Ale. It’ll be BLACK.
And of course, because we’re involved with Tennessee, Robert Lipman makes and sells as part of his product line a Bourbon called Old Hickory, and every once in a while they dump a bunch of barrels…
BV: I was just gonna ask if there was going to be some barrels coming your way…
DB: We do have some Bourbon barrels, yes, and we just put some Hoppageddon into a Bourbon barrel. That’ll sit in there for about six months.
BV: Note to self — “come back to Napa Smith in six months.”
DB: You’ll definitely want to. Hoppageddon is such a lovely beer, anyway. Out of a Bourbon barrel it’ll be really, really nice.
So we did that recently, and we’ve got our wheat beer which we just launched last year. It’s basically a hoppy wheat, obviously no [bittering hops], only aromatics. That’s really a nice wheat beer and we’ll have it out full-steam in the summertime. Really, really lovely.
And we’ve got another special beer that I think we’ve got on tap right now, and that’s called TrHOPic Thunder, and so it has a lot of tropical papaya and really interesting flavors from the hops. We’ll be playing around with a lot of really fun beers.
BV: It must be nice to have the room to do that.
DB: That’s right, and have a really nice little taproom to feature it in.
We made our Golden Gate IPA specifically as an IPA that … a few years ago, we were just so tired of big, high alcohol, super big IPAs, we said, “Let’s make something that’s just really, really nice.” It’s gotten so sophisticated and so delightful lately.
It has just gone crazy throughout San Francisco, obviously, with the name. It’s a 6% IPA, a nice big hoppy thing but not trying to blow you out of the water, just a real, delightful, sophisticated flavor.
BV: There’s something to be said for balance, absolutely.
DB: Well, that’s part of my forte, here. Have that balance. Never forget the malt!
BV: Is canning in your future?
DB: We’ve had a lot of requests, especially from the Sonoma Raceway. They would LOVE to have our beer over there. We could do it on draft, but the real source of sales would be cans. We’re playing with the idea of doing cans, but all in good time.
We’ve got a brand new Kosme filler, though, so the beer is getting into the bottle in superb character right now. Our air pickup is absolutely nil, so we’re really, really happy to finally have a filing machine that can get the beer into the bottle and really know that that beer is going be good down the line.
BV: I read in Ken Grossman’s autobiography that, in the early days, the bottle fillers probably gave him more headaches than anything else.
DB: Yep, yep, absolutely. You can make the best beer in the world and have it in your fermenters, but if you can’t get it into the bottle, you have a big problem! It won’t last!
You see it out in the marketplace, now. There’s a lot of great beers, and you want them to be better, but you [can] just tell the age on them, maybe they weren’t filled the way they should have been. It’s a disappointment.
BV: Working at Mendocino must have been good training for you to coordinate brewing on both sides of the country. Are you brewing Napa Smith in Tennessee yet?
DB: We have not started to actually produce product there. We’ve done some trial batches, and we’ve just installed a lead brewer in that facility and he’s getting used to making some of our other products.
Robert Lipman is contracting a particular beer he brewed at Yazoo Brewing [in Nashville] called Hap & Harry’s, ale and lager. Right now we’re concentrating on making those beers for the Nashville market and beyond. As our new lead brewer gets the facility well under his belt, then we’ll probably start making some Napa Smith beers there.
BV: Is that a new facility there, as well?
DB: Yes, it’s about a year old or so.
Having brewed at Mendocino in both New York and California, there are nuances that are pretty involved to get the product to taste as similar as possible.
BV: Dealing with different water sources…
DB: That’s a huge component. If you’re in one place and you know what your water’s doing, it’s a whole different ballgame if you go somewhere else and all of a sudden your calcium and every other ion in that water is off. Sometimes just the equipment itself requires some unique approaches to do the same thing you’re doing in California.
BV: Do you plan to eventually brew and distribute some Tennessee product out west?
DB: Maybe. As we’re going along we might do some Hap & Harry’s. We have made the lager and ale in Napa and sent it back to Tennessee for some trial runs and also to help their production gap as they ended production at Yazoo Brewing and started at the new Tennessee facility.
BV: Finally, hazy beers. Yea or Nay?
The reason there’s hazy beers out there is that people don’t have their brewing process down. In theory, haze should not affect the flavor of a beer at all. I’ve had and made myself some wonderful hazy beers. But with a good, tight brewing process, there’s no reason to have a haze in your beer at all.
Unless you’re making a wheat beer. Then, of course, style dictates you’ll have some haze. But the beauty of a beer is watching it sparkle in the sunshine.
I can drink a nice, hazy beer as long as it tastes good and has a reason for being, other than just being hazy.
Thank you, Don. It was nice for you to spend some time with me while in the middle of getting the new taproom up and running. As I mentioned, the doors are now open. Have a pint or two and enjoy the new surroundings.