Jesse Friedman describes his first encounter at a San Francisco home brewing club meeting with business partner Damian Fagan’s homebrewed beer and its attractively designed label as “love at first home brew sight.” An avid home brewer and beer blogger, Jesse had become active in the local home brewing community and would often attend meetings where other home brewers would come to share their own brews or commercial beers that they had discovered.
“I picked up a bottle of beer I’d never seen before and was like, ‘I’ve never even heard of this brewery,’ and there was this spectacularly beautiful label on it,” he said.
As it turned out, that beautiful bottle of beer was not from a commercial brewery but had been made by one of the other home brewers at the meeting, Damian Fagan. In addition to brewing at home, Damian owned his own design firm, so he enjoyed designing commercial grade labels for the beers he made. Although it was the label on Damian’s beer that first caught Jesse’s eye, the beer was good, too. After discovering they both had a similar aesthetic and similar taste in beers, as well as a desire to get into the beer business, the two decided to become partner up to form the Almanac Beer Company.
“We’re both entrepreneurs and we both wanted to get into the beer industry, and very quickly we came up with the core idea of Almanac, which is beers inspired by the local farm-to-table movement and the restaurant community. So we started brewing seasonal beers in collaboration with local farms to infuse a sense of terroir and California into everything we brew,” Jesse said.
According to Jesse, the reason he got into home brewing in the first place was simple—“I love beer,” he said. While attending UC Davis, he had taken a class on beer that inspired him to begin making it himself. Although he says the first batch of beer he ever made “went terribly,” he was hooked nevertheless. Before meeting Damian and leaving his IT support job to start Almanac Beer Company, Jesse said he’d been brewing at home for about five years.
“I was really passionate about it. I really cared about it. Doing tech support was always just something I’d done to make money, I wasn’t really passionate about making computers work properly. So I really wanted the things I was passionate about to be my career,” Jesse said.
Almanac Beer Company is unique in that its focus is on using locally sourced produce as primary ingredients in their beer. Jesse says both he and Damian had both been experimenting with adding fruits, vegetables and herbs from the farmer’s markets to their beers separately in their home brewing exploits before they met. Although terroir, or the unique elements that combine to make a sense of place, is usually associated with wine making, when the two brewers started discussing making a commercial beer based on the farm-to-table concept, it seemed like something that was not only a natural fit for them, but for a Bay Area company.
“It’s one of those things that when you say it out loud it seems so obvious it should exist that it seems amazing that someone else hadn’t done that,” Jesse said.
For the first year of business, the partners bootstrapped their operation while still holding down full-time jobs. Their first batch of beer was brewed at Drake’s Brewery in San Leandro, and Damian designed their packaging. The money they made from selling their first batch of beer was put straight back into brewing the second batch, and the money from the second batch went to making the third. Slowly they grew the business until they were ready to go full-time with the brewery, a process that took about a year. They started with one flavor—a blackberry infused golden ale that they aged in oak wine barrels.
Working directly with the local farmer’s is an integral part of how Almanac approaches beer making. The guys make a point of visiting the farms they work with, and they list where they source their ingredients from on each label. They view each beer as a collaborative effort with the farmer and look for ingredients that are representative of the farms themselves.
“We talk to them [about] what are you growing that’s most representative of your farm? How can we really bring a sense of this place into the beer? And then we give them back some of the beer, and they’re always stoked to have it. We put their name on the bottle just like a farm-to-table restaurant would list them on the menu,” Jesse said.
For example, one recent release is a Pluot Sour in collaboration with Blossom Bluff Farm owned by the Loewen family outside of Fresno. “They actually, last summer, harvested pluots from throughout the entire summer for us and broke them down and froze them, so when they delivered the final amount, we actually had a cross section of the pluots from across the entire summer using five or six different varieties,” Jesse said. All ingredients are sourced from farms throughout California, from Sonoma and Santa Cruz to the Central Valley.
Inspiration for ingredients can come anywhere from what’s in season at the farmer’s market to what’s on the table at local restaurants—and from trusting their own palates. Jesse says he and Damian have a good sense of “what an Almanac beer tastes like” and use that sense to guide them. They’ve used everything from berries to fennel, coriander to chocolate.
“A lot of ideas get left on the drawing board,” Jesse said. “We really edit and experiment.”
According to Jesse, much of Almanac’s growth can be attributed to word of mouth. They have also specifically targeted specialty shops and restaurants for sales. Because they’ve taken a culinary approach to their brewing, Jesse says it makes it easier to approach restaurants. Many of the chefs they approach are not only familiar with the farms the brewery works with, but then can also pair the beer with what they’re serving on their menus.
“It becomes a natural pairing,” he said.
True to their culinary approach, Almanac has also worked with local chefs on a couple brews. They’ve done two such collaborations thus far, the first a porter designed to pair with sushi that was done with Ichi Sushi. The IchiBier brew includes sushi rice in the mash as well as shiso and yuzu. Their collaboration with Bar Tartine is a smoked stout with chipotles that were smoked in-house at the restaurant. A third collaboration is currently in the works.
“We raid their larder and make beers that represent the culinary point of view of the chef,” Jesse said.
“We’re always asked to make beers for people. So we came up with approach that we thought fit well with our brewing approach, as well as gave us an opportunity to—collaboration is huge right now in the beer industry—extend that sense of collaboration into the culinary community. It’s fun. It’s great to bring in these interesting points of view and inspiration into the brewing process.”
Almanac beers are currently distributed throughout the state of California and in some locations in Washington state. They are available at Whole Foods stores throughout California, as well as at specialty wine shops. Although Almanac specializes in barrel-aged and sour beers, they make brews across the spectrum from IPAs to porters and lagers.
Because Jesse and Damian do not own their own brewing facility, they rent from other brewers, which they refer to as “gypsy brewing.” They currently brew out of a facility in San Jose and their offices are in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. In terms of creating and building the business, they’ve also trusted their instincts, just as they’ve trusted their palates to create their brews.
“We make it up as we go along. It’s a mix of painful learning and good luck, I think. I think we’re lucky that craft beer is very, very supportive of new businesses and new breweries. There’s a lot of excitement and a real sense of community, so we can really call on our friends in the local beer community to help on a lot of things. When we don’t know the answer to something, there’s always someone who does and they’re always thrilled to help out.”
Jesse credits the current resurgence in craft brewing with brewers who are interested in really trying to pursue different niche specialties across the spectrum of beer. Unlike the beer movement in the 90s, he says, many brewers on the market right now aren’t trying to pursue a goal of becoming Budweiser overnight.
“A lot of these people grew up home brewing and have a real love of the beer itself. It’s not about world domination, it’s about making really great beer.”
What drew you to beer?
It’s delicious. I think it’s food friendly. I think it’s more interesting than wine, I think it’s more food friendly than wine. And I was very taken by the community around beer as well.
Why farm-to-table beer?
It comes from a ‘do what you love’ approach. So, we loved the culinary community and the farm-to-table movement in food, and it felt like there wasn’t a beer that was tied directly into those ideas and that was really the inspiration. It seemed like one of those ideas where once you come up with it, it’s like, ‘how is this not already a thing?’
Where does your inspiration come from?
Farmers markets, restaurant meals, other beer.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
The advice I always give new breweries that are launching is to do more of one thing and less different things. Figure out what the core identity of your brewery is going to be and write a mission statement. Then everything should come back to that mission statement, and if it’s not true to that mission statement, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. You really don’t want to chase fads. The best craft beer, I think, is editorial in that it represents a point of view. So, if you love craft lagers, you should brew craft lagers, don’t brew an IPA. If you love IPAs, brew IPAs, don’t brew sours. Really just focus and don’t chase trends, focus on it. Building a brewery, you have to build it piece-by-piece, and you have to build that foundation layer and go slower and build something really sustainable that’s built on real sales. You want deep penetration in your backyard before you try sending beer into other markets.
And quality is everything. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters is, is the beer delicious?
Controlled growth, I think, is challenging. Developing, making everything perfect, there’s a thousand pieces from bottles to brewing. The brewing is just a small part of the overall operation. We really built a company here and there’s a company culture, and vendors and clients and all of those pieces, you have to have all of those pieces in place. Because even if you make the world’s best beer, if you treat it poorly after you bottle it or can it, it’s going to taste terrible when it gets to the customer, too. So that care and coddling of the beer goes beyond just the brew house, it has to go through the whole thing. If you make a beer that you obsess over making perfectly and then you ship it in refrigerated trucks and then you make sure it’s stored correctly and tapped fresh and then you put it through a dirty tap line at the bar, it tastes like crap. So it’s making sure that every single step of the way, everyone’s looking out to make sure the beer is as good as it can be.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I work in beer! Damian and I constantly look at our lives and are amazed that this is our job. On Monday we were sampling barrels for our new blackberry sour and going ‘I can’t believe is our job.’
What’s your favorite item on your beer menu?
My favorite’s always the newest beer. Right now it’s the Ichi Bier and the Farmer’s Reserve Pluot.
Are there other local brewers that you admire and why?
There’s a long list. I think what Anchor is doing right now is really amazing. I mean they invented American craft beer and now the new owners are really taking them to the next level. Anchor’s creating lots of new beers. They’re brewing a saison, they’re brewing an IPA, they’re really growing and it’s really exciting to see a place that, for a long time has been about history, looking forward. So I think what they’re doing is really exciting.
Drake’s Brewing in San Leandro, I think they make unbelievable, world-class IPAs over there. Then we’re all in the shadow of Russian River Brewing. Vinnie [Cilurzo] is amazing, I mean he’s the standard bearer for quality. Vinnie, I don’t know if he invented the American sours, but he certainly was an early champion, as well as he invented the double IPA category.
If you had to choose your last beer, what would it be?
Orval. It’s a Belgian beer. It’s brewed by a Trappist monastery so it’s actually brewed and overseen by monks. They only make one beer, and it’s Orval, and it’s a Belgian pale that’s bottled with brett (brettanomyces), which is wild Belgian yeast. So when it goes in the bottle, it’s a hoppy Belgian pale, and then it’s alive in the bottle and the brett will continue to evolve the beer so after six months what was a hoppy Belgian pale is now a funky, sour beer with lots of horse blanket notes. Horse blanket and wet dog—in a good way! Delicious, delicious wet dog!
Hapa Ramen—Richie Nakano—he’s really trying to create a California farm-to-table ramen, he doesn’t do MSG, it’s 100 percent seasonal, it’s really focused on local produce and highlighting that. They break down whole pigs twice a week and create everything from scratch. They do everything the hard way over there and it really shows. Or rather they do it the hard way because it is better, I’d say.
There’s a lot of great restaurants. I [also] really like Local Mission Eatery.
Almanac Beer Company
Photos courtesy of Almanac Beer Company.