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Friday, March 28, 2014

Talking Torpedo Taps, Reclaimed Wood, and "Ball-Kicking Porter" With Ivan Hopkinson of Barrel Head Brewhouse

Posted By on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge That bar is a torpedo, you know. - LIV COMBE
  • Liv Combe
  • That bar is a torpedo, you know.

Walking into Barrel Head Brewhouse on a weekday afternoon is like walking into a circus arena -- it's slightly chaotic and you don't quite know what to look at first. The enormous torpedo tap behind the bar? (More on that soon.) The mammoth, live-edged community table running along the front window? The gleaming stainless steel brewing vats lining the walls? Or maybe founder and brewer Ivan Hopkinson, whose seemingly endless energy was what finally made Barrel Head a reality after ten years of work. Hopkinson (yes, that is his real name) gives us a tour of the place.

See also: What's Driving San Francisco's Latest Brewing Boom?

SFoodie: Well, that's a cool bar tap.

Hopkinson: Right? We tell people all sorts of crazy stories about it. I originally thought I would find a sidewinder, the first heat-seeking missile, for the tap, but it just didn't look right. But I love the ocean, I love sailing, so I decided on a torpedo. People come in and are like, "Where the fuck did you get this? Did you get it disarmed?" "No, we drilled these holes in it, though, and every once in a while if you shake it a little, it starts making all these funny noises... oh shit, there it goes again!" They put a sewing machine engine in it so the propeller starts spinning. We have a pedal for it on the floor under the bar.

We went through these two architects and they put all their projects on hold until they finished this one. They bought the head of it at an Area 51 salvage yard. I did a lot of work on it as well -- distressed it, painted the tip yellow, stenciled on the name.

click to enlarge LIV COMBE
  • Liv Combe

Tell me about the design of the place.

I wanted something that was natural. We're dedicated to organic and sustainable foods, but I also tried as hard as I could to use reclaimed materials. It's more than a design aspect. The bar tops and the community tables all came from the same tree, a Monterey Cyprus that fell naturally. This guy had been holding onto it for ten years and he sold it to us for a deal. There were all these natural voids in it, so we filled them with barley, hops, old coins, Legos. My brother's childhood Dungeons & Dragons figurines. My son's marble is in there; that's his spot on the bar right in front of it. And my dad, an architect, did all the drawings on the community tables.

The bar used to be twice as long; we sanded it forever and added in these wooden "butterflies," the medieval way of joining wood together. It takes about five hours per butterfly. For the booths, the wooden backs are the original beams and joists from in here when it was the Fulton Street Bar ten years ago. Our friends are redoing a huge section of a church in Noe Valley and our tables are actually the original floorboards from there, joined with butterflies we made from oak wine barrels.

Upstairs, we have a table that's actually my dad's old workbench. We have a table that's a cross-section of the trunk of a huge, 150-year-old chestnut tree that was near my house where I grew up in Boston. Some fucking assholes moved into one of the big houses nearby and he didn't like the way the chestnuts fell into his yard, so he had the tree cut down. I was so fucking pissed. That's why even here, in Barrel Head, we do our part to fight against deforestation by using wood from trees that fell naturally. Even though some of the tables are unfinished on the sides right now, we were like, fuck, it's go time. We're the refugees from the fine dining world -- we don't want things to be perfect. We want to serve good food in a beautiful way and kick back and relax. We've had lots of conversations about dress code and uniforms. I fought really hard with the higher-ups to let our staff be themselves, and it's been awesome. Even the time that one of our friends showed up in a shark costume.

I didn't have enough money to pull this off when I started this thing. People thought I was crazy. And there were even crazier people who decided to give me a little bit of money to try to get it going. If you look really closely, there's a lot that's just thrown together because it's what we could afford. But it's that blood, sweat, and tears that makes it so great.

click to enlarge LIV COMBE
  • Liv Combe

What kind of brewing system do you have?

It's a 15-barrel Italian system from a company called Prospero. They have a waiting list for equipment -- they're like the Ferrari of brewing equipment and it costs about the same. I asked if they could make me a 10-barrel system and I would have to wait several years for it. We were running with another brewing company for a while, but I found out that their manufacturer was in China and I was back on the market for some brewing equipment. I called these guys I know at Prospero and they were like, "Dude, we have a 15-barrel system sitting in our warehouse in New York that was for an upstate brewery that just burnt down. We can have it to you in five days." So I pulled the trigger. It's bigger than we wanted, we had to adjust and change everything around, but such is life. I couldn't be happier with it.

When are you going to start brewing?

So far I've put all of my time and energy into getting this place open so we can start to make some dollars. We've all been working on the construction crew to bang through this. I destroyed all my clothes. All of them. It's sort of shameful. But I'm getting back to the brewing shortly. Brewing has always been part of my life, part of my blood. I've wanted to make beer since I was 11 years old and drank my brother's six-pack of Budweiser he had hidden away in his room. I stayed up until the sun rose and I was like, "What is this cool, bubbly drink? I want to make it!" A friend made me buy a home brewing kit and I never stopped.

We'll do a wide variety of beers. I especially love IPAs; we'll have one called the Sidewinder IPA. I make a ball-kicking porter from one of Benjamin Franklin's recipes that he shared in a letter 300 years ago. I think it's so cool that we can do that! I believe in sharing the knowledge; we're going to put our recipes online so people can make them. I've gotten scolded by some of our more business savvy people, but just because you know the secret formula to make Coca-Cola doesn't mean that you're going to be as successful as them. If people want to make our beer and share it, that's great. I mean, thank god for those people that like me and support me because without them none of this would have happened.

click to enlarge LIV COMBE
  • Liv Combe

How is your food going to pair with the beer?

We're planning on doing a lot of beer and food pairings, even some special beer-dinner nights. We have pretty amazing ribs. Tim [Tattan, Barrel Head's head chef] somehow got this amazing smoker; we don't know where he stole it from. Our chef de cuisine used to work at Southpaw BBQ, and he says that Southpaw's smoker would fit inside ours. A woman who lives next door gives us all the wood shavings from her olive tree, which gives the meat a really unique smell and flavor.

Tim Tattan, head chef: And we're going to start our sausage and charcuterie program soon. We're grinding our own pork right now.

How did you start working together?

Hopkinson: We seduced Tim. He used to be the sous-chef at Monk's Kettle; I never thought he would leave his job, but right when the chef who we had in line for this place disappeared, I kept running into Tim on my bicycle, and over drinks in the Mission at like 3 a.m. one night he was like, "Okaaaaaaay. Yes. I'm going to do it! Just let me talk to my wife."

Tattan: I worked with this guy years ago and then we were neighbors. It just seemed to line up. I had a pretty good thing going on at Monk's Kettle, but this is way better. This is kind of a unique situation -- all the guys that work here built this kitchen. We built the walk-in together. We put up the shelving on the walls. This was a dirt floor, down to the studs, and we poured the concrete. We epoxied the floor.

How did the community around Barrel Head come together?

Hopkinson: It really just happened to fall into my lap. A lot of people have reached out in very peculiar ways. And with the team of misfits and refugees we've assembled here -- to have that type of support from my people, to be working construction, to do whatever it takes -- that's amazing to have that kind of support. Making Barrel Head a reality was such a hard process. I need a couple years of therapy, probably. But I'm still so lucky. And so grateful.

Starting on March 29, Barrel Head will be open for weekend brunch and daily lunch and dinner. Hours are 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Sunday. 1785 Fulton. 416-6989.


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Liv Combe

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