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Beer Before Liquor: Bay Area Distillers Are Saving Ruined Brews by Making Them Into Something Stronger 

Tuesday, Jul 29 2014

It's loud like a machine shop in here. Hot, too. Everyone's shouting and sweating. The eye-watering aroma of boiling alcohol pervades every steamy corner of this distillery; it is, in all likelihood, the last thing you'd smell on a secluded backcountry road before the shotgun blast.

Your humble narrator limps into this story, the victim of yet another mishap involving knees and sockets and the former's inability to stay within the latter. Tim Welch, the amiable distiller here at Petaluma's Stillwater Spirits, strolls over with a small glass of an innocuous-looking, transparent fluid. A 34-year-old Mississippian with a flowing red rhododendron bush of a beard,Welch resembles a happy satyr when he grins. He slowly measures up his hobbled visitor. Then he flashes that grin and hands over the glass: "We can help with that."

One day prior, this 150-proof elixir — extracted from a tub labeled "FLAMMABLE LIQUID" via a device resembling a yard-long turkey baster — was a misbegotten batch of ruined beer. And today? Well, no one's quite sure what it is. Its smell singes the nose hairs; its taste numbs the spaces between the teeth.

But it helps.

Welch's concoction is a flammable liquid without a name. Some call it "beer schnapps," others the more proper Bavarian "bierschnaps," while Welch is particular to "beershine." Put it in a cask long enough, and it'll attain a more familiar title: whiskey.

Perhaps 500 gallons of this beverage-to-be-named-later are barreled here, awaiting maturation and the day when consumers express a thirst for distilled beer. The former will come through time and patience alone.

The latter may never come about. Or this may remain a fringe, novelty drink (outside of Bavaria or Celtic dominions, where whiskey has been crafted from "distiller's beer" for eons). Or it could become a passing fad, the next oversize martini or flavored vodka. Or it may become the Next Big Thing: an evolutionary leap for the craft beer movement into a betrothal with the craft distilling movement.

That's what Brendan Moylan is banking on. He emerges from a pickup truck the size of a parade float, decked out in shorts, sneakers, and a Dickies work shirt; he resembles a deliveryman. Naturally, he owns the place. The distillery proprietor is, himself, a distillation of the San Francisco Irish-American experience. The fourth of seven children sired by the one-time head of the city's plasterer's union, he grew up in the Sunset and matriculated from St. Cecelia's Grammar School to Sacred Heart Cathedral to St. Mary's College. In professional life he did not become a cop, firefighter, trade unionist, or contractor, but stayed within the fold by serving as a brewer, tavern-keeper, and distillery owner.

"Back in the day," says Moylan while hooking a fresh keg from one of his two brewpubs, Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur and the eponymous Moylan's in Novato, "San Francisco used to be a shot-and-a-beer kinda town."

That's as much a statement about the city's economics and demographics of yesteryear as it is about drinking habits. They used to brew Hamm's in San Francisco, after all, before this city became the epicenter of the nation's microbrewing renaissance and a place where the term "mixologist" is thrown around unironically.

The hooch Welch distills for Moylan won't reverse decades of San Francisco population trends; the working-class shot-and-a-beer crowd has, by and large, been economically banished. And it won't be cheap. But, among our current batch of ascendant San Franciscans, that's hardly a problem. This beer-derived whiskey may yet render this town a realm of shots and beers once more.

This time, however, the former will be distilled from the latter.

Thirty years ago, when Bill Owens started up Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Hayward, he only trafficked in three styles of beer: lager, amber, and dark. He laughs at the memory: "That was it!"

Now there are more than 100 distinct classifications of beers. There have never been more beers for a beer-drinker to drink. And, as such, there have never been so many new and creative ways for brewers to screw them up.

"And this," says Owens, the founder of the American Distilling Institute, "is my favorite theme to talk about."

Whiskey and beer aren't drinks anyone would mistake for one another. Their origin stories, however, are remarkably similar: "If you think about it, what is whiskey but distilled grain?" asks Andrew Faulkner, the ADI's vice president. "Any beermaker working on fermenting malt is gonna see whiskey as a logical conclusion."

And any distiller, especially one here in the Bay Area, is also going to see a vast amount of perfectly good distillable material being tossed by the burgeoning array of craft breweries dotting the landscape and screwing up batches along the way.

In Owens and Faulkner's vision, these breweries and distilleries go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Or better: In their world, if you foul up a batch of chocolate, you can distill it into really good peanut butter.

Chocolate, in fact, was the impetus for hundreds of gallons of beer seething within a still under Welch's watchful eye instead of coursing through the taps of Moylan's brewpubs. A chocolate malt had been mistakenly added into the batch for Orange and Black Ale — "It's getting kinda crazy; there are probably 500 different kinds of malts available now commercially," Moylan says. "But you put the wrong fucking grain in the beer and it's the wrong fucking beer!" He smiles, sheepishly. "Sometimes, you know, beer doesn't go well."

If your brewery's glycol chilling unit goes on the fritz, the beer will undergo a wild, high-temperature fermentation inducing undesirable chemical bonding and nauseated patrons driving home with their heads out the window. If the beer's alcohol content comes out higher or lower than what's advertised on the label, the brewers must produce another label and run it past federal overseers (who, incidentally, forbid the use of an American flag on a beer label and insist on a 22-ounce bottle being denoted "one pint, six fluid ounces"). This is an onerous process requiring several months, by which time the beer in question will turn into mulch. Similarly, a keg languishing at a bar or an out-of-season seasonal ale would, otherwise, be fit only for the sewer.

A swamplike mass of pungent, mildly alcoholic, fermenting grains is, in fact, the primordial state of both whiskey and beer. When crafting the former it's called "wash" and when brewing the latter it's labeled "wort." From a distiller's point of view, craft brewers are producing vast quantities of raw materials; Owens raves about a Spokane brewer that set up a distillery next door and ran a rubber hose between the two.

This country has only one-tenth the number of distilleries it sported prior to Prohibition. The field remains tilted in the favor of the biggest of the big boys. But, Faulkner says, two more craft distillers fire up every week (and the Bay Area has seen its fair share). Craft brewing, meanwhile, has exploded in recent decades. If you're an evangelist for beer-derived spirits — and Owens might be the John the Baptist of this movement — these are heady days. Gallons of exciting new distillable materials are a mere phone call away.

(As in all matters pertaining to the federally regulated creation and distribution of booze, nothing is ever altogether straightforward. Brewers may sell or give their beer to the distiller, who could then take sole possession of the product. Or it could be distilled, for a fee, and returned to the brewer, or warehoused with a third party — so long as everyone has the proper liquor license. These nebulous transactions are encompassed by provisions referred to as "transferring and bonding.").

Fortunately for Moylan, he runs an in-house operation. As does San Francisco's own Anchor Brewing, which last year distilled its surplus Christmas Ale into a limited run of 90-proof "White Christmas."

"We made too much," Anchor Distilling President David King put it matter-of-factly at the time. "Rather than dumping it down the drain, we decided to try distilling it."

This will now be a yearly Anchor tradition, and Anchor, like Stillwater, is barrel-aging beer-derived whiskeys — moving past the "first ya swaller, then ya holler" novelty of clear, unaged "white lightning" moonshines.

King, like Moylan, is a man up to his ankles in beer. Whether this leads to enhanced distilling success remains to be seen. It all depends "on the end-usage," says the Anchor man; in order to conquer San Francisco and, tomorrow, the world, King and Moylan will have to convince area tipplers that their stuff makes a dynamo old-fashioned or Manhattan (Anchor offers up recipes on its website).

This isn't going to be a trend fueled by a glut of marketing dollars. Distillers will have to work their magic on mixologists, who would, in turn, make their pitch to adventurous drinkers.

"No one is going to come in and say 'Give me something spicy and malty and young and weird,'" says Ethan Terry, the bar manager for the Upper Haight cocktail haven The Alembic. "This is unexplored territory for the most part." Making palatable drinks out of distilled beer presents a creative challenge for Terry and other high-end bartenders. But they'll have to answer the call: Terry confirms that his bar's parent company, Magnolia Brewing, recently sent a batch of beer that didn't turn out quite right to St. George Spirits in Alameda for distillation.

It would help if everyone knew what to order. King admits, ruefully, that "White Christmas" is a trademarked term.

Anchor's next batch will be "something else Christmas."

In a time-lapse photograph of a typical day at Stillwater, Welch's spectacularly docile pit bull, Georgia, will remain in one location. Welch will be a blur.

He clambers from device to device monitoring the progress of multiple operations under way simultaneously — and, of course, sampling the clear, potent liquids seeping into a series of raft-sized receptacles. He drops a shot of home-brewed moonshine into a mug of coffee — "redneck redeye" — and dives into reams of federally mandated paperwork involving complex multipliers determining the distillery's taxable product. The math would be formidable even in a line of work in which drinking on the job weren't de rigueur.

A looming, rutabega-shaped, Japanese-made vacuum still nicknamed Yoshi dominates the cramped corner where alcohol is being made — or, in the case of beershine, remade. Yoshi has one fist-sized portal in its side, resembles a diving bell, and contains 800 gallons of whatever Welch wants to distill. On this day, he's rigged up a hose between the still and a hulking clear plastic receptacle and is pumping vast quantities of grape-derived vodka through a nine-sieved charcoal filter.

A batch of vodka needn't be aged; it can be knocked out in days. Whiskey takes years — and the missteps or shortcomings of distillers only become apparent much later.

As such, vodka keeps distilleries in business. Whiskey puts distilleries out of business.

But Welch's attention is lavished upon the one he loves best.

"That's Ethyl," he says with a nod toward the still in the far corner (ethyl alcohol is the secret sauce within any intoxicating drink). "Ethyl's my girlfriend."

Ethyl is a lotta woman: She stands around 9 yards tall and glows with a radiant copper hue. Her 500-gallon reservoir is topped by a cylindrical column featuring seven levels, each marked with tiny portholes; they resemble the adornments on a high-button boot. Emphasis on "high": Ethyl is so tall that Welch has taken to using binoculars to read the temperature gauge atop her column.

Peer lower, through the hatch into the copper cauldron, and you're greeted with the unnerving sight of an ocean of frothy, roiling beer. But don't look too close: "You stick your head in there and your contacts will be permanently fused to your eyeballs," warns Welch.

The music echoing through the distillery shifts to a prescient number, as David Byrne's, quavering voice drowns out the background din: And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may find yourself in another part of the world...


About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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