Expectations were high for Julian Shrago when Beachwood BBQ & Brewing opened their doors in 2011. Beachwood BBQ and owner/chef Gabe Gordon had put the destination in destination beer bar with fans coming from all over the world to check out the original location in Seal Beach. One of those fans was aerospace engineer and award-winning home brewer Shrago.
Gordon and Shrago, both relentless perfectionists, hit it off and each was interested in opening their own brewery. Lucky for local beer fans, they decided to do it together and Beachwood BBQ & Brewing was born. Between Beachwood’s reputation and Shrago’s many awards as a homebrewer, the bar was set about as high as it has ever been for a brewery opening.
Shrago crushed those expectations right out of the gate like he does one of his frequent Mt. Baldy hikes. In their first year, Beachwood took home an astounding seven medals at the San Diego International Beer Competition, then followed that up with two Gold medals and one Bronze at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). The coup de grace was a Gold Medal at the 2012 World Beer Cup (WBC). Shrago had made the leap from designing satellites for space to brewing some of the best beer on the planet.
The Gold Standard had been established.
One year later, Beachwood was named the Best Mid-Size Brewpub in the country and Shrago Best Brewer at the 2013 GABF and in 2014 they defended that title by winning Best Large-Size Brewpub with Shrago again being named as Best Brewer.
In 2016, Beachwood was named Champion Brewery and Brewmaster – Large Brewpub at the World Beer Cup.
Quite simply, it has been an incredible five-year medal-winning run (2012-2017), unmatched by any brewer in the world: Sixteen medals, including seven Gold, at World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, the two most respected beer competitions. Also, Beachwood Blendery, helmed by Ryan Fields, who is a multiple medal-winner in his own right, has won two GABF medals in their first two years. Beachwood has become synonymous with excellence in the art of brewing beer.
I asked Julian Shrago to reflect on the first five years, share any lessons learned, and, no big deal, to predict the future of craft beer.
DRENNON: When you opened in 2011, did you have any expectation that Beachwood could and would become one of the most respected breweries in the world?
SHRAGO: Your question is very kind and flattering. I’ve been humbled and honored by the recognition Beachwood has garnered. What we’ve achieved is well beyond my wildest dreams. When we opened, I had a modest goal of selling enough beer to make my car payment.
The quality of the beer speaks (and tastes) for itself. I like to say that word of mouth from fans, when it comes to beer, is failsafe. But what importance do you place on all of the medals and the recognition as the best brewpub in the country and reigning best brewpub in the world?
We put our best foot forward with every beer, whether or not it’s going to a competition. Especially where entries are tasted blind, competitions offer brewers a quantitative measure of their beers’ quality. For us, it’s a way to make sure we’re hitting our goals and to get honest criticism of what can be improved.
With nearly 8000 entries and well over 2000 breweries competing at GABF, do you have a strategy when it comes to which beers you enter?
Always brew the best beer possible and enter beers that you feel showcase excellence in your technical and creative talents.
You once told me that the nexus between the significant number of engineers who turn out to be great brewers is that both disciplines require a blending of art and science. Can you expound upon that for our readers?
At its core, engineering is a blend of art and science. I feel music, architecture, cooking, and, surely, brewing at their most integrated levels require an understanding of art and science, as well. Most of engineering is dictated by the constraints of physics, which is where the science comes in. But it’s the final percentage of the equation, which requires a creative, artistic approach to give elegance to function. Most of the processes in brewing are scientifically-driven, from yeast metabolism to mash chemistry to sanitation. But you need to balance things with the right amount of art, so you don’t have something that’s robotic and boring.
What is your process in recipe formulation and what are your priorities in how you develop each beer?
I think of flavor first. From there, I think of the best and most accurate ways to get those flavors into the beer. Then, I layer in other aspects like mouthfeel, alcohol, yeast selection, etc. that I feel will carry those flavors best and create the drinking experience I’m looking for.
How much creativity is there in the actual brewing of each beer once the recipe is set?
A lot! But…that also depends on how you look at it. Recipe is one thing. Procedures are another. You could simply give a baker the list and proportions of ingredients for a cake and leave it at that. So much goes into the final product after that: fermentation profile, carbonation levels, clarification techniques, etc. There are so many dials and control points. That’s not to say that you need to adjust each one differently with every beer, but the options are there. For example, I could be totally pleased with the flavors of a new beer, but not the mouthfeel. The next time we brew that same beer, we may keep the recipe the same, but tweak some of our procedures to affect the mouthfeel.
You are the brewmaster, but I know you have an extremely talented group of brewers you have assembled on your team. What background and/or qualities do you look for when you hire a new brewer?
I primarily look for people who can work well on a team. It’s amazing what you can do when everyone supports one another without hesitation. I’ve been fortunate to be able to select people who all work well together, stay team-oriented, and have valuable intuitive senses. Industry experience is a plus, but work ethic is king.
Would you mind sharing what your cast of brewers bring to the table, or, in this case, the brewery?
It’s a global team effort. We have remarkably cohesive teams at all our brewing locations. But there’s crossover, which allows us to share enterprise goals. We all want Beachwood to be synonymous with quality across the board. We recently got all brewery staff in one location for a photo shoot. I think it was the first time everyone was in the same place at the same time. Seeing that collection of talented and hard-working people made me feel especially proud of what Beachwood has created.
In addition to setting the gold standard for the quality of beer you produce, Beachwood has also taken a leadership role in the independent beer movement with your “True to Beer” slogan and #independentbeer social media campaign. Why do you feel it is important to fight this fight with corporate beer?
Without independence, there can be no innovation. Look at what “big beer” gave us in the decades that followed Prohibition: total lack of variety. Their most notable offering to consumers was the advent of light beer. Thanks, guys! When you’re independently owned, you have total freedom to create beers that may not sell as fast, that cost more to produce, and may not even be scalable to large batch sizes. It’s about being limitless with creativity. While independent craft brewers may feel some competition with one another, our collaborative spirit and mutually inspirational facets are undeniable. We feed off each other in so many positive ways. I’m not trying to outcompete a peer by brewing “Foam Top Ice.” Beyond that, independent breweries are transparent about their efforts and the beers they brew; they’re not out to limit equal access to market or confuse consumers.
There is a lot of debate as to whether “big beer” has stolen, or, at a minimum, co-opted the term “craft beer.” Do you agree or disagree and, if you agree, what is the answer?
I think “craft” has a somewhat intangible definition. People know it when they see it, but it’s tough to define. I think that’s why “big beer” has been able to co-opt the term. It’s a shame, because I don’t feel “big beer” is driven by the same artisanal spirit as smaller independent brewers.
Beachwood now has a production brewery in Huntington Beach and is producing bottles and cans. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of each format and where do you think Beachwood is headed in the long run?
We just commissioned our new canning line in Huntington Beach and we couldn’t be more stoked! We love cans and our consumers have been clamoring for them. We’ll still use bottles for some special releases, like Tovarish or System of a Stout, but those are likely moving to a smaller format. Overall, the market has shifted significantly, and craft beer consumers prefer smaller packages for everyday styles, such as IPA and blonde ale, to name a few. For us, cans made sense. You can bring cans pretty much anywhere alcohol is allowed. You can also fit more in a cooler!
What is your current production capacity and how much do you see Beachwood growing over time?
Between all brewing locations, we’re on pace to do over 6500 bbls annually. We have room to add an additional 4,000bbls of capacity at our production facility, so over 10,000 bbl/yr is our eventual goal.
So, as a follow up to that, where do you see Beachwood in ten years?
My goal is that, throughout its lifetime, Beachwood will always exercise creative freedom. I never want the quality of our beer to falter and I always want us to be close to our consumers.
New breweries are opening at, dare I say, an alarming rate. Is this a good thing for independent beer, is there a critical mass point, and where do you see the American craft beer revolution in ten years?
I don’t know if anyone could’ve predicted the current state of the industry even a year ago! Every day, new people are joining the consumer base. They may have different tastes and only time will tell how their influence shapes the beers we create. There are so many innovations happening with ingredients from new hop varieties, to new artisanal malts, and even enzymes. The flavor and aroma possibilities are truly endless. I do see the business model changing to become more localized than before. With so many breweries opening, it’s easiest to connect with local consumers.
Is there anything you would like to add with regards to your philosophy of brewing?
Treat everything as an ingredient and nothing as an additive. Have fun, open yourself to criticism, and always seek improvement. On the human side, I’m extremely grateful to be in this industry. I have tremendous support from my wife and family, business partners, staff, and industry peers. By no small measure, it’s Beachwood’s customers that reward us every day with their patronage and enthusiasm.
If you had to describe yourself in one word or phrase, what would it be?
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