Like a lot of passionate homebrewers, Blake Shapiro fell in love with the art of brewing beer and aspired to one day own his own brewery. But unlike most of those dreamers, Shapiro had the good fortune of having sold the family business and having the means to turn dream into reality.
As he envisioned a place where “not only the beer drinkers have fun, but the brewers have fun brewing,” he came up with the name State. At first, it was the cool idea of one day having different state parks on cans. Then it evolved to a concept of State simply standing for the great State of California. The further he got into it, it became State as in, “State of Mind.”
Also, like a lot of homebrewers, Shapiro quickly discovered that the leap of faith in making the transition from homebrewer to pro brewer is not so easily navigated. The initial beers from State were just O.K. But then Shapiro met Robert Sanchez, a kindred spirit who had himself turned his passion for homebrewing, and dream of being a pro brewer into a reality. Sanchez had honed his chops at Ohana, then moved onto Kinetic where he became acknowledged as a local brewer on the rise.
The two hit it off at a couple of beer festivals. Sanchez was having to drive 86 miles each way, each and every day, to Kinetic in Lancaster. A brewer’s day is already a long one and this brutal roundtrip was taking its toll on Sanchez. State Brewing was in Gardena, a mere 8 miles from his house.
Sanchez and his BFF, Jimmy Smith, an industry professional who, through his vast contacts and respect among his peers, had helped Sanchez make the successful jump to pro brewer, had been plotting and planning to open their own brewery. When Shapiro offered to bring them both on at State and give them the artistic freedom to create new beers and unleash their own vision in tandem with his, State’s fate dramatically improved…and so too did the beer.
Right of out the gate, Sanchez was brewing beer you take notice of right away. Jimmy Smith was immediately getting those beers into destination beer bars all over greater Los Angeles because of his relationships. Suddenly, the high level quality of brewing happening in Gardena became one the best kept secrets on the local beer scene.
Shapiro leans back in his chair and smiles. His ability to put the right people in the right positions has put State on a trajectory to become among California’s best breweries. That is no mean feat and this State Secret will not be a secret for long.
I sat down with Robert Sanchez to find out how this humble homebrewer has done it.
Drennon: When and how did you fall in love with brewing?
Sanchez: I started drinking craft beer in the mid-90’s, but I didn’t fall in love with brewing until 2009 when my girlfriend gave me a Mr. Beer Kit. I was completely hooked.
Which breweries and/or brewers inspired you?
I would say Kern River (Kyle Smith, now at Lengthwise), Beachwood (Julian Shrago), Taps (Victor Novak, now at Golden Road) and Noble (Evan Price, now at Green Cheek). All great breweries and brewers. They each make such great beer and yet they are so humble. I really admire that.
When did you realize you wanted to become a pro brewer and what strategy did you develop to pursue that dream?
After my first Mr. Beer Kit batch. Having been a photographer, I knew that any art form has two sides. Artistic vision and technical implementation. I proceeded to attack the technical side piece by piece until I could successfully make a reality of my artistic vision. It is a road that I will happily never come to the end of. I will never arrive but will always keep trying to get better.
How long were you at Ohana and what did you learn?
I was at Ohana for a little under a year. I learned the basics of being a production brewer, recipe development and yeast management. I will be forever grateful to Andrew (Luthi) for giving me a shot to brew for him.
You then moved to Kinetic. How did that happen and what was your learning curve there?
I met Steve Kinsey (Kinetic’s owner) at a Los Angeles Brewers Guild meeting in November of 2013. Soon afterward, he was looking for a brewer. Based on recommendations from Jimmy Smith (now State’s Sales/Business Development Manager and also beer director at Glendale Tap) and others in the industry, he gave me a shot. We hit it off, according to Steve, in part due to the fact that I wasn’t a millennial. The learning curve was pretty steep. The customer base had been drinking Kinetic’s core lineup for over two years and they were not really interested in the beers tasting any different just because the brewers had changed. I thank Alexandra Nowell and Chris Gonzales (who left Kinetic for Three Weavers) for helping me with the transition and, of course, Steve Kinsey for all of his support as well as the Kinetic family for the time I spent there. I learned how to run a brewery while pushing creativity.
You have moved to State. Following your career arc, I have personally experienced your beers getting better and better. Is that just a matter of having honed your craft (beer) literally or if something more, what is your “State Secret?”
Our “State Secret” is the coming together of all the right parts. 1. A collaborative staff led by Jimmy Smith. We talk and collaborate on pretty much every beer we brew. Jimmy’s market knowledge is hard to beat. 2. A brewery staff committed to brewing great and innovative beers. We will never be bound by tradition. The world is still not flat, right? 3. This is probably the most important part. We have an owner in Blake Shapiro who understands what it takes to be great. He is a facilitator. He is an enabler. He sees our potential and puts us in the position to succeed. He doesn’t use State Brewing to glorify his home brew days. He uses State Brewing to help us all be great.
That is what makes him great. We all understand that it will never be about any one of us. It will and forever will be about what is in the glass.
What advice do you have for home brewers who dream of becoming pro brewers?
For home brewers, I would say, always remain hungry. Never be satisfied. Always seek out critical advice on how to make your beer better. If you just want to hear how great your beer is, find another profession. Understand that you are climbing a mountain with no summit and be happy to be on that journey. I would take every home brew batch to bars and ask for their opinion on how I could make it better. Even if they said it was good, I would press for what would make it even better. Be your worst critic. Never stop learning. Don’t be afraid to ask pro brewers. If you approach them with the attitude that you just want to learn to make better beer, most will be happy to help. I know I would.
Tell me about growing up. How did it shape you into who you are now?
I grew up in a large family. It taught me to share, listen and also be heard. I didn’t play with toys. I’d rather play in the mud and with sticks. I liked to build things from nothing. I was very particular about how things had to be. I come from a family of mechanics and people who work with their hands. Making things from nothing is our way.
Who were your favorite bands growing up?
I listened to NOFX, The Decendents, Misfits, Bad Brains, The Clash, Ramones and probably my favorite was Social Distortion.
Who are your favorite bands now (if not the same)?
I still listen to all those bands, but I also try to listen to new music as well. I like Sharon Jones, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Old Dub Reggae and others.
What were your favorite movies as a kid?
Stars Wars and Indiana Jones. I also watched a lot of Benny Hill, The Three Stooges and Married with Children. Mentors all, really.
Do you follow any sports and, if so, who are your favorite teams and/or players?
In my teens and early 20’s, I was an NFL fan. After they left, my interest left with them. I now am a LA Kings, UCLA, Dodgers and Lakers Fan. I’ll watch soccer when Team USA is playing, men’s or women’s, it doesn’t matter.
If you could take a month off and do anything, what would you do?
I would go to a Shaolin Temple to learn about inner peace and center from Sensei.
Who and/or what inspires you?
Either people who come from little to achieve great things, or those who do not squander their opportunity to be great. Life is hard and definitely not fair. Take brewing for instance. Just because you work at a brewery doesn’t mean you’re a brewmaster. I get asked all the time, “Who is the brewmaster here?”. I respond by saying, “We don’t have a brewmaster. We just have myself and Rob (Scott).”
Between talent and work ethic, which is more important?
Work ethic for sure. When I started as a home brewer, I didn’t know anything. It was my work ethic that drove me to learn everything I could from anyone that would give me the time of day. Talent may get your foot in the door but work ethic keeps you in the room.
If you weren’t a brewer, what would you be?
I would probably still be a photographer. I spent 27 years as one. It’s what I know.
If you had to describe yourself in one word or phrase, what would it be?
Tenaciously passionate to a fault.
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