Beer Paper launched four and a half years ago. And fifty-plus issues later, I thought we should go back and visit with the first brewer we ever interviewed - the critically-acclaimed Henry Nguyen at Monkish. There have been dramatic changes in the local landscape of brewing over those four years…and none has had more of a surprising twist of fate than that at Monkish. Henry and his wife and business partner, Adriana, both founded and have operated and managed this peculiar little brewery in Torrance for six years.
The Nguyens’ quiet, humble demeanor and their decision to push the artistic-envelope with a line-up made solely of Belgian-style and oak-aged beers in the midst of a craft revolution in Los Angeles that was fueled by hop-crazed California beer drinkers made Monkish a media favorite and developed a small legion of loyal patrons. And then a funny thing happened. Henry, the artist, a self-described perfectionist who relies on intuition, recognized early, as artists often do…the next big thing. The hazy New England-style IPA. He saw the opportunity to give the hop-addicts what they had been begging for, but in a form that would satisfy his own needs as an artist to create, to innovate and to be proud of an IPA that was hazy, juicy and yeast-driven.
On April Fool’s Day 2016, Monkish fittingly announced the sale of their first canned IPA, a cloudy collaboration with their friends Other Half Brewing from Brooklyn, New York. When it was released the following day, it sold out in 90 minutes and the phenomenon that is Monkish can releases was born. These days, Monkish announces can releases on their social media on a weekday and, within an hour, there is a line from their front door winding around the parking lot and out to the street.
Monkish has gone from being one of LA’s best kept brewery secrets to arguably our best-known brewery nationally. Beer traders #ISOMONKISH like pioneering pan-handlers searched for California gold. In this case, they come from near and far in search of liquid gold. Made by Monkish.
I sat down with Henry Nguyen to ask him to assess the ascension of Monkish.
DRENNON: My favorite quote from our first interview with you four and half years ago was, “Monkish is Monkish because it is Monkish. It is important for us to move forward to the beat of our drum.”
Do you feel like you have stayed true to thine own Monkish self?
NGUYEN: It depends. Yes, if “Monkish” means to be introspective, contemplative, reflective, and progressive. We breathe this idea of “Monkish.” Over the years as Adriana and I learned and continued to learn more about our identity and values, we believe that in whichever direction we are heading, we are still true to ourselves as long as we are aligned to the same vision that we casted six years ago when we decided to name ourselves “Monkish.”
When we birthed the idea of Monkish we came up with the mantra and triadic formula of “Beer. Hope. Love.” We always strove to embody these three words, and after five to six years of doing this, we’re often reminded of how they sum up our existence and ethos as “Monkish.”
BEER. We still are consumed with a passion to make worthwhile, experiential beers of quality and essence. It’s why Adriana and I started the brewery and it’s an unwavering commitment. Beer is a vehicle for us to express our creativity. It allows us to meet people and share moments and build memories with them.
HOPE. Having a business -- especially one rooted in the name “Monkish” -- it’s a humbling reminder that we are more than just a business. We are still people that care for others and we should be bringing good to humanity. Also because we are parents, Adriana and I feel the weight of living our lives in a more profound sense. It’s a constant ongoing discussion of how we can use this privilege of making a living from brewing beer to be a catalyst for change and betterment for people that visit us and drink our beers. Can our brewery and beers touch people’s lives and souls? Many people visit our breweries and they all have unique stories and circumstances. As human beings we all go through ups and downs. Whether it’s losing a loved one, losing a job, or losing a pet, it’s our desire that somehow people’s experiences at Monkish bring a sense comfort and peace. Also, having a team of workers that believe in our identity, vision and beers, Adriana and I wish that as business owners we are able to empower their own lives and that their time at Monkish is more than brewing, selling, or serving beer. Monkish should be more to people. It should bring hope and healing.
LOVE. Love is what we intend to fuel Monkish. To move beyond loving beer to loving the people that surround the beer. Adriana is the constant of love at the brewery. Love is how she interacts with visitors, patrons, and workers. It is easy for me not to choose love as I am constantly exhausted, overwhelmed, and pulled in too many directions. But, as Adriana reminds me often, I need to be grounded in a wiser mindset of love for others and self. We are fortunate to have a team at Monkish that loves our customers. And it’s quite remarkable when you see beer drinkers move beyond simply being drinking friends to becoming friends.
As brewery owners, we go through some quite challenging seasons. These are times for us to reflect and purge ourselves of things that distract us. But we find comfort and motivation to move forward with those three simple monkish words: Beer. Hope. Love.
You also place an emphasis on spirituality. How do you interweave that commitment to spirituality with your busy life and also the actual operations of the brewery?
Our spirituality is primarily focused on energy -- an energy that is inside, around, above, and below the brewery. Oftentimes Adriana and I feel that our role is to give energy to the brewery, and allow the energy to guide us in brewing. Similarly we see spirituality in operating a brewery as a process of “breathing”: to inhale in and exhale out this energy as we deal with challenges and fatigue in running a brewery. Hopefully in all the breathing and energizing we are able to pause to find rest and hope. It ain’t easy and it’s a constant challenge for us.
In our journey with Monkish, we have sacrificed quite a lot of emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual wholeness. So we must be spiritual to make sense of it all.
How much do you feel you have evolved as a brewer over the first five years of Monkish?
I feel I am the same yet a different brewer. Maybe it’s like how I see that I am still the same person that graduated high school. But that’s not necessarily so. I am a learner and I have learned a lot about brewing since starting Monkish so I do feel that I am a better, more experienced, and more knowledgeable brewer. I have a better feel for brewing. One way that I have “evolved” is that when I began Monkish I was more concerned about being a respected brewer by peers. Perhaps with my lack of professional brewing experience and being a minority, I worked hard at proving to myself and other brewers that I could make good beers. At some point in the course of the brewery and after long walks and nighttime chats with Adriana about our future as brewers, I found myself looking less to our peers and instead looking more inward to what we wanted Monkish beers to be and how they will evolve alongside our own journey to maturity and progress. Our brewing and business processes focused more on our own personal experiences rather than adopting a standard process that others used. Our beers took on more nuances of a house character rather than conventional characteristics.
What have been the most important lessons you have learned?
Listen to Adriana more quickly. Somehow she intuitively is always right. That’s why she puts the “ISH” in “Monkish.”
In the craft of brewing, which is more important, talent or work ethic?
Work ethic. It’s harder for us to find and teach that.
The unique flavors of all Monkish beers over the years have set you apart from many more “predictable” breweries. Is there an art, in and of, itself to recipe development?
We make the most of what we are given. I think that’s important for being a brewery. E.g. farmhouse brewers made the most of the making beers with what they grew on their farms. And lambic brewers in Belgium blended beers with the microflora and obstacles they are given. So having that mindset, we don’t seek out to make beers according to styles but we brew beers that we dream of while making the most of what we are given – in particular, our water. So often I alter the recipes based on what we have to achieve a flavor profile and feeling that I am looking for. Also importantly, the beers that we make are aimed at a house character. We want people to know and feel that they are drinking a Monkish beer.
Speaking of artistic, many Monkish beer names range from clever to funny to head-scratchers. How do you go about coming up with the names?
For years it would be Adriana and I waiting till the last minute and getting on each other’s nerves trying to name a beer. Now a few more people are often involved in the process with us. Because we usually have so many new beers and need new beer names quickly, it helps to come up with naming schemes: from more obscure, passing hip hop lyrics or a random attempt at a pun, to more sophisticated, thoughtful names in monastic themes and terms, to darker, existential phrases from Edgar Allan Poe works.
I know that you have said in your own blog that your decision to finally make IPAs and, in particular, “[North] East Coast style IPAs” (to quote you) was precipitated by getting the necessary hops and that, in the Monkish way, you preferred more yeast-driven beers. Was there a particular epiphany moment for you, where you said to yourself, I can do this?
I didn’t want to brew IPAs because it was the best-selling beer in America for years. We knew it had to feel right to and make sense for Monkish. Back in 2014 at the Shelton Festival we poured next to Treehouse and had a great time meeting Dean from Treehouse. I remember drinking several pours of their Julius IPA and being intrigued in how it was an “IPA” but they didn’t taste like the usual IPAs. Eventually I found myself enjoying this type of IPA and preferring them to West Coast counterparts. After quite some time of drinking and learning more about them, we decided to brew them. Funny thing is that when we brewed them people assumed they were Belgian IPAs since many were not familiar with this type of IPA in SoCal. As we brewed them we figured out our way in making them and also how we wanted them to taste.
I know it makes you anxious, but do you ever shake your head in wonderment when you look outside of your brewery and see a line of 400 fans for a can release? It is stranger than fiction or totally believable to you?
It always blows my mind. Always. And we remind ourselves to be humbled by the attention and excited and never to take it for granted. I’m not always convinced that people will show up for our beers.
Do you see the “haze craze” lasting and, if so, how long? If not, do you have an idea what is coming next?
Like you reminded me of what we said four years ago: “Monkish is Monkish because it is Monkish. It is important for us to move forward to the beat of our drum.” We didn’t brew Monkish IPAs because it was a trend or craze. There was no craze for these beers in SoCal when we brewed them. In fact, you could say the opposite since brewers throughout California started seeing these “hazy” beers and would negatively criticize them as poorly made beers. Despite that we decided to brew them and knew it was what we wanted to make and represent us. We even had the mindset that we would continue to make them even if people didn’t understand or dig them. Additionally, Adriana and I know this type of IPA will continue to be our IPAs even if the craze will be gone.
Finally, philosophy. That seems to be the appropriate place to wrap up Monkish being Monkish. What is your philosophy for life, family and the brewery? Or maybe if that is too huge of a question, one that might well require a Henry Nguyen autobiography, just give us the tasting notes of your philosophy.
Have a philosophy for everything you do: every beer you make, every name of beer you choose, every pricing structure you come up with, every employee you hire, every event you plan, every new fermenter you buy or don’t buy, whether you cork and cage or just crown, whether you use a label or shrink sleeve a can, whether you lease a new building, whether you will work more than necessary, etc. And WHEN you make a mistake, learn and think more about your philosophy for why you do what you do.
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