Earlier this summer, I interviewed Kelsey McNair for San Diego CityBeat (full article here). With a firm word limit, I wasn't able to include all of the amazing background information that he provided, but wanted to share the entirety of his answers somewhere. What better place than here? Enjoy. (Note: very minor edits have been made for clarity.)
Beth Demmon: You're well known in the local homebrewing scene. What made you decide to finally open a brewery? And why in North Park?
Kelsey McNair: I wouldn't go as far as to say that I just now finally decided to open a brewery. The desire to open this brewery has been with me for many years, but there have been a number of hurdles that prevented me from making that dream a reality until now.
I have lived in North Park with my wife since 2009. We decided to move to the area after finding ourselves down here frequently to patronize the many craft beer-centric bars and restaurants that had been sprouting up in North Park around that time. We also discovered the charming historic craftsman bungalows in the neighborhood and fell in love with all that is North Park. I decided that I wanted to be a contributor to the business community and open a brewery in the neighborhood.
Around the time that I won Stone Brewing's annual homebrew competition in 2010, I started drafting a business plan for North Park Beer Company. At that point, I had a pretty solid portfolio of beer recipes, but I didn't have the business acumen. I started talking to brewery owners, reading books, attending trade shows such as Craft Brewers Conferences and local Business of Beer seminars. I hired a brewery accountant help build financial forecasts.
It took a long time to figure out exactly how much capital would be required and how to get the capital. Meeting investors is very hard. Getting investors to commit to an investment once you meet them is much harder. I will say that it is easier if you can hand them your beer and talk about it while giving them your pitch. Once I had the business plan completed and had a prospectus completed by a securities attorney, it took nearly 2 years to get all of the funds in place.
It also took an incredible amount of time to find the right building. I got into lease negotiations on 9 other properties over the course of 4 years before I finally closed on this space. Most of the commercial buildings in North Park have old ownership that spans multiple generations. Most of those landlords are used to dealing with short term retail tenants who can move in and start paying the rent immediately. Very few offered anything in the way of Tenant Improvement allowances. Neither of these factors were good for what I wanted to do. Also, I often found myself in a catch-22 with these negotiations because many investors wanted to see real estate before they would invest and many landlords would want to see my capital in place before they would lease me a space.
A lot of my friends and advisers suggested I scrap the plan to open in North Park and just open in Miramar or somewhere industrial, but that just wasn't the type of brewery I wanted to create. I am glad I held out because the location we have is just about as good as one could possibly get in North Park.
What are some snags and/or surprises that you ran into during the opening process?
My ABC license took over 18 months to be issued. I had a few protests on the license from nearby residents and was very worried that they would not withdraw. At the end of it, all I had to do was give them a tour of the space and tell them my story. They were very nice people and withdrew their protests promptly.
Other snags have been the fact that this building is old and needed virtually every last bit of infrastructure upgraded. Fire sprinklers, electrical upgrades, new gas service, adding ADA and freight elevators, etc. When you have this much going on at once, it is very difficult to see things completed in a timely manner and stay on schedule.
As was posted on our blog, we ran into expensive problems with concrete and soils. This added a several weeks of delay to the project. The takeaway is that you can never do enough due diligence.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about opening a brewery in San Diego?
My advice: If you're going to try and open a brewery, make sure you have the right intentions. Understand the business of beer, but brew amazing beer just the same. The bar is set very high and there's no room for those who just want to try and cash in on a trend. Make sure you have a lot of surplus capital because no matter how prepared you are, everything ends up costing a third more than you think it will. Be prepared for a mountain of stress during the build out process.
What’s going to set you apart from other North Park breweries? Mid-City? San Diego as a whole?
We've put a ton of focus on making the taproom feel like you're right in the middle of a working brewery. The manufacturing aspects aren't hidden from view, but are balanced by higher end finishes and furniture that are inspired by the early 1900s Arts and Crafts movement. The aesthetic is intended to be an homage to the neighborhood full of craftsman bungalows around us. Making great beer is obviously hugely important, but we're hoping to deliver an amazing experience by providing an awesome looking venue and impeccable customer service. At its core, this brewery is about the people who will come here; it's a gift to our friends and neighbors in North Park. I like to think that our high attention to detail should set us apart from other breweries.
Additionally, we've carved out some space on the ground level where the owners of the popular Mastiff Sausage Company will be operating a kitchen on premises under the name Mastiff. We're looking forward to collaborating with them to do beer dinners, events, and suggested food pairings with our beers.
Once the kitchen is up and running, we'll also have the opportunity to offer guest beer, draft wine, cider, and other non-hard alcoholic drinks such as mead, which will give our patrons a number of beverage options beyond beer. We'll also be serving a couple of craft/house made sodas and rotating cold brewed coffee on nitro.
Who else is involved in NPBC?
My wife Amanda has been heavily involved with merchandise design and correspondence with our vendors and handles some of the office management. She also helps me maintain my sanity.
Our taproom manager Jake Nunes (Stone, Tiger!Tiger! Tavern, Ballast Point) is a veteran in the local beer industry and is a board member and instructor at SDSU's Business of Craft Beer Certificate Program. Justin Stoddard, our Associate Taproom Manager, brings several years of experience managing a bustling craft cocktail bar in Saint Petersburg, Florida. We've just hired up the rest of our front of house staff and based on their collective experience and credentials, including many who are Cicerone Certified, I am confident that we have an amazing team.
I have a large number of passive investors who are all very excited about the project, many of whom are craft beer enthusiasts, homebrewers, and serial brewery investors.
I have had so much help and support from other brewers and brewery owners throughout this process. Julian Shrago of Beachwood Brewing & BBQ has shared an immense amount of information about scaling up from home to pro over the years. Ray Astamendi of Fall Brewing has helped me out more times than I can count. Doug Constantiner and Travis at Societe have given me a lot of really practical advice about equipment and operations in general. Mike Hess shared a lot of wisdom when I was just starting to raise capital. Steve Wagner at Stone gave me critical feedback while I was finalizing my business plan. Paul Sangster & Guy Shobe of Rip Current gave me a lot of help with equipment budgeting and cash flow forecasting spreadsheets, and also were kind enough to sell me a lot of scarce hops that they had surplus of last year. Skip Virgilio (former AleSmith owner) lived up the street from me and would give me a lot of good advice about brewing and honest feedback in my early homebrewing days and also helped connect me with investors. Peter Zien (current AleSmith owner) gave me a lot of advice about water chemistry and taught the BJCP class I attended prior to taking the exam. Bill Reavey, a local attorney who represents a number of brewery clients has given me a lot of advice beyond just legal and has guided me through a number of complex contract negotiations. Lee Chase helped me with a lot of draft system design advice. Curtis and Liz Chism from Council have shared a lot of their challenges in getting started and growing.
Honestly, there are just too many people to name. Brewers are great people who share a lot with each other.
My late father's business partner, Fran Williams, has taught me more about business than any single person. I don't know if I would have taken this as far as I have without his sage advice. Anytime I find myself not knowing how to deal with a new business challenge, Fran generally has a great answer for how to deal with the situation.
What's the square footage of the facility?
The entire space is just under 9,000 square feet which includes a basement and a 1,450 square foot mezzanine which will be used for events and expanded tasting room space.
What sort of events, special releases, collabs, etc. do you have planned?
Our Events Coordinator, Kelly Legan (The Patio, Blind Lady Ale House) will oversee beer dinners, guest collaboration brewer events, bottle releases, parties, and lots of other fun stuff.
I think it would be fun to go back to the brewers/breweries that I have collaborated with previously and see if they want to come brew a beer here at my brewery.
What’s your favorite beer city outside of San Diego?
I think Portland is probably my favorite beer city outside of San Diego. Most of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown feel a lot like North Park/South Park, but expanded over a much larger foot print.
What are some of your local inspirations/favorite breweries/favorite beers?
While not local, Vinnie Cilurzo [Russian River Brewing Company] would definitely be one of my biggest influences. His approach to brewing dry and drinkable beers is something that I wholeheartedly subscribe to. 12 years ago, Pliny the Elder was the beer that really made me want to brew beer. I never aimed to clone beers as a homebrewer, but I wanted to drink beers like Pliny on tap at home. Back then, beers in this style were virtually unavailable to the public unless you went to a beer bar. I actually went out of my way to get a keg of Pliny on tap at my house so that I could compare it side by side with my own Double IPAs.
Back when Tom Nickel was still brewing at Left Coast/Oggis, his versions of Hop Juice Double IPA and Torrey Pines IPA were both incredibly good. Jeff Bagby's Poor Man's IPA at Port Carlsbad was just amazing. Julian Shrago's pre-Beachwood Melrose IPA homebrew was crazy good. I remember drinking Tomme Arthur's beers at Pizza Port Solana Beach and being so impressed with all of his beers. Pat McIllhenny at Alpine was very influential. The list goes on and on.
I was also a big advocate of the session IPA style before it was a thing that every brewery had in their lineup. Early versions of Even Keel coming out of Colby Chandler's kettle at Ballast Point Home Brew Mart were very influential showing that a little beer could have a blast of hop flavor and aroma. A beer I had on cask in 2001 while in Scotland called Deuchar's IPA from Caledonian Brewery of Edinburgh. That beer was only 3.8% but had a ton of citrusy hop flavor and aroma and was totally crushable. Julian Shrago had a homebrew that also pushed the envelope of hop flavor/aroma in a session beer format that was eye opening. These beers inspired me to make a low ABV hop bomb called "West Coast Bitter" which was my winning entry in Stone's 2010 competition.
It's hard to pick a favorite these days as there is so much good beer to pick from. Locals like Rip Current, Modern Times, Fall, and Societe are always on the rotation. Swami's IPA from Pizza Port has pretty much permanent residency in my fridge at home.
What are some of your initial core beers?
Our first set of beers will be Panoramic Pale Ale, a strong pale ale featuring Mosaic, Simcoe, Cascade and Centennial hops. Beaufort Black, an American style Stout. McNair's Session Ale, a 3% Scottish 60 Shilling. Ray Street Red, a hoppy American Amber Ale. Hop-Fu! our flagship American IPA will follow shortly thereafter.
The second round of beers will include a yet-to-be-named Pilsner, "Scolari's" a Double IPA, "Covington", a classic Cream Ale, and "Pierpont's Reserve", an Imperial American Porter. We're not planning to slave to a core set of beers and will follow more of a brewpub model. Our patrons will tell us which beers we should brew more of based on what they drink the most.
Can you expand on the background of "Hop-Fu!"? What makes it such an award-winning beer and how do you plan on translating the recipe into a large batch?
Hop-Fu! is the result of years of focus and attention to detail at every step of the process. I started developing the recipe in 2006 and made many tweaks over the years based on feedback in competitions. I focused on all of the details that the style guidelines call for and built a recipe that hit on all of the flavor profile characteristics rather than highlighting just a few. I believe I have all of the tools and knowledge in place to make the commercial version of Hop-Fu! virtually the same as the version I have been brewing at home. There's a batch going right now, so we shall see if my theory works in the coming weeks. If not, we'll get it dialed in pretty quickly.
Kelsey McNair is the Proprietor and Head Brewer of North Park Brewing Company. He has 12 years of award-winning homebrewing experience and over the years have released commercial collaboration beers with Stone/Ballast Point, Mike Hess Brewing, Left Coast Brewing, Beachwood Brewing & BBQ, Benchmark Brewing, and Fall Brewing. He has not brewed professionally prior to this venture. Visit North Park Beer Company for more information or grab a pint at 3038 University Avenue (corner of University & Ohio in the heart of North Park, San Diego).