Alpine Beer Company

From the Source by | Apr 2013 | Issue #75

Inside Alpine Beer Company, Pat McIlhenny watches as a line forms outside his small California brewery. Word had gotten out that Alpine was releasing the coveted Exponential Hoppiness—a Triple IPA that bursts with hop flavor and aroma. McIlhenny, the brewery’s founder and brewmaster, and general manager Steve Lejman gear up for the influx of thirsty regulars inside the modest storefront that used to house a TV repair shop.

Alpine Beer Company looks like you might imagine a small brewery in a small mountain town might look. The location is unassuming, snuggled in tight next to a quaint bookstore. The scenery is Southern California in all its glory. This was a dream location when McIlhenny opened it in 2002. It was the perfect place to fulfill his very simple goal.

“I opened this place to take care of the town of Alpine,” McIlhenny says. “What it turned into is not of our doing. We don’t advertise. We never will. That’s part of our business philosophy. We let the beer speak for itself. If you like it, great. If you don’t, there’s plenty of other places you can try out. Make good beer. Everything else takes care of itself after that.”

McIlhenny and his son, Shawn, who’s been the brewer since 2005, have made enough good beer that demand has far surpassed supply. When asked how hard it’s been to keep up, McIlhenny’s response was just one word: “Impossible.” With an eye toward satisfying demand, McIlhenny decided to find a way to brew more beer. A physical expansion within the Alpine community is still on the distant horizon, but in the meantime, he has begun the process of signing a contract to brew 5,000 barrels of beer at a yet-undisclosed location.

“Pat’s been sort of forced into it,” Lejman says. “I don’t think it was ever his intention to have to go this route, but obviously you can see if you look out the door, there is demand for the beer. It’s much better than the supply. We’ve been telling people no for new accounts for the past five years. We can’t even satisfy our existing accounts—we’ve had to put limits on them.”

McIlhenny was loath to give up any details of where the beer will be brewed because the contract hasn’t been signed yet. But, he says, “I can tell you that the place has a phenomenally good water supply, and that’s the primary reason for picking it. The water profile will ultimately be very similar to what’s here.” McIlhenny adds that the only beers brewed out of town will be Duet, Nelson and Hoppy Birthday. All three are in high demand, and none make use of Alpine’s hopback—which will not be available at the contract location.

A Simple Approach
McIlhenny, a retired fireman, started Alpine as a contract operation in the corner of a cold box at AleSmith Brewing Company in 1999. “In 1983, when I decided I was going to open my own brewery some day, the steps were being put in place then,” he says. “It started by my homebrewing. I didn’t look at homebrewing as a ‘la-de-da, oh geez, we’ll see how this turns out’—it was purposeful and done with an intent. I took good notes and made entries into competitions, and took the judges’ notes on how to improve the beer until I was winning awards. Then I would try to perfect the next style the same way—take notes, perfect it as much as possible, and when it won a significant-enough award, I would move on to the next one. I had eight solid beer [recipes] before I ever opened the doors.”

But his plan never included expansion. Many breweries that have been operating since the late ’90s have grown in staggering ways since their inception. But Alpine remains settled in its little nook of San Diego County, in the same building it’s occupied for the past 11 years. They distribute only within the community of Alpine, plus a few draft accounts in San Diego.

Part of that is due to the fact that a previous attempt at expansion was thwarted when a 30-barrel bright tank was stolen off a piece of property where Alpine Brewing hoped to build its new brewhouse. But in truth, Alpine remained small for so long because getting big was never McIlhenny’s focus.

“We make good beer. That’s the philosophy,” he says. “It’s not earth-shattering. There’s no revelations there. The thing I learned from my dad is quality always sells. If you make a good whatever-it-is, you should be successful. You can look at many, many other examples of that in today’s world.

“Is General Motors going to go out of business any time soon? Probably not. Their general line is probably mediocre at best, but they have Cadillac. They’ll forever be successful because they have a good, high-quality car that they’re going to sell. Even if their other dogs don’t, they’ve got one that will,” McIlhenny says. “It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that either.”

Pure Hoppiness
Be it brewed in Portland or San Diego, a West Coast IPA brings to mind bursts of citrus and herbs, with a sweet caramel backbone. And when it comes to hoppy beers brewed in that West Coast tradition, Alpine does not disappoint. “We are a bit hop-centric here,” Shawn McIlhenny says. “We do enjoy our IPAs. We like our hoppy Pale Ales, and we enjoy the stronger side of IPAs too. But as far as the beers go, we try to use the highest-quality malt we can find, as well as the yeast. Having a good, clean water supply doesn’t hurt either.”

According to Shawn, it is the water at Alpine that makes their beers so special; from Pure Hoppiness, a West Coast Double IPA, to their Oatmeal Chocolate Stout, one of the offbeat beers that round out the rotation. But when the fans line up for a stealth beer release, it’s because the hopheads are coming, and they’re coming in droves.

The Brewhouse
– 10-barrel brewhouse built by Pub Systems
– 4 10-barrel fermentation tanks
– 4 20-barrel fermentation tanks

What’s On Tap
Alpine Ale: A well-balanced Pale Ale with a clean taste. 5.5% ABV
McIlhenny’s Irish Red: A versatile beer with a caramel sweetness and a roasty finish. 6% ABV
Pure Hoppiness: A West Coast Double IPA brewed with a copious amount of hops; uses Alpine’s hopback. 8% ABV
Mandarin Nectar: An Orange Blossom Honey Ale brewed with honey and fresh orange zest. 6.5% ABV
Captain Stout: A beer that reflects owner Pat McIlhenny’s life as a fire captain; has rich coffee notes and hints of chocolate. 6% ABV
Duet: A West Coast IPA brewed with Simcoe and Amarillo hops. 7% ABV
Willy: An American Wheat Ale that’s crisp and light bodied. 4.9% ABV
Nelson: A Golden Rye IPA that balances the spice of the rye malt with the assertive flavors of Nelson Sauvin hops. 7% ABV

What He Said
“We get hounded, daily. Until you experience it, you can’t understand the frustration. Five phone calls a day from liquor stores and restaurants wanting to carry our beer, the same amount of emails—every day. … We’re only trying to respond to that.”– Alpine founder Pat McIlhenny on the motivations behind expanding