The brew scientist: Brian Brewer from The Brewery at Abigaile
Brian Brewer has heard it before. No, he didn’t start brewing because of his name. He did it in the name of science. Really.
He was a 17-years-old science geek growing up in Riverside. Just down the street was a home brew shop, and he convinced his parents to let him try his hand and making a batch of beer.
“I was an experimental youth, interested in science and creating something out of nothing,” Brewer said. “I was always taking things apart and figuring out how to put things back together.”
His first batch was honey red ale. He wasn’t impressed with it.
“It didn’t turn out that great, but I still drank it, not necessarily to get drunk or anything,” Brewer said. “My parents were supportive. They knew I was responsible.”
What they could not have known was he’d just begun his career. As is the case in most science experiments, more can be learned from failure than success. Brewer broke everything down and tried to figure out what went wrong. And, perhaps more to the point, how things could have gone more right.
He’s been doing this ever since, and earlier this year became the brew master for The Brewery at Abigaile in Hermosa Beach. Though few who drink the fruits of his labors consider the underlying science underlying, the lessons Brewer derives from each batch are a big part of the reason he’s making brews that local beer cognoscenti regard as some of the most revelatory beers being made in the LA area.
“If you don’t know the science behind brewing, you don’t really know brewing,” he said. “You don’t need to use it on a daily basis once your get your methods perfected, but if you don’t understand the science you don’t have a way of resolving issues that arise in the brewery and you are going to have a lot harder time developing recipes.”
In this sense, the failure of his honey red ales was a pivotal point for Brewer. He learned very quickly what to do and what not to do.
“Sanitation was of the utmost importance,” Brewer said. “If you don’t know microbiology, and you don’t understand there is wild yeast and bacteria floating all around us all the time and it can get into your product, then you are going to fall victim to it at one point or another in your brewing career.”
It helped that located in his hometown was the influential Riverside Brewing Company, which in the 1990s produced some of the most respected microbrews in the region. Brewer was able to witness a professional brewing process first hand. He later learned the brew master had gone through the brewing program at the University of California Davis.
Though he began at UC Davis as a chemical engineer major, then business, he eventually realized that brewing combined the hands-on science he was attracted to with an output – good beer – that he deeply loved.
“I was like, ‘What am I going to do with all these science classes I took?’ Then it all kind of fell into place,” Brewer recalled.
Many warned he’d be poor the rest of his life.
“At some point you have to go with what interests you over a big paycheck,” Brewer said. “Of course I could have gotten out of school and taken a business job and worn a suit and tie to work every day and hated my life. What good is money if you are not happy? So I tried to find a balance between making a fair living and doing what I love.”
He interned with a few brew pubs after college and studied under award-winning brew master Hans Johnson, then took a job back at Riverside Brewing Company, which was no longer in its heyday as a brewery. The original brewer was long gone and the management wasn’t as passionate about its product, so eventually Brewer left. He decided he wouldn’t brew any more unless it was with people who felt the way he did.
In 2007, one of the most esteemed craft breweries in the nation, Stone Brewing in Escondido, offered him a job brewing, and though it didn’t pay well enough for him to stay more than a couple years, the lessons he learned there made a lasting impact.
Brewer was working construction when Jed Sanford, the owner of Abigaile, asked him to revive the newly launched restaurants’ brewery. Brewer, who is 35, had been brewing half his life.
“You know what? The time was just right,” Brewer said.
Sanford was at a similar juncture. He’d opened the Union Cattle Company with his brother, Allen, and some friends when they were all in their 20s. The bar, which featured a mechanical bull and sporadically brewed beer with a brewing system inherited with the venue, was a wildly popular nightspot. But Sanford, as he hit his 30s, had the dawning realization that he no longer liked coming to work.
Thus was born Abigaile. The decision to change a business that had thrived wasn’t a business decision. It was about passion. Sanford wanted to create a restaurant where every ounce of every product was made with thoughtfulness and care.
“The main thinking behind it was a big commitment to craft food and making sure everything we do is with the best ingredients we can find,” Sanford said. “So this naturally included making our own beer. Abigaile is about making everything in-house….the brewery is a big part of that. People understand the unique quality of craft food, and craft beer goes together with this. The two things are perfectly synergistic.”
Brewer spent months gutting, cleaning, and rebuilding the brewing system, which was functional but not up the standards he had developed in the course of his brewing career. “Let’s just do it right this time,” he told his co-workers at Abigaile.
There is an audacity in the entire Abigaile undertaking, and Brewer’s sensibility as a brew master is in keeping with it. His first brews included a strong ale that had a whopping 10.2 % ABU. The beer used five different kinds of malts that were bourbon soaked with oak chips, which Brewer charred with a blow torch, himself. He also produced a Hibiscus Flower Wit and a Black IPA with rye. He’s particularly made his name locally with Abigaile’s Orange Blossom Blonde, EPA, and Bourbon Vanilla Porter.
Sanford describes the brew master as “an artist.”
“There is this almost diamond in the rough commitment to doing the Abigaile thing,” he said. “We have this amazing brewer and amazing beer. I found the right talent in the kitchen and the brewery – there is artistry in making food, and artistry in making beer. You can have all the right tools, but if you don’t have the right talent it doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t think most people understand how much goes into making good beer,” Sanford added. “It’s not just a little bit of this, a little of that, and see what happens.”
Brewer agrees that brewing combines artistry with science. If he’s a scientist, he says, his vibe is of the “mad scientist” variety.
“It’s the perfect marriage of art and science, really,” Brewer said. “And physical labor.”
Join Brian Brewer and brew masters from three other local breweries, Strand, Monkish, and El Segundo Brewing Company on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m. for a celebration of South Bay beer at Abigaile, 1301 Manhattan Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310)798-8227.