Mike Hinkley, founder and CEO of Green Flash Brewery in San Diego, is a genial guy. But when I asked him how someone might make an easy transition from drinking Coors or Bud to his brews, given that there are other far more approachable “craft” beers around, I think I got his dander up just a bit.
“It never dawned on us to make something already being made,” he responded emphatically. “This brewery exists to make our beer.” By which he means not only the foundation West Coast—on which he holds the trademark, so “West Coast style IPA” and “West Coast IPA” are one and the same—but a variety of quirky brews ranging from pale ales to double stouts, devised through his collaboration with brewmaster Mike Silva.
As proof Mike places in front of me two glasses. Into one he pours West Coast IPA and into the other Rayon Vert—“Green Flash” in French. Rayon Vert, he explains, is “a time travel beer. Imagine you are drinking in a Belgian Village pre-World War II. Those breweries made one beer at a time that was suitable for the occasion and fit the people and their spirit.” Rayon Vert is, to Mike’s perspective, what West Coast IPA would taste like if it were made by that prewar brewer, down to the period-correct wild yeast with its distinctive “barnyard taste”.
Belgians are always a bit forward to me with their yeast and their alcohol but this was spectacular. And after a few comparative sips the flavor of the malt become more apparent and you can see how similar the formulas are. I don’t see Anheuser Busch, or even Sierra Nevada or Samuel Adams, taking on a project like this. (By the way, this is a taste experience you can enjoy yourself because both Rayon Vert and West Coast IPA are distributed nationally in the bottle. Just be sure to pour both beers into glasses and give them a few minutes to open up before tasting.)
“We want you to wonder about the beer, not feel comfortable with it,” Mike continues. “It’s an adventure and discovery into what craft beer can be—not a perfect example of a beer that already exists. Green Flash is an intellectual, interactive experience. We want you to think about the beer.”
To this end the tasting room is organized with tables facing the brewery so customers can see “our passion, our commitment, our investment and how hard we are working.” Every detail is carefully monitored—from the rotating selection of food trucks that provide sustenance on the patio to the massive overstaffing of the bar so even on a busy night “you can have a five minute conversation about beer with the bartender.”
We tour the brewery, and my attention is quickly drawn to a network of hoses at the keg filling station. This is part of an intricate CIP (or Clean inPlace) setup which is photographed by virtually every competitive brewer who visits. (Unlike software or pharmaceutical companies, brewers love to reveal their trade secrets with the idea the market is plenty big for everyone.) CIP is a system of pipes and hoses and nozzles running throughout the plant which will deliver exactly the right chemical and rinse to easily clean kegs and other equipment with a minimum of supplies and water and time out of production. It’s one of many well-engineered processes in a facility that was custom-designed by Mueller for Green Flash.
Green Flash has a 50 barrel brew house which is capable of 400 barrels a day, but is limited by the sixteen 250 barrel fermenters. Once a few more conditioning tanks are installed, the brewery will be at full capacity of 100,000 barrels per year assuming a 5 day a week, 24 hour a day schedule. They moved to their new location in June 2010 from another brewery where they’d operated since 2002 producing 50 barrels per day. A picture of that old brewery hangs on the wall—“the Ford pickup that paid for the Ferrari”.
Green Flash has also acquired a 9-acre Virginia Beach, VA location where he basically plans to replicate the San Diego Facility. It will save on freight, reduce environmental impact, and get beer to market faster in the east coast market where Mike already sells 35-40% of his product. He emphasizes that “this will be a San Diego brewery in Virginia beach, not an east coast style beer.”
I came to Green Flash on a personal voyage of discovery which began when I relocated to upstate New York and found myself with virtually unlimited access to fine IPAs in the keg. West Coast IPA distinguished itself and became my preference for its perfect balance of a citrus nose and the bitterness of aggressive hopping offset by the brassy sweetness of well-conditioned malts.
I was pleased to learn the personality of West Coast is no accident but is part of a relentless quest for beer individuality. I used the word “balance” above and that’s really what it’s all about. Green Flash takes it out on a limb in an extreme direction, like a surfer on a huge wave or a jazz musician with an outrageous riff, then somehow finds a way to bring it home in a way that leaves you feeling exhilarated.
Another example I tasted on this trip was Imperial Red Rye, part of the Hop Odyssey series in which “we take hops in a bunch of different directions”. And I finished with Candela, a collaboration with Cigar City in Tampa Bay, FL. Candela means “green cigar” so the wordsmiths are at it again. This complex dark ale, accented with cedar spirals, really does taste like a fine cigar smokes. A very small run was made for the Great American Beer Festival and is only available in the tasting room (no growler fills at any price). There’s still about half the run left, so I guess I will have to schedule a return trip.