A conversation with Brian Thompson: Owner of Telegraph Brewing Company. March 9th, 2012
Aften: Let’s move on to my favorite subject: food and beer. You mention on the website that your beers are crafted to be paired with food. I’m all about beers and foods, and incorporating beers into food. A fun thing for me recently has been making beer ice creams. If you could choose one of your beers and have it turned into ice cream, which would you choose?
Brian: Well, there was a guy who used to come by the tasting room a lot and he used to make a Stock Porter sorbet, which I thought was really delicious. But I think our Rhinoceros Rye Wine has a real bold sort of earthy, fruity character.
Aften: That could be good with some figs I bet.
Brian: Yes, that would be an excellent combination. You know, the California Ale might work but I think I’d probably vote for the Rhinoceros.
Aften: What’s one of your all-time favorite beer and food pairing, Telegraph or otherwise?
Brian: Oh, there are lots and lots. You know, I think in general our California Ale and grilled meats is a really nice combination.
Aften: That works.
Brian: It works really well because there’s enough flavor in the California to stand up to the bold smokiness of tri-tip or a pork tenderloin. But there’s a little hint of fruity, residual sweetness in the California Ale that I think can really draw out some of the sort of inherent sweetness in meat. We did just have brownies recently with Stock Porter, I thought that was a really nice combination, too.
Aften: That’s always a classic.
Brian: Thinking back over the beer dinners that we’ve done, white ale with a crab cake was a really, really nice combination. I think cheese beer and cheese is always great.
Aften: Two of my favorite things.
Brian: Stock Porter ale with nice sharp cheddar works really nicely.
Aften: So, is there any ingredient that has been calling to you that you’d love to figure out how to work into a beer?
Brian: That’s a good question. When ideas pop into our minds, we try to use them. Like for our Gypsy Ale, we used plums. In our Winter Ale, we use ancho chilies, cinnamon and allspice. Island Brewing down in Carpentaria, they make an avocado beer every year for the avocado festival.
Aften: I was going to ask if that’s possible.
Brian: I don’t quite know…I’ve never actually had it because I’ve never been to the avocado festival but I’ve got an avocado tree in my backyard and I’m not sure how the flavor would carry over, but people tell me it’s good. That hasn’t been calling to me I guess. Citrus flavors… I’m a big citrus guy. I grew up in Arizona and our neighborhood used to be a citrus grove.
Aften: Mine too! I grew up in Florida.
Brian: I grew up eating oranges right off the tree and grapefruit and lemons and so I have that in my blood. We do use citrus in a number of our beers. I really have been kind of digging some of the real kind of bitter-sour, like the Buddha’s hand, like the citron. I guess I’m not even sure what that’s called. Blood orange season has kind of come and gone. So, I really like the exotic citruses. I’d like to do some sort of a beer with the exotic citrus fruits that you find.
Aften: Okay. I want to talk a little bit about the Obscura beers. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to go down that route and what you’re hoping to do in the future with them.
Brian: Sure. So our first sour beer was the Reserve Wheat which is kind of a Berliner weisse, maybe west coast Berliner weisse-style. It has a lemon verbena in it so it’s a real sort of bright lemony, citrus character and the lactic sourness really comes through very nicely, but it’s very light-bodied. That was the first sour we did, and then we did a couple of others, like our Gypsy Ale. It was another sour although, a wild ale is more the term. You know, it’s not lambic level sourness. And I think as we started doing more and more of these wild ales, we thought well, maybe instead of coming up with a new name every time, maybe we should just put these all under kind of some other umbrella brand.
Aften: A beer series of sorts?
Brian: Yes, we wanted to keep the Telegraph identity, not separate but slightly separate, you know, Californian Ale, Stock Porter, the white ale, they’re not wild beers, they’re kind of our mainstream. They’re still very interesting and complex and still very drinkable beers, and they’re always going to be our bread and butter but we didn’t just want to be thought of as being just a sour brewery, because those were certainly the beers that were getting more attention, even though they were selling in very small quantities. The beer writers aren’t necessarily writing about another porter, but people are drinking a lot more of the porter than ever. So, we wanted to highlight the these wild beers, so we came up with the Obscura brand. So, just the beers that didn’t really fit under under the Telegraph brand will all be under the Obscura brand, even though it’s still Telegraph Obscura. And so, we wanted people to realize that when they see Obscura, if they know it, it’s going to be pretty outside the mainstream.
Aften: I remember the first time I had one. There’s a place called Venice Beach Wines that has a great beer selection and I had a Petit Obscura there for the first time. It was fantastic.
Brian: It’s a delicate little beer and I think it can get lost. You know, for somebody whose use to drinking Consecration or Arrogant Bastard, Union Jack, it’s a tiny little beer, but it’s supposed to be. I love it when people realize that it’s exactly what we intended it to be and it’s not some sort of mistake that we made.
Aften: Well, I was very excited to see when you guys started doing those beers.
Brian: Thanks, yes, we really like them and that’s the one thing we’re really looking forward to about the new space is that we’ll have more room and capacity to devote to the Obscura line because right now we just don’t have the capacity. People have been clamoring, distributors have been yelling at us because we haven’t had reserve wheat in months. Well, okay, so here’s the deal guys: It takes several months of aging time in one tank so that means we can’t brew enough California Ale or White Ale or the beers that you sell more of. And they understand that but everybody’s just sort of frustrated like, “Oh, we have so many requests for this beer.” Well, we know but we just can’t fit it in.
Aften: We’ll get there.
Brian: Right, we’ll get it when we can get it to you. And so we really want to have more tank space and more aging space and we’re very excited about it because those are exciting beers. Not that we don’t think that the California Ale and the White Ale are interesting, we still like drinking them.
Aften: Different time and place.
Brian: Exactly, right.
Aften: So for your brewing equipment, did you guys get it used from somewhere or did you buy it new?
Brian: Well, the original stuff we bought, the brew house and four fermenters were all bought used.
Aften: Where did you get them from?
Brian: Funny story actually.
Aften: There’s usually a good story behind brewing equipment.
Brian: So, it was up in Boston when we bought it. We bought it from Sherwood Forest brewers and they were in the Boston suburbs.
Aften: Gotcha. The name’s a little silly.
Brian: But they had brought it from a brew pub in Manhattan, Yorkville Brewing, up in sort of the upper east side, like way upper east side, like 97th street, where I had been when I lived in Manhattan. I had a friend who lived up there and I saw this equipment back then when we would visit. It didn’t even register to me then but I saw this equipment in a brewpub years ago and, we ended up buying it and brewing from it, which I thought was a nice cycle of life.
Aften: That’s very cool. So did you get into brewing in college or did you just start with homebrewing?
Brian: I started homebrewing in college. I was a German minor and I did a presentation on beer, because I was a beer drinker, and one of my TAs in the class said, “oh you really should try homebrewing.” So, Oak Barrel Wine Craft up in Berkeley is a great home brew shop- one of the really early pioneers- they’ve been around forever. And really helpful guys. Homer, I think was one of the guy’s name, which seemed appropriate, and yes, they helped get me up and running and…
Aften: Were you good at it?
Aften: I’m still working on it
Brian: I remember my friend Alan, he was my roommate in my sophomore year. I didn’t start brewing until my junior year but he was my first test subject so I’d brew a brown ale, that was my first batch. I called him and said, “Hey Al, these beers are ready to drink. Do you want some?” “All right.” Went over to his apartment, cracked a couple open, I poured it into a glass. “It’s not going to kill me is it?” “No, no, there’s nothing in beer that can kill you.” “All right.” He was very hesitant and I don’t remember…
Aften: It’s free beer.
Brian: Right, free beer. I don’t remember if it was particularly good, it wasn’t bad.
Aften: He didn’t spit it out?
Brian: He was pleasantly surprised. He said, “I’d buy this.” Of course, in college you buy any beer. But then I just got really into it.
You want drink some beer?
Aften: Yes, let’s go have some beer. I would love to. It’s about that time.
After that, Brian and I descended the stairs from the office space that overlooks the brewery to join Paul, the brewer (he has been brewing for about 2.5 years and went to Siebel), and a few others, to try some beers and have more casual conversation. I had a great time and everyone I met was awesome. These guys know their beer and the business of beer and I am really glad I had the chance to spend some time with them.
I always enjoy hearing someone else’s perspective and hope to conduct more interviews like this in the future.
Many thanks to the whole crew at Telegraph Brewing for letting me crash the place for the afternoon. I can’t wait to go back and I encourage all of you to stop by if you are in the area!
Telegraph Brewing Company
416 North Salsipuedes Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Tasting room hours: Thursdays from 4 to 6 pm,Fridays from 4 to 8 pm, and on Saturdays from 2 to 6 pm.