Serious Eats: Drinks
Behind the Scenes at Speakeasy Ales & Lagers with Head Brewer Kushal Hall
For most of us, the idea of working in a craft brewery sounds pretty cool. In reality, we just want to hang out with a pint in one hand. But is life in a brewery really like that?
"Generally, we're not just sitting around drinking, talking about beer. We're scrubbing drains and getting burned by caustic and all that good stuff," explains Kushal Hall. Hall learned this from experience. He started out at Speakeasy Ales & Lagers with a position on the bottling line, working his way up until, now, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, he's the head brewer.
It's no small operation that Hall finds himself in charge of: last year, Speakeasy produced 13,000 barrels of beer, and they're aiming for 20,000 this year. The mischievous eyes that serve as Speakeasy's logo seem to appear on a tap handle in just about every bar around San Francisco, and their bottle distribution around the country grows every year.
Hall recently gave us a tour of Speakeasy's brewing facility, and then sat down to share his perspective on the world of craft brewing.
Building a Beer Career
Hall told us that in the period after he graduated from college, he had moved back home to Los Angeles where he ended up home-brewing every month with his father. He soon figured out that his future lay in beer, and so he moved to San Francisco with the idea of finding a job in a brewery.
After trying to find an internship, Hall realized that he just needed to get his foot in the door, and took a non-brewing job on Speakeasy's bottling line that he'd seen posted on Craigslist.
"I worked on the bottling line for about a year and half or so and slowly moved up to a position where I was helping train other employees on the bottling line," Hall explained. In the meantime, he would come in early to learn from the folks doing the actual brewing, and eventually got promoted to a job brewing beer. Last March, not yet four years into his tenure at the company, Hall was promoted all the way up the ladder to head brewer.
Mistakes Along the Way
Thinking that Hall's rise at Speakeasy must have been the result of an unblemished record of perfection, we wondered aloud whether he'd even made any mistakes along the way. Hall laughed, hard, when he heard this.
"So many! I've made a lot of mistakes," he said. "During my second or third week on the job, while I was on the packaging line, I opened the door to the mash tun thinking it was empty when it was full, and dumped an entire mash on the ground. I was sure I was gonna get fired. But, they were just like, 'Well, you're never gonna make that mistake again!'"
There was more. "Once," said Hall, "I managed to completely drain the CO2 system for the building, leaving it running over the weekend."
Just for good measure, he added one more story, even though this one wasn't actually his responsibility: "This was nobody's fault in particular, just a bad door on the fermenter, but the door actually tore off the fermenter. The entire tank of beer just spilled into the building. The whole place was full of foam. It took us two days to clean it out. There's nothing you could do to stop it, so we just stood there and watched it until it was done. And then it was like, 'Get some squeegees!' That was a nightmare."
Life as a Head Brewer
Hall admits that life as a head brewer is different than he imagined. "Being a head brewer involves a lot more doing paperwork on Excel, and making phone calls, and writing schedules, than actually brewing beer. I probably spend, at most, 20 percent of my day actually physically brewing beer now. I have shift brewers who do most of that work."
Not to take the bloom off the rose for all you aspiring head brewers out there, because Hall clearly loves what he does. "It's still very fulfilling. For me, the part of the job that I like the most is working on new recipes. Building recipes, tasting the beer, seeing those changes come about. That's something I'm definitely working on every week."
When talking about the flavors in Speakeasy's regular stable of beers—such as Big Daddy IPA and Prohibition Ale—Hall told us, "We don't want them boring. We want them strong and noticeable, and kind of poignant examples of the style they're meant to represent, but we also want them to be balanced and drinkable and generally something that you want to have a couple pints of. We call them West Coast sessions. They're all mid six-percent alcohol, but you can drink a few pints of them and it doesn't wreck your palate or anything."
In addition to these tried and true flagship offerings, Hall says Speakeasy usually has a couple of new recipes moving through the tanks every three months or so. Right now, they're focused on barrel-aged beers.
These barrel-aged brews will be pretty heavy duty. Take the imperial stout they're working on, which has a working name of Two Minutes to Midnight, and is currently aging in bourbon barrels. Hall envisions you drinking it out of a snifter. "It will be something that's heavy, it's boozy, it's chocolaty. You sip it and drink it slow." he explains.
Speakeasy also recently added a program to produce four seasonal beers each year which they sell in twenty-two ounce bottles. They hope beer drinkers will see this sizing as an excuse to try something new, maybe share a few sips with a friend, without having to commit to a six-pack of unknown beer. So far, the seasonal line has included their Betrayal Imperial Red, their Scarface Imperial Stout, and their Butchertown Black IPA. Next up is a beer called Vendetta, which Hall describes as a strong, citrusy IPA that they brew using Seville orange. It's an updated version of Agent Orange, a beer they produced for the five-year anniversary of local bottle shop City Beer Store.
The Future of Craft Brewing
We are always curious what beer professionals see in craft beer's future. Hall worries that the rush of new breweries opening up these days isn't completely sustainable. "I expect that there are a lot of breweries opening right now that aren't going to be around in five or ten years," he says.
He also talks about the growing sophistication of American beer drinkers and the diversity of beers that interest them. "There's going to be way more beers in many more different styles. That's the nice thing about the American beer scene. I mean, Belgian beers are great, but Belgians only brew Belgian beers. If there's a French beer that's coming out that's a whole new thing, we [American brewers] can steal it and brew it. (Laughs.) We can brew some Swedish beers, or whatever we can get our hands on. There's no end to what the American brewer has in their palate."
Want to sneak a peek behind the scenes at Speakeasy? Check out the brewery with us in the slideshow above.
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He occasionally gets his tweet on as @pizzakover.