by Chris Galvin
Smack-dab in the middle of San Francisco’s picturesque Noe Valley neighborhood is the Elizabeth Street Brewery. This isn’t just any old brewery; this is a neighborhood public house located in a man’s garage. Yep, a super man-cave.
Since 2003, Richard Brewer-Hay (yes, his last name is Brewer-Hay) has opened his “man- cave” to countless craft-beer enthusiasts, family, and friends to share his award-winning home brews for free. But, this souped-up man-cave isn’t just open to any person, you have to wait patiently for access to his garagepub via his secret Twitter beer signals.
Just before the 2010 Craft Brew Convention in Chicago we caught up with Brewer-Hay at his ESB pub and talked shop.
How did Elizabeth Street Brewery and your ultimate man-cave all come about?
My wife and I moved into this house in January of 2002. Originally this room was used for garbage and when I saw the room for the first time, I immediately knew that it had great potential to be a man-cave. We painted the walls red and the ceiling white, and at first it was a room for my buddies and I to play poker. I’ve had a dream of opening a brewery, but with the way the economy has been there wasn’t a chance of us opening a pub anytime soon. So I just decided to come up with a name for a brewery. We live on Elizabeth Street and ESB is a typical English-style beer and I liked the play on words. So, we just called ourselves the Elisabeth Street Brewery. And then in 2005, after a couple years of being married, my wife wrote in to the Discovery Channel’s T.V. show “While You Were Out”. They came out while I was out of town and when I came back my wife and the whole crew had updated the room to be a pub. And it was unbelievable.
When did you start to brewing beer?
[Before we got married] all my friends were saying that you’re marrying your best friend, and you have to come up with some sort of [hobby] that doesn’t have anything to do with your job or with your wife. My family is from the North of England and a good friend of my aunt and uncle lived next door to a pub that was making their own beer. They had beer piping out from the garden and into the pub. I tasted the beer and the beer was great. I saw how the pub owners were making the beer in their kitchen just on the stove and entering it into home brew competitions in England. I figured out I could do that too. So, in 2003, my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Bali when I came up with the idea to start brewing beer.
The first batch of beer I made was in October 2003 and I poured it in December of 2003. We had some friends over for that first beer. My wife had pulled them all aside and said that if it was not good just let me know and I’ll pour it out. Everyone was really shocked because it turned out to be really good and I’ve been brewing every since.
How do you come up with your recipes?
I do session beers with simple recipes with premium ingredients, back to basics. I think any one would be hard pressed to argue that American beers are not some of the most adventurous and complex beers in the world right now — very hoppy, strong, and double-digit ABV, and I love these beers and have a â€˜fridge full of them, but I think there’s also a need to scale back and offer more session beers. I’m all about session beers and I like to keep them at no more than 5 percent ABV. Every so often I’ll make a big beer, but it’s out of necessity that I make session beers because when I’m brewing I don’t want to be getting buzzed. For me it’s about having a few pints and social drinking. I think it makes people feel good and there’s a market for it.
Back in January 2010 you did a collaboration beer called the Imperial Jack with Shaun O’Sullivan ofÂ 21st Amendment Brewpub for San Francisco’s Strong Beer Month. How did that come about?
I used to work for a tech company that was right next door to the 21st Amendment and used to go in there all the time after work. And I got to know everyone working there. Then, back in 07, my father and I went to the Craft Brewers Convention in Austin, TX. and we ran into Shaun there. There was an instant connection and we hit it off well and we’ve been best friends ever since.
Last year Shaun and 21st Amendment were making the rounds with tasting home brews and Shaun approached me and said they would like to brew the Elizabeth Street Bitter for the Pro Am at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival. We made the batch, but I think there was too much gypsum and it didn’t turn out as I liked. Then, this year, he called me in January and said that we should try to make that same beer again, but make it for Strong Beer month. I said, I would really love to do that. So we doubled the grain bill and lowered the gypsum and dialed it into where we wanted it to be and it turned out to be really good. We entered it into this year’s World Beer Cup. If we win, that would be amazing. [Editor’s note: Imperial Jack won a Gold Medal at the Craft Brewers Convention’s World Cup of Beers.]
I get just as much passion out of making a good beer and drinking it as I do with talking to people. There are a number of reasons why I do it. I love to meet people and I love to make them smile. It’s all about community. Recently, the local NBC affiliate voted us the best secret spot in San Francisco. We’re reviewed on Yelp. And the Pub has kind of evolved. Every Monday a few friends and I, who are in the brewing business, work on a business plan to open up a family-style brewpub right here in Noe Valley.
I have a day job and I have all the perks of running a brewery and none of the headaches of running a brewery. I have the customers, good beer and nothing but great feedback, but I’m kidding myself that this is how it’s going to be when we open the family-style brewpub. Right now there’s no money involved because we don’t pay any salaries or make more than 100 gallons a year. I think what we’re doing right now is as good as it is going to get. Even when we are distributing beers all around the world, it’s never going to be as good as it was when we were in this room.