Fieldwork Brewing's Alex Tweet on Beer

Eno Sarris, June 01, 2015

Fieldwork Brewing's Alex Tweet isn't in it for the money ("I've always been poor, I'm cool with it, this is about something else"), he thinks the beer industry is really awful at making beer sound good ("yes let's drink this cat-piss and horse-blanket beer") and yet he won't read reviews (or taste his own beer until it's on tap). But the former Ballast Point and Modern Times Brewer did have a lot of interesting things to say about where he's been, where he's going, and how beer should be made. 

It seemed a shame to cut any of this into some narrative born of the writer's mind. Instead, here are two beer people talking about a new brewery while drinking beers made on the premises. Well, that's how it started at least.

Eno Sarris: We met at Modern Times a little while back. You're from San Diego? 

Alex Tweet: Yup, born and raised. 

Eno Sarris: And your partner Barry Braden?

Alex Tweet: He's from Danville, but I met him in San Diego, because he owned a craft beer bar in the neighborhood I lived in. So I was two blocks away. So he sold it, and he was kind of spinning his wheels, thinking of what he was going to do next, and that was a little after Modern Times won Rate Beer's ninth-best top new brewery award, right around when that happened, we had mutual friends, they said to me I had to meet Barry and met him, great guy, real hospitable, and I loved his business, his restaurant was awesome. And after we won that award, he hit me up, and he said, now's the time, let's do this. We'd talked about, one day, we're going to do an all-sour brewery. 

Eno Sarris: Did you have your fingerprints in one of the Modern Times beers in particular? Was one of them 'yours'?

Alex Tweet: People always ask me about Modern Times. People always think they're going to get dirt from me about the place. 

Sarris: I'm more interested in saying something like "Blazing World" was his! 

Tweet: I always like to focus on the cool things that Jacob and crew did there because he definitely did have a very collaborative direction with beers. One of the reasons I was really excited about helping there was that he had worked with Michael Tonsmeire, the Mad Fermentationist. I had known Michael online for a couple years through home brewing and talking to him, and I'd asked him before, why don't you do this professionally. And he said "I've got a great government job, I have vacation, I have a pension, I have great health care, I have no desire to give that up to make beer."

So when I heard he was involved in that project, I was like, I have to be a part of this. I learned how to home brew from his book. Literally. My first all-grain batch I jumped on Mad Fermentationist's blog and read, step by step. So for me, it was kind of catharctic to come back around and work with him. 

So when we did our first four beers -- which are still the core four -- he showed the recipes. Lomaland, Blazing World, Fortunate Islands, and Black House. When Jacob showed me the recipes for them, I just started laughing. I literally home brew almost these identical four beers. The only one we didn't change was Fortunate Islands. That beer was so perfect from the way Michael developed it that we didn't even touch it. Blazing World, we tweaked that one, we had some tests. 

Sarris: Did you add some fruity hops to it? It's the fruitiest amber IPA I've had. 

Tweet: So Jacob actually had -- and this is another thing I love about the place, and why I had to be a part of it -- when Jacob and I were talking, he mentioned how he wants to take two beers that he loves and merge them into one. 

Sarris: Are you going to tell me what that was for Blazing World?

Tweet: Blazing World was Surly Furious and Alpine Nelson. 

Sarris: Oh my god. That's what it is! 

Tweet: He had this love for all things Surly, which is one of my favorite beers of all time too. So I heard he loved Surly, I love Surly too, let's do this. Down to the pint cans we wanted to do, the branding we wanted to do. For someone that I fought with some, we have such incredibly similar likes in regards to beer. Blazing World, though, we tweaked it a bit and added Simcoe and Mosaic in place of Palisade and something else, and it changed around and got a lot fruitier like you said. 

Sarris: It's a fun beer. 

Tweet: Yeah. The saison was almost identical to the homebrew saison I made. All of them. Fortunate Islands, I used to do a session beer identical to that. I was stoked when I saw that, apparently I know what I'm doing. I was still a little insecure, do I have what it takes. 

Sarris: You would say that you were able to let your creativity out a little more there, where at Ballast Point, it was more, here's the beer, brew it? 

Tweet: Totally. That was one thing I loved, and Jacob let us do that. Every beer there was born of either collaboration -- we sat around and talked about a beer after Jacob gave us an idea, and we'd bounce it around until we had a recipe. To be honest, it can get frustrating working like that. If you have talented people, to me... 

Sarris: Too much talk and not enough do? 

Tweet: Yeah but at the same time, I feel like, this is just my personal opinion, if you were to grab a bunch of talented brewers and have them brew a beer together, it wouldn't be as good as having one from each. It's like having Van Gogh and all these artists together and tell them, why don't you all agree on this painting and how to do it? It would be a disaster. 

Sarris: That explains, in a way, how you can learn, and have a great experience at Modern Times, but also want to leave. 

Tweet: He did let us, once in a while, take the reigns and run with it. So Booming Rollers was one that I got to take the reigns on before I left. 

Sarris: Tap room only right? I think it was on tap when I met you. 

Tweet: Originally. Now it's in cans, and I'm sure it's changed some. Monster's Park was Matt, the head brewer. We needed an Imperial Stout, and he said screw it, and did it. Those were easier. 

Sarris: When you came up here, it's a bit of a homecoming for your partner, but for you... was there any sort of thought that this market was less developed than San Diego? 

Tweet: That was actually part of the whole idea. When we were bouncing around ideas, him and I both first thought: central coast wine country. Him and I both adore the wines coming out of Paso Robles and other places.

Sarris: Oh and you have this idea to going to wilds and sours later! 

Tweet: That was what we were thinking -- sour brewery, central coast, let's do that. But our idea started morphing, changing, and I threw out the idea of the Bay Area, and he was like 'yeah.' Up here is not as ... I don't like to use the term 'saturated' to describe San Diego, because it's not saturated...

Sarris: Crowded?

Tweet: Yeah that's a better word. 

Sarris: Yeah I talked about that with 32 North when they started down there, and told them he was crazy. In Miramar even. But he said, yeah, some people come to the area, and then they leave AleSmith and they come to us.

Tweet: Spillover.

Sarris: And also if I come to up to San Francisco and I say, yeah we're from San Diego, then the bars and distributors say, wow you made it down there. You're doing well, so let's go. 

Tweet: That's the first thing that shocked me when I moved up here. I went to a bottle shop up here and they had bottles of beer from San Diego that you can't get in San Diego because people won't buy it down there. So they're using San Diego -- I've always said San Diego could be the Napa of beer. 

Sarris: A brand almost.

Tweet: And it's well on it's way. If you send beer out to Japan and it says it's from San Diego on it, they'll buy it. Obviously it has the sticker label effect up here when you go to the bottle shop and you see these bottles, maybe not the best brewery, but it says San Diego on it. 

Sarris: So you come up here, you have a nice local scene here. A good drink local thing. 

Tweet: For us, we were adamant that it had to be Albany to Alameda, west of the hills. Because of the weather. We planned on doing a lot of sours and a lot barrel aging, so we didn't want to have to build an auxiliary cold box to store a lot of barrels, because it turns into a lot of work. I also went to college in San Francisco, I lived up here before, I absolutely adore the bay area. If I could learn to love the Mission style burrito, I'd be the happiest guy on earth. 

Sarris: I heard you talking smack on bay area burritos! 

Tweet: I always talk shit on the burritos up here. 

Sarris: Hey look, we don't all want fries in our goddam burrito. 

Tweet: I know, because not everyone can have good taste. I truly love San Diego style Mexican food. It's the style I love. But I have had some good Mexican up here, I'll be honest, the taco trucks are on point. I loved living in San Francisco, and we came back up, and I fell in love with the East Bay. Rebecca, who owns Beer Revolution, was an absolute darling, took me in, let me crash at her place. Thank god for her, I wouldn't have anywhere to go, I would have been sleeping on top of the cold box. 

Sarris: This Farmhouse Wheat is nice, it has pretty thick mouthfeel. 

Tweet: I like the yeast that we use in there, you get a little mouthfeel, but it's still bone dry. That thing finished at four tenths of a point plato, it's dry. A lot of the mouthfeel comes from the wheat. It's pretty dang clear but it's about 44% wheat. You do get the mouthfeel but it's super dry.

Sarris: I like it. It's really nice. 

Tweet: Thanks.

Sarris: Will your beers have a theme, other than building towards the wilds as you said? You say honest beers on the website. Are there things you wanted to do when you finally got your chance? 

Tweet: I'm finding myself very recently doing all the things that I said I wouldn't. I swore I'd never brew a Triple IPA. Brewed one today. It's in the tank. I said I wouldn't brew a pilsner. 

Sarris: Why not a pilsner, that's not an overdone style? 

Tweet: Not that it's overdone. To me, Triple IPAs are just not done well, very often. 

Sarris: So much alcohol...

Tweet: Syrupy sweet, and for some reason, for me, when they get that big, the hop characteristics get kind of muted, and they get less enjoyable. With our Triple IPA, our whole goal was, I wanted to make a Triple IPA that drinks like an IPA. If I succeeded is a whole other matter. I want one that's not syrupy sweet, not intensely malty. 

Sarris: Not a barleywine under cover.

Tweet: Exactly, because that's what they are.

Sarris: Look at Avery's Hog Heaven, it's labeled as a barleywine. 

Tweet: That's a *great* beer! I haven't it had it in probably five years. That's the hoppiest barleywine I've ever seen. I want a triple IPA to taste like a damn IPA and not be overly boozy. 

Sarris: So I'm hearing true to style?

Tweet: Just true to my palate.

Sarris: So give me a top three IPA so I can get a sense of your palate. 

Tweet: Oh.. three?! 

Sarris: Okay just some ones you love.

Tweet: It's not an IPA but Firestone Walker Easy Jack is one of the greatest beers of all time. Pivo Pils, another one of the greatest beers of all time. 

Sarris: A Firestone palate!

Tweet: I genuinely think they are that good. Alpine Nelson is one of my all-time favorites.

Sarris: So fruity beers, not afraid to go there.

Tweet: No, that's my style. 

Sarris: What are your favorite hops to work with, that's another way of saying it. 

Tweet: Citra and Mosaic. 

Sarris: Love Mosaic, all that fruit, and it doesnt' cost as much as Nelson. 

Tweet: Well, you can't get Nelson any more. I have contracts for one year of Nelson. Next year, maybe. Next summer. I only get it for one year, and everyone's crazy for Nelson. Maybe I'll just bitter with it to be a dick.

I like hoppy beers... If there's anything that can sum me up... it's I like beers you can drink three of. Daphne from Cellarmaker, they call it a hoppy blonde, it's great. 

Sarris: I taste a little bit of that in your Hugo. It's got a little bit more hops than your average French Table Beer. 

Tweet: I try to use hops where they belong. So sometime's it's all super grassy, a little Sorachi Ace for lemon. I like Saaz. Saaz in the whirlpool gives you the grassy, floral character. 

Sarris: Nice. So you got the whirlpool, the nice big setup. Anything in barrels yet? 

Tweet: No. Not yet. We start barrel aging in two weeks. 

Sarris: I'm ready for the pale ales. Should I get that XPA first? 

Tweet: Yeah, Watershed. So the barrels. We're going to start with our rye whiskey, Eliza, our New Orleans Ice Coffee Imperial Milk Stout, that's going into rye whiskey barrels, and then we're taking some Hannah and some Hugo and we're going to age those in Syrah Pinot barrels and age those on Brett. 

Sarris: So they're going to get a little tart?

Tweet: No, not tart persay. Brett can kick off a little tartness, but for the most part, those beers are already so dry, that really it's just going to be the Brett interacting with the esthers that are already there, eating whatever it wants. 

Sarris: Horse blanket?

Tweet: Yeah, hopefully getting a nice funky hay character out of it. Probably blend em together. 

Sarris: So you're not afraid of Brett. You got some back there, and you're keeping it clean? 

Tweet: Not scared. 

Sarris: Do you have to do special things to keep the wild yeasts at bay? Really stay on top of it? 

Tweet: At Modern Times, we did the same thing we're doing here, we just...

Sarris: Oh wow. Oh shit. 

Tweet: Oh yeah so that's the Watershed extra pale ale. 

Sarris: You know one of my favorite beers is AleSmith XPA? 

Tweet: Oh if I could add that to my list from before. It's one of the most perfect. 

Sarris: This is like an XPA with a little mosaic in it or something. 

Tweet: That's Galaxy. It's Galaxy, Amarillo, and then the Southern Cross we got..

Sarris: I could drink that all day, dude, that is SO good. 

Tweet: Thank you. 

Sarris: Oh man.

Tweet: That's a beer I brew for myself. 

Sarris: It's what you were talking about. Drinkable but with taste. It smells good, it looks good, I won't be drunk after one. 

Tweet: That's the point, I like low alcohol and I like heavy aromatics. I want to drink three. From a brewer's standpoint, there's nothing better than when a bartender pours your beer, and as they are pouring it, someone sitting down asks what they are pouring based on smell. 

Sarris: So what about when you get to canning or bottling. Isn't that stuff the first thing to go away? 

Tweet: Aromatics? Yeah, that's why we're never going to really grow past our quality. We are a decent sized brewery, 25 barrell - 

Sarris: But you're not bottling or canning - 

Tweet: No, not yet. We will be bottling hopefully before the end of the year. I don't want to can out of here because it doesn't suite our business model. We don't have flagship beers and we don't do year-round beers. I tell everyone I have a 50-barrel pilot system. 

Sarris: You want to be a chalkboard brewery. It's out, take it down. 

Tweet: Yup. Every beer we've got on now... I've brewed one of them before, the Farmhouse Wheat. 

Sarris: But what about if I say, and everyone says, Watershed is the best, five start rating, go get it if you can (like I'm saying now)?

Tweet: Well, we'll bring beers back and forth. The way I describe it to everyone is that it's the solar system. Our draft line, that's the sun. Every planet beer is going to come and go at their own pace. Pluto might be some funky sours that come around every ten years. Mercury is going to be the Farmhouse Wheat, maybe Burning Daylight, that's the only beer that we've brewed twice so far. They'll all come and go at different rates, and then we'll have a slew of one-offs that we make just once. One and done. We have single hops series that is that by concept. One hop, one malt, yeast, one time only, that's for one person that has done a lot for us. It's called our Saint Series because we've gotten a lot of help. 

Sarris: I like single hops because they are also great for beginners to understand what they like and don't like. 

Tweet: We're also going to change the base malt and the hops every single time. Never repeating. It's more eductional that way. 

Sarris: You know, I was in San Diego recently and just missed a tap takeover in San Diego at Hamilton's if you're not bottling or canning? 

Tweet: Narcissism

Sarris: You wanted to come back home? 

Tweet: We've been working on this so hard for the last year, all I wanted to do was go home and see my family. Aaand maybe eat a good burrito. Really, it was an excuse to go and eat burritos. It's where all my friends are, I've spent the last year of my life being a hermit, watching Game of Thrones and working at a brewery. So it was a chance to go home and see all my friends and we love Scott Blair that owns Hamiltons, so we had some fun. 

Sarris: Well, congratulations. It looks great, the beers taste great, I wish you the best of luck. I'm going to stay and try a couple more, but I'd like to turn this thing off. Thanks for talking to me. 

Tweet: Sure, any time.