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Breakout Brewer: Abnormal Beer Co.

Abnormal lives up to its name. In a city long known for beer, especially the dank hops-forward West Coast IPA, the owners also chose to open up a winery embracing the other California beverage of note.

John Holl 3 months ago

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Photo by Jamie Bogner

Editor's Note: This article appeared in our Oct/Nov 2017 issue. Since its original publication Derek Gallanosa has departed Abnormal Beer Co. for a new brewery in Sacramento, California.

It’s a typically busy Friday night at The Cork and Craft, home of Abnormal Beer Company, and Head Brewer Derek Gallanosa is making the rounds. Where some brewers might prefer hanging back among the stainless and hoses, Gallanosa is very much a man of the people. Hopping from table to table, passing on hellos, or sharing beer recommendations with regulars, he seems to be most at ease when talking about beer, especially theorizing on IPAs.

Abnormal lives up to its name. In a city long known for beer, especially the dank hops-forward West Coast IPA, the owners also chose to open up a winery embracing the other California beverage of note. Coupled with what they call the “fine restaurant” experience, the business does indeed stand out in a landscape dotted with more traditional brewery tasting rooms—all while being located in an office park twenty miles north of San Diego’s old town.

When he’s not at the restaurant or his brew house, Gallanosa is spotted around town (or in the classroom where he teaches beer marketing at San Diego State University) palling around with fellow brewers and tasting offerings from around the country. “I’m inspired by other products, not just with beer but with food as well. It’s two different things,” he says. “Between trying styles that I already produce, I’ll ask how I can improve upon it or how I can try something different. If it’s an unusual style or recipe, I’ll see how brewers use or play with a base and then think about how it will pair with our menu.”

On a late-summer morning, Gallanosa is getting ready to debut a session IPA later in the week. He is excited, in part, because the recipe contains a bit of the Old School. It’s a 5.9 percent ABV (because that counts as a session in Southern California) IPA hopped with Cascade and Simcoe that he calls an “IPA Light.”

“I didn’t want to release just another IPA in San Diego. We have a lot of IPA drinkers here, and a good chunk of them want variety when it comes to hoppy. I wanted something that I could drink, too, and what I found was that most people think a session is too thin, a little too watery. So I went for the middle, something with body that isn’t quite a session, isn’t quite a standard.”

In using more traditional varieties of hops, Gallanosa was already expecting the “oh, it’s hops” reaction to the aroma from hardened IPA drinkers who prize the newer varietals that give off such aromas and flavors as mango and guava as opposed to citrus and pine. And while Gallanosa hopes that the well-versed drinkers will find pleasure in the pint, he says he was more eyeing another category of customers.

“For the beer geeks, maybe this won’t be as appealing,” he says. “But, we have people coming in to the restaurant with fellow office workers for happy hour, and this is built for that crowd. For those people, it’s appealing, and, for those who don’t know hops along with those beer geeks who do, hopefully this is a teachable moment because I think people have been going from IPA to Pilsner, and having this lighter style still gives the crowd what they want.”

What They Want

Gallanosa followed a path well-trodden by fellow brewers. In 2007, he was at a friend’s house where his friend’s father was homebrewing. Gallanosa was aware of beer, but shocked to see that it could be made at home. He bought a book and some equipment and started brewing. After college, he became an assistant brewer at Karl Strauss—the long time San Diego brewing powerhouse—and joined the sales team as well. In 2014 he started at Abnormal.

Splitting his time between the brewery and sales calls in those early days helped forge his experience today. Every time he puts a new beer on tap, he must consider how it will sell, and while that has very much to do with taste, it’s also the broader experience.

“Making beer that you like and making beer that you like and that you can sell are two different things. You need to be able to move the product. After all, it’s a business at the end of the day. It’s why feedback and demand lead to the supply,” he says. “The hazy IPAs coming out now are not going away. While I still prefer West Coast IPA, we’re making hazy now, and I have four on tap, compared with three West Coast.”

When unleashing that new style on his customers, he looked to standard bearers of the style—including Tree House (Charlton, Massachusetts) and Monkish (Torrance, California)—for inspiration but didn’t ask for a recipe. Gallanosa says he tried the beers and then developed them to his taste, trying out different malt bills (when making his first, his supplier ran out of unmalted wheat, he says) and hops before settling on recipes.

Experimentation is key, and flavor is personal. One thing he discovered was that lupulin powder, a product becoming more and more popular and prevalent, wasn’t giving him the flavors he wanted.

“For the price you pay, it creates a lot of yield, but the aroma suffers,” he says. So he stays with pellets and has found that varieties such as Mosaic and Idaho 7 give the citrusy and stone-fruit assertiveness he wants along with a certain pungency that boosts a hazy IPA. Plus, “I don’t have to use a lot to get a lot of flavor,” he says.

Finally, rather than crawling with a small pilot batch, Gallanosa jumps right in with twenty or thirty barrels. The demand is there, so it’s best to have the supply.

Growth on the Horizon

Aside from IPAs, Gallanosa’s favorite style is lambic, but he knows that it won’t sell at the restaurant, at least not as much as the hoppier styles. But with a new warehouse space offsite, he’ll be able to start playing around more with wild yeasts. He was inhibited, obviously, in the past because of fears of contamination to the winery. The new location will let him slowly start pushing spontaneously fermented ales on his customers and begin adding them to the beer dinners that Abnormal has quickly become famous for.

Those dinners not only feature the house beers, but Gallanosa also pulls from the cellars of other local breweries, featuring rare pours from the likes of Modern Times and the Lost Abbey. In fact, the dinners—usually limited to fewer than fifty people—often sell out even before the menu is posted.

Customers will give you one chance, he says. If you deliver that first time, they’ll trust you and come back again and again.

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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