Like many brewers of contemporary hazy and sour styles, Alvarado Street Brewery cofounder and brewer J.C. Hill is more enthusiastic about the Pilsner they brew than you might expect. His approach to brewing is less focused on iconoclasm, and more driven by an uncalculated love of the vast array of beer styles.
Hill caught the brewing bug in a roundabout way. His plan was always to work in the hotel or restaurant business, and a stint at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration put him on the professional career path. Fate intervened when his wife purchased him a beer kit, setting in motion a string of events that would lead to him opening a craft beer-centric sandwich shop, then the 3-barrel brewhouse of Amplified Aleworks (with then-partner Alex Pierson) in San Diego, and finally a return to central California to launch Alvarado Street Brewery with his dad (also a veteran of the hospitality industry).
“I just wanted to come up here, run my own brewpub, be the brewer, and make beer. But I got caught up in the love of it, and ended up driving a bunch of kegs up to Santa Cruz in my truck to places like Aptos Street, Beer Thirty, and Lupulo, and demand just went up from there,” said Hill. The brewery’s reputation quickly skyrocketed and demand has shown no signs of abating.
For a business with seemingly conservative goals, in a town with a median home price of $750,000, the move into more progressive styles might seem like a fluke. It wasn’t part of the initial plan, but it wasn’t not part of the plan, either. Hill’s the kind of guy that loves to tinker, and while he has a deep respect for tradition, he doesn’t feel bound by it. It’s not an either/or equation for Alvarado Street. While they might have made a name for themselves with progressive styles, that will never be the only thing they do.
“We still love West Coast-style IPAs, and California Ale yeast is still our workhorse around the brewery,” said Hill. “We love lagers too—we invested in a couple horizontal lagering tanks. Firestone Walker Pivo Pils, Russian River STS Pils—those are my desert island beers, so I’m very inspired by them.”
The jump into the more turbid side of IPAs started with one beer, Contains No Juice, which they brewed with few expectations for the first time just over a year and a half ago. Initial batches were fermented with Vermont Ale yeast, but when their yeast provider, Imperial Yeast (out of Portland, Oregon), suggested they experiment with a blend of Vermont Ale and Saccharomyces Trois, they were quick to try it. Hill doesn’t have the scientific proof to back up the claim, but his sensory evaluation of the beers co-pitched with the two yeast strains has convinced him that biotransformation is happening after packaging.
“After we package it and it conditions cold for a week or two, I think you get some biotransformation effect because it’s a completely different beer than when you taste it off the fermenter. It gets crazy fruity, like it’s on steroids. But on the same point, that fruitiness will start to drop off after six weeks or so. These beers are designed to be consumed fresh-ish, but after one or two weeks, something magical happens in some of these beers.”
The term they use for these beers—“IPAs with expressive yeast,” is a term they borrowed from their friends at Cellarmaker Brewing Co. IPA drinkers aren’t conditioned to think of yeast as a primary contributor to the overall flavor (that’s what the hops contribute, after all), but Hill is trying to drive that point home through their menu descriptions.
Brewing with co-pitched yeast can be a significant challenge, especially in a production brewery where cropping, washing, and reusing yeast is standard practice. Hill and his brewing team continuously experiment with new techniques to get better results.
“When you’re dealing with two different yeast strains that work at different temperatures and flocculate at different rates, it can be a little inconsistent batch to batch,” said Hill. “Since we had Vermont and Saccharomyces Trois on hand, we started blending it on our own, and that’s worked well. But it’s also great that these labs are progressive and pushing it.
“We’ve experimented with pulling from different parts of the cone, or rousing the cone a little bit after discarding the unwanted yeast. Pulling from the racking arm. Blending from the cone and racking arm. We’ve tried a bunch of different options, with the blend. No matter what we’ve tried, we’ve found it tends to turn straight Vermont after 4-5 generations, which is fine because Vermont is a wonderful strain.”
One key to consistent results with temperamental yeast is proper pitch rates—cell count is important, and their brewing team is meticulous about making sure enough cells are in solution to create a clean fermentation and not stress the Saccharomyces Trois. Temperature control is equally important with the strain and things can go funky quickly if temperatures get out of range.
While the yeast blend is one flavor workhorse in their beers, hops do play a significant role as well—they’re IPAs, after all. Hill and team spend less time packing excessive amounts of dry hops into the fermenter, and more time focusing on where their hops came from and the aroma quality of the hops lots they use. “That’s something that’s becoming more and more key to consistency,” said Hill. “Making sure the aroma pops. That’s the goal—we really brew for aroma, and yeast is a big driver of aroma.”
When planning a new beer with a new hops blend, the team uses the reverse engineering approach.
“We envision the beer—what does it taste like, what does it smell like, what’s the body, what kind of aroma are we going for,” said Hill.
From there, they draw on their experience with hops varieties and build a hops bill that will give them the desired aroma and flavor. If there’s any question, they sometimes take an IPA sample from the tank, put it in a crowler with hops pellets from the desired dry hops blend, throw it in the cooler to crash it, then taste and evaluate the result.
Hill is also an unabashed fan of kettle-soured beers, and waves off critiques that they’re not traditional or that they’re overly simplistic. That simplicity is a feature, not a bug, in their kettle-soured beers.
“There’s a time when you want a beer that’s been barrel-aged or aged in oak, with all that complexity. That’s something we take very seriously, and we decided to create a whole separate brand for that—Yeast of Eden—our wild and sour project. The kettle side is Alvarado Street. With our hoppy beers, we’re trying to capture bold aromas and flavors, and we try to capture the same when we’re working with fruit, so kettle sour is just the vessel for that. I love kettle sour. It has a bad rep, but there’s a way to create clean lactic acidity and a clean fermentation and layer on the fruit to create a refreshing beer.”
They use oats rather than wheat to add body to the beers, and the kettle sour process they use is one that’s becoming more common—they push wort into a purged 60bbl brite tank, inoculate with Goodbelly probiotics, give that Lactobacillus Plantarum 24 hours to create the desired acidity level, then pump it back into the kettle for an otherwise normal brewing and fermentation process.
“24 hours later if it smells like lemon lime Gatorade, we’re good to go,” said Hill.
A continuous focus on improving quality is the hallmark of every great brewer, and nothing is sacred in the Alvarado Street brewhouse. Hill has a restless energy that keeps him moving, and no recipe or process remains untouched.
“There’s no beer we put out that isn’t slightly tweaked to make it better,” he said.
While some brewers prefer a tighter stylistic focus, Alvarado Street is comfortable with their mix of beer that both serves their Monterey locals and beer geeks to their North in the San Francisco Bay area, even if the taproom menu at times looks like a laundry list of every beer style imaginable. If there’s one principle that they use to create order in that list, it’s personal passion—if they aren’t stoked to drink it, they don’t make it.
“We don’t want to just pivot to the next trendy style,” said Hill. “We brew IPAs and hoppy beers with expressive yeast because we like to drink them and we like to see what’s possible, but we’re not going to stop brewing lager beer and West Coast hoppy beer because we love that too and it’s a part of us. As long as we’re true to ourselves and we’re brewing what we like to drink, and we’re trying to educate as much as we can about what’s going on with these beers, we’ll be fine. We want our passion to show through in our product.”