Chapman Head Brewer Brian Thorson
In the era of IPA, it’s refreshing to walk into a brewery today where the beers on offer range from the new and hazy to the clear and classic. Chapman Crafted Beer is the creation of long-time restaurateurs, beer enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs who staffed the venture with seasoned beer-industry veterans to ensure that the whole experience, from the taproom to the finished pint, is easy and memorable.
“We’re in one of the few historic downtowns in California, so we wanted to have beers that appeal to anyone who walks through the doors. That means lagers, IPAs, and whatever else the brewers want to make that will make everyone feel welcome,” says Jonas Nemura, the brewery’s general manager.
Over and over again, employees at the brewery talk about the diversity of the tap list (there’s a red ale that’s usually on, for goodness sake) and how the brewery should be a place for all. It’s not just because of the push by Randy Nelson and Will Dee but also because of the brewery-savvy clientele that exists in this particular part of California, especially since the 3-year-old brewery is just a 17-minute drive from The Bruery.
“While the bars might not have been too craft-centric, people in the area certainly have come to expect a certain level of quality from local breweries,” says Nemura, who previously worked at The Bruery.
The brewing team routinely cites how lucky they are to have the blessing to create a balanced portfolio of beers. In an era where if you can sell sixteen taps of hazy IPA, then that’s what ownership wants, the brewers are happy to create choice on each line.
The 20-barrel premiere stainless brewing system with 200 barrels of capacity gets a good workout on most days, and the resulting beers are packaged and served in the taproom that resides in a renovated historic building that once housed a garage or sent out to accounts in the area.
“We do the beers of the moment, such as New England IPA, but I get to brew a Pilsner frequently, and that’s very satisfying and gratifying. Most brewers don’t get to do that. We also make an amber ale with all Cascade hops, and it’s so much fun to make that beer,” says Lead Brewer David Hall. “We actually went looking for some Cascade hops recently when we ran out and had a brew day scheduled, and we had local brewers scratching their heads, asking what we used Cascade for.”
By offering beers that aren’t necessarily sitting at the cool kid’s table these days, Chapman Crafted is able to appeal to the beer drinkers who still like diversity.
“It’s a hot topic for us, and we fight hard to keep balance. On our sales-and-distribution side, we work hard to find customers who like more traditional styles. That can be hard, but when you do find them, you know they are passionate,” says Sean Higginbotham, the brewery’s head of sales. “And then in addition to the lagers and ales, we balance it out with the milkshake IPAs, all the lactose beers, and fun nitro beers.”
The brewer leading the team is Brian Thorson, who has spent a career working at well-respected breweries on both coasts, notably time at Harpoon Brewery (Boston, Massachusetts), Trumer Brauerei (Berkeley, California), and Drake’s Brewing Co. (San Leandro, California). He innovated and learned techniques at all three, and he puts them into practice each day at Chapman.
“I like to brew to taste, not necessarily a style,” says Thorson. “I am a nitpicker on some styles, such as lager and Pilsners. I want people to come away from drinking those beers and knowing it is how it’s supposed to be done. But, I’ve brewed IPAs on the West Coast and the East Coast. I’ve done hazy and clean, and it comes down to whatever tastes good, tastes good.” In any given week, they are experimenting with beers, but he enjoys playing in the lager space. This means you can find a Märzen when seasonally appropriate or a hoppy lager that receives the DDH treatment normally associated with IPA.
He’s wary of kettle sours, and while they’ve added fruit to recipes in the past, he’s still partial to a traditional Berliner weisse, with no flavoring added. While that takes some drinkers a little bit of time to get used to, there are others who appreciate the simple complexity of the unadorned style.
But, it’s hard to ignore the fondness for red ales and other amber-hued beers on offer. It’s delightfully old school, which brings a smile to long-time craft consumers’ faces but also, because of the reputation of the brewery, introduces the brewery to new drinkers.
A recent tap list included not just the 5.2 percent ABV, 25-IBU amber ale, but also a red coffee ale and an amber lager.
“If you cornered me these days, I guess I’d say I’m a lager brewer,” Thorson says. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t make pastry stout. Everyone has a preference, and my take is that if someone enjoys that experience, we should have it for them. But, personally, I like beers that are on the cleaner side.”
As you can see by the brewery’s scores in the review section of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, Chapman’s beers are worth seeking out. For now, at least, it seems like a visit to Southern California is your best bet to taste the full lineup in one area.
“In the same way we focus on a broad portfolio, we also think about how the beer gets to people. We self-distribute in California, and we’re looking at Oregon and Washington. There are people on the East Coast who would like us to come in, but that’s not the mentality we have. A lot of the beer we are making does well when it’s close to home, and we have no desire to build a $10 million production brewery just for the sake of production,” says Nemura.
“We’re working hard to make sure each beer we make goes into your glass at a high level. We need to make sure it’s always available fresh.”
Paying Dues and Rising through the Ranks
Brian Thorson, the head brewer of Chapman Crafted Beer (Orange, California) has spent his career rising through the ranks and going through the paces of brewery life. Aspiring brewers often ask him what they can do to break into the industry and find a rewarding career path.
Thorson has worked for some of the country’s better-known and well-respected breweries, including Trumer Brauerei (Berkeley, California), Harpoon Brewery (Boston, Massachusetts), and Drake’s Brewing Co. (San Leandro, California). To the curious, he says it really “depends on where you’re coming from, how old you are, and what you’re expecting to get out of the industry. It’s not easy. It’s a slugfest. And while it’s changed over the past few decades, even if you start off pushing around kegs, it’s going to be a tough life. The pay isn’t great either.”
He compares rising through the ranks to that of a chef’s career. There’s education, the grunt work as practical experience, the eventual taking on of responsibility, and then opportunities to strike out on your own or be part of something bigger. But, there are always proving grounds.
“It has to be about the love and passion because there’s a lot of paying your dues,” he says.
The other aspect is getting a rounded education. At all of the various breweries where he worked, Thorson was able to immerse himself in different styles, from the early American craft IPAs on the East Coast to the hoppier versions on the West Coast, and then the discipline that comes with making the same Pilsner over and over again, hitting specs each time.
“Getting good at making one style, learning about the whole process of just one beer, is incredibly valuable,” he says. “Exploring different styles is good, but knowing how to make at least one beer exceptionally well is enormously valuable.”