Down the rabbit hole – an interview with Jacob McKean of Modern Times Beer

It was Friday afternoon on the weekend of Indy Man, and we stopped off at Brewdog for a post-walk beer. I didn’t fancy anything from the Brewdog range and the guest taps had been cleared in advance of that evening’s tap takeover, so I scanned the fridges until my gaze settled on a trio of cans with an unfamiliar but striking design. Having consulted the barman I decided to go for what he described as “the hoppy one”. The brewery was Modern Times Beer, and the beer was Blazing World.

When we try a beer for the first time we form an immediate opinion, be it good, bad or indifferent. Taste is subjective, and in these days of social media-savvy breweries and the online hype machine, we need to separate the buzz from what’s in the glass. However, some beers simply blow us away and, for me, Blazing World did just that. Enjoyed on that sunny October weekend in Manchester, it dominated my thoughts in the ensuing days. I had made plans to meet friends in Clapham the following week, so made sure to visit the local Brewdog bar for more of the same. It states on the can that it is hoppy, dank and amber, and while hoppy and amber are easily understood descriptors, I’d never fully got “dank” as a flavour profile until I drank Blazing World. It’s a gorgeous, alcoholic fruit juice of a beer – I felt like I wanted to drink all of it, all of the time, and it was a wrench to leave the pub that evening.

I decided to find out more about the Modern Times, and spent the better part of that weekend researching the San Diego-based brewery. Founder and owner Jacob McKean – homebrewer, freelance writer and former Stone Brewing Co. employee – decided to jack it all in to start his own brewery in 2012. His first challenge was raising the finance, a trying ordeal that he details in this Beer Pulse editorial. He started a blog in order to document his journey, which gives a candid insight into the trials, tribulations and indeed jubilation of setting up a brewery. It’s well worth a read; my excitement grew with each post, as I shared Jacob’s joy when the first beers were tapped and the brewery finally opened for business in July 2013. Although nowadays the blog is mainly concerned with job vacancies and upcoming events, the early posts are as honest as you would expect from someone who posts every detail of his brewery’s recipes online.

Modern Times has come a long way since then. Thanks to a deal with Stone Distributing Company, its beers can be found in much of California and beyond, and capacity has grown exponentially in order to meet demand. There are now two Modern Times tasting rooms in San Diego – one at Point Loma and the other in North Park – and you can even buy Modern Times coffee beans, roasted onsite at the brewery. Motivated out of pure self interest, I decided to get in touch with Jacob and (among other things) get an idea of how long we can expect to enjoy Modern Times Beer in the UK.

BG: Tell me about where your passion for beer came from – was it sparked by a certain beer, a eureka moment?

JMcK: My eureka moment came in Chicago at the legendary Hopleaf bar. I got a pour of Tripel Karmeliet, and as soon as I tasted it, everything came to a screeching halt. From there, it was down the rabbit hole.

Your initial recipes were devised in partnership with Mike Tonsmeire, “The Mad Fermentationist“. How much of an influence has he been on Modern Times Beer to date, and is the relationship ongoing?

The relationship with Mike worked so well because we started from essentially the same point. When we discussed his homebrews, our tasting notes were almost entirely the same. So that shared perspective allowed us to refine those concepts together into recipes, which I needed Mike’s help to brew since I was completely consumed with trying to get the brewery off the ground. We’re still very much friends and we talk beer whenever we can.

You describe Modern Times as an “open source brewery”. Can you elaborate on this, and tell me whether it has led to any significant recipe alterations (i.e. as a direct result of homebrewer / customer feedback)?

In everything we do, I try to be as transparent as possible. It’s just part of my ethos. So we share our recipes to encourage homebrewers to tinker with them. It’s mostly about giving back to the community that gave me so much. We haven’t made any major changes to our recipes based on the feedback, but it’s definitely been fun.

You’ve often stated you’re “a fan of under-promising and over-delivering”. Is this a way of positioning Modern Times vis-à-vis other businesses, or simply a case of translating your personal values to your approach running a brewery (and in doing so managing expectations)?

Definitely the latter. It’s always nicer to be surrounded by people who are pleasantly surprised.

Some of the UK-based craft beer breweries I admire pay their staff what’s called the “living wage“. You appear to offer generous terms and conditions to your employees. Is this – or should it be – an essential requirement of a craft beer brewery?

I mean, I think it should be an essential requirement of work. We absolutely pay everyone here a living wage, but I think it’s bizarre that that’s essentially at my whim.

Modern Times has expanded rapidly since its inception. Where do you see the brewery in five or ten years time? How ambitious are you?

The short answer is: very ambitious. For better or for worse, I dream big. I see Modern Times becoming a global purveyor of incredible beverages that is synonymous with beautiful, otherworldly spaces and art. I think we can do that and actually become an even better version of ourselves, rather than a diluted version.

Are you concerned by the increasing number of craft beer breweries being acquired by the likes of AB InBev? And being based in California, what are your thoughts on the Department of Justice and the California Attorney General’s enquiries into allegations that AB InBev is buying up distributors with the intention of edging out smaller breweries?

I am not concerned. This is the same strategy they’ve pursued elsewhere (and is fairly common in other industries) and it doesn’t spell the end of the world. Frankly, I think they’re flailing, and I wouldn’t expect them to remain committed to any one strategy for long. I am very heartened by the investigations, but this has been an open and shut case for the last 50 years, so I’m also a little exasperated. Hopefully they will someday investigate the anti-competitive trade practices (i.e. bribes and dirty tricks to get on-tap) these companies employ routinely as well.

I happened across Blazing World by chance on a visit to the Brewdog bar in Manchester. How did the Brewdog deal come about, and how long is the relationship expected to last? Does Brewdog have exclusivity on importation and distribution for the duration of the contract? And will we see any Modern Times seasonals or special releases in the UK?

It still kind of blows my mind that Blazing World is being poured in Manchester. Brewdog reached out to us a while ago after they ordered some coffee through our online store. We’ve kept up the conversation ever since, and we had a one-time opportunity to send them some beer, so we jumped at it. We hope to start distributing in the UK regularly within the coming year or so, which would include the full range of what we brew.

As you know, the UK has a long, unbroken tradition of brewing and therefore direct comparisons with the US aren’t always helpful. Currently, no definition of craft beer exists over here, and a it’s a contentious issue. However, increasing anxiety among some of the UK’s new wave of craft beer brewers about the term being hijacked by macro breweries has led to the formation of the “United Craft Brewers” – are you aware of this debate, and do you have a take on it?

I’m not aware of the UK version, but I’ve been lightly involved in it here in the U.S. The Brewers Association here has waffled between defending the term craft and insisting it’s merely a data set. Personally, I think it’s a valuable designation, and we should not allow it to be hijacked by frauds.

Finally, just for fun, give me your top three desert island beers (but not your own!).

Orval, Cantillon St Lamvinus, and Three Floyd’s Zombie Dust.

There you have it. An ambitious brewery making good beer, headed up by a full-on beer geek. As someone known to flip-flop when it comes to the issue of defining “craft beer”, it’s reassuring that even the Brewers Association has “waffled” on the issue, and Jacob’s attitude to AB InBev’s machinations is similarly heartening. Better still, it’s good to know Modern Times Beer will soon become a permanent fixture in the UK. If you didn’t get the chance to try them this time they’re well worth keeping an eye out for. The core range is completed by Fortunate Islands – a hoppy wheat beer; Black House – an oatmeal coffee stout; and Lomaland – an “earthy, rustic Belgian-style farmhouse ale”. There’s also an extensive range of seasonal beers and special releases. I’ve no idea whether any of them will have the same impact on me as Blazing World has had, but I can’t wait to find out.

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