Brewing up an ale storm
MacLeod Ales in Van Nuys heads the San Fernando Valley beer community.
By Stephanie Meade, with Eric Blatz
Among the rows of auto body garages and jagged rows of cars resting on Calvert Street in Van Nuys peeps an unlikely street-side sandwich board sign. A Scottish glengarry hat stamped in black waves its tails atop the inviting script, “OPEN,” and moving closer, like a mirage in an industrial desert, a warm glow emerges from raised garage doors. Instead of steel and gasoline, the distinctive sweet and earthy scent of brewing beer, and the soft sound of light conversation and celtic melody welcomes the senses. Here resides MacLeod Ale Brewing Company.
Jennifer and Alistair MacLeod (pronounced Ma-Cloud) opened the doors to MacLeod Ale about eight months ago, after many months of planning and thousands in savings. For Jennifer, this project has been a balancing act between preparation and naivety.
“It’s kind of like having children,” she said. “If you knew what you were in for, you probably wouldn’t do it.”
Before opening, the MacLeods participated in a mentor program with an experienced brewery owner in Colorado, and partook in their own fair share of hands-on research by reading tons of blogs and visiting just about any brewery their cars could take them.
“Its kind of like … going off the top of a very tall mountain on a pair of skis,” Jennifer said with a laugh. “You just have to take that plunge, and just go for it.”
Business is moving. Since it opened, the brewery has doubled in production, said head brewer Andy Black.
“We’re coming up on a year old and we brewed about 54 batches and we still find a way to make the batches interesting and keep them moving in a positive direction,” Andy said.
“California breweries are all about strong and hoppy beers...It’s very rebellious to do the exact opposite.” -- Jennifer MacLeod
MacLeod Ale produces traditional, English-style cask ales. However, Andy emphasizes that they do also make keg beer for distribution, as most places in the U.S. do not have the required means to pour from casks.
Casks, or firkins, differ from their modern keg counterparts in that they do not have a mechanism to force carbon dioxide into the barrel as beer is poured. While keg beers are kept fresh and fizzy by keeping out oxygen and maintaining pressure with CO2, casks contain unfiltered beer which still contains active yeast. This mean that cask conditioned beer acquires carbonation in its final container, the cask. As a result, a single cask spoils within a few days of opening, while kegs can last much longer. That does not seem to pose a problem at MacLeod — the beer is getting drunk.
In addition to a less familiar pouring method, these traditional ales taste best served at a warmer temperature than what most Los Angeles beer consumers are used to — 54 degrees, to be exact.
Most people quickly warm up to these less-than-chilly brews. However, Jennifer said it has caused some confusion.
“We once had a customer ask for ice for her beer,” She recalled. “I wondered, ‘What is she going to do with that? Get a bowl and put the ice around the beer? Put it in the beer?’”
Jennifer agreed that she and Alistair had some apprehensions about exploring this primarily untapped niche.
“California breweries are all about strong and hoppy beers,” Jennifer said. “It’s very rebellious to do the exact opposite.”
Andy said IPAs make up about 40 percent of the craft beer market. Mohawk Bend hosted the First Annual Los Angeles IPA Festival last December.
“I know California has a reputation of having a lot of IPAs,” Andy said. “But Los Angeles has been a lager town much longer. Everyone forgets that.”
With events like Orange County’s FirkFest, cask ales are seeing a small resurgence in Southern California. This may be in part a particular cask trend: brewers have the ability to add fresh ingredients into a cask, such as coffee beans and citrus peels, in order to infuse experimental flavors into a beer.
Jennifer asserted that it is quality that consumers want, and that is what she believes MacLeod Ale brings to the table.
“A lot of people didn’t know that they'd love our style of beers,” Jennifer stated. “They wouldn’t necessarily even know what cask ale is, but the beers are good and they've fallen in love.”
Andy agreed. “I stand behind all the beers I make and I know that’s pretty typical to say, but I put a lot of work into these beers and I’m very proud.”
“What gets me excited about brewing is the historical aspects, doing the research, and looking at old methods, seeing if I can cull things.” -- Andy Black
Andy began home brewing while attending college in Burlington, Vermont. It was English style ales that inspired him. As an anthropology student, Andy explained that he was naturally more drawn to cultural and historical aspects of brewing.
“What gets me excited about brewing is the historical aspects, doing the research, and looking at old methods, seeing if I can cull things,” Andy said. “Doing cask ale, a lot of the modern materials, especially from the United states, aren’t particularly helpful, so you have to look at a lot of British sources.”
Andy’s home brewing activities focused on precision and process control. In eight years of home brewing, Andy only brewed four different recipes over and over.
“I throw all my creativity into making a perfect beer instead of making a beer just for my friends,” he said.
Two years after college, Andy found an opportunity to intern in the UK. He described that the UK model, having many more small breweries, creates hubs of traditions and methods that get passed on from person to person. He brought his knowledge back to the U.S., and began his first endeavor as a head-brewer at MacLeod Ale. Andy does much of the brewing on his own, with only one assistant brewer.
Spreading the Word
Social media has played a pivotal role in getting the brewery off the ground. Jennifer, who worked in advertising before taking time off from the working world in order to raise her children, has a particular interest in utilizing social media to spread word about the brewery.
“People gripe about Facebook charging for ads or for promoting posts,” Jennifer explained. “But honestly it’s so cheap compared to the money you used to have to spend for multiple magazine, newspaper, or radio ads to get your word out, and you had no idea if you were actually reaching your audience.”
Jennifer has found that having amazing beer is not enough to maintain success, citing that it is a constant push everyday.
“It has to be beer and darts, beer and a food truck, beer and cheese pairing, or beer and boardgames,” Jennifer said. “Social media is kind of a fun little laboratory for me to see what really works to get people excited coming in to try the beer.”
“I don’t think we could do what we are doing without social media, especially with our location,” Jennifer reflected.
Building a Community
"The time it takes to sip down a pint genuinely feels enriched by the company of others; be they family, friends, strangers -- or friends soon-to-be"
When searching for a location for the brewery, Jennifer did not end up having to wander too far from home. She has lived in the San Fernando Valley since attending college at Cal State Northridge as a music student.
“When we were looking for a location for the brewery we kind of cast a wide net, ” Jennifer explained. “I basically had an idea that I wanted to stay east of the 405 all the way to Pasadena.”
According to Jennifer, there are three levels of manufacturing zones in Los Angeles - light, medium, or heavy - and breweries require medium zones. This narrows the possibilities for potential brewery spots.
“Basically areas where you’ll find that kind of zoning are near the airports in Van Nuys and Burbank and along railroad tracks, like San Fernando Road,” Jennifer said. “There’s lots of buildings like that up in the upper end of the valley.”
So, why Van Nuys? Simply put, Jennifer and Alistair got lucky. After a few different locations did not pan out for some reason or another, Alistair, who was working in zoning at the time, happened across the “For Lease” sign while dropping off one of his workers in Van Nuys. While Calvert Street has an industrial section, it is sandwiched between residential areas. The brewery had found its home.
MacLeod Ales has turned into a blossoming community space in the San Fernando Valley. While it was not Jennifer’s original intention to bring together a community (“I just really wanted to sell some beer!” she piped), she is thrilled it has panned out that way. Jennifer hopes the brewery will spawn more community pride and involvement.
The brewery also offers up a space for a sort of small, community art gallery. A while back, Jennifer, who has a strong interest in the arts, approached SFV photographer and blogger (UpInTheValley.org), Andreas Samson, to provide artwork to display on the walls of the brewery. Jennifer is particularly fond of Andreas’ photographs, which often depict the grittier side of the valley.
The desire for a Van Nuys community space became apparent after a friend unfamiliar with the neighborhoods in Los Angeles, created a shirt design for Alistair and Jennifer as a gift. The shirts boldly declared the location of the brewery as, “Van Nuys, California” rather than simply “Los Angeles”. At first, Jennifer did not think that people wanted to express community pride in Van Nuys, but found a number of people in the area really appreciated the representation of the neighborhood. Jennifer asserted, “Now I won’t make a shirt that doesn’t say ‘Van Nuys’ on it!”
The brewery could not have opened its doors without vital help from community supporters, proven with the Beer for Life fundraiser.
“These are all the names of people that are in the Beer for Life Founder’s Club,” Jennifer said, pointing up at a large blackboard across from the taps.
This level-based donation program offered free-beer incentives for donators, with donation levels ranging from $500-$5,000. Donations insure a free beer from MacLeod, once a day (if claimed), for life, and free beers for friends as well, the higher the level of donation.
Founder’s Club members also get to partake in Test Batch Tuesday. MacLeod keeps 2 kegs, or 10 gallons free for staff to experiment with brewing. These staff brews are poured and sampled on Tuesdays.
“Everyone that works here has had some home brewing experience, I think,” Jennifer said. By providing employees with the means to brew, there appears unique opportunity to bring the staff closer to each other as well as to the craft.
“This brewery really was community built,” Jennifer emphasized once more, just before a brief interruption to give a hearty hug to an incoming visitor, and Founder’s Club Member, Ted Hall.
“This is Ted! He helped with the plumbing…And the lighting…and a whole bunch of stuff around the brewery! Hold on a minute, Ted, I’ve got a shirt for you in my office,” she said, hustling away briefly and returning with a plain gift bag.
The drawing appeal of craft brew is, of course, delicious and thoughtfully created beers, but also the community and conversation that accompanies the beer. While sitting with Jennifer and learning about the brewery’s journey, the time it takes to sip down a pint genuinely feels enriched by the company of others; be they family, friends, strangers - or friends soon-to-be.
Andy perhaps summed it up best.
“No one said it could be done, opening up an English brewery in California,” he shrugged. “But it hasn’t been too bad.”