The New Year is shaping up to be a pivotal period in San Francisco brewing history. Just as many breweries, if not more, are planning or preparing to open their doors in the city since the last surge in the late 1990’s. One of the first to do so will be Triple Voodoo Brewing. Their Dogpatch brewery and taproom is slated for a grand opening on February 13th.
Phil Meeker, a San Francisco native from the Richmond District, will be at the helm of the new brewing system. Triple Voodoo owner Greg Kitchen hired him back in July of 2013. Since then Meeker has been managing their contract brewing schedule, developing new recipes, and working hard to get the new brewery off the ground alongside Kitchen.
Meeker has been brewing at home and professionally for 10 years, ever since he found a homebrew kit at a grocery store in Australia. His path to Triple Voodoo has been studded with serendipity and challenging circumstances, while he picked up knowledge and skills along the way.
The details of his story can be found in the following conversation, which is filled with insights and stories about his early years in beer. He also talks about what you can expect from Triple Voodoo brewing in the weeks and years to come.
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Did you have another career in mind at one point and then get sidetracked by home brewing?
You know, I really didn’t. I went college, just to sort of go to college, because it’s what you do. I studied communications and sociology. I don’t use any of it. I really sort of gravitated towards science, but never really took the prerequisites to finish out a degree. When I moved to Australia in 2003 I got on the brewing kick. I liked drinking craft beer, but I never really thought if it as a career.
At the supermarket in Australia they had homebrew kits on the shelf next to the bread aisle. It was crazy. I was like, “Wow, this is a great idea,” and at the time a six-pack of Budweiser was twenty bucks Australian. I thought there’s got to be a better way, so my friends and I got the homebrew kit. It was around forty bucks and you could make 5 gallons. It wasn’t anything special. It was a malt extract kit with a pouch of dextrose just for body. Hilarious.
The beers turned out better, better, and better, and then we went to the homebrew store in Australia. It was right on our bus line on the way to Sydney, so we just kind of jumped off and we were there for like three hours the first day. We asked them every possible question you could ask.
I still have the bench capper that I still use actually, that I bought there. We got a bunch of equipment. I didn’t go into all grain brewing while I was in Australia, but I was doing tons of partial mashes. I was there for eight months and we ended up doing fifteen batches of beer. Every week we did another batch.
So at some point homebrewing went beyond a means to cheaper end?
It started as a means to a cheaper end, but after getting into it, it was really fun, hanging out with your friends, getting interested about beer, and going to all the different Belgian beer bars they had in Australia at the time. We would go there and get excited about Piraat and Duval, stuff we didn’t normally drink at home.
After about two months of homebrewing I had this epiphany in the middle of the night. I literally woke up out of a dead sleep and thought, “This is what I want to do for my career.” It’s a lot of work, but ultimately so rewarding.
I got back from Australia and went to the University of Colorado at Boulder to finish my last ten credits, and got a job at Liquor Mart, which is this massive retail warehouse of just booze. I somehow talked my way into a job in the beer section.
That’s when I started rubbing shoulders with brewers. People would come in and do events, or do tastings in the store, and they would invite me to their brewery. At the time I was avidly homebrewing and then when I graduated I saw that San Francisco Brewing Company was looking for an assistant brewer, and a week out of college I got the job.
You only had homebrewing experience and they were willing to take you off the street? I think those days are gone.
Those days are long gone. Absolutely. The interview was like, “Have you read Charlie Papazian’s The New Joy of Homebrewing?” I said, “Yeah, of course,” and he was like “Ok, cool.” A lot of it was training with the guy that was leaving.
The brewery was all over the place and cobbled together, so it was a really good way to cut your teeth. You had to learn everything. There was plumbing involved every day. Getting the electrical spark to fire on the kettle was an issue daily. There were a million, million problems, just because the owner was old school.
It was an all gravity fed system and I remember we had this pump that wasn’t working and he didn’t want to get a new one, so I remember filling up five gallon buckets for a seven barrel batch, and running it off the lauter tun. It was a mash cooker lauter ton along with a beautiful copper kettle, and I remember running down the ladder, filling up 5 gallons, and then running it back up this eight rung ladder to dump it slowly over the lauter tun. I did that for as many times as I could really handle it. That was the brewery. Nothing was on a pump.
I worked there for about a year, and then I just had had enough. It had gotten to be so overwhelming and there were all sorts of issues with the business side and correlating that to how you got your paycheck. It just got to be torturous. I didn’t know if things were going to work out, so I was unemployed for probably a month during the holidays.
After I left I got a job two months later at Brewmaster in San Leandro, which is a cool sort of homebrew slash wine making shop, that also has a lot of professional brewers visiting for small things. It was cool job for me, and I got back into rubbing shoulders with brewers again that would come in.
After I worked at Brewmaster for probably 5 or 6 months, the guy that initially trained me at San Francisco Brewing Company, who lived in Fairfax, told me Iron Springs Brewery was looking for an assistant brewer to run deliveries, wash kegs, and be in the brewhouse as well. I did some research.
The owner Mike Altman had been at the Mountain Sun, which was my go to college bar in Boulder, and I remember when they opened the Southern Sun. That was one of Mike’s big accomplishments there, building, designing, and opening the Southern Sun. So we rapped about Colorado and kind of hit it off since we had similar friends and similar taste in music and beer. I ended up getting the job.
You’ve gotten along pretty well for not having any traditional experience.
It’s been totally serendipitous. So much of it was being in the right place at the right time. It just so happened that Dan Duncanson, who use to work at Black Diamond Brewing, lived in Fairfax and said I should get the Iron Springs job. I was at Iron Springs for six and a half, almost seven years, from 2005 to 2013.
It was a great incrementally, getting more confidence and more responsibility. Initially I came in cleaning kegs and worked my ass off cause I could see the light at the end of the tunnel if I stuck with it. The guy that I was brewing with had gone through a lot of assistants, but I was really serious and I think he understood that I was in it for the long haul. We butted heads at first, but it ended up working out great.
Then Christian Kazakoff came on as head brewer, two years after I started at Iron Springs. By this point I had graduated from delivering two days per week and was there full time cleaning kegs, transferring beer, and maintenance.
(Triple Voodoo’s brewing equipment was off loaded and installed last November.)
As your job evolved at Iron Springs and you learned more, were you allowed to develop your own beer recipes?
Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the great things about Iron Springs, as well as the amount of communication. We sat down every week and went over everything that we were going to do. They were long and sometimes tedious meetings, but everyone had a say, and could voice their opinion. We brewed so many different kinds of beer.
They would ask, “What do you want to brew now?” and I could make things like Strong Scotch Ale. That beer had sort of been kicked around there. It was a beer I loved making and I love drinking those beer styles, so I sort of took the reins on that style and they ended up naming the beer after me. I didn’t ask for that. They named it Edwin’s Winter Scotch, which is my middle name, or something like that.
So that beer started there and became really popular at the pub. Going forward Christian was really good about asking for input and getting ideas from everyone around him to formulate the best possible thing he could. So that was really great, getting to sit down and talking about ideas.
The recipes would develop collectively, and that happened with a lot of different things like keg prices and sizing the beer pours. It was a really good collaborative relationship there, which is really why I learned so much. Iron Springs was great that way. They would tell me to pursue classes if they thought they would benefit my career. I ended up doing an intensive beer science program at Davis two or three years ago that they ended up paying for, which was incredible.
What were you homebrewing that you weren’t making at Iron Springs?
I was doing tons of stuff at home. I still am right now concentrating on beers for Triple Voodoo, brewing when I can. At Iron Springs Mike Altman wasn’t very keen on Belgian beer. I guess he didn’t like them or they were too funky, and those were the beers that I really liked to make at home because they’re so interesting and nuanced.
We once did an American Wheat beer with lemongrass and chamomile, and I thought that it should be a Belgian Wit, with Chamomile and lemongrass, which is everyone’s first sort of Belgian beer. You don’t go straight for the quad, you ease into it. Christian had been working with Belgian yeast for a while, but it was really myself and Christian bringing those beers to Mike and saying, “I think we can really have something here, let’s broaden our horizons.” So making Belgian style beer was a major thing that I was doing at home and pushing to do.
That seems to work out really well with Triple Voodoo’s interest in Belgian beers.
It certainly does. Yes, exactly.
Was that something that was really appealing to you when you were talking to owner Greg Kitchen about the head brewer job at Triple Voodoo?
It really was. To be honest, I really wasn’t super familiar with Triple Voodoo beers. I’d seen them around and I had a couple, but none of them had really stood out, but I sort of liked the idea of someone making a strong Belgian as a flagship. It’s so rare and I thought it was a cool idea.
My beer palate is so fluid. Some months I wont’ drink almost any Belgian beer. I’ll drink just hoppy beer, or even dark beer. Around this time of year I get on a crazy dark beer kick. It hasn’t kicked in yet, but it’s usually January or February.
(Phil Meeker with Triple Voodoo owner Greg Kitchen)
So it’s going to kick in right when you start making beer at Triple Voodoo.
Exactly, exactly. So homebrewing Belgian beers was something that I really liked to do, and I was fairly proficient at it. The best part about Belgian beers is there’s not really a huge style guideline. Saison is the best example. The guidelines are so wide open. I read this Belgian Farmhouse Ale book a number of years ago and it said, “The best part about this beer is that there is no style to adhere too.”
That seems to be Triple Voodoo’s approach to Belgian beer.
They’ve been pushing hop boundaries and making pretty strong beer. Inception is like 40 IBU’s or something like that, which is a lot compared to a traditional tripel. That will definitely be in the works. We’ll make a true tripel in the upcoming months I’m sure.
The Belgian Stout I recently made for Triple Voodoo was such of a classic kind of misdirection sort of thing for me. I love doing beers that look like one thing and taste like another. I think that’s really a cool idea. I made one year’s ago, but it was a black wit. That’s a wild idea. You looked at it and thought it’s going to be roasty, but it had this banana and clove thing going on.
You were referring to the King Leopold Belgian Stout you created for Triple Voodoo right?
Yeah, it’s a pretty standard stout recipe, but with this really flavorful Belgian yeast. It’s done, but it’s really rarely done. The only one I’d ever really seen is the Allagash Black, and I love that beer, so it’s not a total ode, but a similar vein to that beer.
What else have you been playing with at home in anticipation of finally getting your hands on the Triple Voodoo Brewing system?
For starters, I’ve been making, as boring as this sounds, a middle of the road pale ale. I really want to dial in a good pale ale recipe and also make something that’s going to compliment our system. I also want to be able to make something that isn’t so crazy that you can’t have more then one. I love making extreme big beers. They’re fun, but they’re also really passion projects. Everything has to go right for them to turn out the way you really want them too, so for me it’s about starting slowly, knowing what I have in the system, and then going from there.
I’ve also been homebrewing Saison, which is a pretty simple recipe, but you can do so much with it. That’s going to be one of our first beers. IPA is also going to be one of our first beers because I love a good IPA. It’s what drives our industry. I was lucky to get some fun hops that I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to get, so that was a good day for me.
Then we’ve kicked around a third idea. I wanted to do pale ale, but Greg was thinking more of Belgian pale ale and wondering what’s going to be the Voodoo twist? And that’s sort of how we’re struggling to find our new identity, because we have an identity right now, but it’s going to completely change when we have our own playground to do whatever we really want.
We’ve been sort of tied into what we see the market demanding, what’s to our flavor, and ultimately what is feasible for us to make. Contract brewing is not all fun and games. It’s very calculated. Which is smart, it’s a good way to break into the industry, but you got to have a next step. It’s sort of like the starting point and then you get to the next step.
I don’t know, this is just sort me wax politicking, but I think that our bottle brands are going to take a little bit of a step back, just in terms of the volume that we’ll be making. Because were not going to be brewing as much up at EJ Phair. We’ll be able to have all this new draft stuff that will be sort of an R&D thing for a little while, which is cool, and see what works and what warrants putting in bottles down the line.
(How the new brewery looked on installation day.)
That’s the advantage of having your own tasting room and smaller batches, and you can get feedback.
Right. Exactly. That’s what was so great about working at a brewpub is that people come for the beer and stay for the food, or come for the food and stay for the beer, or the music, or the atmosphere, whatever, but the best part about it was that you got feedback the day that a beer went on. We were always our own worst critic.
When we were sort of like, this flavor didn’t turn out great, some people would think that it makes the beer and don’t change a thing. You have to hear what everybody says. Also, it’s nice to get good feedback from people you respect, and that’s what’s really tough, especially sometimes in this industry. People don’t always give really good feedback. They give you the positive, which is fine, and negative is good too. I just want actual real feedback.
I know some people in the guild who will give you that kind of feedback.
Yeah, and I love it, and that’s what’s great! That’s what I like. That really is what I like.
It sounds like Triple Voodoo is going to look for a bit of an identity based on feedback that you get from customers, but it’s also going to be driven by your interests.
Exactly. The other thing we’re going to do, and not exclusively, is collaborate more. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. A lot of the time you learn so much from other people. Just from people that are doing it with you.
We’re already planning a collaboration beer with Steve Altimari from Highwater Brewing, who I love as a brewer and a person, so we’re really looking forward to that. We’re going to try and get that out in time for SF Beer Week, but we’ll see how everything goes with getting the brewery up and running. Nothing goes smoothly. And not that’s it’s going poorly, it’s just that things come up and things take longer than it’s suppose too.
Who else is on your wish list for collaborations?
Kim Sturdavant at Social Kitchen & Brewery, and then Greg is good friends with Jeremy Warren up at Knee Deep Brewing, so we’re going to try and get them involved. Also, Connor and Tim at Cellarmaker Brewing, I love those guys. I did a fresh hop with them and I just want to invite them into our brewery.
It’s a lot about giving back to people that taught me so much. Like I want to make a beer with Christian Kazakoff. I want to do a beer with a lot of people, but at the same time still creating autonomous beers that are mine as well, while learning as much as I can from people that step into your brewhouse and see something differently.
So you’ve been concentrating on more conventional approaches to get acclimated to your brew system. What are some of the more curious experiments that you might be willing to try? Not necessarily this year, but down the line.
I definitely would like to start playing around, and I’ve been doing some research about it, but I really want to make a Berliner Weisse. We’re also going to have a barrel program, which will be really fun, experimenting with different fruits, different wood, and different things like coffee beans. I’ve been going around secretly tasting all the coffee that I can, and sort of seeing how well it would go with a lot of different beers.
Ultimately, I like making misdirection beers. Beers that look like they’re going to taste like one thing and taste like a different thing, but in terms of answering your question on a big, kind of extreme crazy thing that I’ve been wanting to try, I don’t know yet. I want to make an imperial stout, but I want to put it in multiple types of barrels and see what happens in each one with different bugs.
But the thing about dark sour beers is you can get the soy sauce flavoring. You have to blend it with something fresh, so the project that we do have in the works, is taking that King Leopold Belgian Stout and brewing another batch to blend with the old one, and have that be one of our first bottle releases. I’m excited about that one. It’s only about four months in the barrel right now.
How would you describe yourself as a brewer to someone else?
I would describe myself as very much a sponge. I like to sort of listen to what other people say. My approach is to speak less, listen more, and then develop my own ideas.
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Photos © Brian Stechschulte