McIlhenney Brewing

By BeachRock Bill

“This is some serious beer nerd shit” Dr. Bugatti commented from the back seat. I was driving east on Interstate 8 with co-worker Bugatti and The Analyst, son of my erstwhile brewing partner The Colonel. We all laughed at the truth of Bugatti’s observation. Who other than a true beer nerd would be excited sitting in 45 minutes of traffic just to visit a brewery? This wasn’t just any brewery however, this was the McIlhenney family’s new place, and we were visiting it for the first time. Beer nerds indeed.

The Alpine Era

The three of us had been to this location before, of course. Pat McIlhenney and his wife Val opened the Alpine Beer Company in the exact same space 20 years ago. The brewery initially had no taproom license to serve beer. There was just a counter in front of the brewing equipment where you could buy bottles, rent kegs, or get growlers filled. The tap list was small and offered the popular standards from that era–a signature Irish Red, some blonds, a honey ale, and a stout. I was into the hoppy stuff however, and I would make the long drive out to Alpine just to get growler fills of their Alpine Pale, Pure Hoppiness, and on lucky rare occasions, the seasonal Exponential Hoppiness Triple IPA. Talk about serious beer nerd shit.

Alpine’s menu board from the early days

When a cafe space became available two doors down in the same building, Alpine Beer’s BBQ and tap room was born. The food was good, the outside area was great for kids to run around, and the beer was spectacular. I would regularly propose Saturday family outings hiking in the Cleveland National Forest followed by a BBQ lunch. “Daddy, why are we bringing those jugs?”

Alpine “jugs”

A young Shawn McIlhenney was working with his dad Pat when Alpine opened, learning the ropes in the brewhouse. In 2005, the two released a new beer called Duet. With just two obscure (at the time) hop varieties, the Simcoe- and Amarillo-hopped Duet was part of a new breed of IPA that showcased hop flavor and aroma over extreme bitterness. It became my favorite beer next to Pizza Port’s “Swamis.”

Following just after Duet, Alpine released another IPA called Nelson that introduced hop varieties from New Zealand. Nelson was so deliciously different that following its release brewers everywhere scrambled to source its hops and try to duplicate its unique white-wine-oily flavor profile. I remember repeatedly watching a video of son Shawn discussing the making of Nelson to figure out the recipe.

During this period, Shawn worked on another recipe he could call all his own. When his Bad Boy Double IPA came out, the reception was so positive that Pat decided the time was right to step back and let his son take over as Head Brewer.

In 2006, only four years after opening, Beer Advocate ranked this impossibly small brewery on the outskirts of San Diego the fifth best brewery in the US. Quite simply, Alpine was The Shit.

The Buyout

As demand grew, and distribution widened, more and more equipment was crammed into the space to increase production. Even brewing round-the-clock shifts, however, there wasn’t nearly enough product. Something had to be done. What happened surprised everyone.

In November 2014, it was announced that the McIlhenney’s were selling Alpine to Green Flash Brewing Company in exchange for a good sum of cash and a minority ownership stake. Alpine’s founder Pat would become a consultant and role ambassador, and his brewer son Shawn would remain on the payroll overseeing the brewing of the Alpine line. I was happy the McIlhenneys were getting a big, well-deserved payday, but I was THRILLED Alpine beer would now be on tap at Green Flash, which was only 15 minutes from home.

HFS took the Bronze medal at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival.
(Image courtesy Alpine Brewing website)

Working with their new employers, Shawn and his Alpine team hit the ground running by releasing some really delicious IPAs. I visited regularly for Shawn’s new Windows Up! or the aptly named HFS [as in “holy f^(#ing shit!). After the Alpine acquisition, Green Flash’s Mira Mesa brewery became the most popular taproom in San Diego. Buying Alpine seemed to be a genius move.

The Alpine deal was just one piece of management’s bigger expansion strategy. Green Flash also maxed out every inch of the Mira Mesa brewery with additional equipment, and they opened Cellar 3 brewery in Poway, dedicated to barrel-aged beers. Finally, in the most ambitious plan of all, they borrowed millions to build a 58,000 sq. ft. brewery, tap room, and beer garden in Virginia Beach. West Coast IPAs would be coming to the East Coast.

Opinions differ as to why this all came crashing down, but my view is the Virginia Beach opening came at the worst possible time. It was the beginning of the New England IPA era, and people were clamoring for juicier hazy beers like Alchemist’s Heady Topper. There was also an explosion of local breweries sprouting up all around the country, and a “drink local” attitude was becoming Craft Beer’s new mantra.

Whatever the reason, revenues in Virginia Beach fell way short of projections, and Green Flash wasn’t able to service the loan payments. An aggressive cost-cutting program was put in place across the entire organization, but it wasn’t enough to stem the bleeding. Finally, in 2018, Comerica Bank announced it would be foreclosing on the company and taking over control. Existing shareholders were wiped out. For icing on the shit cake, the bank turned around and made a fire sale to an investment group that included former executives from Budweiser.

Brewer Shawn stuck around through all this. It must not have been fun watching his family’s brand get caught up in all the drama. When Covid hit two years after the collapse, the Alpine and Green Flash tap rooms were shuttered. Shawn and his team were laid off along with the majority of the remaining staff.

The silver lining

Pat and Val’s Green Flash shares went to zero along with all the other shareholders, but they had wisely gotten a chunk of cash from the Alpine/Green Flash merger. When the landlord of the original brewery space on Alpine Blvd came calling, and with Shawn out looking for a job, the die was cast–McIlhenney Brewing was born!

Mom and Dad will be around lending a helping hand, but this time it will be Shawn and his wife Jamie running the show.

Deja Vu

I hadn’t visited the old brewery on Alpine Blvd since my growler-fill-run days. As we parked and walked up to the entrance, I was dying to see just how much had changed.

Comparing the left side of the current board with the early days (inset)

Other than the bar area now in the corner, the space feels almost the same. The original knotty pine walls surrounding tables crowded with patrons lent a warm and comfy feel on a cool winter night. Approaching the bar, I got this weird sense of deja vu. Holy shit! I wondered looking at the menu board, are these the same beers?

In place of Alpine’s old Willy series of ales and McIlhenney’s Irish Red, were a Bells Bluff series and a beer called Surname Irish Red. There was an orange peel and coriander Honey Ale that sounded a lot like the old Mandarin Nectar, and a stout named DryRish Stout with a description sounding a hell of a lot like the Captain.

The one-year anniversary logo reflects how the family is dealing with the loss of their old brand rights.

Brand rights? We don’t need no stinking brand rights!

And the beer?

Bringing Bugatti and the Analyst to help me sample was always part of the plan. They love beer, know beer, and can drink a LOT of beer. With these two as my accomplices, I was confident that between us we could try everything and still make the long drive home safely. We proceeded to do just that.

Dr. Bugatti and The Analyst at McIlhenney Brewing’s front entrance

And the beer? Frankly, it was a mixed bag. There were a few things that, to put it kindly, underwhelmed us. There were also several offerings that we felt were good, but could be improved on. It was great however, that even after being open just a little over one year, some serious gems were being produced.

In the non-IPA category, the Surname Irish Red blew us away as a perfect example of the style. I’m guessing it’s a very similar (if not identical) recipe to its multiple award-winning predecessor that bears the family surname.

We also loved the DryRish Stout. It was so smooth and creamy and bursting with chocolate maltiness that we probably won’t enjoy a Guinness ever again.

The Analyst likes a good barleywine, and from the noises of ecstasy he was making while sipping the 11.9% ABV Bourbon Barrel Aged Malthead Mayhem, we knew he had found one. He called it a “decadent boozy cocktail in a beer glass”.

Let’s face it though, we were there for some hops, and it was exciting to see the whole right side of the board dedicated to IPAs. We sampled them all, and our favorites were easy to choose.

The low ABV session IPA called Chronicles of Nectaron had big tropical flavors from its liberal use of New Zealand’s Nectaron hop, and a light clean finish that made it deceptively chuggable.

Speaking of chuggable, the board listed a New Zealand-hopped rye IPA called Muntz. Expecting a Nelson clone, sitting in my glass instead was a cloudy deliciously quaffable HAZY. That’s right. I said Hazy. I’m excited to see the McIlhenneys embracing my favorite style, and can’t wait to see what they bring out next.

Finally, our standout of the night was a consensus no-brainer. The Mosaic-Strata-Citra-Simcoe hopped Parallel Paradise was about as good as a West Coast IPA can get- no surprise given the McIlhenneys’ pedigree. PP had big fruit-forward aromas, a balanced body on the mid-palate bursting with flavor, and a clean, pleasant, slightly dank finish. It was a crave-worthy beer we would happily come back for in the future.

Last Call? Nope.

McIlhenney closes at 7pm on weeknights, and before we knew it, Beertender Kyle announced last call. Kyle is a very chill dude, and as the crowd slowly filed out the door, he invited Bugatti, The Analyst, and me to hang around and chat while he cleaned up. Kyle and Bugatti immediately started naming people they both worked with at breweries over the years. Kyle worked at Alpine in the old days, and from his enthusiasm, you can see his stoke being back to working for the family. He said the whole team is excited for what the future holds, and beginning this new chapter with nothing but smiles… and the occasional middle finger.

F them all, we’re still standing!

Cans of Parallel Paradise in hand, we finally got out of Kyle’s hair and headed off to dinner. Bottom line, we had a great time. It’s cool to see McIlhenney splitting production between the old favorites and the new creations. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it’s only a matter of time before Shawn and his team introduce something groundbreaking that’s again the talk of the town. Personally, I hope it’s a Hazy!

Thanks to Bugatti and The Analyst for such a fun evening. I can’t wait to do some more “serious beer nerd shit” with you two in the near future.


— BeachRock Bill

Instagram: @beachrockbill

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