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Q & A with David Larsen of Haven Gastropub +Brewery: Beer Geeks in Pasadena, Adventures in Dry Pork + Your Brewmaster as Ukekele Player

David Larsen at play
David Larsen at play
Nanette Gonzales

Orange County's Haven Gastropub has a reputation for rather maniacally obtaining their mercurial selection of craft brews. On one occasion, Beverage Director Wil Dee took a Smokey and the Bandit-style run up to San Francisco to bootleg a vanload from 21st Amendment Brewery, which has no wholesale distributor in Southern California. This level of dedication to bring interesting beers to Haven and their other Orange County restaurant, taco asylum, should tell you these boys seriously geek out on beer.

When their new Pasadena Haven Gastropub +Brewery opens on December 15, they'll finally have the ability to produce their own beers, as plebian or esoteric as they can dream up. Owing to delays in the liquor licensing, the first casks of their in-house beers may not be fully ready to tap next week, and in fact, we didn't get a chance to sample any for this interview. So what kinds of beers will they make? This week's Q & A with Haven's brewmaster, David Larsen, reveals on the one hand a pragmatist who'll craft populist styles including two I.P.A.'s. On the other hand, Larsen's vivid imagination longs to "dry pork" the adventurous and jaded with comfort zone-pushing ales and stouts that smell of leather, bacon, and toasted coconut.

Squid Ink: What are your personal favorite beers ever, and why?

David Larsen: Russian Imperial Stout from Stone; Pliny the Elder and Consecration from Russian River; Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink The Bismarck! from BrewDog.

These beers are really pioneers and breaking barriers in the craft beer arena. To me, they represent the inventive, adventurous nature of what we do -- they express style with great craftsmanship. They really help fuel my passion for brewing beer and continue to inspire me to be better. I also enjoy a great lager like Weihenstephan, known as the world's oldest continuously operating brewery. Any styles that can remind you of the thousand years of beer making history, is definitely a great choice in my book.

SI: At different points in our lives, we have life-changing experiences with beer. Would you share some of yours?

DL: Fresh out of high school, not even 21 years old, I decided to move to Germany. Not just Germany, but Bavaria, in the southern region, one of the greatest places in the world for beer. This is really where my great passion for beer originated. The respect that the Germans have for their beer is amazing. Beer is deeply rooted in their rich culture, and my story starts in the mountain resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I walked to the local market with a few friends to pick up racks of beer, after which we walked to the local mountains, sat in the middle of a grassy field, and drank amazing local Bavarian beers. At that moment, looking up at those mountains and drinking that amazing beer really was magical -- life-changing, if you will. Someday, I hope to go back to that fairytale land.

SI: Prior to taking the Brewmaster job at Haven Pasadena, you were a sous chef at Haven in Orange. How did that transition happen?

David Larsen with ukelele
David Larsen with ukelele
Nanette Gonzales

DL: I remember standing in line to interview for a line cook position at Haven Gastropub in Orange. I sat down at a table with Executive Chef Greg Daniels in the back of Haven's brick building, and handed him my resume with a picture of me photoshopped with beers from around the world. On the resume it read, "Award-Winning Homebrewer, Excellent Chef, Photographer, Camper, and Ukulele Player." This lead to an running joke that I was hired for my ukulele skills and would perform tableside in the dining room.

Little did they know this was the seed to my master plan. I've been serving the Partners at Haven my homebrew over the last few years and they have been impressed every time a new batch would come out. I think I showed them that I am very passionate and dedicated to my craft, working 80-hour weeks as sous chef and brewing beer on my one day off.

SI: How does your experience as a chef guide your choices as a brewer?

DL: Having knowledge of spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables, and how they combine and interact to create desired flavors are all part of great beer making. In the gastropub environment, this will help me create beers to complement our menu.

SI: What are your current plans for the beers you're making in-house? Will there be a focus on certain styles of beer?

DL: At Haven, we don't discriminate. We love all styles of beer equally. One style of beer is not better than the next, it is just different. I'm a fan of higher gravity beer, beer in the 6 to 9% range, something a little "in-your-face." Beer that is balanced just enough so you can taste a range of flavors; a beer you can sit down with and feel you are enjoying a real craft beer -- one that makes your belly warm and your spirits high.

Along with the four beers we will produce -- Bavarian Wheat, IPA, Double IPA and Imperial Stout -- I plan on producing seasonal, small-batch brews. My focus will be on combinations that are not only interesting, but ones that would compliment the creative and passionate flavor profiles Chef Daniels is known to put forth on his menu.

We also have barrels that we will age beer anywhere from 3 months to a year. Not to mention our real ales are pumped straight from the ferkin. I am also going to make a few sours in the next few months to get started on aging them for next year. For me, it's all about the yeast. I say, keep the yeast happy and let them do their job!

SI: What's an idea you've had for a beer style or ingredient that's so crazy you've said "nah, that'll never fly?"

 

David Larsen with beer
David Larsen with beer
Nanette Gonzales

DL: Hibiscus and chai.

Whisky barrels and vanilla.

Leather and coconut.

Ancho chili and cocoa nibs.

Truffle salt and melon.

Passion fruit and clove.

Honey and Champagne.

Coffee and bacon.

SI: Are you planning on trying any of these? Some of them sound really good.

DL: I have my sights set on a Hibiscus Chai Mead (honey wine), which will come out at a whopping 13% ABV with a blood-red hue and sweet / sour / spicy taste.

I will be utilizing whiskey barrels to age our Imperial Stout, adding vanilla bean, whiskey and hints of toasted marshmallow. I have plans to make a Breakfast Stout using coffee, cocoa nibs and ancho chilis. When in season, I plan on adding passion fruit to our Bavarian Wheat. I would like to explore the combination of toasted coconut and leather to the Bavarian Wheat -- sounds strange, but I think it will pleasantly surprise.

One thing I'm excited about is dry porking! It's similar to dry hopping a beer, but with bacon. I definitely have plans to add bacon to one of our stouts. Finally, I'm working on developing a strong ale using honey and Champagne yeast. In the months to come, I will be working with Michael P. Gulan, a flavor chemist, to develop new and exciting tastes for our beer.

SI: L.A. is going through a beer-brewing renaissance at the moment. Which local brewers' work do you admire?

DL: I met Jon Carpenter from Golden Road at the Great American Beer Festival this year and can't wait to work with him on something. I have also met Julian the brewer from Beachwood BBQ out of Long Beach several times. He makes great beer and I am sure we will also be working together sometime soon. Smog City Brewing, a great new brewery in L.A., is the brainchild of Tustin Brewing Company's head brewer Jonathan Porter. He makes great beer and has won several awards at the last few Great American Beer Festivals. Another great brewery close to us is Craftsman.

There is definitely something to be said about the brewing community. If someone ever needs anything we all come together to help out. We are a big family, all of us trying to make a great product in hopes of changing/furthering the craft beer movement.

SI: What's missing from the L.A. brewing landscape that you can find in other cities or countries? Will you bring some of those elements to Haven?

Breweries and beer drinkers -- L.A. has fewer than you may think. We have a handful of breweries, and while I believe there are more beer drinkers out there, they are hard to find and as more breweries pop up, more drinkers will turn their palates from the dismal choices of all the light beers to more hand crafted beverages that are local.

SI: Where else will the beers you make at Haven Pasadena be sold?

DL: We'll start at Haven Gastropub in Orange and our sister restaurant, taco asylum, in Costa Mesa. Then, we'll see about other outlets for our beers in L.A., O.C., and beyond!


Shuji Sakai writes about ukelele-playing beer brewers and bazookas made of bacon. Follow him on Twitter and professorsalt.com


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