In the late 1990s, Long Beach's Belmont Brewing Company was at the top of its game. With a longtime homebrewer named David Blackwell at the helm, beers from BBC — which is the oldest operating brewpub in Southern California — began picking up awards at local and international contests. Soon, its Strawberry Blonde became one of the first L.A.-area beers to be bottled and sold in stores.
Since then, however, the craft beer world has changed drastically and BBC's decade-and-a-half-old pale ale, stout, golden ale and amber recipes — once on the forefront of the industry — have been little competition for the aggressive flavors and experimental styles of modern-day brewers.
Kerry Caldwell — Blackwell's assistant brewer since last summer — is slowly changing all that.
As one of only two female commercial brewers in the greater Los Angeles area (the other, Caldwell's friend Hayley Shine, is the brewmaster at Rock Bottom Long Beach), the Idaho-via-Placerville transplant has brought about some small but much-needed updates to Belmont Brewing's beer program, which today also extends to a sister BBC — Bonaventure Brewing Company, inside the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A.
From suggesting different yeast strains for their year-round brews to making new seasonal beers based on her own recipes (think: black IPAs and British-style old ales), Caldwell is coaxing the independently successful BBCs back into craft-beer relevance.
We caught up with Caldwell early one morning as she watched over a boiling kettle of beer (while wearing pink rain boots) and talked about being a new female in the industry, breaking Blackwell out of his shell and why BBC will probably never brew a triple IPA.
Squid Ink: Have you ever worked on a commercial-sized system before here?
Kerry Caldwell: No. I never even had my own homebrewing system. I've only homebrewed with other people, so technically, this is the first time being in charge of this type of equipment. I never brewed entirely by myself, I've always had friends who homebrew and like to have company.
SI: Was it easy to adjust?
KC: The same basic process happens, but the hardest part to get used to here was cleaning. Brewing is the same everywhere, but to get the equipment clean is different at every brewery because they're all laid out differently. Like this manifold that we have here is really convenient, but I've never seen any other brewery with a manifold like that. Hayley [Shine, Brewmaster at Rock Bottom Brewery, Long Beach] has these levers all over the place and they're all down by your feet, so she has to run around and turn them on that way. Every brewery is set up a little bit differently.
SI: Blackwell seems to be open to brewing new styles of BBC beer for the first time in more than a decade. Did he need any convincing?
KC: As long as we have the malt and as long as we have the hops, he doesn't care because that's where the problems arise. I mean, we'll never run out of malt — we can brew the maltiest, sweetest beers ever all the time — it's a matter of the hops. We buy on contract, so we can't really get more, especially if a big brewery like Stone is buying up all the new hops. So we use what we can get and make do. Our goal isn't to become the next Stone brewery. We just want to be a brewpub that makes good beer and good food.
SI: What are some of the little changes you've made to the year-round beers?
KC: Blackwell was using a dry English ale yeast for everything since he started here 14 years ago. When I came in, I asked why we were using this yeast and he said, 'Because I like it.' Well, okay, but why are we using it? White Labs product number 001 is called California Ale Yeast and I thought we should be using that. He said he didn't want to use what everyone else was using, but I told him that everyone uses it because it's good not because they're not creative.
So instead of just refusing me, we've been experimenting. We tried another English ale yeast, we tried a British ale yeast and he didn't like either one of those two, so now we're trying the San Diego super yeast and that's the one we've been using for several months now.
Turn the page for the rest of the interview…
SI: One of the waitresses here mentioned that you broke Blackwell out of his shell. Do you feel like you've done that?
KC: Blackwell's been brewing a long time and I think he's just sort of set in his ways and having me here is shaking it up. I know he likes it. He's had other assistants he's told me about that would brew things behind his back, like he would know when people were writing down the correct recipe but brewing something totally different. For me, though, I'll just tell Blackwell, 'I'm doing this.' I know he doesn't have a problem with doing a new beer style, he just hasn't been motivated and why would he be?
We've been here for twenty years doing the same solid five beers and we're not going broke. It's not like we're scrambling to get more customers. Half the time we can barely fit the people who want to come in here, so it's almost like what's the point? But for me, I'm motivated because I'm new and excited — and I know having me around makes him more excited. I think having me here is helping obviously not helping his success because we were already successful, but helping him reignite that passion — like remembering this is why I became a brewer.
SI: BBC used to win a lot of awards. Are there any plans to enter more competitions now that you're switching around and coming up with new recipes?
KC: Blackwell won't let me. He says it's too much work and not enough payoff. When I talk to him about it, he says it's a lot of work to get your beers bottled and conditioned and get them up there. And if you don't win, it's a waste of time and money and if you do win, what does it get you? You get to say you won an award, but do you get to sell more beer? Are you going to get more customers? It's just bragging rights.
I definitely see what he's saying, but since I'm new in the industry, I'm excited and I want bragging rights. I want to say that my IPA won something. I made an old ale during the wintertime and I took a small part of the batch and bottle conditioned it instead of putting it in the fermenters here. And I drank some not too long ago and it was amazing. Way better than it was when it was served on draft here because it didn't get to age. I would have loved to enter that beer.
SI: What would you say to women who want to get more involved in the brewing side of the beer industry?
KC: I think it's great because it's a very male-dominated industry. I'd hope more girls get into it, but it's very hard work. We don't get to do less work than the men. When I come in in the morning, I have to carry 600 pounds of grain up the stairs, through the restaurant and up the platform all by myself. I don't have a boy to come in and do it for me.
And when I mash in, I throw these bags in one by one and I'm stirring it and it's getting thicker and thicker and it's harder and harder to stir because we don't have a system that stirs for us like some bigger breweries do. We use a paddle and stir the mash and I have to do that just like one of the boys. I'm not watching people work, you know? I have to do the same work. It's not a glamorous job at all, but I love it — I don't ever want to have a non-brewing job again.
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