Henry Nguyen has always been a fish out of water, first as a hip-hop–loving Vietnamese-American kid growing up among blacks and Latinos in Gardena, then as an underweight air traffic controller for the Marines stationed in Hawaii, and later as a doctoral student in Scotland, where he'd relocated with his Hispanic wife and three children to earn a Ph.D. in theology. While in Scotland, he spent what little money he had on obscure academic texts and vinyl records for scratching.
Three years ago, he put aside aspirations to be a Pentecostal preacher for yet another unorthodox move: He opened Monkish Brewing Company, a small operation in Torrance that — in Nguyen's typically contrarian fashion — makes only Belgian-style beers.
"I'm always stuck in tension and I'm always trying to find myself in it," Nguyen says in his tasting room after a recent brew day. "The artistry, the business — there's a lot of tension, but it's the tension that gives us energy. That's where I live, in that friction."
In an age when most breweries succeed by making a wide range of approachable beers, from pilsners to IPAs, Monkish is dedicated to its uber-specific niche: bending the rules of Belgian brewing traditions.
Belgian beer has deep roots in the country's monasteries, where popular breweries such as Chimay continue to be run by monks. Using the same distinctive Belgian yeast strains that monasteries have for centuries, Nguyen starts with common styles such as tripels, saisons and strong ales, then infuses them with everything from chamomile to pistachios.
The resulting beers — such as Dat Moi, a Belgian-style lager with rice and lemongrass, and Crux, a Belgian-style single with elderflower — are soft and nuanced, with a creative finesse. "Our beers tell a story," Nguyen says.
He started homebrewing Belgian-style beers after discovering them in Scotland. He sees his brewery as a living organism, one that he understands better each day and one that tells him what it needs (instead of the other way around).
Similar to the way jazz musicians craft improvisations and Italian grandmothers cook their marinara, Nguyen makes his beers by feel. "The more I'm here, the more I realize that it's a very spiritual place for me, the brewery. Just being in tune with it. The way I see it, we [he and his wife, Adriana] give energy to this place. Our goal is to maintain energy."
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Last year, Nguyen began amassing barrels and foeders (large, oak vats typically used for aging wine) for his experiments with bacteria and yeast. At first the contents were tracked on spreadsheets, but he scrapped those. They were too impersonal. Instead, each vessel now is covered in a series of notes scrawled on ripped pieces of blue painter's tape. He strives to know the heartbeat of each barrel.
From some of these barrels came Selah, a funky, bottle-conditioned farmhouse ale, which several local beer writers named one of the best local beer releases of 2014. Nguyen gets constant requests to make another batch of it, but he says that this year he wants to make something even better than Selah. What, exactly, remains unknown.
"I hate being labeled and I hate being understood," he says. "I like being an enigma. That's where I want to be."