Monkish Brewing Co. feels like the best kept beer secret of the South Bay. Located in a modest business park along Western Avenue in Torrance, you won't find the usual bells and whistles that alert you to the presence of fine, craft beer: The beer is speaking for itself. Open just over three months, you can sample their wares at the brewery and tasting room or any of a wide array of bars in L.A. and Orange Counties.
Henry and Adriana Nguyen's brewery is a true family operation; with no outside investors or big advertising campaigns, the married couple depends on word of mouth and their participation in events to bring in clientele. Even the opening day for the taproom was an unpublicized affair. Henry simply turned to Adriana one Friday morning and announced "today is the day," and off he went to buy glassware. Turn the page for our interview, in which the couple talk about beer, theology, Vegas and more beer.
Squid Ink: What's your favorite style of beer, or what takes up the most real estate in your fridge?
Henry Nguyen: My fridge is typically empty these days. No time to drink. And I'm never home really to do anything but sleep. If there was beer in my fridge, besides samples for sales, I would have sour beers -- for my wife especially. My favorite style would probably be Flanders Red.
SI: Which beers would accompany you on a deserted island?
HN: Jolly Pumpkin or Cantillon.
SI: Have you seen a use for your beer outside of drinking it straight, maybe in a pairing or cocktail?
HN: The other week I went to a bar/restaurant in Santa Monica to offer samples and the bartender made beer cocktails with four of my beers. He actually made a four-course meal with the drinks: an aperitif (with Feminist), a refreshing fruity drink (with Oblate), a spicy herbal drink (with Pour Toi), and a dessert finale (with Anomaly) ... it was amazing!
SI: How did you get involved in craft beer? And homebrewing?
Adriana Nguyen: It was an unexpected path. Henry and I met in high school here in the South Bay. When we got married, he was in the military and we lived in Hawaii for four years. We came back to California and went to bible college expecting to be pastors. But life kept taking us down different paths. He was really good at academics and wanted to pursue that instead of becoming a pastor. At this point we had two kids, so we moved our family to the U.K. where Henry could get his PhD in three years instead of six.
We landed in Aberdeen, Scotland. I loved it, I never thought I'd come back to the States, but eventually we returned to California. Why we got into beer drinking was because of Scotch and our time in Scotland. Whenever we had people in town we went to distilleries and I fell in love with Scotch. Then we started traveling and Henry showed me what good beer could taste like. I was like, "it doesn't taste like piss!" And as with Scotch I quickly grew to love it. Henry started brewing at home in 2008, almost as an extension of being a great cook, and always bugged me to brew with him.
SI: Why did you decide to focus on Belgian beers? Was it the influence of your previous career (Nguyen holds a Ph.D. in Theology and taught at Loyola Marymount)?
HN: At some point I fell in love with Belgian beers and the the different flavor profiles -- especially those produced by Belgian beer yeasts. I love the traditional relationship between monks and beer, it really resonates with me. As a homebrewer I would only brew Belgian beers; beyond the scope of Belgian styles I have only brewed two porters (at the request of a friend for football season).
SI: Who comes into Monkish? Is it a college crowd? Thirty-somethings? Beer geeks?
AN: All of the above, the culture is so diverse. Sometimes it's so diverse I feel uncomfortable, what kind of music do you play for everybody? I want to make everybody happy and comfortable.
HN: It's really good on Friday night. Friday night it's all local business people. When we opened, the local paper did an article on us which made the front page -- but we didn't even know it. People were coming in saying, "hey you're on the front page!" Because of the story, locals came in who weren't even beer drinkers but just wanted to support us. They've become regulars.
SI: You have the advantage of both brewing the beer and serving it directly to your customers. Have their reactions ever effected what you brew?
HN: I get a lot of hopheads who come in and ask, "do you have any hoppy beers for me?" Or there are some who say "I like hoppy beers but yours is really good." So I decided I'd make Pour Toi for those guys [Belgian-style dry-hopped Pale Ale, 6.4% ABV], I'll dry-hop it, but I'll only use European hops. Most of our beers have some kind of West Coast hops but I wanted this one to be strictly European to offer something new. Bittered with East Kent Goldings [English] and dry-hopped with Styrian Goldings [Slovenian], you get earthy, grassy, floral tones.
At the end of the day I brew what I want, keeping in mind seasonality like, Anomaly [Belgian-style Strong Dark Ale, 8.5% ABV] is a big seller in warm weather. I want to keep a lot of variety.
SI: Have you thought about collaborations?
HN: Sure, if someone approaches me. It's a bit tricky. There's another brewery opening down the street and Strand is open. I'm pretty sure there's a lot of opportunity. We're all friendly and we send our drinkers to each other's place. I'd like to brew a collaborative South Bay Beer.
SI: Tell us about one of your beers. The Feminist is unusual (Belgian-style Tripel, 9.4% ABV), what's the story there?
HN: I have a Ph.D. in theology and instruct at Loyola Marymount. I teach from a feminist angle. So at one point we were watching a film called the Stoning of Soraya M. A man has an affair and turns it around on his wife, accusing her of the affair. By law the village has to stone her.
I was watching that film at the time of this recipe. I wanted it to be our strongest beer but with a little pink tinge, so I added hibiscus. It has a nice initial sweetness that dissipates, but the hibiscus leaves an herbal tartness. I used 15 pounds of hibiscus [in a 15 barrel batch] and 150 pounds of cane sugar. It's funny because guys love it, but they feel self-conscious ordering and ask, "can I have a fff, a fff, can I get the tripel?"
SI: What were your biggest challenges getting started?
HN: Money! We weren't interested in investors. One reason people didn't know we were opening was because we didn't have enough money and we didn't want to go under. So we kept it quiet and then one day when we could, we opened.
SI: How were you able to start this business without the assistance of outside investors?:
HN: We had some investment help from family, but we mostly cut costs by calling in favors from friends and family, and doing as much as work as possible ourselves. A cousin and Adriana painted the walls and sanded the ceiling beams at night after work.
AN: We kept talking about opening and Henry announced in on Facebook unbeknownst to me. Then one of my friends said, "hey we're coming to the opening!" And I said, "we're opening?!" But we overcame our investment challenges through family. My cousin did the air conditioning, my uncles' friend did the electric. The plumbing got expensive so we really took everything into our own hands after that. I sanded and painted the ceiling beams myself. We stood up the tanks when we got ambitious one night. My stepdad and his mother came in for a visit and suddenly they were up. So the investment was entirely personal. We love being a family business.
SI: Do you have any advice to offer someone considering opening a brewery in the L.A. area?
HN: Play the lottery. Seriously, a lot. Gamble in Vegas. Then get lots of sleep. Then go to trade school and learn how to do electrical, plumbing, any general contracting to cut your start-up costs. Then play the lotto again. And on a serious note, talk to other brewers and research, research, research.
SI: Your brewery has done a good job of being present at food and beer events. Is there anything besides these festivals you'd like to see more of in L.A. to build the craft community?
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HN: There's lots of exciting stuff happening in L.A. For one, Brew Something L.A. is a new interest group focusing on the craft beer scene in Los Angeles.These sorts of platforms are good for brewers and retailers to socialize and form community.
However, one of my gripes in L.A. is how many retailers are now rotating taps (a good thing!) but at the cost of keeping a strong emphasis on supporting local breweries. That is, if a retailer is one who really cries out "Drink Local" then they should not rotate out local breweries with breweries across the nation. In my opinion, there should always be a local brewery presence and emphasis at all times on a draft list.
SI: Does it feel a bit like you're living the dream?
AN: Hopefully in ten years we'll be living the dream. For now we're working the dream.