Interview with Pillbox Brewery’s Brendan McClenahan

Brendan lives in Encinitas, CA and began brewing as a hobby in the summer of 2009. He founded Pillbox Brewery and started a club where people can pay to join and taste each batch he makes. He also does tastings, private trainings, and small events such as weddings and private parties.

How did you get started? Any inspiration?

I went to Stone Brewery in Escondido with my friend Calvin. We toured the facility and learned all about the process of how to brew. Although I had no previous experience, I enjoy cooking and gardening and was encouraged to try it out. I began reading books and researching dozens of websites, and found many contradictions in the process. Everyone had their own way of brewing. I was determined to find a way that was simple, but yet yielded great tasting beer.

How did you come up with the name, Pillbox Brewery?

I first stated brewing at my parent’s place in Solana Beach, which overlooks the surf spot called Pillbox. Seemed like a good name to me.

Tell us about your process of brewing.

Brewing beer is like making tea with barley. First you steep the grains in 150-degree water. This releases the sweet fermentable sugars called dextrose. After removing the spent barley, you bring the water to a boil and add hops. After an hour you let it cool, put it in a bucket, add yeast, and store it in a dark area for 2 weeks. The yeast eats all that sugar and creates alcohol and CO2. Then I add a little more sugar, bottle and cap it.

Is there anything you do differently than most?

My process is less complicated than most. I choose to keep the process simple and let the ingredients do the work. I am big on sanitation. Basically nothing that hasn’t been sanitized can touch the beer after the boil. But even with minor mistakes, my beer turns out great.

What types of beer have you brewed and what were your favorites?

I have probably made 20-25 batches over the last couple years, and none of them the same. My favorite was either a Belgian Strong Ale called Soren Kierkegaard or a clone of the Dog Fish Head 90 minute IPA called TyPA. I also made a variation of that called Hoppy Pistotti for a friend’s wedding.  Sometimes I’ll experiment with fun beers like my Maple Ale, Double Chocolate Stout, Peppermint Stout and a Hefeweizen/Cider called Wassailweisen.

How do you decide what flavors to add?

The sky is the limit – you can make any type of beer. Basically, whatever would go well with bread would be good in beer. Apples, cloves, apricots, chocolate, etc. all make great beer.

Though I don’t use adjuncts often anymore. It’s fun to fool around with that stuff but the best beer I’ve made is simply barley, water, hops and yeast. I guess that’s what the german reinheitsgebot is all about.

Have you ever experimented with beer cocktails?

No, never even thought of it, but maybe you could take one of mine and serve it back to me all spruced up!

What has been your biggest success and biggest failure?

Biggest failure was a recent batch of Westvleterenga No. 12 that I was brewing, which was spilling out the top of the airlock during primary fermentation. I went to replace the dirty airlock, but when I took it off it erupted. Beer sprayed like a geyser into my face, up to the ceiling, and all over the floor! Don’t try this at home, kids. The good news is that it dripped from my hair down my face and into my mouth, and I loved the taste :)

Biggest success was the TyPA I made. It was a big step forward for me in terms of creating a very complex hop profile and balancing that against a mature full body.

What recommendation would you give someone who wants to learn?

Read “The Joy of Home Brewing” by Charlie Papazian.  Also, talk to a friend or someone who brews and do it with them or borrow their equipment before you make the investment. Once you start yourself, it is a messy journey of trial and error and learning to be creative. Be prepared to make mistakes and learn throughout the process.

What is needed to start home brewing?

I would tell people to visit Brewmasters Warehouse. They have everything you need to get started. Once you have tried out the starter kits, and are feeling a bit more adventurous, you can build your own recipe using the custom recipe kit application. Not only can you add your own ingredients, but the application will help with quantities and give you an idea of how the beer will turn out. Most of my recipes are public, so you can even order my exact beers. They also ship your entire order from Georgia for $7, no matter what you order.

What are your favorite local breweries and why?

San Diego has some great breweries. My favorites are Green Flash, Pizza Port, and Ballast Point. They’re making some awesome beer. There are other great craft breweries all around the country that are all worth a shot. For example, I just tasted Hess for the first time – it was their abbey ale and was seriously impressed! I’d love to go for a visit and see what they do. I’m not much of a beer snob, I just have a ton of respect for any brewery that’s willing to put themselves out there and try new things.

Would you consider selling it or do you want to drink it all yourself?

Oh man the legal side of that is super complicated. I kind of get around all that with a club I set up where members contribute and end up drinking almost all of the beer I make. Besides that I love to do beer tastings for groups, brew a batch for a local wedding or other event. But before I have any huge aspirations I want a few more years to really nail down my recipes and invest in equipment.

How much is it to join the club? What can members expect?

I ask them to give $50 per year and in return they can have pretty much as many beers as they want for the whole year. I brew about 9 five-gallon batches per year, which comes out to like 450 bottles. So there are around 30 beers for 15 or so members. But I could make whatever work. I just love to share it.

Obviously most people don’t brew to save money, but for the art. But how does making your own beer compare to buying it in stores?

 The reason I do it is for the craft and experience. Actually, I don’t even drink most of the beer I make. It either goes to members in the club or I give it away. I can make a bottle for about $1.00-1.50. That is right on par with many other craft beers in stores, but I have the satisfaction of making it myself. I may switch to all grain brewing next year, which would cut down on my costs because I wouldn’t have to buy extracts. In order to make that leap, I need to invest in more equipment and hit the books to figure out a totally new system. Yes, it’s less expensive, but hopefully it will give me more control over the taste and quality of the beer.

Feel free to contact me on Facebook with any questions or ideas!

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