Alpine’s Mcilhenney Brewing a bright spot in a tough year for San Diego beermakers
The family that founded Alpine Beer in 2002 has regrouped under a new label in East County that has taken the craft beer industry by storm
Rampant inflation, tangled supply chains, finicky consumers — for craft beer, 2022 went down like a six-pack of skunky ales. There were some bright spots, though, perhaps the brightest being the triumph of the San Diego’s first family of beer, the Mcilhenneys.
Mcilhenney Brewing celebrated its first anniversary last May, but these were no brewing novices. In 2002, Pat and Val Mcilhenney had opened Alpine Beer, a tiny operation that quickly built a huge reputation.
Their son, Shawn, became brewmaster in 2008. He continued to guide Alpine after Green Flash bought the brand in 2014.
That was an unhappy marriage, fatally strained when Green Flash’s debts led to a rash of layoffs, closures — farewell Green Flash Virginia Beach; adios barrel-aging laboratory Cellar 3 — and eventual sale.
In 2021, the family returned to Alpine Beer’s original location and opened a new brewery: Mcilhenney Brewing.
The address is the same, but the brewhouse is a major upgrade, being largely automated and attuned to modern brewing practices.
“Now,” said Pat, “one person can do a brew in a day and not die.”
Physically, this remains a modest operation — even in Alpine, you can find garages larger than this brewery. That’s just how the Mcilhenneys like it.
“Small batch beer,” Pat said, “is always going to be a bit better.”
These days, Pat and Val are semi-retired, although he’s involved in hop selection. The brewing has fallen to Shawn and the business side, once Val’s province, is ruled by Shawn’s wife, Jamie.
You can taste the family influence. The beers Shawn now makes for Mcilhenney — Wizard’s Wand, say, or Muntz — share DNA with Pat’s Alpine classics, such as Nelson or Pure Hoppiness. All are expertly balanced, with sweet malts harmonizing with bold, fresh hops.
Mcilhenney, while clearly influenced by Alpine, is no Xerox copy. Shawn promises that 2023 will see seasonal beers. This spring will see the return of Parallel Paradise, an IPA first brewed in 2022 with Carlsbad’s Burgeon, as well as a triple IPA and a stout aged in 10-year-old Henry McKenna bourbon barrels.
“Once the brewery came back under our control it became fun again,” Shawn said. “Cost is always a concern, but I don’t have to make the cheapest beer possible to satisfy a high-paid CEO.”
He may have a tougher job: meeting the high standards of his own family. His father, though, doesn’t sound concerned.
“The beer is the main thing,” Pat said. “If you make good beer, everything else falls into place.”
The Next Round
Jan. 12: Grab your running shoes and stein for Eppig Brewing’s weekly run/walk around Shelter Island. Start time is 6:30 p.m.; the finish time is up to you, as Eppig’s Waterfront Biergarten — 2817 Dickens St., San Diego — offers runners $1 off pints.
Jan. 13: Even non-scientists may enjoy the mixer of the American Chemical Society’s San Diego chapter, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Novo Brazil Brewing Co., 2015 Birch Road, Suite 1017, Chula Vista. The topic? “The Chemistry of Beer,” of course. Admission is $5 for ACS members, $15 for others.
Jan. 28: It’s weeks away, but tickets are already vanishing for Pure Project’s 7th Anniversary Party, 1 to 5 p.m., 9030 Kenamar Drive, San Diego. General admission, $25, includes four pours.
Beer: Christmas Ale
From: St. Bernardus, Watou, Belgium
Alcohol by volume: 10 percent
Style: Christmas ale
Drink or dump: Drink. Christmas comes but once a year, but the best Christmas ales are welcome all winter. This Belgian import is recklessly carbonated — the bubbles practically blew the cork out of my 750 ml bottle —– and overflowing with cheer: ribbons of baked apples, raisins, caramel. While potent, this holiday beer sports a light body.
Beer: Chronic Ale
From: Pizza Port, Carlsbad
ABV: 4.9 percent
Style: Amber ale
Drink or dump: Drink. Amber ales occupy craft beer’s danger zone, lacking the sex appeal of IPAs, the comfy familiarity of pilsners or the charisma of barrel-aged stouts. Chronic, though, makes a compelling case for this style. Refined toffee-ish English malts lead to a mild hop snap at the clean finish.
From: MadeWest, Ventura
ABV: 5.6 percent
Style: Pale ale
Drink or dump: Drink. Pale begins with hints of orange and lemon atop biscuity malts, then delivers a punch of brisk bitterness from Mosaic, Simcoe and Ekuanot hops. Pale had a big year in 2018, taking bronze medals at both the 2018 California State Fair and the San Diego International Beer Competition.
Rowe is a freelance writer.
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