The Beardless Brewers
Meet the duo behind El Cajon’s newest (and only) brewery
Co-founders Jeff Wiederkehr (left) and Mike Maass | Photo by Bruce Glassman
For a week or so back in February, El Cajon was brewery-less. Luckily, the dark cloud that hung over Gotham did not hang long, for—within only a few weeks—Burning Beard Brewing Company was up and running.
The brewery’s opening was the culmination of a longtime dream held by two home brew buddies who had spent years developing recipes together as they refined their theories of what great beer should taste like. Jeff Wiederkehr and Mike Maass did not enter into their brewery project lightly. It’s obvious from the moment you step into the tasting room that the entire company reflects a well-defined vision and a cogent brewing philosophy. It’s also obvious that the two partners have not cut corners in bringing that vision to fruition.
I sat down to chat with Mike and Jeff in their barrel room, a big space dominated by two beautiful, shiny, new 30-barrel oak foeders (fermentation vessels). There’s plenty of room to add more, along with room for dozens more wine, tequila, whiskey, or bourbon barrels. Sipping on a variety of their newly released brews, and fresh off the high of their April 1 grand opening, Jeff and Mike were happy to talk about the formation of their company, how they want to do business, and what they love about brewing.
Okay, first question: Neither of you have beards, so you obviously don’t need a beard to be part of this company. What’s the story behind the name?
Mike: Yeah, neither of us has beards. Neither does Chris [Brown, the head brewer].
Jeff: Mine is ingrown.
Nobody in the company has a beard!
Mike: It’s more of an ironic metaphor for us. The “burning beard” in its entirety represents the “creative ethos,” or what we call the “punk rock ethos” that inspires great artists—great writers, great painters, great woodworkers—and makers of craft beer. That’s what all of those people tap into, and that’s what we are trying to tap into (no pun intended!) for the creation of our product and for the experience we’re trying to give people here. We’re trying to bring that creative spirit into what we do. The name itself actually comes from a rock ‘n roll band called Clutch, which has a song called “Burning Beard.”
Jeff: We had to come up with a name that would house this “ethos,” this thing that we talked about every time we brewed together in my driveway. We basically dissected the words burning beard and took “burning” as action, creation, life—it’s transformative. And the “beard” is sort of a ceremonial mask. When we’re in our most creative moments, we like to think we are “at one with the beard.” I know it sounds hokey, but we really believe it. It’s what, on a base level, separates us from everybody else. We’re not a gimmick. We’re not a theme. This is what we do—what we want to do—and we adopted a phrase we thought fits our approach.
How does this “ethos” inform and affect the actual beer that you brew and the lineup you’ve created?
Mike: There’s actually two components to that. There’s the beer component—what’s in the beer and how the beer is made—and then there’s also how we represent that beer—how we name it and how we put it out on the market.
Jeff: What we’re doing when we’re making the beer is—well, here’s an example: One person came up to me recently and said he loved our jukebox and he asked me how we decided which songs to put in there. I said, “Well, I’m glad you like it, because Mike and I put stuff in there we like.” And then the questioning led to, “How do you decide which beer to make?” And it’s essentially the same answer; we brew what we like. We really try to create beers, like our ESB or our Hopmata IPA, where we’re not afraid to spend a little more on grain or spend a little more on yeast to make sure we’re getting the flavors we want. That extends to our equipment as well. We opened our doors with these foeders on the floor and these barrels here, and with oversized equipment because we aren’t planning to fail. We’re planning to succeed with this model. And we’re driven by the idea of trying to make something that we can be proud of. We’re not trying to push a product for money, we’re trying to make something we can be proud of. That’s really at the heart of what we’re doing. And that bleeds into our marketing and why we spent so much time on our glassware and our logo and… this is where Mike takes over…
Mike: So, once we’ve put our heart and soul into crafting the beer, we have to make it something beyond that, too. All of our names are derived from various literary, musical, or otherwise social inspirations. For example, Get Thee to a Nunnery [Belgian single] is from Hamlet. Hopmata [IPA] is kind of the stigmata, where you “carry the mark of the hop.” Rye the Lightning [pale ale] is our homage to Metallica. Ingsoc [Russian Imperial stout] is from George Orwell’s 1984. Those are the things that inspire us, and it all comes from that creative well.
Burning Beard tasting room | Photo by Bruce Glassman
You guys were home brewers, brewing together for some time before this endeavor. Did you collaborate on recipes or did you each bring some of your own to the mix?
Jeff: We collaborated on everything. Most of what we did at the beginning was decide, for example, on what we thought an IPA should be. We thought about how we wanted our IPA to taste, or our Belgian, and then we said, okay, how do we build that?
What are some of the things you decided were important for your IPAs, for example?
Jeff: We’re San Diego West Coast IPA guys to the hilt.
What were some of the IPAs that inspired you? Or ones that contributed to your idea of what a perfect IPA is?
Jeff: In San Diego, we’re huge fans of AleSmith’s IPA. Mother Earth has Kismet. Then there’s Pupil—Societe doesn’t do any wrong. And Alpine is great. We have a lot to live up to. Those are the people we look to for inspiration.
You don’t have them on yet, but you are planning to do some kettle sours and then some Brett and barrel-aged sours, too?
Jeff: Yes. We recently returned from Belgian with some really fun yeast. I’m doing a little open-air home brew thing in my backyard with it and I’m hoping for some good micro flora in there for the yeast to chomp on. We’re about eight months in on this experiment and we have already taste-tested some of it along the way. Obviously we don't want to just throw in some goofball thing that I have at home, so Mike, Chris, and I sat down and we tested a bunch of samples and they all seemed passable. Chris is planning to do a pale Flanders in one of these foeders. And I’m all excited about doing a different recipe in the other one. They’ll all be classic styles, basic Lambic style recipes with a whole bunch of home brew funk in it. We’re willing to take a chance on it, because that’s part of our ethos.
Mike: Go big and do it right.
How would you characterize your partnership? Would you say that your approaches to styles are very similar and that’s why it works? Or is one of you the Lennon and the other the McCartney?
Mike: I think there’s a healthy creative tension, and I think that’s good. I think we need that. I think any business needs that. But we also see eye-to-eye on so many other things, and that brings a cooperative spirit to all of it.
Jeff: Part of it is that we actually like each other well enough so that, when we don't agree, we actually listen to each other’s opinions! For example, we don’t have the 10 Iron Maiden CDs that I really wanted in the jukebox and that’s largely due to Mike’s opinion about Iron Maiden. But that’s fine.
How does your creative tension work on the recipe side, in terms of building the components of a beer together? For example, is one of you more into the far-out ingredients and the other more traditional?
Jeff: I always say it’s analogous to writing a song. Somebody has a riff and they are all mostly three or four-chord songs, so we mostly start with taste. What do we want our signature IPA to be like? What do we want our Russian Imperial to be like? And then once we have that nailed down, we find out how to do it. In terms of the “fringe” ideas—adding watermelon, grapefruit, cucumber and all that—we’re largely in agreement. Stylistically, we’re very middle of the road. We like beer that tastes like beer.
Rye the Lightning Pale Ale | Photo by Bruce Glassman
Tell me how your head brewer, Chris Brown, fits into your creative process.
Mike: We all saw eye-to-eye from the beginning. We saw that he shared our philosophy.
Jeff: The first meeting I had with Chris, we sat down at the Regal Beagle and just talked about IPAs. Our number one thing is that you can’t come out of the gate with a shitty IPA. Not in San Diego. So I wanted to know—if we were going to hire him and have him be part of our creative team—that we were on the same wavelength. And we literally were. We hit it off. He’s definitely the George Harrison! Chris brings a lot. He’s an equal part of our brew team, as is Shannon Rogers, our tasting room manager, who has a great palate and a great enthusiasm for beer. We don’t have a real “brewmaster” here. To be honest, we’re a bunch of home brewers that just happened to get lucky and we’re trying to make beer we like. So we’re really a brew team.
Alright, so you wake up in the morning and you think to yourself that there’s 120 other guys out there competing with you right now in this town. What makes you feel good about what you’re doing as opposed to everybody else?
Jeff: We never worry about that.
Mike: I honestly don’t think about the 120 breweries out there.
You are, after all, the only brewery in El Cajon right now!
Jeff: The only time it came into play was when I was trying to convince my wife that this wasn’t a bad idea. That’s the only time I had to bring stats into the discussion at all.
Mike: I think about the people that are coming through the door—and how to keep them coming. That’s what I focus on. It’s making sure that those people come in, they have a beer, and then they order another beer, and they have a smile on their face. That’s how this has all happened in the last month. We didn’t do any advertising, but people have come in, they’ve told us the beer is good, and they’ve said they’re coming back in with their friends.
Jeff: To that point, my whole thing has been about, if we make good beer and do what we want to do, then we’ve achieved our goal. We never started this business to make a million dollars or to sell out to anybody. We just hoped to maybe make a living at it and, if we can do that, we’ll be happy. We’re not doing that right now and we’re still pretty happy!
Your company name and philosophy focuses on the creative process and all your creative inspirations. What is it about beer and brewing that you feel is particularly inspiring or creative? How is brewing an expression of creativity for you?
Mike: Beer-making and enjoying beer is a means of expression. It's a way of bringing people together. So, I think the same can be said about music or artwork. It’s something that people can enjoy together. It's about that sense of togetherness and humanity. It's a social thing. Beer makes people happy.
Jeff: To take a slightly different angle on that, I think about how—aside from growing the grain and the hops—we do everything, from the grain in our hands to the beer in the glass. We are actually a part of every step in the process, as much as we can be—which is to say aside from growing the hops and grain. I have also come to really enjoy the taproom experience, which is analogous to the pub experience in England. That’s why we don't have TVs in here. We want people to interact, we want people to talk to each other. We’ve been really successful in getting people to put down their phones and to open up to us behind the bar, and we’ve loved it. We revel in that, and that’s part of who we are. And that’s what beer does.
Burning Beard Brewing Co., 785 Vernon Way, El Cajon, CA 92020