Have a Beer with Benchmark Brewer Matt Akin
This small, family-run brewery has been quietly making great beer since it opened two years ago. Now, with expanded facilities and a quarter of a million new cans to fill, you’ll be seeing a little more of Benchmark.
Photo by Bruce Glassman
Benchmark Brewing Company
6190 Fairmount Ave, San Diego
Matt Akin is a jovial guy with an easy smile and a relaxed manner. When you talk to him about the brewing business and his future plans, he considers it all with a laid-back confidence that says, “It’s all gonna work out fine.” Having just celebrated their two-year anniversary, Matt is convinced that Benchmark is about to find its sweet spot.
So, it must feel good to have just passed your two-year anniversary, right?
Yeah. I found that two years is a really long time and a really quick time! We hardly even stopped to notice it this year, to be completely honest. We talked about doing an event and then realized we were just way too busy. On our two-year anniversary, however, we actually did release cans for the first time.
And you started out with an initial stock of a quarter of a million cans? How long are they going to take to fill?
Yeah, that’s anybody’s guess! If we were to do it at the same pace we’re on right now—two weeks into selling them— it would take two years. But that’s not happening. It’s going be a lot faster than that.
What do you have in cans right now?
Three brands: Table Beer, IPA, and Brown Ale. We’ll round out the rest of the year-round line-up with Blonde Ale and Oatmeal Stout…as soon as we can fit more cans in here!
Looking back over the past two years, are you generally happy with where you are today?
The beers are tasting awesome, that’s the most important part to me. I’m also really happy with how frequently I hear people say, “Oh, I saw you guys on tap at so-and-so and I had to come in and taste it.” In terms of growth, I’m quite happy. In 2015, we’ll be doing three times the production of 2014, which will bring us to about 1,300 barrels for the year.
Your new canning capabilities will obviously open up a whole new universe of distribution for you. What’s the first area that you’re looking to expand into?
Well, we started out with a list of very carefully chosen off-premise locations, better beer bottle shops (Bottlecraft and Bine & Vine) and some of our other good friends who also sell some really killer beer, like Iowa Meat Farms and Siesel’s. So, a hand-selected list of accounts. Now we’re working on the second push, which are places like BevMo!. We actually want to be doing some volume with cans. It’s all about people being able to find us. That’s something that’s challenging when you’re a draft-only brewery and you’re only doing 500 barrels a year—we’re only in a limited number of bars and restaurants and—if you don’t go to those places—you don’t know about us. So now it’s about getting out there and getting in front of a lot more people.
What were some of the big surprises of the last two years? Things you hadn’t expected?
I wasn’t planning on doing two special releases a month—but that seems to have happened. I’m having fun doing it, though, so we’ll keep on doing it. Some of the special releases have been really, really popular—like Hop Chunks (double IPA) and River Rye (American Red Rye Ale). River Rye is a hoppy red at 6.5% with tons and tons and tons—and then a little bit more—rye. So it’s got a really nice earthy, spicy, rye flavor and the mouthfeel is really something to behold. I’m a texture eater and drinker, so that one really excites me. Hop Chunks is the second double IPA that we make (we have San Diego 71, which we brewed for our grand opening). This year we said, wait, everyone’s always sad when 71 goes away, so we rolled Hop Chunks in right at the end of the 71. Whereas 71 is a big, hoppy, aggressive beer, Hop Chunks is more citrusy, and a little bit juicy. It’s 8.5%, but we kind of hid the alcohol as much as we could. It’s kind of a scary beer in that way…you’ll drink three of them and say, “Whoa! I shouldn’t have done that!”
Let’s talk about your brewing style and approach. Your basic approach is in line with what I call “beer purism.”
You don’t do a lot with crazy flavors and ingredients, right?
The occasional cask. That’s as crazy as we get! Yeah, I’m really just all about beer for beer’s sake. You know, I love Ray (Astamendi) over at Fall Brewing, but after his opening weekend, I had to give him hell. One of his most popular beers didn’t even taste like beer to me! It tasted like a cup of coffee! And I railed on him for it! We had fun joking around together about it. I’m just a big believer in beer-flavored beer.
Your loyal followers and fans seem to share your beliefs.
Yes. I’m really happy with our core beers. Our Blonde Ale is our most popular beer right now, we’re selling more of that than any other, and we’re not even canning it. The Oatmeal Stout won a gold at the 2014 GABF (Great American Beer Festival) in the session category. It’s got a ton of fans out there and I’m actually getting grief for not putting it in cans. (Don't worry! It’s gonna happen!) But, people really love all of our core beers, and that’s something I’m really proud of. It’s really nice!
Is there one beer that you’re particularly proud of, or found the most satisfying to brew?
Two of them. Number one is our Table Beer. I’ve had a passion for Belgian Table beers for a long time. This was probably the fifteenth or so recipe that I brewed—and we had gone everywhere from pitch black to pale yellow, loaded with rye or spelt or odd things—and all kinds of different yeasts. And then we brewed this one completely blind—on the full-scale system! We put it on tap, I took the first sip, and I thought to myself, “Damn! We have to make this a year-round beer now!” To be completely honest, every time I drink that beer I’m absolutely thrilled and amazed that I made it! The other beer is Primitive Camp, my classic American Pils. I had never really brewed a lager before—I came from AleSmith! We didn’t make lagers! But I’ve always wanted to do a classic American pilsner, and each time we do this beer, I’m really satisfied with it. It’s the clearest beer you’ll ever see. It came about when I was commissioned to brew something that featured corn prominently. So we use a whole lot of flaked maize in it, but we also add nixtamal. Corn is nixtamalized on its way to being masa, which then gets used to make corn tortillas. It’s kind of like the malting process, but it’s with corn—it starts to break down the carbohydrates into sugars and develops a lot more character. Think of the flavors you get in a corn tortilla—a kind of nuttiness and almost herbal quality. Every time I drink this beer I really enjoy how unique it is.
When you talk to the folks that are coming in to the tasting room, what do you hear from them that surprises or intrigues you?
People are often surprised because we’ve been here for two years and they still hadn’t heard of us. We seem to be a little more “under the radar” than I’d like, personally. When people do find us, they usually start out with a taster flight and when we ask them for a response they say, “Oh, my God! Every one of those was good! I didn’t expect to like this one or that one because it’s not one of my personal preferences.” I think people really appreciate that we make clean, clean beers. And they like that we do a bunch of session-style beers. Session beers are very important to me. Even though we’re doing two specialty beers a month right now, we’re not doing two that are 10% or 12% alcohol. Sometimes one of them is, but a lot of the time, they’re both like 6.5%. We’re still about beers to share and beers to enjoy a few of. They’re beers for hanging out with your friends and enjoying while you watch the sun go from noon to sunset. So enjoy!