Recent big-money acquisitions of high-profile breweries in town have sparked conversations and some soul-searching among San Diego brewers. In the wake of these deals, brewers are asking themselves the inevitable question: "Is the multi-million-dollar payoff what I’m ultimately working toward?" The answers to this question are, of course, as varied as the brewers themselves. For Cosimo Sorrentino, brewer for Monkey Paw Brewing and South Park Brewing Company, the answer is clear: He wants to work on a small enough scale that he can continue doing the experiments and offbeat collaborations that keep things interesting and make him want to show up and brew every day.
I sat down with Cosimo recently to check in on how the relatively new South Park Brewing Company is doing and to find out what life is like managing two distinct breweries with different objectives.
Let’s start with a little bit of history. You started with Monkey Paw how long ago?
Just over two-and-a-half years ago—it was February of 2013 that I was offered the job.
And you were where before that?
I was at Local Habit. I hooked up with [Scot] Blair because I was a regular at Hamilton’s. My sister was a regular from the beginning, and I followed suit a couple of years later. When I was homebrewing, most of my sampling was done at Hamilton’s, with Blair. I didn’t do any clubs or competitions or anything like that—I just brought it over.
So you eventually saw what Blair’s take on beer was from doing that?
Well, a little bit. Mostly it was about "is this good or not?" My understanding of his opinions about beer at that point was based mostly on his opinions about styles. He liked the classics and he liked the darker stuff. But he was always able to tell me if my beers were clean or not, and he was always around people who knew beer. When he offered me a job, his original plan was for me to manage the restaurant side here, but when Derek [Freese] left Monkey Paw and Blair needed the brewer side of things, we decided I would do that.
Did you feel like you and Blair were on the same page in terms of the kind of beers you were going to do? Or did you feel you were bringing a totally different style of brewing to the mix?
I really only saw the opportunity. Blair’s philosophy on beer wasn’t the same as mine, but I knew I was going to have the opportunity and freedom to brew some different stuff and to learn, and that was worth it. The first two or three months were such a whirlwind I wasn't even thinking about incorporating my style, but it quickly got to the point where he had enough trust in me to do my own thing and take it in my own direction. There’s still probably about a third of the beers that I make where he tastes it and says, "Well, this isn’t my style, but people are going to like it and it’s clean." There are also a few beers that I make that I don’t drink—that he wants to see—and he enjoys them, so we kind of go back and forth on that.
Two years ago, at GABF, was the gold medal for Bonobos, right?
Yes. 2013 was Bonobos and then 2015 was the silver medal for South Park’s Scripps Pier Oyster Stout.
How gratifying was the most recent win? That beer had not been around very long…
No. It was the third batch of it. It was definitely gratifying. What it really did for me was solidify that this is what I should be doing. The Monkey Paw position had been a daunting task to take on, with the expectations and the acceleration of the industry in San Diego, which became insane. So, to be pushed into the limelight like that was cool.
And to get that kind of recognition for South Park Brewing, right out of the gate. There aren’t that many breweries that open their doors and then, eight months later, they’re winning medals at GABF.
I was definitely really excited. I see it as a way to get my beer into people’s hands. That’s the difficult thing, you’ve got to get people to come and try the beer. There are so many options and so many influences in this town that getting people in to drink the beer is the challenge. Once they try your beer, then it’s on you and your beer and their palate to decide what they like—and they may like it or they may not—not every beer is for every person. The awards, as I see them, don’t mean I make the "best" beer—they mean I make "not-bad" beer. People’s suggestions and recommendations: those are my medals. When people come in and say they went to five breweries today and all the breweries said they had to come to Monkey Paw and try the beer, that’s better to me than a GABF medal.
How would you characterize the style of beers you like to make for Monkey Paw? And do you make a distinction between the things you’ll make here at South Park as opposed to Monkey Paw?
Absolutely. Overall, quality and progression are the two things I always look to have; I always want to try something new or learn a little something with each brew, but overall you have to maintain the quality in each glass. That means not getting too weird or being too aggressive with one flavor or another. Within that framework, I try to take very opposite approaches to beer between South Park and Monkey Paw. With South Park, I always have to remind myself that it’s food driven. There has to be restraint in all the flavors. The beers should be able to stand alone—you should be able to drink a pint and enjoy it and think about it—but they also have to be able to pair with food. Seafood, especially, can be such a delicate and finicky thing. So my IPAs and double IPAs for South Park are about 60%–70% of the IBUs [international bittering units; from hops] I would normally put in those styles. I’m going for a juicier profile with less of the resin and bite. And I keep the ABVs [alcohol by volume] a little lower, too. Having South Park has actually freed me up at Monkey Paw, in that I can get a little more creative at Monkey Paw. If Blair has an Oktoberfest beer he wants me to make, for example, I can make five barrels of it here at South Park instead of making ten barrels of it at Monkey Paw. That means I can do more of the infused beers, the big beers, the one-offs, and the collaborations at Monkey Paw.
What are some of the things you’re still wanting to do?
I want to keep going along the same path that we’ve already started, with a lot of collaborations—they really keep the creative juices flowing and they give me an excuse to be brave with some stuff. Collaborations also help to get the consumer to try something if there’s a name attached to it that they recognize.
Can you think of a specific collaborator that has pulled you in a direction that you wouldn’t necessarily have gone on your own?
Well, the beer I have in the tanks right now is a perfect example. Arne [Johnson] from Marin Brewing Company and I were chatting at GABF and, after a few cocktails, we decided to make a gose using squid ink for the salt and the black aspect. Arne sourced the squid ink from a regular that comes in every day at noon. He’s a fish wholesaler and he sells fish to the regulars at the bar. You just give him your order and the next day he shows up with a bag of fish. So Arne got squid ink from him. You know, the jarred stuff has preservatives and thickeners, so we just got frozen, pure squid ink. That’s the fun of it. We’ll push the weirdness as far as we can go, but we’ll also make sure the beer is still really good.
Why did you choose to do a gose as opposed to another style?
Well, gose already has a saltiness to it. We wanted to do a kettle-tart beer, we wanted to have some fun with it, and we liked the fact that the squid ink inherently has a briny flavor to it. That was a good way to take the brininess and use it as the salt aspect in the gose. We’ll also do a light coriander tincture and put that in—neither of us is a big coriander fan, but it’s definitely a balancing agent in the beer and part of the style.
Are there any other collaborations that stand out in your mind as particularly satisfying?
Well, I’m really happy with the imperial wit we did with Pat Korn from Cellar 3. During the boil, we took a walk over to Old Harbor and had some gin and we talked about the spices we wanted to add. And it ended up being the sage and the juniper and a few other things like ginger. I’m really happy with how that came out. The very first collaboration I ever did was with Pat Korn as well, and Doug Hasker [from Gordon Biersch]. It was a hoppy lager that we did called Brain Food. It was for the elementary school down the street here, Einstein Academy. Great beer, big award, and one of those formative brew days for me with a couple of masters of the craft. I really learned a lot about the attitude of brewing that day.
Which is what?
Well, their attitude while brewing, specifically. You work really hard, you pay attention, but at some point you have to let it go. Beer will be beer. And we can be as finicky as we want, but there’s a certain point where you just have to let the process continue. You can’t keep making adjustments and getting in the way of the process. You can always try to learn and do better the next time, but sometimes mistakes become your best batches.
Looking at the enormous growth in the industry lately—125 breweries and counting—what’s your vision for your future? Does the exponential growth give you pause at all or affect your thinking?
I think I’m in the perfect spot for what I want to do, and that is to stay focused on small-batch, community, neighborhood-oriented brewing. I think we’ve already hit our capacity for mid-size packaging breweries in San Diego. When you go to a liquor store now the issue is that there’s so much selection that nothing moves and it’s all old. I do think that there’s still space for brewpubs, especially the South Park model where no kegs leave here. Think about places like Terra Santa and a bunch of other neighborhoods where you have to drive at least ten or fifteen minutes to get beer—we shouldn’t have that in San Diego. There should be a small brewpub nearby, brewing some quality beer, and I think there’s plenty of room for that in San Diego. I’m afraid that everyone’s going to see these buyouts and these big numbers and everyone’s going to race to open up a few tasting rooms and a brewery in the hope that they’re going to cash in. Someday, when my priorities change, I may have a different perspective on being small, but right now I’m going to enjoy it while I can.