Interview: brewmaster Dave Larsen (Haven Gastropub + Brewery)

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Dave Larsen, a native of California’s City of Orange, had varied jobs in his 20s, including fishmonger and butcher, before fully embracing a culinary career. He rose to sous chef at the original Haven Gastropub, but still found time to homebrew. His beers clearly impressed the Haven Collective of Greg Daniels, Wil Dee and Ace Patel, because when the trio opened Haven Gastropub + Brewery in Pasadena, they let Larsen run the brewhouse.

What was the very first beer that you ever brewed, and how did it turn out?

Like crap. Actually the very first thing I ever brewed was a mead, a honey wine. It just got really alcoholic, really quick, tasted like rubbing alcohol. I even aged it for like a year to see if it would go away, and it didn’t. We had to throw that away.

Is there anybody who mentored you along the way?

My dad. My dad was a huge influence, taught me a lot. Him and his friends had a little brew club out of San Diego, so I would just shoot the shit with his buddies and learn about different beer styles and how to make beer and the process. It was a long process of trial and error at the beginning. There weren’t too many screwed up batches, but that’s a huge learning thing, to learn from mistakes.

What’s the criteria for a beer you brew at Haven? What does a beer have to be?

Usually what I’ll do is start at home, make a small batch, a test batch, and I’ll bring it to them. If they like it – I would say hoppy, bigger, higher in alcohol, kind of in your face, West Coast style – I think that’s what we’re going for. And a little artisanal.

What’s your top selling beer here?

Gross National Happiness. That’s our cream ale.

Why do you think the cream ale would be your top seller?

It’s easy drinking, 5%. It’s a cream ale. We made it with rice from Bhutan, a red rice. It’s a good all-around beer. It’s easy drinking and really approachable, so say people who aren’t into IPAs or super hoppy beers, they can drink that very easily.

Do you have any employees here in the brewhouse?

No, just me. Once in awhile I’ll have a buddy that comes in that helps out. I really appreciate it. I wish I had a full-time employee. It’s just me doing this kind of stuff every day, mostly cleaning. It’s really worth it in the long run. You can take a beer you made by yourself for Haven and watch people getting drunk on it at the bar and having a good time. It’s so rewarding. It’s like going to a PTA meeting and have everybody talk about your kid.

Is that your favorite part about being a brewer, watching people drink your beers?

It’s definitely Top 10.

What else would be up there?

Being creative. Smelling raw ingredients. Taking raw ingredients and making something incredible. Doing all that hard work and having somebody go, “This is really good.” It’s really worth it.

How do you go about naming your beers?

We basically sit around a round table, usually have a beer in our hands…

…the beer that you’re naming?

Yeah. And shoot out ideas. Kind of nix ‘em or say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, but not for this beer. Maybe for some other beer.”

So the beer that you brewed most recently was obviously today with Steve Gonzalez from Stone. That’s a rye IPA?

Yep, a rye black IPA, brewed with all New Zealand hops. So we’ve got bullet and Motueka.

How did the collaboration come about and what was your inspiration for the beer?

They came up to me and said they wanted to do some kind of Stone type beer with us. I shot out Imperial Pilsner. That got nixed. Steve’s like, “Let’s do some kind of IPA.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s cool, but I already have an IPA.” “Let’s make rye.” “I already have a rye beer.” “Okay, then how about we make it black.” “Yeah, that sounds perfect.” “Let’s do New Zealand hops.” “Sweet!” It was that easy.

Does it make your job easier or harder to have so many other new breweries opening in L.A.?

Easier. The brewing community is awesome. Everybody is friendly towards each other. We don’t have a keg washer to kick clean our kegs, so we call on Golden Road, and we go to Golden Road. They’re awesome. They’re always super helpful if we have any questions, and they let us use their keg washer. Other breweries are amazing. If they need yeast or we need yeast, or extra hops or grains, it’s not ever problem. It makes life a lot easier, and there are people that have been in the business for so long that if we ask questions, it’s awesome.

How do you think being a chef helps you as a brewer?

Matching flavors. Temperatures. It all relates to brewing and being a chef. It’s almost hand in hand, like you’re making a giant soup. You’re making some stock and cooking it down. You’re adding hops at certain times, volumes and measurements. It’s all hand in hand, cooking and brewing. So it’s not a far leap.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?

I can’t. Brewing, I’m here more than I’m at home.

Are you going to have to move from Orange finally?

I don’t want to, but we’ll see. I don’t want to. I love Orange.

If you could only drink one more beer and it’s not one that you brewed, what would it be and how come?

That’s rough, dude. A German Helles. I feel like you could drink it all the time, for any occasion. Beautiful flavors. It looks beautiful.

Address: 42 South De Lacey Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91105

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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