Interview: Southern Pacific Brewing founder Chris Lawrence

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Bernal Hill native Chris Lawrence founded Southern Pacific Brewing in San Francisco after working in beer distribution and as the National Sales Manager for nearby Speakeasy Ales & Lagers. That’s where he met Andy French, his eventual brewmaster. Lawrence launched Southern Pacific in the bygone home of a Mission district machine shop in 2012. I met him at the brewery on February 6, and he shared several hop-fueled insights.

What’s the criteria for a beer you brew here?

Right now we mostly do West Coast styles. We do some Belgian styles, but we mostly want to do sessionable, dry stuff, not too sweet, very crisp, clean, true-to-style beers. Those seem to be mine and the brewer’s favorites, something that you know exactly when you pick it up, it’s going to be exactly how you want it to taste. I think we’ve accomplished that very well. Obviously the clientele enjoys it. And there’s a huge history of brewing in San Francisco, and to have another brewery in San Francisco is just an amazing thing.

What’s the most recent beer that you brewed?

We did two different strong ales. We did a Belgian strong ale and an American strong ale for our anniversary, and we are also going to re-release our true anniversary beer, which is a Belgian style blonde that we aged in a Chardonnay barrel. There’s a winery right next door to us, AP Vin. It’s an urban winery. So it’s aged in Chardonnay barrels with gooseberries, so that’s a really interesting, fun thing that came out slightly tart, a little sweet, but not too, and complex. That’s going to be fun, and obviously it’s Beer Week here in San Francisco from the 8th through the 17th, so there are going to be a lot of cool events and special beer releases.

What’s your approach with guest taps?

We try and rotate as many of our friends’ breweries as we can and keep it mostly West Coast as well, in our selection.

What about with food food?

It’s American pub food, burgers, sandwiches and pizzas at night. We try and do an upscale and very approachable menu. You can just come in and grab a burger or wings, but have little twists on them that make them interesting. Like our coconut fried chicken wings, it’s coconut battered and has a sweet and sour sauce on it, rather than just a traditional Buffalo wing or something like that. And most everything we have, we try and incorporate beer in to it somehow. The breading on our fish and chip, obviously. There’s beer in our chili. Cooking with beer and having fun and having a brewery and having access to as much beer as we want.

What was the space originally?

This was a machine shop. And we named it Southern Pacific for the rail line that ran down Harrison Street, which is the next closest street. Obviously all the industrial buildings in this area were there to feed those railroad lines. That’s why this was a warehouse district. This was a 20,000 square foot machine shop, this building and the building right next to us. It shut down. This building was basically unused and vacant for years. It’s a nice addition to a cool and up and coming neighborhood. In addition, we’re in close proximity to new places like Salumeria and Flour + Water, and Trick Dog and all these places as they transfer down off of Valencia Street to Harrison.

Does your model involve wholesale too?

Yeah. Eventually we’ll get into wholesale. Right now, we’re feeding the pub and just growing the name and the brand. We have some accounts in San Francisco: Benders, Zeitgeist, Toronado, Pi Bar, beer bars that like to represent the local scene, but eventually when we get our production up, we’ll be able to do more wholesale.

How do you go about naming your beers?

In-house, the name just is the style. Eventually we’ll brand a whole name for them as we sell outdoors, but right now it’s just the style of beer. It’s exactly what I was trying to say, true to form. You know what you get when you order a pale ale. It’s going to be a crisp, refreshing California pale ale.

What was your initial introduction to beer? What do you remember about your first beer?

I’ve been a lover of beer forever. My parents tell me how I used to take beers off of parties when I was four and start chugging them down. It’s just a passion for beer in general.

When did you know that you’d work with beer for a living?

I was doing some tour managing and roadie-ing and came back to San Francisco after being gone for almost a year and realized I didn’t know too much besides selling and drinking beer, so I tried to put those two together and luckily found Speakeasy.

You got your brewhouse from Gordon Biersch?

We have some equipment that came out of Gordon Biersch. That equipment’s probably going to get put into another brewery. The stuff that we got, that’s our main system, came out of a defunct brewery in San Francisco called Potrero Brewing Company, which used to be about four blocks away.

How much more room is there for growth in the San Francisco brewing scene?

It used to be that you had your neighborhood brewery, at the turn of the century. If you look at old maps from 1905, 1906, and the list of breweries that were in San Francisco, it’s vast. Currently there are 11, which I don’t think is that many for how many there could be. I like the idea of a neighborhood brewery. People go down and get fresh beer. That sounds amazing to me.

Would you say that you’ve had any mentors?

Just from working in the industry, there are some guys that are doing a great job. My old boss Steve Bruce, who now manages Toronado. He’s been a mentor to me. He knows his beer. He knows a lot about beer. That’s why he’s managing Toronado now. He was one of the founders of Speakeasy. Dave Keene, who owns Toronado, he’s an amazing guy and knows his beer so well. 60 taps, and it’s an amazing, amazing place. People like that, and there are people on the wholesale market who teach you what it is to actually be selling beer and talking to people. It’s a small community, especially in San Francisco. Just fitting in and being a part of it.

Have you been involved in the brewing process?

I was an avid homebrewer. I sometimes help out brewing, but leave it mostly to Andy, who’s a trained professional.

What was your first homebrew?

My first homebrew, I believe was a porter, and it turned out pretty good. Then I tried to go experimental and made a plum beer that was absolutely terrible.

What is your top selling beer here?

Our IPA is our top selling beer here, closely followed by our pale ale, which is always $3, so it’s always happy hour.

Why do you think your IPA outsells it?

IPAs are just what San Francisco drinks. I think that’s true for almost any bar. IPAs. It’s an IPA town for sure.

If you could only drink one more beer, and you couldn’t brew it, what would it be?

Any beer? That’s a good question. I think I’d do something like a Duvel. It’s just a pretty amazing beer. I really like it.

Address: 620 Treat Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110

Joshua Lurie

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

Blog Comments

The last question has a word omitted. Nice interview! Thanks for helping get the word out about a great local brewer!

Jon, thanks for pointing out the missing word. Good catch. The word was “drink,” and it’s now in the post.

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