Interview: Craftsman Brewing founder Mark Jilg

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Brewmaster Los Angeles

Mark Jilg was born in Idaho and raised a bi-coastal child, ping-ponging back and forth between L.A. and northern Virginia. He snagged a bachelor’s degree in Photo Science from Rochester Institute of Technology before returning to Southern California to work as an archival printer in the fine art photography world. He spent over seven years at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory before giving into his passion for beer. Jilg and his wife started Craftsman Brewing in 1995 and he left JPL to brew full-time in late 1996. We met on October 30 at his Pasadena brewery, where he discussed his approach to beer.

Why beer after JPL?
I’ve been interested in beer since I was in high school and my brother sort of knew I was amused with beer. He was going to buy me a homebrew set up, but he was too busy, so my wife got me into it. I pretty much went off the deep end. I made a simple batch of beer at home and started doing that a lot. I made a tent scale model of the smallest commercial brewery and brewed on that for awhile, and started to get serious about wanting to do it professionally. This was while I was still at JPL. I leased a small 500-square-foot space in Old Pasadena and started going jumping through all the regulatory hoops…I left JPL in late ’96. My second day as a full-time brewer, the landlord of the space we had in Old Town nailed a notice to acquit to the front door and told us to leave and get all our equipment out of there because they were going to tear the building down to build a Boston Market.

You got evicted from the space?
That was kind of a blessing in disguise. At that point, we had 6 to 8 customers, so I went to everybody and explained to them what was going on. We thought we might be able to find a new place, have enough beer to carry us through the transition…We ended up having to go dark for four or five months, but that was good because we moved into this business park that we’ve been in ever since and it’s just a much more professional scenario than being in this old building. But it was tough because it tough to have to build a new brewery again, saw up the floors and do floor drains and do all the stuff the Health Department wants you to do.

Why did you decide on the name Craftsman?
Pasadena’s got a wonderful arts and crafts tradition. The turn of the last century, a lot of the heavy hitters in the arts and crafts world were here in Pasadena. When I was a home brewer, I did a lot of reading about arts and crafts. There was conceptually a lot of tie-ins. At the turn of the last century, the whole arts and crafts thing was a response to everybody moving off the farm and moving to cities and the industrialization of culture. In retrospect, the turn of this century is much the same thing. It’s not necessarily a revolution of industrialization. It’s more a revolution against the corporatization of American culture. And certainly here, in the craft beer renaissance, beer was an industrial commodity. It wasn’t something to be savored or enjoyed.

Do you have a first beer memory?
I was fortunate in that when I grew up, the drinking age was 18 and – this is a hilarious story – the high school that I went to in northern Virginia sort of had this reputation for doing commencement ceremonies in extraordinary locations, so Constitution Hall was sort of the preferred place to do the graduation. I don’t recall how much money it was, but it was a lot of money to rent the hall. When you’re a freshman, that was essentially the deal. Class President was given the task of trying to raise all the money by the time you graduated to rent this fancy hall. Everybody knows that the easiest way to raise money is to sell alcohol. There were these crazy keg parties, literally starting in freshman year, and all of the revenue went toward raising money for graduation. I could sort of remember tapping Golden Gate kegs of some god-forsaken cheap East Coast lager beer, but I can’t really associate any brands with that.

What was the first beer that you brewed as a home brewer?
The first beer was undoubtedly some version of pale ale. When I first started to get into beer, that was when Sierra Nevada was really starting to hit its stride…The Anchor beers I was familiar with from when I was in high school. I sort of look at Sierra Nevada and Anchor as First Wave players. They re-introduced real beer to the American scene, hops and malt. When I was just starting the business, that was sort of the beginning of what I’d consider the Second Wave. A lot of good places were opening and everybody was differentiating themselves. The First Wave players made relatively balanced products. They were just trying to get people to take beer seriously. The Second Wave players really wanted to push the envelope on what beer flavor was. A lot of the Second Wave players made bigger versions of the First Wave player beers. I was really disheartened by that because stylistically I’m a pretty subtle guy and I really prefer the nuanced, refined things as opposed to the big statement things. When we first started I was pretty committed to not doing what everybody else was doing, which was producing beer on a super limited scale like we were. We never really did big hoppy beers. We did traditional hefeweizen, which is still a big product for us. We did a fair amount of fruit beers, which we still do. That’s sort of somewhat the evolution of our palate.

When you say First Wave, Second Wave, what wave are we no now?
We’re definitely Third Wave. The Third Wave is sort of being much more inclusive. The Third Wave players don’t necessarily want to just make extreme beer, they want to make beer that fits the entire beer palate. Instead of malty hoppy beers, they’re doing beers that have a fermentation component in them, so there’s a lot more subtlety in the beers. The business is a little more sophisticated with the Third Wave players. The First Wave players, just opening a brewery was a huge task. Now everybody knows a lot more, so the Third Wave players have afforded the time and resources to just fully develop the beer palate. Now you’re seeing craft breweries doing lager beers, doing Belgian style beers, doing extreme beers, really extreme beers. I think we’re in the Third Wave, but I think it’s really kind of fun…I have great respect for breweries that are still in the first or second wave. The Third Wave is still happening and will go on for awhile. I don’t know if there is a Fourth Wave. The Fourth Wave is probably the sad, the depressing wave, and that’s the sort of de-evolution, the collapse of the renaissance that’s happening now. So hopefully that won’t happen for awhile.

Who are some other Third Wave brewers that you respect?
The breweries that I respect are people that have an approach that’s similar to mine. Originality has got to be a big deal. Obviously Russian River’s making some really wonderfully refined beers. I’m of the opinion that that’s going to be what happens in craft beer in the next years. It’s not going to be about pushing the boundaries out. It’s going to be about refinement. It’s about making clear statements and doing stuff that’s original. Russian River does cool stuff. Ron Jeffries at Jolly Pumpkin has carved out a beautiful niche with the beers that he makes. They’re really good expressions. They’re original…Unfortunately I don’t get out to drink as much as I probably should. I’m sure there are a bunch of other people who are probably making contributions that are original to the world of beer.

Where do you like to drink?
It’s so sad. I’ve only had five days this year that I haven’t been at the brewery. So this year I haven’t really been out to drink, certainly socially, and it’s too bad because there are a bunch of places that have opened that are trying to do beer respectfully. Sadly I don’t have any great recommendations for places to go out. I just wish I had more time.

Moving on to the specific beers that you’ve been working with, tell me about Cabernale.
Cabernale’s something we always look forward to because it allows us to get involved with an ingredient that’s only available at a certain of time of year. There’s a lot of anticipation. We’ve done it the last four or five years, sort of in the contrarian style of a lot of the beers that we’ve done. We’re trying to do a nontraditional component to balance the maltiness in the beer. The beer in its simplest form is malty sweetness balanced by hoppy bitterness. A friend of mine is a winemaker and I tasted some of the young wine. Young wine has this super intense tannic acidity which is really kind of a fun thing to balance to malty sweetness in beer. We’ve, over the years, tried to come up with a balance of beery flavors and work into that the tannic acidity that is young wine. This time of year, if you really care about food, all you want to think about is Thanksgiving…Thanksgiving is a challenge because it’s got a bunch of fairly concentrated intense flavors, and some really delicate flavors, so trying to come up with something that fits into that. Cabernale is one of the beers that I’m particularly proud of and look forward to brewing every year.

What are a couple beers that you’ve never brewed before that you’re excited to start brewing?
We do a ton of specialty beers. We try to do at least one a month in addition to the core four. If I have a really burning idea to do a beer, it doesn’t sit around to long. We usually try to get on it. We’re trying to do some refinements on some of the beers we’ve done in the past. That’s kind of where we’re at right now, not necessarily doing new things, but refining familiar older things, including re-working the Aurora Borealis, which was done probably in 2005.

The other thing I’ve been sort of intrigued with is the renaissance of bread baking. I’m a big fan of pumpernickel, so we’re going to probably do some pumpernickel inspired beer. Then I was thinking it would be fun to do a whole series of bread inspired beers. We’re toying with doing a sour beer, sort of a sourdough. This past summer we got three large oak fermenters that we’re going to use for sour beers we’ve done in the past, but do then in larger quantity.

Then there’s beer in bottles. We’ll have to come up some mirage themed beer for the first beer that we put in bottles because we’ve been talking about putting beer in bottles for probably 10 years now. I’m sure there’s a Celebrator Beer News article from 2000-ish that says that we’ll have been in bottles in the coming months. So who knows. We’ll see what happens.

If you could drink one more glass of beer, what would it be?
That is such a tough question. I get to drink my beer all the time, well not all the time, but when it’s around. Inspired beer is such a wonderful thing, and sometimes it’s…I don’t know, that’s such a fun question. On one hand I want to say that it would be some kind of real light, real ale kind of a thing. I really enjoy drinking, but I’m a pretty small guy, so drinking big beer isn’t really an option. That would probably be it. If I could get a really beautifully conditioned real ale, that’s what I’d drink.


Joshua Lurie

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

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[…] humbly ask if we could buy entire kegs for events. (See, Craftsman does not sell bottles retail). Founder and brewmaster Mark Jilg said ‘of course,’ and would we mind cooking up some food for his mom’s church […]

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