Monterey, Salinas, and Carmel, California
Sometimes fathers and sons get together and discuss life over a beer or two. John and J.C. Hill do the same -- but the beer in question is made at one of John and J.C.'s own breweries, whether it's their original brewpub in Monterey, their production facility in Salinas, or their second brewpub and bistro in Carmel.
Son J.C. says, "We had always talked about opening a brewery together, ever since I got into brewing. Maybe even before then. It just happened sooner than we thought it would."
J.C. began homebrewing in San Diego, before co-founding Amplified Ale Works there in 2012 with a friend he met at Cornell University. In 2014, he was lured back to Northern California, in order to now team up with his father. The Hills chose a site for their venture on Monterey's historical downtown Alvarado Street in a renovated movie theater, becoming the first new brewery in town since the mid-'90s. "The local palate was kind of stuck in a time warp," he says. "Blonde [and] brown ales. We had a lot of opportunity [to educate about] what we were doing in terms of brewing more progressive styles."
Father John, an architect specializing in hospitality design, became the brewery's principal investor, and he still manages the finances. J.C. focuses on brewing and operations, and says of his dad, "He's got trust in me -- total carte blanche to do whatever we've got to do. It's a very trusting partnership. It's very supportive of one another."
The elder Hill's trust in his son has been amply rewarded. The brewery's Double Cone DIPA won the 2019 Alpha King Challenge and a gold medal at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in the "Imperial India Pale Ale" category. The brewery's clean-tasting pilsner, imbued with just the right amount of Citra hops, Citraveza, won a bronze at the 2019 GABF; J.C calls the beer "pretty unique. It's not too aggressively hopped. We try to keep those styles as balanced as we can." Alvarado's Mai Tai PA is a three-time GABF winner, twice earning a gold medal in the "International-Style Pale Ale" category; J.C. says, "It's dry, moderately bitter, but not overly so. It's just super-drinkable, and you just get that wonderful passionfruit, mango sort of intensity from Mosaic [hops]."
That Mai Tai PA is also one of the brewery's most popular offerings: "It's probably about 40 percent of our production, at this point," says J.C.
This year, the company's production brewery in Salinas will produce close to 10,000 barrels of beer. That's up from 2,500 barrels in 2016, the year the brewery opened. J.C. says, "If the pandemic hadn't happened, we'd probably be around 12,000 barrels [this year]."
Between its year-round beers, seasonal recipes, and weekly explorations, J.C. says his company will brew "well over a hundred" different beers in 2020.
J.C. says, "Our hazy IPAs, we're pretty known for. We were one of the first West Coast breweries to really push that, you know, Hazy Double IPA [style.] We started making those in like 2015, putting them into cans in 2016." In 2018, the beer Contains No Juice won a bronze medal at the GABF in the "Juicy or Hazy Imperial or Double India Pale Ale" category.
Additionally, notes J.C., "We've been doing kettle sours for a long time, too. There's obviously a big stigma with kettle sours. We've always kind of owned it. And we've always had success making them really clean, and just narrowing down the focus of those beers to simply be acidity, carbonation, and alcohol . . . so it's just a canvas for whatever fruit or adjuncts we're going to add to it. Right now, in the pandemic, those are almost outselling our IPAs. It's pretty crazy to see."
Furthermore, the Carmel-by-the-Sea brewpub (originally called Yeast of Eden) serves several of Alvarado's Yeast of Eden line of specialty, barrel-aged beers. Carmel is also John's home base.
In terms of his relationship with his dad, J.C. says, "It's been personally a great experience to be able to collaborate with a parent on a really cool business venture that's been successful. I'm just very grateful for that every day."
Favorite beers: J.C. says, "Locally I'd say Russian River, Cellarmaker, Sante Adairius. Nationally, the guys down at Creature Comforts are fantastic. They've been really helpful to us. Our canning line that we brought online in December was based off some market research that we did when we went down to visit them -- a Krones [can filler]. Acquiring that piece of equipment when we did was essential to [have during] the pandemic -- and being able to adapt quickly."
Challenges: "Operating a restaurant in a pandemic is pretty difficult," says J.C. "We're going into this year knowing we're not here to make money by operating these two restaurants. We're here to keep the jobs of our employees who've been with so long, who've contributed to our company so much. So we're just her to keep things rolling in terms of providing employment. And being here for our community, to be here for our locals -- because people need a place to blow off steam and gather. Socially distanced, of course."
Opportunities: In the midst of the pandemic, J.C. decided to discontinue the business' DIY, self-distribution. "That was something not worth it to run during the pandemic, just because our drivers would be in eight different counties over the Bay Area four, times a week, and it just didn't seem like a smart thing to do," he says.
Alvarado Street Brewery turned that part of the equation over to Mindful Distributors. "We had to absorb a big hit to our margin, because we're now paying a distributor, but at the same time it simplified our business enough to where our focus is more on the beer and less about the logistics of how we're going to get it places."
Needs: "A steady supply chain," says J.C. "We've dealt with the CO2 shortage almost immediately, concurrent with the pandemic. That was really difficult." He adds, "We continue to have close calls" in terms of can supplies. "If [the unsteady, unstable supply chain] could go away that would be really helpful."