Mohawk Makers: Brewing Up Creativity with Almanac Beer

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Today, we’re kicking off the next series of interviews with a selection of talented makers featured in the second edition of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. Brewing your own beer and illustrating beer labels sounds like a fun pastime – but for Damian Fagan and Jesse Friedman, this hobby is actually work. As co-founders of the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, Damian and Jesse manage, test, brew, and design their beers from the ground up.

Damian, the visual designer and company artist, spoke with us about his creative process and how it applies to brewing beer that is farm-to-barrel.

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What is the most important part of your craft? How do you share that with your customers?

Staying true to our core beliefs and vision. We make time consuming, complex, and difficult-to-source beers—because for us, it makes better beer.

We aim to bring products to market that we get excited about as beer geeks and home brewers ourselves, beers we can’t find on the shelves already. Our motivation is in making something beyond just a tasty beverage, something truly unique that captures our ethos of brewing with regionally sourced ingredients. Despite all of the challenges in making that happen, when we finally released our first beer in July 2011 (a Belgian golden strong ale aged in red wine barrels for a year with organic Sonoma blackberries), people readily embraced our concept. We do our best to make sure that spirit comes through in everything we create. Sharing the final product is the best part of the job.

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How did you become involved/interested in your craft?

On the beer side, I started home brewing in college in 1992. I was going to school in East Lansing, Michigan, and I was at a party one evening and someone had a bottle of Chimay Red. I tried it and was hit by a bolt of lightning. Better beer was hard to find back then, so I decided to try and make my own. From that moment on, I’ve been obsessed with seeking out and making better beer.

On the design side, I’ve been drawing and doodling ever since I can remember. My older brother Shawn, who is an amazing illustrator, was a big inspiration and I would try and mimic all of the dragons, beasts and creepy things he would come up with. As I got older, I developed my own style and inspirations. After dabbling in engineering, foreign languages and cosmology, I ended up transferring to art school in Detroit (CCS), where I got into graphic communications. At 21, I had no idea what graphic design was but fell in love with it very quickly. I’ve always loved creating things and Almanac was this amazing opportunity for me to merge two of my passions; beer and design.

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What is your favorite product/offering and why?

I like everything we do. As such a small and closely held company we simply don’t have to put out anything we aren’t excited about. Our products are essentially pure executions of a vision. We don’t do market testing or control groups. The beer itself, the design, the process, the branding — all of it comes out exactly as we intend. We are involved deeply with every aspect of the business, from concept to test-brewing to packaging and design and so on. We’re obsessed to be honest.

I do have a personal penchant for our barrel-aged beers. Maturing beer in oak brings so much flavor and complexity to the final product. Currently I’m sipping on our Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine, which was aged for a year in brandy barrels and is perfect for the cool evenings in Northern California this time of year.

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What do you see for the future of the craft movement?

I think it will continue to grow. As I see it, the craft movement is largely a reaction to the digital age. Our lives, in very short order, have become overrun with technology and all of the dissociative and homogenizing side effects that come along with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a Luddite, but humans are creative, tactile and social by definition and face-to-face interactions with people and the tangible world are often sidestepped by the illusion of those things in the digital world. People are rediscovering an appreciation for authentic, unique, high-quality, tangible experiences.

Any advice you’d like to offer to other makers ?

I would encourage anyone who has a passion for creating and an inkling for taking it further (ie, a business), to explore the idea. I meet so many people who feel “stuck” in their current careers but have real passions for other things. I’m not saying it’s easy, or that it’s the right thing for everyone — but it’s genuinely possible to get up every morning and love what you’re about to do for the day.

Photos courtesy of Almanac Beer Co, and Sonya Yu.

To learn more about makers featured in the Mohawk Maker Quarterly, sign up for our new printed publications, read more about the Mohawk Maker campaign, and stay tuned for our next interview.

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