The first time I heard the name Kelsey McNair was in 2010 when Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits specialty brewer Colby Chandler finished up an email saying he was headed up to Stone Brewing Co. to brew a collaboration with Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele and Kelsey McNair. He mentioned the latter without introductory explanation, as though I should just know who he (or she) was. Not long after, I enjoyed the product of that beer, Ballast Point/Kelsey McNair/Stone San Diego County Session Ale, and marveled at how much hoppiness this 4.2% alcohol-by-volume brew possessed. This was before “session IPA” was part of the beer geek dictionary; ahead of its time.
The next time I heard McNair’s name was when Toronado chef, beer-slinger, and man-about-town Nate Soroko shared an exceptional bottle of unlabeled homebrew with me. After I complimented the brew, he told me it was from the guy who was looking to open a business called North Park Beer Co., Kelsey McNair. I was familiar with the project, but not the man behind it, but over the past four years, I’ve gotten up to speed. Good tools for familiarization included lists of winners from the American Homebrewers Association’s annual National Homebrewers Conference brewing competition (which will take place in San Diego this year, June 11-13). McNair has medaled in this high-profile contest numerous times, but his prowess, particularly where hoppy beers are concerned, is best exemplified by the gold medals he earned in the NHC’s India Pale Ale category in 2012, 2013, and 2014. To be so consistent in such a highly contested category with the same recipe (his beloved Hop Fu! IPA) tells you just how good he is. Good enough to brew that beer on a pro level with outstanding homebrewer turned pro Julian Shrago at Long Beach’s Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, in fact.
Now, like many in homebrew and craft beer circles, I recognize McNair for the outstanding brewer he is and have long been hoping he could get North Park Beer Co. off the ground. Especially after watching him work so hard to find a location and funding for roughly four years. He negotiated on a pair of spaces in 2013 and 2014, both of which are now brewery tasting rooms, but it wasn’t until last month that he was finally able to close on one, an 8,600 square foot space at 3038 University Avenue. With that taken care of and funding secured via a private equity offering, it would appear his neighborhood-named interest will indeed become a reality. McNair hopes for a debut around November’s San Diego Beer Week, but realistically estimates an opening timeframe of January or February 2016. But first, he must ready the facility.
“Great bones,” high ceilings, a 1,700 square foot mezzanine, and 1,500 square foot basement attracted McNair to this space. That and its location in the heart of North Park, one block from 30th Street and across the street from whiskey-centric bar, Seven Grand. Formerly a boxing and mixed martial arts gym, the space was originally constructed in 1946 and features an art moderne exterior (something that will be maintained in the building’s new life). McNair is excited to build San Diego’s only true barrel cellar in the basement, and it will be the site for his sour beer experimentation. Upstairs, a 15-barrel direct-fire brewhouse will be installed with an oversized mash tun and hot liquor tank plus an assortment of single- and double-batch fermentation vessels, a brite tank, and nine serving tanks (set-up inside the tasting room cold box for direct service). This will allow for production of 2,300 barrels of beer annually, though in year one, McNair will aim to brew 1,000 barrels.
Though Hop Fu! is something fans of McNair will be looking for at North Park Beer Co., he says it may be several years before the company’s hop contracts can accommodate making it a year-round offering. But other hop-driven beers will be available along with a variety of worldly styles. McNair is planning to have 12-to-16 house beers on tap at all times and has won many awards for stronger, maltier brews as well as Brettanomyces-infused ales. Patrons can take in those beers along with a design motif that gives a nod to the North Park’s many historic, craftsman-style bungalows. McNair says the goal is for North Park Beer Co. to be as much about the neighborhood it’s named after as the beer it produces.