Former local brewer and reigning Brewpub Brewer of the Year Kirk McHale made a return visit to San Diego last week, and he brought some award-winning beer with him. While beer enthusiasts prepared to queue at select craft beer destinations for the annual appearance of Russian River cult favorite Pliny the Younger, McHale's own whale of an IPA was making its California debut at Hamilton's Tavern.
Melvin Brewing's 2x4 Imperial IPA has won every prestigious craft beer gold medal, plus back-to-back victories at the Alpha King challenge, a contest judged by brewers and beer writers on a singular mission to find "the holy grail of well-balanced and drinkable, yet highly hopped ales." To give an idea of the level of competition, Russian River's Pliny the Elder — considered by many the world's top IPA — won Alpha King once, in 2007.
Otherwise, Pizza Port–affiliated brewers have dominated the competition the past 11 years, including a combined five wins for celebrated locals Jeff Bagby and Tomme Arthur. Prior to moving to Wyoming six years ago, McHale headed up Pizza Port brewpubs and began racking up medals for his work there. The Union-Tribune once referred to the him as the city's "best least-known brewer."
"If you've been drinking beer in San Diego, you've tried my beer," McHale says, citing Pizza Port's Wipeout and Chronic IPAs as examples of his recipes still produced locally. As McHale tells it, he began honing his homebrewing skills at age 14, sometimes with future Ballast Point head brewer Yuseff Cherney. "I was into science," McHale reflects, "I didn't drink, but [my brother] showed me how to make beer and I just took it to a whole other level."
McHale became a founding partner of Oceanside's Breakwater Brewing in 2008, then took his talents to Jackson, WY, to start Melvin with Thai Me Up brewpub owner Jeremy Tofte. They built on Tofte's 20-gallon homebrewing equipment, upgrading to a three-barrel system and turning out award winners like 2x4, Melvin IPA, and ChChChCh-Cherry Bomb fruit beer.
In the wake of Melvin's success at Great American Beer Festival and World Cup of Beer, distributors came calling. A $3 million business grant from the state of Wyoming helped it expand to a 27,000-square-foot, 30-barrel production brewery, so now it may finally meet a surging, multi-state demand for beers only previously available on draught at the Thai Me Up brewpub.
"We sold 8000 kegs in a day," McHale says, "I'm overwhelmed right now. I tell my brewers, get your ass in there and make beer."
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Hamilton's was the only bar in California to participate in Melvin's February 4 release party, which happened simultaneously in nine states. However, Melvin cans, bottles, and kegs should begin to appear with more regularity beginning this spring.
Meanwhile, further Melvin expansion plans include confirmed brewpub openings in Bellingham, Washington and Austin, Texas. McHale already has a another city in mind where the next brewpub could go. "Hopefully to San Diego," he says, "so I can get my butt back home."