Meet Brett Stampf – Owner and Head Brewer of Alta Brewing Company
The smell of fresh cut wood and sawdust mingle in the air on a warm San Diego afternoon. Brett Stampf and his crew are putting the finishing touches on Alta Brewing Company. Humble by nature, Brett generally prefers to let his beer do the talking. Owner, head brewer, construction worker and self described janitor of Alta Brewing Co., Brett is not afraid of hard work. From building, sanding and staining the bar top, to installing state of the art filtration system for their tap room, to drafting a business plan; every aspect of Alta Brewing Co. has been a labor of love for Brett and his crew; John Bull and Josh Gliko.
Brewing since 1995, Brett had a dream to make really good beer and avoid punching a time clock. Even though opening a brewery is not an easy feat; Brett gave some great tips during our interview for those brave enough to enter the brewing industry.
How did Alta Brewing Co. get its start?
I was initially looking at a larger model similar to Green Flash. A 15 barrel brewhouse, 30-60 barrel fermenters with a focus on distribution. I decided to leave those places because I didn’t really want to work there once they became larger and more corporate. I like the idea of being face to face with customers and doing something that is more manageable for us. So our focus turned to retail sales. Tasting rooms make a lot of money for breweries and they pay a lot of the operating costs. With our retail model, the value of the beer increases. We don’t have to brew as much beer to make the same kind of profit. We don’t have to have the salesforce going out with a giant footprint on the world and on us. Fresh beer and having total control from the day you make it, to the day you serve it, is the goal.
How much of the building process was kept in house?
We all have construction backgrounds. One of our partners is a structural engineer and we had an architect do the drawings. We kept everything in house as much as possible. For the most part, we built the whole place ourselves. Because we did most of the construction in house, we figured we would be able to save between 25-40% on the cost of doing a project this size.
What brought Alta Brewing Co. to Logan Heights?
We were looking for an area that wasn’t so saturated in the industry. I really like this culturally diverse and historic neighborhood. The idea behind this space is more along the lines of North Park, where the buildings are being refurbished and repurposed rather than being knocked down and rebuilt upon. We are attached to Bread & Salt, which is a very art centric building. I think we compliment each other in the sense that we are both pursuing an artistic agenda.
How did you get your start as a brewer?
I started brewing in 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland in a brewpub. I initially started as a server, but the brewer let me come in and hang out to check out the brewing process. The brewpub was in an expansion process and I thought to myself “I think I want to try this out.” A year later, I took over his position as head brewer. After that, I went to Michigan with an industry friend of mine who set up and installed breweries. We did a full start up of a brewpub, which I ran for 3 years. After the brewpub, I moved into the production brewery scene. Since then, I have worked for Stone Brewing Co., Greenflash, Dogfish Head, RoughDraft Brewing Company, OB Brewing, and La Jolla Brewing Co..
Did you decide to venture out on your own for creative freedom?
The creative freedom aspect is definitely part of it. Not working for somebody else was equally important. Now, I can make my own mistakes and deal with the consequences.
What is your official title?
Owner, Head Brewer and I’m a Janitor too.
Have you received support from the San Diego craft beer industry?
I’ve kept a low profile as far as contacting people in the industry. I did reach out to Brandon Hernandez from West Coaster right away and he wrote an article about us in November. I’ve also spoken with the San Diego Brewer’s Guild to let them know I’m on the map. Otherwise, I have been waiting to make sure it was something that was going to be a reality. Rather than going out and screaming “I’m opening a brewery!”
What does your logo and name signify?
Alta Brewing Company came from Alta California, which historically this area was a part of. Alta also translates to over and above in Spanish and the bull skull is ubiquitous to the southwest. I found the bull skull print in Mike Hess’ tasting room. I asked the curator who the artist was and got in contact with her. She had never had a commercial gig before, as she is a 20 year old art student. When we asked her to do the logo for us she was on board. It all happened organically.
What do you think will set Alta Brewing Co. apart from others?
As far as setting ourselves apart, I don’t know if we are looking at competitive comparison to other breweries. We would like to see people come down here, enjoy themselves and have a good time. It’s not necessarily for me to cast an impression of what we are going to be. Just like beer, it’s subjective. How you experience something is up to you. We hope that people come here and have a good time.
What type of beers will be your main focus?
I want to capture as many palates as possible. We are going to focus on ales and we know we have to brew an IPA being in San Diego. One of the beers I really like is Big Eye IPA from Ballast Point. It’s an old school beer with old school hops, a throwback if you will. We’re going to brew a dry Irish stout and a golden ale served as a nitrogen beer along with a fully carbonated version. Our Brown Ale will be an English, American hybrid. I want to do a few Belgian beers here and there. We’ll play around with some other beers and see what seasonal beers are accepted. We won’t be able to do it here, but if we can do some barrel aging at some point, we would like to. But that is more of a long term plan. Right now, I have to have 5 beers made in a month and a half.
Where do you get your beer inspiration from?
I’m a hop head, I like hoppy beers. As far as inspiration goes, I have worked with some pretty creative breweries. When I was working at Green Flash, Best Coast IPA in its original format was an awesome beer. I brewed the first commercial version of Midas Touch and 90 minute IPA, when I was at Dogfish. The year I was there, the World Wide Stout was 18%. During that time, I brewed Immort Ale and all kinds of crazy beers that have the most insane ingredients. I don’t necessarily subscribe to going out with a butterfly net and capturing anything that I can get and throw into the brew kettle, but I think where I’ve been plays a role in my beer inspiration.
What has been the most difficult part of the process?
I have been working on this project for over 2 years. The most challenging part for me was to actually write the business plan, and then write the performance numbers and models. It was something I didn’t have that much experience with. I’ve read business models and proposals before so I understood some of it. However, when you actually have to do it for yourself, for your idea and project, it’s another story. I was sitting down in front of my computer for 12-14 hours a day for 3 months figuring out how it all worked. I went online and looked at templates on how to write a business plan and picked them apart. It was all for something that we totally abandoned in a sense (larger retail business plan), but it gave us the ability to revise ourselves time and time again. It took a lot of time, but I didn’t have to spend money on hiring a professional to do it.
What has been the most rewarding part of this process?
Being able to pursue something that we want to do for ourselves. Not just for ourselves, as in taking advantage of an opportunity, market or the people that are drinking beer, but being able to put something out there that people are really going to like.
What advice would you give to others wanting to open their own brewery?
Ask yourself “Do you want to build a brewery?”, then ask yourself one more time “Do you want to build a brewery?” I have no regrets. I guess the biggest thing to keep in mind is that you are not just building a brewery. There is so much more going into it to actually get yourself open. Federal and state licences, dealing with the city, construction plans, permits, doing improvements, negotiating a lease, making sure you have utilities on site and figuring out how much it’s all going to cost you. You’re going to have to deal with contractors. If the contractor is one of your best friends and is going to be your partner in the business, that is a big plus. You are not simply a brewery anymore. There is a lot of planning involved. I have a construction background and have worked with a general contractor for a number of years. I feel very fortunate to have that under my belt, but still, it’s a huge learning curve.
You can enjoy a beer at Alta Brewing Co. come mid-June, 2017. Stay tuned for a follow up interview!
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