SF Local Interview: Black Sands Brewery

One of the best parts about working at a company like Vantigo is that you have the opportunity to hit the streets in San Francisco and get to know local brewers, wine-makers, and business owners. This week we stopped by the recently opened Black Sands Brewery in the Lower Haight and chat with Owner and Head Brewer, Cole Emde.

Photo Credit: SF Brewers GuildHow did Black Sands come to be? What took it from an idea to brick and mortar? 

It all started with myself and one of the other partners, Andy Gilliland, about four or five years ago. We’d been homebrewing for a really long time, and like all home brewers, we were tinkering with the idea of someday opening a brewery. I was living in NYC (Andy was in SF) and over the holidays we were hanging out, tasting beers we had made, and decided it was actually something we wanted to seriously pursue. Andy brewed his first batch on Page and Steiner, and I used to live on Alamo Square Park. We always hung out there and really loved it, so that’s how we landed in the Lower Haight.

But let me back up- I transitioned into working in the beer industry part-time while I was still living in NYC. I was working a full-time job in addition to a part-time retail job at a bottle shop in Grand Central Terminal. During my time there I got to know a brewery owner who frequented the shop, and after two years of begging him for a job he finally told me, “Come in Thursday, you’re going to wash kegs- and if you like it you can stay and work for me.” Needless to say, I liked it. I joined the Brooklyn Homebrew Club and the New York Homebrewers Guild. There are so many people with so much knowledge in those groups, and I learned more in a year than you could ever learn by yourself.

After a few years working in retail I came back out to SF and Andy and I ended up going to our friend Robert’s restaurant and discussing the various projects we were working on. We told him we were thinking of starting a homebrew shop combined with a small brewery. There are only two homebrew shops in San Francisco, with ours being the second- isn’t that crazy? Anyhow, Robert suggested that we go bigger and include a kitchen so we could serve food and get a liquor license as well. He emailed me the next day and asked if we needed partners, as he and his restaurant partner would be interested in coming onboard. They had the knowledge for starting a restaurant, which is a pretty complex undertaking, and we had the knowledge for the brewery side- so we decided to marry the two together. That was sometime in 2013. We moved forward with incorporation, securing the initial capital, getting a lease… and here we are today.

Photo Credit: SF GateDo you think you’ll ever distribute Black Sands beer beyond the brewpub? 

Definitely. It’s in the works, but it’s going to take a little bit of time, and by a little I mean two to three years. What we have to do first is establish ourselves, and the kind of beer that we make, along with figuring out how to affordably make a lot of it.

How did you choose the name? Black sands is a pirate reference right? 

We were throwing around all kinds of crazy names for a while. We had a long list and none of them were really sticking and then one day we narrowed them all down to three or four choices and the black sands name just really stuck. Robert came up with it after a surf trip, so we kind of have a loose theme of black sand beaches meets pirates meets sailing. You can see it in the decor of the bar and the brand. It’s kind of dark, and it fits with the neighborhood well.

So what’s your favorite part about your job? 

Definitely recipe development. Since it’s such a small system, I have total freedom and control, I can make whatever I want. In the early days we did so many test batches while coming up with ideas for beer. Every week we were cranking out different beers, experimenting with a lot of fruit, coffee, really trying to dive deep into ingredients we have access to.

A lot of breweries focus on hops. I try to focus on the opposite of that, which is the malt. There’s more water than anything in beer, and there’s more grain than hops. Hops get all the glory, but yeast, water and malt are the masterminds in the background that tell the hops what to say. I do mess around with hops a lot too though, don’t get me wrong. I am also a “hop head” so we do make a lot of hoppy beers.

Other favorite parts of the job? Hmm. A lot of people think that brewing is all glamour. It is the opposite of that. Brewing is a dirty, dangerous, and very labor intensive job. Especially on a small scale. On a large scale it’s automated, but on a small, manual scale like us it’s basically 99% cleaning, 0.5% paperwork and 0.5% drinking beer. You’re dealing with harsh chemicals, wet environments, boiling liquid- it’s not easy.

Photo Credit: Black Sands BlogBut you still seem to love it, right?

Oh yeah, well think about it, there are roughly 3,000 operational breweries around the country today.  That’s not that many people. Also the fact that we’re operating a brewpub in San Francisco itself is an accomplishment. I’m very proud of what we’ve done in a very short amount of time. But you have to remember it’s also just like any job- there are good days and there are bad days. Luckily even with good days and bad days, I still make beer for a living, and it’s a rare job. Also to be brewer/owner, that’s also a very rare job. There are even fewer of those. No complaints.

So what kind of beers are you guys making right now? Do you have a set group that you make regularly? 

We do three beers at a time. We do a whole series of beers called “SMASH” which stands for single malt and single hop. I brew one of those every week, they go pretty quickly. I’ll go out and try lots of different malts and then I’ll throw a ton of hops into this one beer. For the SMASH beers we tend to do those at a pale ale or IPA strength- 6-6.5% in strength 50-65 IPUs.  I like to switch up the grains we use a lot. We do have our core recipes, but I don’t brew them all the time, because that would be boring. I’ve actually only brewed two beers twice- the black IPA and the coffee milk stout. I just brewed some of the stout this morning. That one is a coffee beer with a milk stout base, local SF De La Paz coffee, and organic cocoa nibs- it’s delicious. Perfect for wintertime. That will be ready in about three weeks.

So do you work with a lot of homebrewers? What advice do you typically give them? 

Oh yeah, every weekend. The shop is open on Saturdays and Sundays. This neighborhood alone has quite a few home brewers in it, and greater San Francisco as well. Every homebrewer is somewhat unique, but there are those core things that everyone should do. We always stress three things when we teach our classes- we teach a class once a month- cleanliness, sanitation, and temperature control. Cleaning and sanitizing are easy because there are products that we use to do that, and if you’re very thorough you’ve got that down. Temperature control? That’s a little more complicated to do on a small scale, in a small apartment. For people who are just starting out we say make a SMASH beer. It’s the easiest type and uses the fewest ingredients. We really recommend keeping recipes very, very, very simple at first.

What are your other favorite places to drink beer in the city?

You know one of my favorite spots is not too far from here, Cerveceria– over on 18th and Church St. It’s a really cool, unique system. I’ve always been a fan of Magnolia’s in the Upper Haight as well.  I used to work at City Beer Store so I have an affinity for them, it was a great experience working there. I just visited Harmonic for the first time, and that was very cool. Speakeasy’s taproom is also a great place to drink beer in the Dogpatch, as is Triple Voodoo. Those are all good spots. Of course, Toronado is in our shadow, or should I say, we’re in their shadow- that’s probably more accurate. Noc Noc is also- well, super-weird with the decor, but their beer list is killer.

What’s your favorite kind of beer? 

I generally drink a lot of SMASH beers and then a lot of IPAs. I’ve been getting into a dark beer mood recently, so I had Speakeasy’s imperial stout the other day and that’s a great beer. We have the Henhouse oyster stout on guest draft right now; that is delicious. I just kind of- well I dabble. I like saisons a lot. I appreciate sours, I have a few that are my go-to picks, definitely the Rodenbach vintage. I try a little bit of everything, I mean there’s so much out there you need to try it all. To be a knowledgeable brewer you need to know what everyone else is making. Everyone has an IPA, but are they all good? Probably not. But it’s also subjective, so, I don’t think- is it good or bad? Maybe. But would I drink it again? Maybe not. There’s only so much time, sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on. Luckily we haven’t had to dump a beer here yet.

You can visit Black Sands Brewery at 701 Haight Street in San Francisco. Find out more about their drink and food menus, along with their homebrew class schedule at their website: blacksandsbeer.com

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About the Author // Eliza Dropkin is the newest member of Vantigo. She enjoys live music, good food, and cruising around town in Jerry (the other newest member of Vantigo).

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