LA’s Bagpiping Brewers Refuse To Brew IPAs

Jennifer Febre Boase and Alastair Boase are devoted to making traditional cask ale—the antithesis to the hoppy, high-alcohol India Pale Ale style that has dominated the West Coast craft beer market.

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Oct 13 2015, 3:00pm

A flight of cask-conditioned ales at MacLeod Ale Brewing Co. Photos by the author.

They say it was the Scottish mating call that brought them together.

"I was playing bagpipes in my backyard and his landscaping crew happened to be working in the neighborhood. He then went on a month-long journey to find who was playing these bagpipes. He eventually found me and discovered I wasn't an old Scottish man," says Jennifer Febre Boase.

She and her now-husband, Alastair Boase, are sitting at a wooden table inside their Southern California brewery. Here, in an industrial stretch of blue-collar Van Nuys, MacLeod Ale Brewing Co.'s plain white exterior and unassuming sign blend in with the adjacent auto body garage and HVAC repair shop. They're miles from the trendy gastropubs cropping up elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley, and the vibe is traditional pub-meets-industrial chic, with exposed, white-painted brick walls adorned by funky artwork and broken peanut shells scattered on the floor. Visible just beyond the tasting room are stainless steel fermenting tanks and piles of malt sacks.

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Jennifer Febre Boase and Alastair Boase in Scotland. Photo courtesy of MacLeod Ale Brewing Co.

The two recall that after Alastair tracked down the unlikely source of the backyard droning, they they became friends and remained that way for years, occasionally bumping into each other at bagpiping events. It was only after both halves went through divorces that they became a couple.

Jennifer, an outgoing American who also sings in a barbershop quartet along with competitive bagpiping, and Alastair, a quieter type who hails from the Scottish highlands, came about their joint business in an unorthodox way. Rather than being driven by any lifelong passion for making beer, Jennifer explains her personal fork in the road came when she was faced with the end of alimony payments and a gap in her resume after years of raising children.

"I thought about businesses that would I be proud of and the idea came from all these elements germinating," says Jennifer. "I have close friends who get very excited about beer; my bagpiping group spends a lot of time in cities with great craft brew scenes; and we had even talked about getting a brewery as a sponsor." She claims she enticed her husband to come on board by promising to grace the business, which opened in summer 2014, with his family name.

Bagpiping later became another unexpected bond when the couple met a stranger in Colorado who helped direct the course of their business. Tom Hennessy, owner of The Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery, is not only a fellow piper, but also holds regular immersion courses for would-be brewery owners.

During their three-day course that involved learning everything from brewing techniques to bookkeeping, Hennessy thought the Boases—considering their shared love for Scottish pipes and UK roots—might be intrigued about a very British style of beer: cask-conditioned ales.

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Year-round cask ales on the menu.
MacLeod_Bar The bar at MacLeod Ale Brewing Co.

"Cask ale is kind of like the beverage equivalent of the slow food movement," explains Hennessy. "It's the real thing and it's made in a traditional way."

Cask-conditioned ale, once branded in the UK as "real ale," begins with the basic ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. After fermentation, it's matured in a cask, undergoing a second fermentation with no added CO2. The result is a low-alcohol, low-carbonation beer served directly from the cask at a 50 to 55-degree "cellar temperature."

"It's a very gentle style, and it's a hard style to do well," says Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. "If cask ales are not done right, they can be flat or not have the right mouthfeel; if they're carefully crafted, they're beautiful beers."

For the Boases, the cask-conditioning concept resonated in more ways than one. Jennifer spent seven years of her childhood living in East Kent, England. She recalls how her father would come home with fragrant Golding hops he picked from nearby fields and hang them over the hearth as decoration. Alastair, the son of a farmer-turned-innkeeper-turned-farmer-again, spent a short stint pulling pints in his father's hotel bar and making home brews while at university.

The couple hired brewmaster Andy Black, a Rhode Island native who became obsessed with traditional cask ale in the UK and who relies on historical recipes and imported ingredients. The results are small batches of MacLeod's four core beers and a rotating seasonal menu. Evergreen favorites include The Little Spree, which is a light Yorkshire Pale Ale style, and the roasty-toasty Jackie Tar brown stout. (Each beer is named for a bagpiping tune). They're served at 55 degrees and range from only 3.5 percent to 5.2 percent ABV. The flavors, which can be anything from floral to chocolatey, are unobscured by cold temperatures, strong hops, or effervescent bubbles.

Simply put, cask ale is the antithesis to the hoppy, high-alcohol India Pale Ale style that has dominated the West Coast craft beer market. In most California breweries and store shelves, you'll see brewers who are pushing hoppiness to the limits—some going above 100 international bittering units (IBUs) when a typical IPA is closer to 45 to 80 IBUs—and are also ratcheting up the alcohol content.

"That trend will always continue because brewers are a creative bunch and they're always trying to push the boundaries," says McCormick, who recalls a time in the 1990s when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was "shocking to people."

But for the Boases, the siren call of cask-conditioned ales wasn't simply about creating a niche in a competitive industry.

"We were trying to save money," says Jennifer. "And we could save a lot by crossing off the brite tank from our list." A brite tank is the stainless steel, conical container where beer is placed for secondary fermentation and carbonated. Cask conditioning bypasses that step since the beer ferments in the cask from which it's served.

Alastair lets his wife do most of the talking, often greeting the regulars who flow into the tasting room—which includes families with small kids, dogs, and even a pig named Rosie. He brightens up when the conversation turns toward the equipment. With his landscaper's knack for machinery and setting up systems, he reveals the ways he rigged up alternative equipment under Hennessy's direction.

"We use open-topped white wine fermenters instead of conical beer fermenters," he explains. "Our water tank is an intermediate bulk container, which is just a vessel for carrying liquid, and it involved a bit of stainless steel welding. The kettle and mash tun are meant for cooling milk."

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Jackie Tar and Little Spree cask ales.

Later, he shows off the modified sink that washes kegs, casks, and bottles, processes that normally require separate equipment at nearly ten times the cost.

"They spent about 25 percent of what a typical brewery would spend on their equipment," says Hennessy about the use of non-traditional brewing equipment, which he refers to as "frankenbrewing" in his teachings.

Despite its romantic trappings of British tradition and purity of flavors, cask ale hasn't necessarily won over all beer drinkers. Hennessy, who owns two brewery-restaurants, serves his cask ales at a chillier 40 to 45 degrees for what he dubbed "Colorado cask ale." Other American brewers may rely on local hops, herbs, and fruits to enhance the basic ingredients. Even MacLeod, despite carving its niche in traditional cask-conditioned ales, may soon include hoppier, higher-alcohol beers as it expands its distribution efforts.

Wait, what?

"We have been using historic recipes, but we don't have huge signs advertising 'the traditional British ale,'" says Jennifer. "Nothing says we can't get a little experimental and start doing really fun stuff."

When it comes to an American and a Scotsman, bonded over bagpipes, who decided to make beer in Van Nuys using a method that most brewers wouldn't dream of touching—perhaps going against the grain is the only way to do it right.