Green Flash Owner Mike Hinkley on Cans, Session Beer and the Death of Bomber Bottles

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Green Flash Owner Mike Hinkley on Cans, Session Beer and the Death of Bomber Bottles

Since its inception in 2002, Green Flash Brewing Co. has built itself into one of the quintessential west coast IPA factories, helping to define the style on a national scale with the titular West Coast IPA and a plethora of hop-forward pale ales and DIPAs. As the years have gone on and the brewery grew from being a west coast presence to a national one, they have also expanded their brewing philosophy to seek a more balanced approach, today producing everything from lagers and barrel-aged sours to a well-liked passionfruit wheat ale. The past fall, the company also completed its three-year project to open a second brewery in Virginia Beach, VA, giving them a strong foothold on both coasts.

Personally, Green Flash also played a role in my own development as a craft beer drinker. Their beer became available in the central Illinois market while I was a student at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and I have specific, crystal clear memories of drinking pints of West Coast IPA and especially the sadly departed Hop Head Red at local beer bars around 2008, in a time when I was just stretching my palate and developing a taste for IPA for the first time. It’s safe to say that the idea of Green Flash West Coast IPA was formative on my own conception of “India pale ale” at the time.

Now, Green Flash is looking forward toward the future, while considering their role in an IPA market that has been undergoing a tonal shift. The brewery recently brought back its Palate Wrecker DIPA, but at the same time they’re nodding to the growth of sessionable categories by launching a 4.8% ABV blonde ale simply called “GFB.”

Last week, I had a chance to sit down with founder/owner Mike Hinkley over glasses of GFB and Palate Wrecker, and we discussed both the history of Green Flash and its future, along with the future of Alpine Beer Co.

On designing GFB

Mike Hinkley: Well, a lot of our beers like Soul Style have come together quickly, but this is one we’ve been working on for like two years. It’s harder than you think to design that particular beer you want for shooting pool, or for putting a cooler in your living room on game day that is filled with all one beer. But that was the concept, and it took us about a year and a half of brainstorming to come up with something that was both a “bowling alley beer” and a Green Flash beer in character.

I don’t know the hops in it, and I don’t really want to know. I told them “no proprietary hops in this beer,” because we didn’t want that to be the thing people were thinking about. We’re not going to list it on the can, or on the bottle. It’s just not a “tasting notes” beer. All of our other beers have the hop varietals on them, but that’s not what we wanted the drinker to be focusing on in this one.

When I ask about the “official word” on what GFB stands for

Hinkley: Well for me, you know it’s “great fuckin’ beer,” but we’re not going to put that on a can. It can also be Green Flash Brewery, or Great Football Beer. It works a lot of different ways. We went to a bar and poured it yesterday, and the thing that excited me was that they were putting it in pitchers. Pitchers! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a Green Flash beer in a pitcher, but you do at a bowling alley.

On canning, and why Green Flash was slow to adopt cans for certain beers

Hinkley: When we originally went to doing cans, we specifically designed beers to put in them rather than put any of our mainstays in them. We were kind of anti-can 10 years ago, saying “there’s no way we’re ever going to cans.” Personally, I like buying beer in cans, and drinking beer from cans, but what makes me nervous is the fact that brand new breweries can get really cheap, shitty canning equipment and do a shitty job of it, and the customer may be experiencing that and associating it with cans. Dissolved oxygen in a lot of the cans you buy is really high, which means the shelf life is a lot shorter than it’s supposed to be. Not all cans are created equal. That’s why I didn’t want to put any of our front-line beers into cans until we’d looked into it further. It took a lot of convincing for us to put Soul Style in a can for the first time.

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On the the beer industry’s move away from 22 oz bottles

Hinkley: Now, Green Flash might stop doing 22 oz bottles. That format is really dying out. The reason we would get out of 22 oz bottles altogether is the marketplace for them. It’s really hard to put new products into a shrinking market. Price point is part of it; a lot of the same beers are now in six packs at better price per ounce. Retailers are shrinking their space and dedicating it toward six packs, and customers are moving toward sessionable beers. DIPA is shrinking as a category while regular IPA is growing. And there’s so many breweries with growler and crowler fills that the “experimental” aspect of trying new beers has gone in that direction rather than 22’s.

I mean, just look at your local Kroger, or your supermarket. We were in business 6 or 7 years before we could get an appointment with a retail chain so they could tell us no. Now, you look at the grocery store and there’s breweries in there who have been in business for 6 or 8 months. The whole idea that you would go and grab 22 oz bottles in a specialty bottle shop is less necessary now, because you can go to the local supermarket and get six packs of cans from a local brewery that opened 6 months ago.

On whether the Virginia Beach brewery would have its own aesthetic

Hinkley: We’re not designing anything specifically for Virginia Beach, or trying to do “east coast beer” there or anything like that. It’s a west coast brewery, operating in Virginia Beach. But there will be plenty of one-offs in each place. We have a program called Genius Lab where almost anyone in the company can submit the design for a beer. We probably do 50 new beers a year that are just in the tasting rooms.

On the continued evolution of Green Flash West Coast IPA, which increased in ABV back in 2014

Hinkley: This might be the world’s biggest misconception of a beer change ever. THat beer has changed 20 times in 15 years, and it’s changed since that change. We don’t have the philosophy of saying we locked that recipe in place; it’s always evolving to make it better. “Continuously evolving” is written into everything we do. It had 7.3% ABV written on the label for a decade, but there were lots of times when it was 7.9% ABV, etc.

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The biggest thing that changed was the way we spoke about the beer, and it was driven by customer questions. We would get email after email saying “I love West Coast IPA, but why does it cost more than Lagunitas IPA?”, because they didn’t understand how different those beers are. Just because they both say “IPA” on the label, doesn’t mean they have much in common. West Coast has always been a DIPA in spirit, even when it was 7.3% ABV. It was always around 95 IBUs, which is more of a real measure of what makes a DIPA. When we were hitting the big chain stores for the first time, that’s when the beer was being seen by a lot of new customers, and they just needed for us to spell it out to them more clearly on the packaging that West Coast is a DIPA.

On discontinuing classic beers

When we first discontinued Nut Brown Ale in like 2005, I got so much hate mail like you wouldn’t believe from people who were mad about it going away. I would write back in the email, “I’m really sorry, I loved the beer too, but you should have bought some!” Even Stone had to retire their classic Stone Pale Ale recently after changing it to Stone Pale Ale 2.0. That was the beer I always drank in regular bars in San Diego in the late ‘90s; I probably drank thousands of them! I’m seriously bummed to see that one go, but if people stop buying a beer then you just can’t keep producing it.

On the perception of Alpine Beer Co.

Ed. note: I asked about this specifically because I still see people online who say that Alpine’s beers have changed for the worse since they merged with Green Flash. Unfortunately, I was never able to try the pre-GF version of Alpine, but considering that Alpine Duet ended up at #13 of 247 IPAs when Paste blind tasted them back in August, I’d say they’re still doing pretty well in the IPA game.

Hinkley: If you ask Pat McIlhenney how Duet is, he’ll tell you “We never made it that good.” I’ve literally heard him say that. So yes, it is different now, not necessarily because the recipe is different but because the equipment is better now than it ever was before. And those Alpine beers are still being brewed by Pat’s son, Shawn McIlhenney, who is our Alpine brewmaster.

It’s an emotional reaction that we understand better now. At the time of the acquisition it was definitely hurting our feelings to watch videos online of people tasting the beer, saying it wasn’t as good. There would be a guy saying “I used to drive three hours to get one bottle of Alpine, and now it’s in my neighborhood grocery store, but I wish my neighbors had to get bottles the way I got them years ago,” which I don’t think even makes sense. We’re happy that people have emotional ties to Alpine, because they’re the reason that the brewery has grown, but the beers now are what Pat and Shawn want them to be, and what they’ve always wanted them to be. What Pat said, was “You need to make at least some of the beer available in all 50 states to get people to stop mailing my beer around.” He’s absolutely obsessed with the quality of the beer in people’s hands. The people who are most bummed are the people who previously used Alpine as trade bait for Heady Topper, etc.

That’s also basically how Green Flash ended up in NYC, by the way. The distributor there came into the brewery with pictures of my beer in bodegas in NYC, saying “Look: It’s on sale here already, but the difference is that you have no idea how it got here or what condition it’s in.” And that’s the last thing you want to see as a brewery owner or brewer.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink content.