“My cards say Brewmaster, but this girl who worked at Lagunitas before she left for the cannabis industry said, ‘You’re not the Brewmaster; you’re the Brewmonster.’ That’s actually my official title. I think it’s important because it heralded cannabis and beer coming together into a Frankenstein thing.”
These are the words of Jeremy Marshall, Brewmonster at Lagunitas Brewing Company. Founded in 1993, the Petaluma, California-based brewery was considered the fifth top selling craft brand in 2013. In 2015, the company sold a fifty percent stake to Heineken, which was looking to expand their portfolio and take part in the global demand for hoppy products. Lagunitas sold the remaining fifty percent in 2017. But even today, Lagunitas continues to have an indelible impact on the brewing community, pioneering new products and novel ways of producing alcoholic, non-alcoholic, and cannabis-infused beverages. Their de facto spokesperson? Brewmonster Jeremy Marshall.
Kenny Gould: Where are you from?
Jeremy Marshall: I’m from Memphis, Tennessee. You don’t meet a lot of people in California from Memphis.
KG: And how’d you get started in brewing?
JM: Like almost every single craft brewer, I was really into home brewing at a time when I felt like there wasn’t a lot of good beer available. So I was brewing in order to have the better beer. It was out of necessity.
KG: When I think of you, and Lagunitas, I think of hops. How did you get into that?
JM: The really eye opening thing for me was the first time I ever tasted a beer that had been dry hopped with whole hops. That was an Anchor Brewing Liberty dry hopped with Cascade. I’ll never forget giving one to my dad, who was a PBR guy. He said, in his thick Southern accent, “That tastes like flowers.” I was like, “Yeah dad, that’s exactly the point.” That profile comes from terpenes. They’re also in cannabis. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a fan of the late 1990s cannabis from the Emerald Triangle that was starting to leak out and get to the Southeast. You could get the Mexican brick weed without any terpenes and then there was this other stuff. It had better genetics, high terpenes, and one little tiny piece would stink up a room. And cannabis has a lot of the same characteristics as hops.
KG: So it wasn’t just hops you fell in love with, but terpenes.
JM: How I spend a lot of my time now is rooted in how it all began. I’ve been becoming a terpene scientist, which is the true romance in both the craft brewing and cannabis movements, if you ask me. Hops and cannabis have hundreds and hundreds of these terpenes and no machine can demystify them. You can try to build a smell to mimic Amarillo hops or Lemon Pound Cake strain of weed, but you can’t put that together synthetically. That’s because there are hundreds of these “minors,” terpenes that are present in low quantities. The combination makes the smell that the human nose detects, but we’re not there with machinery.
KG: Who taught you to brew? Or did you just pick it up?
JM: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my college calculus teacher, who ended up being influential in that he made it less scary. You always think, my batch isn’t going to taste good. But he embodied that Charlie Papazian “relax, have a homebrew” mindset. I was in college, just a little lost, going back and forth between degrees. I was burnt out and living in Memphis. It’s never good to not get out of the city you grew up in. I was looking for an excuse to get out. I finished my degree but I was looking at professional brewing colleges. Right now, they’re everywhere. But at the time, there were only really two in the US. I did research and found that the one in Chicago and one in Northern California… coincidentally, the two places that Lagunitas has breweries. So it was either Chicago for Siebel or Northern California for Davis.
KG: And you chose…?
JM: A road trip sounded good so I went to Davis. When I got there, they told me there was 0 interest in the program, everyone was getting laid off, all the breweries were for sale, and I’d be lucky to get a job at a brewpub making $18,000 per year. It’s hilarious — not more than a few years later, the same program that’s now famous had a lady who was in charge of drumming up students telling me not to attend. But I remembered something my grandfather told me: sometimes, the best time to buy something is when everyone else says it’s a bad idea. So I was unmoved by that person.
KG: Was Davis a good experience?
JM: At the time, UC Davis was really joined at the hip with Anheuser Busch. If you paid the money to do the brewing program, you’d automatically get a good stable job. I told them I didn’t drink Budweiser and they said, “Oh great, you’re another one of these pesky, iconoclastic homebrewers.” Most of the people I met were privileged kids from California with wealthy parents. Within two weeks, they were dropping like flies because it was really hard. You had to know your chemistry, you had to take physics and biology. There was definitely value in my undergrad because it gave me the prerequisite for the UC Davis Program. But I always felt that it was fun. The close proximity of Davis to Petaluma was how I found Lagunitas, which at the time was very much just a northern California phenomenon. I roomed with two other guys in the program and somehow we rented rooms in a defunct sorority house. One of my roommates was the key to the exposure to Lagunitas. He said, “I know this brand, they’re quirky, they’re known for being the bad boys of brewing, they make great beer with a shit ton of hops.” He planted that idea in my head. I interviewed at a time when Tony McGee… it was like working for Frank Zappa but also Elon Musk. Forward thinking and intense. Tony was intimidating. After my interview, I wrote him a letter and said, “I’m in beer school and I feel like everything I’m learning could be applied to you.” It was short and slightly memorable. I probably got it to him in the last few years he actually got his mail, because most of his letters were bills and he stopped looking at them.
KG: In hindsight, this answer might be easy for you, but was Lagunitas the right choice?
JM: I came in and the entire walls of Tony’s office was plastered with High Times posters. I was in shock that a place of business. Coming from Tennessee where you worry about getting arrested over a piece of weed, I was shocked how out in the open cannabis culture was. That ended up getting us in trouble later, but that’s a different story. I started and man, that place was crazy. It was like being in a punk rock band. It was so different from what it’s like now. Every day, employees would do stupid stuff. I don’t want to say the managers told them to do that — I think everyone was just pretty stupid. Taking risks was just something we did. Our mentality now is not to get hurt. Not that people did get hurt, but it was small and small businesses have a different mentality. When I came in, I had to work wherever.
KG: Where did you start?
JM: I was on a team of about 5 or 6 guys working a bottling line, then I was on a team of 2 doing cellar work. Then I ran D.E. filter. All the brewing equipment was shit. We repurposed dairy tanks. Everything we had was bought for the scrap value of stainless and converted. I ran a lot of wine equipment. I’ll say now that winery equipment has no place in a brewery. Wine and beer people have completely different mindsets. Wine people don’t care about dissolved oxygen or hygiene — they just sulfite their problems away. Also, they only work one month out of the year, and you can quote me on that. This D.E. filter I ran for two years, and as it turns out, was basically oxygenating all of our beer.
KG: It sounds like a challenge.
JM: Everything in Tony’s book So You Want To Start A Brewery is true. It’s a good counterpoint to Sam Calagione’s book, Brewing Up A Business. Tony’s original book cover had like apocalyptic visions of breweries in flames. It was very Armageddon-ist. They had to tone him down.
KG: Lagunitas went through a time when the brewing industry wasn’t very rosy.
JM: I like to point out that the fact that Lagunitas weathered that first big collapse from the 1990s and emerged very frugal, very careful about debt, using the crappiest equipment… it’s almost completely unrelatable to this mentality where you come out of the gates with a $2 million brewhouse that you saw at a trades how. I can understand both sides but a lot of these breweries don’t know what it’s like brewing in the 1990s. I’m from America, I’m not that old, but I’ll tell you that every cycle in America goes boom and bust. It’s like the real estate market. People’s memories are short and there’s a whole sea of craft breweries that have never had tough times. That’s why Tony took the whole angle in his book that he did — he wrote it during a time when it was nothing but glorious times for craft beer. I mean, 2002 to 2015 was a golden time. 2015 marked the time when the industry didn’t peak or plateau, but it cooled off. Those years… I can’t even tell you.
KG: When did things change for Lagunitas?
JM: Well, I ran the filter, and then we started to come into some money so I was running the equipment upgrades. We got our first little centrifuge, and that was a time when 0 people had one. Sierra Nevada had one because they were hiring people from Budweiser in Fairfield. At one point in time I had a cantankerous boss, the operation manager, and he was so jaded with craft beer back in the day he said, “All roads lead to AB.” That was his cantankerous tagline. But the thing is… he’s kinda right. What’s happening now is that the craft brewers are turning into the big brewers. We make better beer and use a shit ton more hops, but we’re turning into the big guys. That time from 2008 to 2015, it was like you could just open up a brewery and you didn’t need thought or a business plan and you could be successful. To put that into perspective for you, I like to look at certain landmarks. 2007 was when I got rid of that crummy D.E. filter. 2008 was when we got our first German made brewhouse — in other words, one that made good beer and was automated. Automation was the craziest thing in the world. None of us trusted it. We all thought it was HAL. We call it the 80 barrel, and that was crazy because we went from 30 to 80. Then that crazy growth started happening in the industry. You get taught in economics that the bigger your business gets, the lower the percentage points it grows. That’s true now, but it wasn’t then. In 2011 or 2012, we grew 50%. It was insane, we were running out of hops.
KG: What is it like working at the brewery now? I have to imagine it’s very different from the punk rock days.
JM: I like to say that if you stay at a brewery long enough, you eventually find out, Oh my god, I work in marketing. As the Ron Lindenbush, our original sales person and guru, left, and as Tony McGee sold to Heineken and is finally taking some personal time to focus on music, without a $300 million Wells Fargo loan to crush his soul, I’ve become the face of the organization. And all of the sudden, I was doing one job. I thought I needed to protect Lagunitas from Heineken, but now I’m on a diplomatic side where I need to educate Heineken. At first I was brewmaster, but I’m not the director of brewing operations anymore. That’s the individual head brewers. I’d be lying if I told you I did the brewer’s reviews. I used to as recently as three years ago. But as the education of Heineken began to take more of my time, and with the sudden departure of Tony, I found myself as company spokesperson. I was like, damn it. It’s true. I’m in marketing.
KG: So what’s your day-to-day?
JM: We just got a new CMO who came from Converse and Vans, and I spend a lot of time with her. She needs to be immersed in our culture. That was one of the things I wrote in Tony’s book. A craft brewery is nothing without its culture. I love visiting other craft brewers and not just doing a tour, but hanging out in the back and being a cellar dwellar, getting to know their culture. There are some similarities, but each individual brewery has its own unique culture. If you ever find yourself in one that doesn’t seem like it has a culture, you have to wonder who’s going to drink the beer. I don’t think they’re going to make it. I don’t like it when a craft brewery paints this well-marketed image. It’s disheartening when I expect one thing and I get some super boring people who are just at a job. Craft brewers get into this because we’re gathered by our passions. I have extreme passion for hops, for craft beer, for homebrewing, for cannabis, for extraction. All these things that live in the greater brewing universe.