Chuck Silva’s Next Horizon in Craft Beer
The former Green Flash brewmaster on his ambitions and hopes for Silva Brewing Co.Photo via Silva Brewing Drink Features Silva Brewing Co.
We’ve reached an interesting generational jumping off point in the American craft beer experiment. It’s a time when brewmasters who got their start in the ‘90s and 2000s—largely at production breweries that have since been built into the country’s bigger regional powerhouses—are either retiring or advancing on to new projects, taking their considerable street cred with them. These names include the likes of Mitch Steele, who left Stone last year to start a project that will soon become New Realm Brewing in Atlanta. It’s a move that involves walking away from a position of both security and great respect in order to do something with much more inherent risk. It is, in a word, ballsy.
Chuck Silva is in much the same boat, and it’s almost impossible to avoid the comparison with his Stone contemporary. Silva, like Steele, built his reputation in the beer industry on the back of American IPA—in this case, the classic Green Flash West Coast IPA, which remains a benchmark of the style in any reputable beer geek’s rankings. As brewmaster of Green Flash, he was there for the company’s rapid expansion from “San Diego brewery” to “regional brewery” to national craft brewery—they currently sit as the 37th largest craft beer company, according to the Brewers Association’s admittedly confusing designation. But regardless, that growth was largely built on Silva’s recipes, to the point that the company’s barrel-aged imperial stout was even called “Silva Stout.”
And so, as with Steele, it was a significant beer headline to see Chuck Silva choose to walk away from Green Flash in 2015 after the work he had put in and accolades that the brewery had won. But it wasn’t long before he announced plans for a much smaller, more modest, more personal project, to be located in California’s Central Coast wine country of Paso Robles. In the shadow of Firestone Walker, Silva Brewing Co. has taken hold in the last sixth months. Operating out of the same building as the city’s premiere beer bar, The Pour House, Silva is playing with an array of new styles and diversifying his brewing game, making whatever he wants to make, when he wants to make it. It’s a sense of freedom as intoxicating as any of the beers, and it’s a true partnership—Silva and his wife MJ are the company’s two full-time employees, and both can be seen slinging beer from behind the bar in the small taproom. They even live minutes away, and can easily walk between the brewery and their home.
During my recent visit to Paso Robles for the Firestone Walker Invitational (read about all the best beers in our recap), I had an opportunity to sit down with Chuck Silva and discuss the choice to walk away from a prestigious position, along with the brewing philosophy of his new venture.
Paste: When we started talking, I mentioned Green Flash 30th Street Pale Ale, which I always loved. You lived in that neighborhood?
Chuck Silva: Yeah, I lived there, so it was the inspiration for the beer. I basically said “There’s a lot of synergy going on with craft beer and this neighborhood, so I’d like to make it the theme of this new pale ale I’ve been working on.” When we released it, we shuttled people around all night to different bars in the area, it was a great time. I’m not sure if it’s still in bottles, but it was a good beer.
Paste: Which of the beers that you produced at Green Flash are you most proud of? Which stand out in your mind?
Silva: Well, Le Freak for sure; that’s such a unique beer. West Coast IPA is of course top dog, and it drove Green Flash into what it became. “Chuck Siva” and West Coast IPA are pretty synonymous, I think. Then there were the extensions like Imperial IPA, which led me into the line of thinking that resulted in Le Freak, which was kind of a crowning achievement for me.
Of course, then I made Rayon Vert, which we were also very proud of. Mike (GF owner Mike Hinkley) came to me and said “Do you think we could make like a 7% ABV Le Freak?” I didn’t really think that was possible to make it light, but then I went to work and came up with a new Belgian style that would be more hop centric. We didn’t call it Belgian IPA, but there have been a good number of similar beers since that are labeled that way.
Paste: It’s honestly hard for me to imagine the difficulty of walking away from a job like that. It made you a recognizable name in this industry, and was presumably pretty comfortable. What drove the decision to go off and essentially start all over again?
Silva: I definitely had it made, as far that job was concerned. We’d done the hard work to grow the brand and get a reputation. Thing is, my goal wasn’t to get to the national level necessarily when I started. For me when we switched from being regional to more of a national brand, that’s when I started thinking about new opportunities. I was starting to be mindful of the dream of doing something smaller, starting from scratch. What brewer doesn’t fantasize about having a tiny brewery? I always dreamt of being like, a village brewer. My dream wasn’t to be Sierra Nevada and sell pale ale in every part in the world. Just to make a living, making great beer on a more humble scale.
Paste: Were you automatically thinking it would be in the Paso area?
Silva: Well this is basically my hometown, or San Luis Obispo County is, specifically. So when we started looking where we might put a brewery, it was a process with MJ and me. She doesn’t like snow, so Oregon was out. Northern California was a possibility, but as we traveled here over the holidays she fell in love with wine country. And that was my vision too, to have a brewery on the wine trail, maybe in the agricultural land. I’ve already got 8 (wine barrels) in my tiny little brewery, and we’ll have them all filled soon. So we decided to move here and take our time and start planning.
Paste: Why this specific building?
Silva: Well, this was already the premiere on tap beer bar in the county, but while doing my due diligence I found out that I couldn’t have a brewery out in the ag land thanks to the current zoning ordinances, so I lobbied the county supervisors and hired a consultant to help me with that. They seemed very open to it, so hopefully that rule will get changed to allow breweries and distilleries in ag land in the future.
Meanwhile we came in here to have a beer and started talking with the owner, and he says “I don’t know what you’re doing for Silva Brewing, but we’ve got a pretty good amount of space back here.” We got out the tape measure and paper and started drawing a brewery. Then I went to the landlord and said as long as we can make a few changes and share the bathroom, I think we can do this right here.
Paste: How do you approach designing a beer philosophy for Silva Brewing, after plenty of time to think? I imagine it’s delicate to differentiate yourself from Green Flash but also deliver what is expected of you.
Silva: Well, we talked about some of my favorite beers that I made such as Le Freak, right? I don’t want to step on that by trying to remake a beer really similar to it. I’m going to make IPA because everyone, including me, loves IPA, but I also want to make some beers I love to drink that we weren’t making at Green Flash. And that’s the First Gold (a kolsch), the Suite B (an altbier) and the Paso Pale, which are more sessionable beers, using a different yeast strain from the Cal Ale. I hesitate to even use that word “sessionable,” but they are at 4.5-5% ABV or so. It’s very clean, flavorful, approachable beers to start, and then we’ll make some IPAs, and then make some stouts, and from there who knows? This winter we had three black beers on.
We made a good variety of different beer styles at Green Flash, and I still want to do that, but I want to take it even farther without stepping on my own toes by making beers that are copies. I might make some similar styles, but they’ll be new versions. If we make a red IPA, it might be a reference to Hop Head Read, but it won’t be an attempt to replicate it. We’re also going to do some specialty hand-bottled beers that will be sold just here, out of the taproom. It will be laborious and small batch, but hopefully very rewarding in the end.
Paste: Speaking of IPA, you made your name brewing one of the style-definers in West Coast IPA. What do you think of the general direction that IPA has headed in the last few years?
Silva: Well, it used to be that the Pacific Northwest style had a little bit maltier but still hoppy presence, and wasn’t necessarily dry hopped. The San Diego ones were dry hopped, and then became paler and paler over time. You saw crystal malt less, and then completely devoid of crystal malt to produce the most purely hoppy beers. I think I like them all, honestly. I definitely do appreciate some bitterness, but I’ve had some very good hop-bursted examples that are very soft, with very little bitterness as well.
Paste: Do the super turbid, hazy IPAs bother you as a long-time pro brewer?
Silva: They don’t really bother me, but I’m probably not going to drink them. I might cringe a bit purely on sight if they’re total milkshakes. I taste beers off the fermenter all the time; I don’t need to pull a full pint of it and drink it down.
Paste: You do have to acknowledge, though, that the IPAs these days that have people waiting in long lines for can releases tend to be very low bitterness, very juicy and fruity, with higher levels of residual sweetness and often hazy.
Silva: Well, it starts with the tropical hops available. When you say juiciness—there are fruity esters in fermentation, and when you leave the yeast behind, more of it is going to stay in. That’s part of where that juicy thing is coming from, the combo of hops and yeast esters. Some are pushing the style forward with that, while others are just trying to jump on the trend with stuff like flour and orange juice, and I don’t want to be part of that. I’ve had some Tree House IPAs that were delicious, but some others that were muddy nonsense. So in short, are we going to do can releases of hazy IPA? No. If that’s what people want, I don’t have any problems with it, but I’m still going to make the beers that I want to make.
Paste: Does it feel to you like the Paso Robles beer scene is surging? Do you find much crossover with the wine tourism crowd?
Silva: Yeah, absolutely to both. It feels like there’s definitely more people looking at this area for beer. They get a little fatigued drinking wine and they start craving beer, or there are some people just kind of tagging along with the wine crowd but they’re really more passionate about beer. There are way more options for those people in Paso these days.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink content.