LONG BEACH — Bill Schiller, a national account manager for an office product sales company and a self-described connoisseur of beers, looked around the bar at the recently opened Belmont Brewing Co. and observed, "The atmosphere is a little stale and antiseptic."
He waved his hand toward an array of huge steel vats and fermenting tanks in plain sight of the customers. "I'd make it a little more like a pub--dark oak instead of light wood and about 5,000 stupid trivia things on the walls." He was assessing the city's only combination restaurant and brewery.
Ah, but the beer . . . ?
"It's top quality," Schiller said.
Welcome to the only place in town where you can have a beer that was fermented in a tank less than five feet from your nose. "It tastes like sewer water," quipped one recent visitor, Kim Onisko. "Of course, this is my seventh one."
Brewer Malcolm McDonald attributes his product's special qualities to the fact that it is his own brand of "English-style ale," a heavier, more flavorful brew than most Americans are used to drinking.
"It's creative work," McDonald, a 42-year-old transplant from Edinburgh, Scotland, said of his brewer's art. "Every time you make some, you put something of yourself into it. It's a question of educating the American palate."
Known in the industry as a "brew pub," the establishment opened several months ago in a 6,500-square-foot facility overlooking the beach near the foot of Belmont Pier. According to co-owner David Lott, it is part of a trend that began nearly 10 years ago in the Pacific Northwest. Today it is represented by about 30 clubs in the Bay Area and another five or so in Southern California, all of which opened in the last three years.
Lott, a restaurateur for more than 10 years and a beer lover for most of his adult life, says he got the idea for the club after a 1985 trip to Seattle, during which he visited some of the early brew clubs in that area. "I was witness to a beer renaissance," he said. "It was the rebirth of (small-scale) beer-making."
There were a number of legal hurdles he had to pass before opening in Long Beach. First he had to get the blessings of the city Planning Commission. In addition, Lott said, he had to get permission from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Lott met McDonald at a brew pub in Davis, Calif., and the two hit it off immediately. Within a few weeks McDonald had moved to Long Beach to concoct a beer formula for the Belmont Brewing Co. The task was not easy, the brewmaster recalls.
McDonald experimented for several months with various types of malted barley grains, mixing them with water to varying degrees in an attempt to achieve just the right balance. He also added yeast and hops, a plant known for its aroma and bitterness.
The result is three beers that have become staples at the Belmont Brewing Co. and can be purchased nowhere else. They are Marathon, a pale ale; Full Sail, an amber ale; and Long Beach Crude, a dark porter. McDonald says he plans to add a fourth selection soon that will be changed periodically to represent his latest brewing experiments.
Arriving at work about 6:30 a.m., the brewmaster, wearing tennis shoes and white coveralls, generally begins his day by slowly bringing a 200-gallon vat of water up to a temperature of 144 degrees. He adds malted barley, then stirs the concoction with a rowboat oar.
Later the resulting liquid (called wort) is separated from the grain and transferred to a large kettle, where it is boiled vigorously for an hour. The material is then cooled rapidly through a heat exchanger and put into a fermenter, where yeast is added and the concoction sits for 10 to 12 days. Eventually it is filtered and stored in a special tank, from which the finished product is pumped directly into the customers' glasses.
The array of stainless steel tanks and pumps is located directly behind the bar, conveniently labeled so that curious drinkers can follow the process by which their cups are filled. McDonald says he produces about 200 gallons on the days that he brews. "I'm like a home brewer on a huge scale," he said.
"The beer has a slightly bitter edge," said Matthew Boyd, a self-described beer connoisseur speaking of Marathon, his favorite Belmont brew, during a recent visit to the bar. "It's a more crisp beer, full-flavored with a sharper edge."
Not everyone comes for the brew, however.
Bill Lasar III, an engineer, said he comes mainly for the atmosphere. "The food is good and the waitresses are cute," he said.
And Susan Wozena, an accountant, said she can't stand the taste of beer but shows up regularly at the restaurant to sample the food. "I'm not a beer drinker, I'm a food eater," Wozena said.
For true connoisseurs such as Schiller, such distinctions have little meaning.
"It tastes like you're eating a steak when you drink good beer like this," he declared, hoisting a glass of amber. "Beer is food--you have two or three pints of this and you're not very hungry."