When Zach Shy moved from Athens, Georgia to Oakland to pursue alternative medicine it wasn’t long before he tasted his first California beer from Russian River Brewing Co. and his life was forever changed.
Inspired to make a career shift, Shy quickly settled into the craft beer world and is now the beer director at The Hog’s Apothecary in North Oakland. The beer program at Hog’s, started by local beer expert Sayre Piotrkowski and owner John Streit, is the reason Shy joined the team. The beer hall-restaurant’s goal since conception has been supporting California’s top-notch, independent and devoted craft brewers.
The expertly curated beer list at Hog’s is a tasting menu of California’s bounty. “Nothing on our list crosses state lines,” said Shy. The selections offer a chance to discover lesser-known breweries like Phantom Carriage, as far south as Carson, and Wildcard, as far north as Redding. Its diverse rotating beer list hovers around 28 beers at a time, of which Shy sources roughly 99% directly from the brewers themselves.
“Our goal is to serve the beer as it’s intended by the brewers,” said Shy. Sourcing directly allows for this because the beer is never warm-stored, which could affect taste and quality, and money flows directly to the brewers instead of to a middle-company for transport. Shy treats his beer selection the same way the chefs at Hog’s treat sourcing their meat and produce, which he believes sets the place apart from others that might get their beers directly from brewers only when convenient.
Since Hog’s opened in 2013, many other taprooms representing local brewers have populated the neighborhood, but Shy has only affirming things to say. He makes a point to seek out what’s new – both out of curiosity and to offer his support. “I’m a huge fan of Temescal Brewing, Novel, and Roses’. The more the better,” said Shy, “It’s friendly competition.”
The only taproom that’s received less-than-welcoming sentiments is Golden Road of Los Angeles. Since its owner recently sold her independent brewery to AB InBev, its plans to open a taproom only a block down from Hog’s on 40th has received some flack from locals. As Piotrkowski wrote for the SF Chronicle, this taproom would allow for a big corporation to compete with the other smaller, independent brewers in the area.
How does one hand-source 28 beers at a time in a state with such a lavish offering as California? Ordering about 10 kegs per week, and strategically selecting a variety of styles that will keep the menu balanced. “We rarely order the same beer twice in a row,” said Shy. (Aside from Craftsman Brewing Co.’s Heavenly Hefe, which is the only constant on the menu.)
This work also requires being on a regular lookout for new and unique batches of brew. Shy orders only one or two kegs of each variety at a time so the menu is constantly in flux.
Constantly in direct communication with many of the state’s brewers, Shy said, “I’ll just text them and say, ‘Hey what do you have available, what do you have coming up that I should be aware of?’” He is especially keen on seeking out one-off beers that a brewer will make in a single batch, possibly never making that same beer again.
Lastly, Shy’s work requires lots of road trips. Before any trip out of town, he’ll research what breweries he’ll be near and gives them a call to see what kegs they’ll have on hand to bring back to Hog’s. Shy currently deems these brewers most worthy of a visit: Moonraker in Auburn, Sante Adairius in Capitola, and Sierra Nevada in Chico, which he says is always a staple. “I can keep going,” he said with a smile.
Shy said that a big part of curating is making sure to represent as many different styles as possible, from traditional ones to new and interesting concoctions. “We want to have things people can get excited about that they haven’t seen before,” said Shy,“I want people to know that there really is something for everybody.” If Shy hears a guest say they don’t like beer, he welcomes the sentiment as a challenge to find a style they haven’t tried before, hoping to prove them wrong.
“It’s fun to watch how things change over the years – what catches on and what doesn’t,” said Shy. For example, there’s currently a big push toward the Northeast or New England-style IPA, when the West Coast IPA was more popular in the past. West Coast IPAs have more clarity and are more bitter, explained Shy, whereas New England style IPAs are hazier to the point of being opaque, and fruitier. During brewing, when the hops are added during the boil it results in this West Coast style; when they’re added during fermentation after the boil, the results are more cloudy, floral and fruit.
Even if you can’t spot the difference between most of the beers on the list at Hog’s, rest assured, you’re in good hands. The list is arranged from light to heavy, with lagers at the top, moving to Belgian and German styles to Pale Ales and IPAs, then to stouts and finally ending with sours. Each category of beer is served in the appropriate-temperature glass; chilled, room temperature or warmed. Shy explained that certain styles, like classic English, benefit from being served slightly warmer to bring out more flavor and aroma. “That’s why mass-produced lagers are served ice cold, so you don’t taste or smell them,” said Shy.
Another way to get acquainted with beer is through the food at Hog’s. Shy said he doesn’t typically pick the beer he sources based on the restaurant’s food, but there is one flavor he avoids because he thinks it doesn’t mix well with the food: coffee. Shy works with the chefs each night to create an offering of three beers paired expertly with either sausage, cheese or charcuterie.
Once a month Hog’s hosts Breaking Bread, a multi-course meal paired with beer from a local brewery. A percentage of the earnings from the event is donated to local community organizations. In July, Hog’s hosted its fourth Breaking Bread dinner with Faction Brewing. Ten percent of proceeds from the sold-out event were donated to ALS Therapy Development Institute.
The experimentation, constantly trying new things, and the companionship gained from working with and serving people is what Shy finds so rewarding about his job, he said — maybe it’s the potential for this inspiration that Shy tasted in his first Russian River beer.
Next time you’re in the neighborhood, know that Shy — and the rest of the staff at Hog’s — are just inside the door, waiting to pour you a cold one and hoping to turn you on to the fresh new styles coming from California’s brewers. Maybe your life will change forever, too.
The Hog’s Apothecary is taking a break from hosting its Breaking Bread dinner series; the next event will be in September or November. Check back on The Hog’s Apothecary’s website or Facebook page for details of the next event.