Get Rescued by the Ambrewlance
Restaurateur Mike Altman and brewer Christian Kazakoff of Iron Springs Pub & Brewery craft beer to pair with food and the seasons.
By Christina Mueller Welter: April 6, 2011
During a visit to Oakland with his wife, Anne, in the summer of 2004 for a short-term consulting opportunity, Mike Altman learned the Ross Valley Brewing Company was for sale. With 20 years of restaurant management and brewery experience already under his belt, many of those years with the McMenamins portfolio of brew pubs in Oregon and Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, Altman visited the 765 Center Blvd. location for the first time.
He walked away that day thinking, “there’s an opportunity here.”
A few months later, the now-owner of Iron Springs Pub & Brewery in Fairfax, made the then-owners an offer and in September 2004, it was his. “I threw the dice,” said Altman, “but I knew what I was getting into.”
Altman closed the doors for three weeks to do an interior remodel and opened Iron Springs Pub & Brewery in October 2004. The short turn-around enabled him to keep most of the staff. “My staff is terrific,” said Altman. “They are as important here as the food and the beer.”
Altman, an award-winning brewer with two medals from the World Beer Cup and seven medals from the Great American Beer Festival between 1998 and 2000, managed the restaurant and the brewery for the first four years. He worked with Head Chef Luis Carrillo to tweak and fine-tune the menu to meet customer requests, added a children’s menu and source more locally-grown products.
A successful community giving program, Give Back Tuesdays, is another Altman creation. Every Tuesday of the year, a percentage of the day’s sales goes to support local nonprofit organizations. “The [Ross Valley] YES! Foundation gets three months of Tuesdays every year,” [sic] said Altman, “and in the last three years, we’ve raised over $45,000 with the support of our customers.” That’s some powerful beer!
Altman, who lives “within pedaling distance” of the brewery, continued to build awareness of the Iron Springs brand but changed his pace a bit after his two boys, Aaron and Joey, were born. Head Brewer Christian Kazakoff joined the Iron Springs staff in July 2008.
Kazakoff, who grew up in Pacifica, originally wanted to be a chef. While attending the culinary arts program at CCSF, he worked in the kitchen at Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse in Berkeley and spent hours of his own time in the brewery there. “Brewing, like baking, has an exactness to it,” said Kazakoff. He took to it immediately and changed the course of his culinary career.
Altman began a wholesale arm of Iron Springs in 2007 and expanded into bottles in 2009. He and Kazakoff continue to expand the wholesale and retail sales channels for the brand. A few Iron Springs-labeled beers, such as Epiphany Ale, Casey Jones IPA, Sless’ Oatmeal Stout and Kent Lake Kölsch, are found on draft or in bottles in Marin, San Francisco and the East Bay. “We do all the distribution ourselves,” said Kazakoff.
Seasonal beers are a typical method for the brewmasters to hone their craft and have some fun with flavors and food pairings. Begun in December 2009, the Holiday Winter Four-Pack needed a full 365 days to ferment, condition and develop the flavors and aromatics to Kazakoff’s exacting requirements for great-tasting beer.
Like wines made by a single winemaker, each of these beers is subjected to a unique but similar brewing process. In this past year’s Winter’s Four-Pack, look for the ’09 “Menace” Barley Wine, fermented in stainless steel barrels; the ’09 Winter Scotch, aged in an oak brandy barrel; the ’10 Winter Scotch with flavors similar to an Export Ale and the ’09 “Malice” Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine, aged in oak.
“There’s a natural correlation between food and beer,” said Altman, who lists food pairings on the menu for every beer on draft. Kazakoff concurs; “I could live on Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk and our Double IPA. Try one of our Barley Wines (the Menace or the Malice) with a stinky blue cheese.”
Coming up this year, Altman and Kazakoff plan to release a cherry stout and a fresh hop beer made with hops from (no kidding) Hopland, California later this year.