Craft beer and Craftsman architecture come together at North Park Beer Company
By Michael Good | House Calls
There are do it yourselfers. And there are DO IT YOURSELFERS. Kelsey McNair is the all-caps kind of DIY guy.
When I first met him four years ago, he was looking for advice about the woodwork in his Craftsman bungalow in North Park. Most of the wood trim was intact — bookcases, china cabinet, fireplace mantle — but a small piece of picture rail molding had been painted. We talked about what needed to be done to restore it, and the next time I saw him, he’d done it. Himself.
“That looks pretty good,” I said. “What’d you use?”
“Interesting,” I said.
Shellac is what they used back in the day. It’s made from a naturally occurring substance found only in India. “You know, I don’t use shellac very much,” I said, because I thought I needed to say something to demonstrate my vast knowledge on the subject of wood refinishing. “It has a short shelf life. When I buy it from Home Depot, it’s usually gone bad.”
“I didn’t buy it from Home Depot. I made it up myself, from flakes.”
“Impressive,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. I run into people all the time who pretend they know how to make their own shellac, because they saw a video about it on YouTube. But I’d never actually met a homeowner, other than Kelsey, who had done it.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Now that I’ve gotten to know him (I’ve done a couple wood refinishing projects for Kelsey and his wife Amanda over the years), I realize he’s not unlike the go-to guys who made their own shellac and built their own house 90 years ago.
Additionally, he’s pretty familiar with the whole concept of mixing natural ingredients with alcohol. Kelsey had been brewing his own beer since 2004, after his future wife bought him a brew kit for Christmas. A couple weeks ago he officially made the transition from hobbyist to professional when his North Park Beer Company opened on the corner of University Avenue and Ohio Street in North Park.
As it turns out, it’s been a long row of hops to hoe. Kelsey first started thinking about making his avocation his vocation back in 2010, when he won two prestigious homebrewer awards. The first, in March, was from Stone Brewing. The second, that summer, was a national competition for homebrewers. He took home a gold medal for his “Hop Fu” IPA.
“Those two events made something click for me,” he said. “I started thinking that maybe I have the ability to do something more than brew a beer to share with my friends and family. I started to put together a business plan. The whole time I was set on putting a brewery in North Park. That was the challenge.”
The two basic elements of success — a building and financing — seemed to be at war with each other.
“At the same time I was trying to sign a lease, I was also trying to raise capital. That was a Catch-22,” he said. Basically, the investors wanted to see the lease, and the landlords wanted to see the money.
“It was hard to convince both sides. I kept beating my drum until I found the right landlord to make it happen.” That landlord was willing to invest in the future of North Park by buying the building where Kelsey wanted to build his brewery. It’s another example of how North Park has become a neighborhood revived by beer. “Obviously, for me, I just wanted a cool place where I could make beer and live my dream.”
Simple as this might seem, it wasn’t an easy sell, considering how Kelsey’s business resume was a little skimpy.
“I never owned my own business. I dealt in comic books and collectibles in high school. I would go to different comic book conventions and set up and buy comics and sell comics. I always had aspirations to be an entrepreneur. I spent the last 16 years in the video game industry, much of it in a leadership role. I left that career as an art director,” he said.
Kelsey’s entrance into the video game industry was as improbable as his adventure in beer making. A comic book colleague got a job in San Diego working in customer service for a videogame maker. He asked Kelsey to join him. Kelsey dropped out of college and moved to San Diego from Florida to take a customer service job. After a year he became a game designer.
“I was pretty much self-taught throughout my entire career. I like to figure things out, I’m pretty pragmatic, pretty thorough, sometimes to a fault,” he said.
Now that his dream has come true, how does it feel?
“It’s been challenging. I hired a really great staff to manage and operate the front of the house. But I walked into this with, basically — I’m basically the guy who makes all the beer. I don’t have an assistant. At the same time, I’m writing checks, managing the books. It’s overwhelming. I’m not getting much sleep,” he said. “My wife has stepped up. She’s become office manager, and I don’t think she knew that was going to happen six months ago. I’m figuring out how to delegate and who to bring in to help. I need to figure that out and everything will be fine.”
From the drinker’s perspective, everything is fine already. NPBC’s focus is on the basics. Ales and lagers without the foo-foo frills: no berry flavors, peanut butter or added fruity zest and zing. The building, too, leans to the authentic. The ambience and design honors North Park’s Craftsman heritage and identity, in a way that no other local brewery does. And that’s not by accident.
“My wife and I really fell in love with the neighborhood in 2006. We were living in North County. We became really interested in what was happening in the area — in the restaurants and bars, the craft beer and farm-to-table restaurants, like Hamilton’s and the Linkery. There wasn’t anything like that in North County. We found ourselves here Friday night and Saturday night. And as we did that, we were parking in the neighborhood and walking. And I was immediately drawn to the architecture and the charm. It didn’t take too long until we were saying, why are we even living up here? So we started looking at rentals and thinking about buying. We discovered that the charm of these homes wasn’t just on the outside. They were even more beautiful on the inside than the outside,” he said.
“With the design of the brewery, I really want to give the patrons a feeling of the North Park that they don’t see. So much Craftsman charm — if you don’t live in the neighborhood, you miss it. I wanted to put that esthetic inside.”
The building, which had last been used as a martial arts gym, had lost most of its original features, with the exception of the original Craftsman-style board and batten staircase wainscot.
“It was a blank canvas,” Kelsey said. He hired Hauck Architecture, the firm responsible for nearby Modern Times and Thorn Brewing Company. For the interior, “We worked with Basile Studio. They’re incredibly talented. You give them a creative idea and they come back with something you never thought of. And that’s arts and crafts at its core.” (The design also incorporates quotes from William Morris and Elbert Hubbard.)
Like the still-revitalizing commercial district around it, North Park Beer Company is still a work in progress. It will be a couple months before food is served. And, for now, only North Park Beer Company beer is on tap. (Once the kitchen is up and running, the liquor license will allow Kelsey & Co. to sell beer from other brewers.) The upstairs mezzanine is not yet built-out. The concept is for it to be more cozy and residential, with a fireplace and inglenook, to counter the downstairs open, cityscape feel, with its globe streetlights.
Beer names will continue to recognize local people and places, such as historian Don Covington, who chronicled the story of North Park’s neighborhoods and business district. Kelsey plans to bring in other historic elements, with the help of the North Park Historical Association.
“I’d like to install a number of historical framed photos. Create a North Park theme park of sorts. That’s kind of our vision for it. We want this to be for the community. From top to bottom,” he said. Then, remembering the still-unfinished mezzanine, he added, “Or from bottom to top.”
You can do your part to bring back the neighborhood by raising a glass at North Park Beer Company, located at 3038 University Ave.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.