By Lauren Duffy Lastowka | SDUN Columnist
Rey Knight is an artisan at heart. In fact, you might recognize his name from one of the most artistic lines of food products to emerge in San Diego in recent years: Knight Salumi. What you may not know is that, for the past three years, the multi-talented craftsman has been hatching a plan to open a craft brewery, and that, as of May this year, that plan finally came to fruition.
Rey is uniquely qualified to move into the craft beer business. He’s been homebrewing for ages, during which time his homebrew setup has evolved to an impressive 30-gallon system (most homebrewers brew 5- or 10-gallon batches). He has more than 100 original recipes, which he has refined over the years, many of which will become the brewery’s standard and specialty releases.
Rey credits his jump from home to professional-scale brewing to a little experiment he did a few years ago: He injected Brettanomyces, a yeast beloved by daring brewers for its ability to sour beers, into a salami he was preparing to cure, just to see what would happen. “If I didn’t inject Brett into salami, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Rey. (For the record, the salami exploded).
Butcher’s Brewing, the name of Rey’s new craft brewery, is a nod to Rey’s background in charcuterie, and indeed the original plan for the brewery was to create a line of beers that would be well-suited to pairing with cured meats. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite according to the original plan.
“It all started with a floor drain,” Rey says with a sigh, as he relays the series of events that led to his successful salumi business being swept out from underneath him earlier this year. It’s a bizarre tale of bureaucracy and red tape. An on-site USDA agent who oversaw the safety of Rey’s production identified the floor drain in Knight’s Kearny Mesa production facility as having “too steep” a slope, Rey said. The USDA wanted Rey to shut down production to bring the drain up to standards. Rey complied, but so as to be able to fulfill orders and not lose business, he sought out a surrogate production facility he could work out of in the meantime. Rey flew out to the St. Louis facility, made 8,000 pounds of sausage, flew back to fix the drain while the salumi cured, then returned to St. Lewis to package and ship his product.
It was upon returning that he learned a signature was missing from a form that had been filed in his absence. “It was a minor clerical error,” says Rey. The error was major enough to the USDA, though, for it to put his 8,000 pounds of product under hold. Despite Rey’s ability to prove the product fit for human consumption (by an expert witness in an ensuing legal battle), the USDA eventually destroyed all 8,000 pounds. Rey watched as the fruits of his craftsmanship went up in flames. The destroyed salumi, coupled with the legal fees he faced, forced Rey to shutter the company.
It’s a sad story that is sadder still if you were lucky enough to enjoy the quality and craftsmanship of a Knight Salumi product. This was no ordinary cured meat—it was meat cured by someone passionate about flavor, texture and consistency. It was made by someone who wanted every bite to resonate with flavor. It was one of the best local products in San Diego.
Rey’s passion and commitment to quality is the reason I am so excited Rey has finally made his foray into the craft beer world. A fermentationist at heart, Rey is simply switching gears, using yeast instead of bacteria, liquids instead of solids.
“I’m really focused on the beer right now,” Rey says of his shift from pork and beef to barley and hops. That focus, at least for the time being, takes him to Irvine at least weekly, where he is brewing on borrowed equipment, courtesy of Bayhawk Ales, until he can afford to buy his own. “I’m at the mercy of their schedule,” Rey says of the arrangement. Currently, he’s been pulling all-nighters to brew batches, starting at 10 p.m. and finishing around 8 a.m.
“It’s been a trial,” Rey says of his first few months of operation. Yet surprisingly, it’s neither the commute nor the hours that bother him. To Rey, the challenges lie within the craft—tweaking recipes, sourcing ingredients, adapting a batch to a much larger scale than he is used to. For example, he’s found that ingredients that are readily available to homebrewers—such as strains of hops like the increasingly popular Nelson—are not as easy to acquire on a professional scale, at least when you’re the new kid on the block. For now, Rey explains, his recipes are “Subject to what I can get and when.”
Another challenge, albeit one Rey is much more eager to embrace, is learning to brew on a professional scale. He is graduating from a one-barrel system to a 15-barrel system, so there is a lot to learn—and a lot more potential. “There are so many things that can be played with,” he says. “You can hop at different times, use ingredients you can’t use at home, like hop oils … . It’s a lot of fun. There are so many weird things you can do,” says Rey.
Right now, Rey is focused on adapting his recipes for a large scale. “Everything came out of homebrew” Rey says. He’s been tweaking various versions of the same recipe, modifying aspects like the yeast and the fermentation temperature. “That’s where the art and the craft come in,” he says of tinkering with each recipe until he is satisfied. So far, Butcher’s Brewing has released two beers, both in what Rey has named his Mucho Aloha line—an accessible, inviting collection of ales that Rey hopes will become the company’s flagship. (The name is a nod to the merging of Southern California and Hawaiian culture). The Mucho Aloha Ale, a “Hawaiian-style ale” debuted in late May at Ritual Tavern—a beer-pairing event featuring Kalua pork. The beer is delicate and slightly fruity, a twist on a classic pale ale made with a Belgian yeast.
Ritual also debuted the Double Shaka Imperial IPA, Rey’s second release, a few weeks ago. It’s a creamy, surprisingly smooth IPA that belies its 10 percent alcohol. Rey envisions the Mucho Aloha line as a mainstream line of craft beers that he can bring to a wide audience, in essence introducing craft beer beyond the craft beer scene. He is working on plans to produce some of these beers in cans, and is teaming with marketing gurus in the surf community, working on distribution throughout California, Hawaii, and more.
But the Mucho Aloha line isn’t Rey’s only passion. Once he has a few flagship beers under his belt, he hopes to divide his attention by simultaneously focusing on a specialty line of Butcher’s Brewing special releases—what he playfully calls “English, hardcore, manly beers.” He’s planning a nut brown ale brewed with orange blossom honey, an 1800s-style English porter, and a dry stout. He’ll release these in San Diego almost
exclusively, likely not bottled and delivered to draft accounts only, some on cask. “I want to do a lot of real ale,” says Rey.
The specialty Butcher’s Brewing line is the part of the brewery Rey can experiment with—future ideas include aging beer in Cognac barrels, incorporating white truffles into a beer, and fermenting directly in wood barrels (most barrel-aged beers are transferred to wood after fermentation is complete). The beers will have a “funkiness,” he promises. “They’ll be eclectic experiments.”
In time, Rey plans to open a brewing facility in San Diego County—he’s just looking for the right opportunity. He has an ideal set up in mind, which includes an airplane hangar roof, an open-air brewing setup, and a tasting room and retail on site. It sounds like a craft beer brewer’s dream.
Expect the release of additional Butcher’s Brewing and Mucho Aloha beers to be slow, but solid. “I’m brewing a single batch, selling that batch within 30 days, then brewing another,” says Rey of his current model. Still getting used to the system, he wants to make sure he gets each beer right before moving on to the next one. “It’s growing slowly,” says Rey.
If you don’t see Rey’s beers at your favorite beer bar yet, have patience. He’s currently taking his beers from bar to bar, shop to shop, selling a little at a time. In the neighborhood so far, Butcher’s Brewing beers have been at the Ritual Tavern, Bar Pink, Cowboy Star, Reagle Beagle, and Counterpoint, plus locations at the beaches and in North County. Rey is also distributing in Orange County and Hawaii, and hopes to expand to other areas soon.
Knowing Rey’s success with salumi, Butcher’s Brewing is certainly a craft brewery to keep an eye on. I know I’m not the only one looking forward to the delicious craftsmanship San Diego has come to know and love from Rey Knight.