St. Paddy's Day drinkers? Meet the pros
Oringinal Article on OcRegister.com By:Peggy Lowe
LAGUNA NIGUEL – Dodge the big beer truck and the stacks of kegs outside the door and step into O'Shea Brewing Co.
It's Friday afternoon, just before the start of the weekend rush, as Jeff Williams and two employees are checking out the new inventory. Among the 60 kegs coming in, Williams chooses a short stack of cases. He tears one open, grabs a small box, reads the label, and opens it. The bottle is larger than a common beer but not as large as a wine bottle. It's sticky, he says, and grins.
"Straight from the brewery line," Williams says. "It's still basically got some beer on it."
Williams was just rewarded two cases of Firestone Abacus, Reserve Series 2011, described on fan sites as "a big 12 percent barley-wine aged in bourbon barrels" and packaged for the first time in 22 oz. bottles that come straight from the Paso Robles brewer.
An exciting day here at O'Shea, a tiny store tucked into a strip of shops near the 5 Freeway, off the beaten path but known by the beer geeks who ascribe to brews the same subtleties and study as the wine snobs. It's here that home brewers come to buy their supplies, the fanatics flock to buy obscure labels from around the world and the professionals visit weekly to update their supply of kegs of craft beers.
But don't pay any attention to the store's Irish name because these guys are not gearing up for St. Patrick's Day. They don't even consider it among the true beer holidays. And all those folks who will flock to the pubs today to celebrate?
"Amateur drinkers," Williams says.
Williams grew up in the Midwest and had the itch to get out of the tiny township near Pontiac, Michigan early on. He finished high school by January of his senior year in 1979, turned down a good scholarship and entry into the Naval Academy, and opted to seek the rush of wanderlust.
"I wanted to be a Marine," he said. "I wanted to go do something."
At 17, he had found his career, graduating with honors from a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp near San Diego and then getting stationed in South Carolina. He wore his dress blues, his formal uniform, to his high school prom.
The kid who had loved mechanical and architectural engineering in high school ended up as a jet mechanic, working on F-4 fighter planes. He saw the world, including 2 ½ years of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and was often back here at the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and Camp Pendleton.
The beer bug was triggered in 1983, when Williams was working as a recruiter in Chicago. One day while driving, he heard a commercial on the radio for wine making. He was nearby, he discovered, so he stopped at the store. The wine making proved interesting, but it was the idea of home brewing beer that drew him in, and he fell in love with the process.
"Just like if you're into cooking, you can change and alter (ingredients)," he said. "I'm very passionate about making beer. I love to cook, too. If you're really into it, it's basic chemistry."
By his early 30s, the career Marine needed a career change, so instead of aiming at the top of the food chain, he decided he needed to be at the center of it. He became an infantryman, the job typically held by the 19-year-olds.
"A grunt is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world physically," Williams said. "But if you think of it, every day in the Marine Corps and in the Navy, they wake up saying, 'How can we support that Marine on the ground, that infantryman on the ground.' Everybody's job is to take care of that grunt on the ground. That's what I got."
He won entry into the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Fox Company, stationed at Camp Pendleton. The nearest home brewing store was O'Shea, which was owned at the time by another Marine, and he joined the local home brewers club, The Fermenters.
By 2000, at age 40, Williams knew it was time to get promoted or retire. He was driving back to Camp Pendleton one day after a trip to Mammoth and stopped at O'Shea to see his pals. On a hunch – and his concerns that the owner was ready to close the place -- he offered to buy it. That was all it took.
"We locked the door, shook hands, went upstairs and partied," Williams said. "I just always thought you could do something with this place."
Williams, 49, has expanded the store significantly, adding square footage and a second walk-in cooler. He has dozens of specialty label bottled beer, which is difficult to find in other stores, and has a large array of home brewing kits. The kitchen is where he and his four employees bag smaller bags of hops from large 50-pound bags. A smaller loft above the beer supplies holds wine-making stuff, and parts of the store look like a lab supply place.
The store does $1 million in sales a year, with revenues generated by the weather and sports. The busy part of his year kicks off at Memorial Day, followed by the true beer holidays of the Fourth of July, Labor Day, New Years Eve and the Super Bowl. If the local teams are doing well – particularly the Lakers – sales are up. During this busy time, he sells up to 250 kegs a week.
"When the Lakers are in the finals, we can't keep beer in the store," he said.
The recession has taken a toll, and sales of Beverage Air Kegerators, little fridges with a tap on top for the kegs, are down. He was selling four a month before the economy soured, and now he sells one every three months. The five-gallon kegs that hold the IPAs or Belgian beers are his biggest selling item, and some guys put four of five in the Kegerators, plant them outside their homes, and have several taps going at all times.
This is the dead time of year, when March Madness hasn't become maddening just yet, the weather hasn't quite warmed up, and St. Patrick's Day is just another day for the beer geeks.
Williams pulls the boxes of Firestone Abacus from the case and places them on a shelf near the cash register. The Abacus is so precious because it's an "allocated beer," a very limited number of cases doled out to certain distributors in small quantities that tend to be gobbled up quickly.
Now that the beer is in the store, Williams takes the message to the store's Facebook page, ginning up the fever for the new brew with a post at 2:10 p.m.
"Just received Firestone Abacus! 1 bottle per person, per day!!"
By 3:35 p.m., the first Abacus is sold, just as the Friday afternoon rush starts building, guys in ties stopping on the way home from jobs, other guys in shorts and flip-slops already working on the weekend.
One of Williams' employees is asked what the Abacus tastes like. Ron Bland is a card-carrying member of the OC Beer Society, and clearly his tastes are not in line with his last name.
"It's got a hint of smokiness," Bland says, "a little bit of hop to it. It's got a really nice malty backbone."
Even though St. Paddy's Day is not among the true beer holidays, Williams, who had an Irish grandparent, is planning a little party at his house tonight.He'll be serving some traditional Irish food, of course. And the beer? Forget the home brews or the specialty labels. He's going old-school from the old sod.
"It's an appropriate fit," Williams says. "It's a nice food and beer pairing, Guinness and corned beef and cabbage."