As the clock ticks down on the due date of my book and I convert all of my chicken scratched notes into book entries, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. This assignment, although massively time-intensive and intimidating, to me has been one of the most valuable learning experiences I’ve ever had in and out of the beer world. There are incredibly passionate and learned people behind our favorite drinks, and today I want to talk about one of my personal favorites. Although my Beer Lover’s Southern California book piece will include some interesting tidbits of information, there is really no way to convey everything in that specific, short format.
I had the opportunity to sit down with stellar brewmaster and history buff Victor Novak while researching my TAPS entry. It’s widely known that Mr. Novak is a phenomenal brewer, and his expertise and focus on classic craft beer cannot be overstated. TAPS Fish House and Brewery, which originally opened in 1999 by Joe Manzella, has been around for a while, but it’s only recently during the Los Angeles/Orange County/ So Cal craft beer explosion that they’ve been getting more deserved attention. Victor is one of the most decorated brewers in Southern California, and most of his awards, but not all, can be viewed at the TAPS Brea and Corona locations.
A Learned Traveler
What most people wouldn’t know about Victor is that aside from his vast brewing knowledge, he went to school at UC Berkeley for political and cultural geography, focusing on human rights, plus land and water rights issues. He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for a few years after graduating from Cal, working as a commercial bill collector to pay his own bills. It was in the Bay Area that he fell in love with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and other great craft beers from Anchor and Anderson Valley. He moved to Philadelphia in 1992 and later brewed his first Sierra Nevada Pale clone recipe on his homebrew kit, which his girlfriend at the time bought for him for Christmas. In June of 1993 he joined the team at Dock Street Brewery and Restaurant where he studied European styles under English brewmaster Nick Funnell. In 1997 Victor left Dock Street and worked briefly at Doc’s Brewpub in Simi Valley. In December ’97 Victor met Joe Manzella during the planning stages for TAPS Fish House & Brewery, officially came on board in July of ’99 and helped open the restaurant and brewery in September ’99. The rest is history.
Victor is extremely well read in both brewing science and classic methods. Added to this, he frequently travels to better understand the beers he is brewing. He’s been to Europe a number of times since his time at TAPS, studying the beers of Belgium, Germany, Britain, France, and the Czech Republic. It’s research that truly makes a difference in the final product.
Victor is an easygoing guy. You’ll often find him wearing open-toed sandals, jeans, a newsboy hat, and a polo or an easy breathing linen shirt. He’s a good conversationalist, and you’ll find that he listens to every word. He’s relaxed, open about his history, and very analytical. His background at Berkeley has made him very passionate about political and cultural issues, which makes talking about off beer topics very fun. Victor is very passionate about the historical significance of beer and his role at TAPS. He’s a history buff at heart, and beer history is a treasure trove of unique information. He uses this as the basis of most of his beer styles, and when he does add a twist to a classic style, it’s usually for a very good reason.
He’s one of the first people to offer me, personally, suggestions in brewing technique. My business partner John Rockwell and I brewed a Roggenbier as our very first commercial style for Los Angeles Ale Works. The only other brewer in the area, at that time, let alone the country it seems that brewed this style was Victor. The style has since taken on more popularity, but it’s still under brewed. Victor offered to taste our beer and provide critical feedback, which has been very helpful to us as we continue to build our brand. He is someone we both deeply respect and appreciate his open mentorship.
The Brewery and the Fish House
The original Brea location opened up in 1999, and it wasn’t until 2007, right before the new beer boom, that they opened the second location in Corona. Both spots have a 15 BBL brewhouse , but the Corona location as a whole is larger. Inside you’ll find a massive oyster bar and open kitchen centered as you walk in. It resembles a seafood market, although in this example it’s an upscale restaurant version. A European dark wooden bar to the right, brewhouse behind glass, and white table cloths make this a spot for a drink after work or a date night.
The focus, aside from beer, at TAPS is the seafood and carvery. Gourmet prime choice cuts of meat, expertly cooked fish, roasted vegetables, and shellfish are all here. On Sunday they have an amazing brunch which is perfect for birthdays and/or special occasions. In the summertime they hold their annual TAPS Craft Beer Festival, and in both April and October they have a special beer pairing dinner. Victor also releases his barrel aged Imperial Stout, Remy, in bottles annually, so be on the lookout for that.
Victor has a great team working with him at TAPS. Currently David Huls, formerly of Gordon Biersch, is the Head Brewer at the Corona location with Kyle Manns brewing primarily in the Brea location. Before his move to Noble Ale Works, Evan Price worked under Victor as head brewer. TAPS brews 2 to 4 times a week on their 15BBL systems, filling their 30 BBL fermentors with liquid goodness. 2014 has a lot in store for them, as Victor is planning on both canning and bottling more of their beers. TAPS recently started to distribute their kegs, which means more of Southern California will experience the beer outside of the restaurant.
TAPS is definitely a fantastic location to get a thorough education in classic brewing technique, and if you are a BJCP judge or classic style loving home brewer, you should definitely make your way out to try the beers. Many of their beers 50+ have won multiple awards and as stated before, Victor is one of the most heavily decorated brewers in Southern California. The Cream Ale is a local favorite. It’s common for the lightest beer to be the flagship, but it’s not common for it to be this good. It’s incredible bready and complex, which makes it a perfect summer beer, and it pairs nicely with the many seafood options TAPS has to offer.
TAPS is one of a few breweries doing traditional lager-style brewing. As the craft beer-loving public distances itself from fizzy yellow beer and macro domestic/imports, many classic German styles are also getting shunned. It becomes the job of breweries, such as TAPS, to educate the public on what these beers are supposed to taste like. Victor’s lagers are all very well made and he makes 3 different types of pilsners. His Vienna Country Lager is especially nice and is one of my personal favorites. With rich toasty melanoidin notes along with that signature light amber hue, this is a beer you don’t want to miss. It’s seasonal though, so it’s not always on tap. Another beer that is worth looking for is the Thomas Jefferson Ale, which you’ll find in the month of July. The recipe is based on an educated guess as to what the homebrewing politician may have brewed at his home in Monticello. Thick with European Maris Otter malt and East Kent Goldings hops, this beer is a mouthful, but very nice. It’s incredibly complex with a ripe fruitiness.
There is a wide diversity to Victor’s beers, and they are all worth trying whether by themselves or alongside food. TAPS Fish House and Brewery is a great spot as a restaurant. As a brewery it’s world class, and as bottles, kegs, and cans make their way out to more people in Southern California, more people will come to learn this. Victor is an incredible brewer and a true Southern California gem. If you have not been out to TAPS yet, make sure it’s added to your to-do shortlist.