How Redwood City’s Ghostwood Beer Co. bested Pliny the Younger (…and why that was the easy part)

The brewery has defied the odds before. Now, amid the economic uncertainty of a pandemic, they’re looking to do it again.

The beer that bested Pliny: Ghostwood’s Clearly Dangerous triple IPA. (Image via Ghostwood’s Facebook)

Ask Ghostwood Beer Co.’s Jason Simpson about Triple IPA style beer, and he might point you toward Sonoma County, where Russian River Brewing Company has gained a reputation as the keeper of the Triple IPA Holy Grail. In fact, two of Russian River’s IPAs—Pliny the Elder (a double) and Pliny the Younger (the triple)—have become the hottest commodity in the world of microbrews in the past few years. The Younger (as it’s known among fans) made headlines this year when auction sites offered up bottles of the 2020 release for more than $150 a pop and hours-long lines for a mere pour were a common sight at their taprooms.

If you’re lucky, though, Simpson might not tell you much about IPAs at all. Instead, he’ll pour you a taste of Clearly Dangerous, Ghostwood’s own Triple IPA. The brew — a product of Ghostwood’s homegrown headquarters in Redwood City — beat out Russian River’s endlessly vaulted Younger at a renowned IPA Fest in Hayward this past February.

Simpson, left, and Hedlund, center, cheers with Ghostwood’s brewing team. (Image via Ghostwood’s Facebook)

Clearly Dangerous placed third out of 100 or so entries, an impressive showing for a brewery that’s been around barely more than 18 months. Simpson and his co-founder Mike Hedlund didn’t get into the brewery business to win awards — their goal was just to make good beer — but the recognition was immediate.

“Mike was just sitting at the bar, and people started showing up to our tap room, and asking about the beer that had just won,” Simpson said, recounting the immediate aftermath of Clearly Dangerous medaling third. “We hadn’t even gotten the word from the festival yet, and people had already come to try and get the beer.”

Through the beginning of March, Ghostwood was riding out the publicity of their win. All the hops were falling into place. Then came Gavin Newsom’s call for the state’s breweries, wineries and nightclubs to close their doors to the public in the wake of a global pandemic.

Hedlund and Simpson fought hard against the current of unaffordable real estate in Redwood City when they first set out to open Ghostwood more than two years ago. Now, without their taproom — a crucial source of income — the high expense of operating where they do is even more apparent.

Suddenly, as the economic landscape grows steeper by the day, the seemingly impossible (Herculean) task of besting the Younger seems like the good ole days for Ghostwood.

Ghostwood’s fermentation tanks are housed in a warehouse space, pictured left, about a mile away from their taproom on Brewster Avenue in Redwood City, picture right. It’s an unconventional approach for the brewery, which must transport kegs of beer back and forth between the two locations. Co-founder Jason Simpson says it was the brewery’s way of settling down in Redwood City, where appropriate commercial real estate is limited. (Images via Ghostwood’s Facebook)

One Mission, Two Landlords

The story behind Ghostwood’s opening, as Simpson tells it, isn’t a “sexy” one. He and Hedlund were sharing a beer, as they’d done many times before, when the idea bubbled up: start their own “backyard” brewery, make better beer than they could buy.

“We wanted to throw our hats in and give it a shot,” Simpson said.

That initial inkling seeded something bigger — a burning desire to open up a brewery in their own neighborhood. Months and months of talking and planning eventually gave birth to resolve to go through with it. Hedlund and Simpson were determined: Ghostwood Beer Co. would be something by Redwood City, for Redwood City.

Pressed for time and space in their search for Ghostwood’s future home almost two years ago, the pair settled on an unconventional solution: they signed a lease for their taproom in the space that once housed Back Yard Coffee Company, and a separate lease for their warehouse brewing space. They pay rent to two separate landlords each month.

“Jason and I were hellbent on doing something cool for the neighborhood in our city, not anywhere else,” Hedlund said.

Clearly delicious: (from left) Ghostwood’s Sweet Embrace imperial stout, made with guajillo chilis, cinnamon sticks, mexican vanilla beans and cocoa nibs; and “Simulation Haze,” a 5.6% ABV Pale Ale using London III yeast. (Images via Ghostwood’s Facebook)

The two believed that operating in their backyards would give them more of a chance to be involved with the brewery, and thus a greater chance of success, according to Simpson. They accepted that rent would make up over half of their operating costs.

Following the shelter in place order, Hedlund wrote almost immediately to their two landlords, he said; they’re currently in discussions with their brewery landlord, who has expressed a willingness to be flexible. Their taproom landlord has said he needs this month’s rent in full, regardless of whether or not they’re open to the public.

Because Hedlund and Simpson chose to keep their jobs in the tech sector, they’re today standing slightly steadier than many of their peers in the service business, according to Hedlund. So following San Mateo County’s shelter-in-place order, the pair decided — with the same resolve they’d had when they set out to open in Redwood City — that they would do everything in their power to keep Ghostwood up and running. That included continuing to fulfill their original goals: making good beer, and keeping locals employed.

“We knew it’d be difficult for us, but since Jason and I also have other jobs, we agreed to keep every one of our employees on payroll for as long as we can,” Hedlund said. “Many (of our friends in the service industry) work multiple service jobs at the same time, and they were all disappearing. Their paycheck from us would not.”

Clockwise from top: Ghostwood’s Taproom following San Mateo County’s shelter-in-place order; “Another Haze in the Wall,” a Hazy Double IPA; and Clearly Dangerous, the Triple IPA that medalled at last month’s Bistro Double IPA Fest in Hayward, where it was one of only six beers to do so; Ghostwood’s Taproom on Brewster Avenue in Redwood City. (Photos courtesy of Ghostwood Beer Co & Instagram)

Day by Day, Beer by Beer

Thinking back on Ghostwood’s win at Double IPA Fest feels almost like considering life once lived in a parallel universe. But it was joyous: the name ‘Ghostwood’ garnering recognition up and down Northern California, early after-medalling customers rushing the brewery, hoping for a taste of Clearly Dangerous.

Those customers weren’t necessarily misplaced in their instancy. The brewery has a policy: no repeat recipes. It’s a rule that’s only been twice broken the entire time Ghostwood’s been up and running, according to head brewer Domingo. Once for a beer called Space Pope, so popular the brewery choose to can it, and again for a Rye IPA, Rye or Die. Clearly Dangerous is still up on Ghostwood’s board. It’s not clear if it, too, will be an exemption to the no-repeats policy.

That’s a departure from the “old school way” of running a brewery, Domingo explained: most places get their flagship beers established, and then run a few seasonal substitutions that vary based on the time of year. Not Ghostwood. The team there purposefully deviates from that, Domingo said, in an effort to keep things new and interesting every time a customer visits.

Domingo poses in Ghostwood’s Redwood City brewing space. His clean style of brewing has elevated Ghostwood’s menu of brews, Simpson says. (Image via Ghostwood’s Facebook)

The aura of homegrown innovation around Ghostwood was part of what drew Domingo to it in the first place. He’d first taken up home brewing before working for Alpha Acid Brewing Company in Belmont. Then word of Hedlund and Simpson’s escapades made it through the Peninsula’s tight-knit brewing community.

“I heard they were considering starting this,” Domingo said. He gave the pair a call, having already met them previously. “I just wanted to be able to execute things I knew I could do, to kind of rise to my full potential.”

It was fortunate happenstance, said Simpson, describing Domingo’s “clean” brewing style as the underlying unifier in all of Ghostwood’s beers. Clean beers, he said, have limited aftertaste, and make for an excellent canvas that allows Domingo to explore the full potential of different hops and adjunct flavors.

Their no-repeat menu is a challenge Simpson says Domingo has risen to. The brewery likes to work with styles of beer, not necessarily individual recipes, he said. That way Domingo can pull what he might have enjoyed about a particular West Coast IPA, for example (which Domingo says is one of his specialties) and work it into the next West Coast IPA that Ghostwood puts up on the board.

Things have changed in the wake of the state-wide shelter-in-place order: production has slowed to level with demand, but customers can still order cans online from Ghostwood’s website for taproom pickup from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Customers can also bring in their own clean 32-ounce growlers for the taproom to fill.

Starting early next week, the brewery will be canning two entire batches they’d been working on since before the shelter-in-place announcement. They’ll also sell those in 16-ounce cans in four packs and by the case, according to Hedlund.

There’s been decent traffic at Ghostwood so far, Hedlund said, adding that patronage during the pandemic means a lot to the brewery. Simpson and Hedlund had been talking about easing into working with food trucks and expanding event offerings in their taproom, but this shelter in place order has essentially erased any trajectory the brewery was on, Hedlund said. Their only goal now is to remain up and running once things gradually return to normal.

“We’re planning to be standing on the other side of this when many in our industry aren’t as fortunate,” Hedlund said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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