Long Live the Craft

Long Live the Craft

Itʼs 1992 and Yuseff Cherney is sitting in his pickup truck in a parking lot, psyching himself up not to get a job. He’s 22 years old, three months out of Muir College with a degree in philosophy, and soon headed straight for law school. But for now, he’s headed into a homebrewing store to buy supplies for a hobby swiftly turning into an obsession. “I’m just going in there to get ingredients,” he says to his friend. “That’s all.”

Yuseff and Jack White at Home Brew MartInside the shop, among the barrels of bulk barley and hops and aisles of glassware, he can’t help talking shop with a fellow customer struggling with which kind of crystal malt to use in his next batch. Malt is a big factor in sweetness and color, Cherney explains, walking him through the many varieties, finally helping him with the right choice.

Watching all this from the register is the store’s owner, Jack White. White’s dedication to homebrewing led him to open the shop, even while he worked nights loading luggage at the San Diego airport. When Cherney approaches the register, White asks, “Who are you, and how do you know enough about brewing to be helping my customers?”

Cherney recounts his story: how he’s brewed his own beer for a few years now, how he started teaching homebrewing classes at UC San Diego’s Craft Center as a student. He leaves out the more fanatical details: the days in college when he and friends would forgo the frathouse swill and geek out over imports—logging them all in a notebook no less, complete with flavor notes and, more importantly, whether they liked them or not.

But the enthusiasm is apparent, the experience is there, and if anyone overheard this exchange at the register, they might have figured this kid was nailing a job interview. But not Cherney.

He was headed to law school. He was only there to get ingredients.

He was hired the next day.

Cherney was no stranger to shifting gears in life. He first enrolled at UC San Diego in Revelle College, on a pre-med track to follow the footsteps of his physician father. He heard it often growing up: “My son, the doctor.” Yet the varied “Renaissance man” education of Revelle took hold, and Cherney found himself connecting more with his required courses in humanities, or better yet, disconnecting with those instructors. “I remember an ethics class where the professor and I just disagreed fundamentally,” he says. “We would kind of spar in class, and it made me realize how much I like proving a point.”

Cherney transferred to Muir and became a philosophy major; he took LSAT prep classes and at graduation was on such a course that his father was willing to pivot to “My son, the lawyer.” Then came that visit to the Home Brew Mart, and Cherney was left to explain to his parents why he’d throw away a world-class education to become a clerk working for $3.75 an hour. “It only took them about 10 years to get used to,” he says.

But throughout those years Cherney did put that Renaissance education to use. As White’s first employee, he did everything from ordering merchandise to making the catalogs, and of course was a major player in all the craft brewing the team did on the side. The back room of the shop became a kind of test kitchen for Cherney, White and his former roommate at UCLA, Peter A’Hearn, with several experimental recipes going on at once. “In those days,” Cherney recalls, “every waking moment was spent thinking about beer, writing newsletters about beer—it was really all-consuming.”

All the while, Cherney kept his UC San Diego ties strong. Through his class at the Craft Center he had met a PhD student named Chris White (no relation to Jack), a biochemist studying strains of yeast proteins and their effect on heart disease. The pair had been brewing partners throughout college, with Cherney often crashing the lab during late nights while Chris did coursework. “We had a kind of parallel existence in the lab,” says Cherney. “Everything Chris showed me helped me understand how yeast made such a big difference in brewing. And when we needed a brewer’s yeast to sell in the shop, that influenced Chris to adapt what he was doing and go on to develop that strain.”

All the while another culture was developing in San Diego, with the Home Brew Mart becoming a hub for others equally impassioned for craft brewing. “It was the place to go if you were a brewer in San Diego at the time,” says Marshall grad Jeff Silver ’94, who homebrewed for 20 years before starting Rough Draft Brewery in 2000. “You’d always wonder what they had brewing in that back room there.” Fellow Triton brewer and Muir grad Matt Akin ’03 of Benchmark Brewing also recalls buying his first homebrew kit at the shop. “The influence that store had on the San Diego beer scene is almost immeasurable,” he says.

But when the scene was only a fraction of what it has become, the Home Brew Mart did just well enough to expand into a startup brewery, and that mysterious back room became the birthplace of Ballast Point. While the brand would eventually become one of the biggest success stories in craft beer, back then it was three guys doing all they could to keep up. “I was the jack of all trades on the technical side,” says Cherney, “doing everything from installing equipment to milling the grain, and learning from Peter [A’Hearn], who started off as head brewer. Jack led the business, right down to delivering kegs around town in his minivan. But the recipes we all came up with collectively, together on the weekends. And that continued even as we grew to more employees, many of whom likewise rose up the ranks from the shop. And when someone came up with a great recipe, we would put it into production.”

Cherney credits the brewery’s success to this collective spirit, the ability to listen and respond to people’s tastes and cultivate a loyal following around them. He soon became head brewer and the recipes swiftly won over the craft beer aficionados, and also brought home a steady string of awards in competitions locally, nationally and globally.

The accolades peaked in 2010 when Cherney went to Chicago for the World Beer Cup, essentially the Academy Awards for brewing. Ballast Point took home multiple gold medals that year, and was named Small Brewing Champion, catapulting the brand’s reputation. But as for the recognition that meant most to Cherney, it was when he came back to San Diego and his dad gave him a pat him on the back and said, finally, “My son, the brewer.”

Ballast Point was rolling, with new locations popping up all around the San Diego area. To keep up with demand, Cherney’s team went from brewing 15 barrels per day to 1,500, and his role continually exercised that “Renaissance man” skill set. Beyond just brewing, he found himself collaborating on facility design, commissioning production and canning lines, even scouting defunct breweries in Germany to source equipment of brewing legend. He lights up when talking about Old World copper: “Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, all the breweries I used to geek out on, they all had huge, beautiful copper kettles, the kind of thing no one makes anymore. You can’t find that kind of craftsmanship.”

Even as Ballast Point was reaching the next level, Cherney kept tight with UC San Diego in his teaching efforts, which evolved from the Craft Center into UC San Diego Extension and ultimately the brewing certificate program. As the lead instructor, Cherney finds rock stars of the brewing world to lead seminars while he and Chris White teach their own courses, from classes on yeast to the cutting-edge Technology of Brewing. In five years, the program has enrolled over 300 students, with over 100 graduates currently employed in the craft beer industry.

Cherney also stayed true to those scrappy, back-room roots with what he saw on the horizon for Ballast Point. “San Diego didn’t yet have a distillery, and I wanted us to be the first. So I asked Jack if we could set up a small still in a corner of the break room.”

“What will we use for a break room?” asked Jack.

“My office,” Cherney said.

And with a flipped-over fermenter serving as a still, so began Ballast Point Spirits in 2008. “It was definitely a learning process,” says Cherney, “but it’s really just the next step in the alchemy of turning one thing into another. Knowing fermentation science and having a background in brewing definitely gave me a head start.” The distilling started off very much a side project for the company, but as the spirits began to bring home awards as well, construction started on a full-blown distillery.

Then came the morning of November 16, 2015, which Cherney expected to remember only for the installation of the giant, custom-made German brewhouse that had arrived the day prior. He recalls watching it being lifted high over the open roof when the news broke over his phone: Ballast Point was to be sold to Mexico’s Constellation Brands, Inc., makers of Corona and other behemoth beers, for the equally behemoth sum of one billion dollars.

It was a “B” heard ’round the world—the beer world most resonantly, and to mixed reaction. The craft scene plays upon passion, for better or worse, and when a brand’s heart and soul is often equated with its size and scale, there can be a fine line between simply selling a company and “selling out,” especially when a corporation is involved.

Yet for those like Chris White, who knew Ballast Point from the beginning, and who knew Cherney well before that, there was no question. “It wasn’t a surprise to me, honestly,” he says. “Having homebrewed with Yuseff for so long, I knew how much he understood the importance of the science in his technique. And I knew that he was just a really, really good brewer.”

Cherney is more reflective on the deal. “Jack [White] put it best when he likened it to sending a kid to college. You raise this thing for decades and then have to let it go to become more than you ever thought it could. It’s definitely bittersweet—I drive by every day and there’s people I don’t get to interact with like I used to; it’s hard to see something you helped build for such a long time go on without having a hand in it.”

Yet the sale didn’t include the company’s distillery arm, which left Cherney and the team able to keep running what was first pieced together in the corner of that break room. He continued to oversee the construction of the new distillery, yet they needed a few more new things as well—a management team to start, and most importantly, a name. The crew kept with the nautical motif and became Cutwater Spirits, a play on a ship’s bow plowing forward through the water, just as the team moves on to their next venture.

“Given how long it took us to get where we were as a brewery, just this first year with Cutwater seems like we’re in hyperspace,” says Cherney. “But it’s also just as hard, if not harder, than it was way back as a startup, because we have so much invested. Before it was very slow growth, very organic. But now we’ve come right out of the gate as a national brand, and we need to perform.”

Cutwater is aiming to perform with expanded distribution across America, and offer innovations like canned cocktails made with real spirits, rather than the current trend of beverages made with ultra-filtered malt-based beer and sugar. And of course, Cherney will continue with the recipes that have consistently won medals and awards, and the process that has been developed and honed over the years since he sacrificed his office and scrapped together a still.

That’s the thing with Cherney: whether in the back room at Home Brew Mart, the break room at Ballast, the Craft Center on campus or a state-of-the-art distillery, it’s obvious that for him, craft is not just a word—it’s a compulsion. It’s not so much an industry term about being small or large; it’s not a matter of something being an acquired taste versus mass appeal. Craft can come from a five-gallon bucket or a two-story copper kettle. It’s in the classes he teaches and the luminaries he learns from. It’s found not just in a glass, but in every step toward that glass. “Craft is what it means when the people making a product really care about it,” he says. “It’s a measure of the dedication that goes into making something, and it’s what I strive for.”

 The spirit of craft lives on at UC San Diego! Click to learn more.