Two weeks ago, employees at the East Village’s Monkey Paw Brewing were notified the establishment, a fixture in the community since 2011, was closing its doors. It was the decision of the brand’s parent company, Coronado Brewing, which acquired Monkey Paw in 2017 from original owner Scot Blair. The owner of neighboring South Park businesses Hamilton’s Tavern and South Park Brewing, Blair disassociated with Monkey Paw in February and has a lawsuit pending against CBC over money allegedly owed to him by the business. Still, from an emotional standpoint, he has remained understandably invested in Monkey Paw. Since the shuttering, Blair says he’s felt “pensive with moments of melancholy.” The following are his thoughts in greater detail regarding the closure, as well as the life, times, and people behind this iconic San Diego brewpub.
Where did you see the greatest divide between your vision for Monkey Paw and that of CBC?
I guess it is just about as much about what CBC failed to discuss with me as opposed to what they did discuss with me during the deal process. When I recently read in the [San Diego Union-Tribune] that [CBC CEO] Brandon Richards was quoted in an article about closing Monkey Paw as saying, “Can we can handle one brand or three brands,” that really shocked me. That CBC did not want to, or could not, “handle” three brands was never disclosed to me. It probably should have been. I have always been pretty open and transparent about whatever I’m doing and why I am doing it. I have always had that go-the-extra-step mentality to do something I was passionate about even if it doesn’t follow suit with current trends. Being innovative and creative requires skill and a lot of work, and to be authentic is making what you do well the ultimate focus of who you are. I think that is precisely what we did well. Obviously, CBC doing so little with the brand is an issue for me. It’s hard for me to accept CBC’s conduct relative to the brand, and especially everyone who helped build it. I still have a stake in the brand, so it is disconcerting and alarming to me for people to say it’s dead. Possibly, CBC acquired Monkey Paw because people like great beer and Monkey Paw brewed it. (Editor’s Note: Richards was Co-COO, not CEO, at the time of Monkey Paw’s acquisition.)
What was your primary focus with Monkey Paw prior to the acquisition?
From the beginning, Monkey Paw brewpub was, first and foremost, all about the quality of beer produced. It was the never-changing mantra, the never-ending beat of the drum and the most important thing that I was totally obsessed with. If the goal changes and it is no longer about the quality, why exactly are we making beer? We spent a lot of money and time going into that rugged area of downtown because I believed it could be a future destination. It was a lot of risks to develop down there at that time and we had a lot of unsavory, early shenanigans we had to deal with. Now the city of ‘East’ East Village is turning into quite a hub with more and more places opening and the anticipated future development is well underway. Hell, when Big Beer moves in you know something must be happening, right? Sadly, Monkey Paw will be no more, but it will always live on inside our memories. Monkey Paw was built with the customers in mind. So many great brew friends, beer geeks, and all-around badass customers came in and supported us and encouraged us. They let us know that what we were doing was fucking cool, which enabled us to keep doing it. So, of course, I want to say THANK YOU to all of them! Our job was pretty simple: go make great beer. If the brew was fun, innovative or true-to-style, rest assured we were trying to nail it! That was our homage, a tip of the cap to the old school brewpubs throughout the states which inspired us. If we were lucky enough to be invited to participate in a beer community event, we went all in, and I think people always appreciated that and came to expect that from Monkey Paw. That’s the only way I’ve ever known how to do anything, but as a customer myself I know that’s what I’ve always appreciated the most in microbreweries, pubs, and restaurants, so we just made it part of our ethos and continuing mission.
Are there any unexpected good things that have come post-Monkey Paw?
As sad as the closing chapter of Monkey Paw is, it doesn’t erase all of the excellent beer, the great experiences gained, and all the fun times we had during those formidable years. Ironically, the Monkey Paw fable is an allegory about being careful what you wish for. Maybe there is something to it after all. If anything, this situation has been a bizarre boon companion to a lot of positive things in my life. Now I have more time with my family, which has been a struggle because of the immense workload and responsibilities of heading multiple establishments. When you care, it can be really easy to imprison yourself in your work, and then many things in your personal life will suffer as a result of wearing those work blinders. However, since my resignation in February, I have spent all my time centered on the great community of South Park. This unforeseen streamlining resulted in me spending much more time focusing on Hamilton’s, resulting in more rad beer events for fans of great beer, and I have been hyper-focused on all the beer-making efforts at South Park Brewing, which is evident in the solid AF beer we produce weekly. This much-needed extra time has allowed me to spend the proper cycles on the continuing development of our team with brewers Ryan Sullivan and Anyaa Carter, both of whom I feel lucky to mentor. All these changes, willing or not, have led to a more fulfilling personal and work life, translating in both balance and a type of happiness that I haven’t felt in almost a decade.
What were the biggest accomplishments/feats for Monkey Paw?
I can’t even tell you the countless amount of fun beers we made, some of which have made the top 10 list of beers I’ve ever enjoyed. All of the collaborations with friends! Some of my beer idols and mentors came through to brew but the most significant “feats,” to be honest, were with the team and the opportunities that Monkey Paw provided over the years to a lot of people. In a six-year span, I spent over two million dollars on employee wages and gave many inexperienced people their first opportunities in the craft beer business. I would like that not to get lost in all of this.
I think about the people who worked there on the brewery side of things. I remember mashing in the first beer on Veterans Day 2011 with [head brewer] Derek Freese and what a fantastic rush that was. The making of Oatmeal Pale and the fun history behind crafting that beer or a true, single-infusion sour mash Gose that was so weird and fun and one that, at the time, wasn’t a style made. It would be hard to forget the kickass ladies from the Can Van helping us become the first brewery in San Diego to can beer with Oatmeal Pale, Rich Man’s IIPA, and Sweet Georgia Brown. I remember releasing them at Bottlecraft Little Italy with Brian Jensen, Geoi Bachoua from Bine & Vine, and Jeff Mooch and Lee Chase from Blind Lady Ale House for their super rad CAN DIEGO event. Those were some damn excellent times for the team, and even better Derek was able to parlay this unique opportunity into a successful career at Modern Times Beer.
Next up was Cosimo Sorrentino where it was one of the first solo brews he ever did on the old system that was a collaboration benefit brew for the Albert Einstein Academy and Alchemy [restaurant] with my friends Doug Hasker from Gordon Biersch, Pat Korn from Green Flash Brewing, and Eric March from Star B Ranch called Brainfood. It was a German Zwickelbier. I can remember how stressful of a brew day that must have been for him, as he was two-to-three weeks removed from waiting tables at Local Habit and then he was thrust into all of it big-time, right out of the gates as he began his new career as a brewer. Talk about trial by fire, but I fondly remember how eager and appreciative Cosimo was to be part of the team, how he would listen to constructive feedback, and how thoughtful and respectful he was during that early time.
I remember [assistant brewer] Chris West [who went on to start up Bay City Brewing] bringing a lot of that “always be learning” attitude to the table and just geeking out on techniques and methods trying to make better hoppy beer like Bonobos. I was always impressed by the way he looked at and approached the beer. I remember Jacobo Mendoza [who went on to Mikkeller Brewing San Diego] doing yeoman’s work! Anything and everything he could do in all of our pubs until he got a shot to get in the brewery and he made the best of it. I see you Frank J. (Quinn) [Societe Brewing, Hamilton’s].
I loved working with Nick Norton. He was such a smart and sweet guy who could be quite stubborn when it came to the details and his tenacity on those details is a testament to just how much he cared about the quality of the beer. Nick did such an excellent job with Sulli at South Park Brewing. Sulli’s humble yet confident “let’s get ‘er done” work attitude is something you don’t often see anymore. They both led us up to and into the transition, and made as good of beer as we have ever made under what could appear like less than ideal conditions.
It would be hard not to mention Lily Howard, Cody Morris (Mission Brewery), and Nicole Houston, all of whom had great attitudes and worked hard to promote what little beer we had to sell to outside accounts and promote us at events. They always took the time to dress up our tents the way I had expected and go that extra step.
On the pub side, we had a lot of great folks, too many to mention really, but many good times had with Davey “Hop Sausage” Tiltwheel, and all the other cooks who busted their butts in that little kitchen pumping out Phillies! There were a great number of the front-of-house legends who served so many happy people the best cheesesteaks in town before many of them got promoted and made their way behind the bar! Our fantastic bartenders with their pleasant and unique personalities were crucial for putting it all together and being the #1 customer interface.
We also had a solid leadership team. Onan Davis, my man, cared immensely about Monkey Paw and worked so hard, wore it on his sleeve and just killed it for us. Karen Barnett was right there working her butt off, both behind the scenes (office/administration) and many times in front of them, even pulling a few shifts making cheesesteaks! She was always there to help to execute whatever special events I schemed up and did whatever she was asked to do with a smile, happy to crack a joke or four, and had no problem getting serious when it called.
Lastly, I can’t forget good ol’ Denno (Dennis Borlek – Fathom Bistro). He named the brewpub. He was always a one-person think tank of fantastic, quirky ideas and, of course, filthy jokes. I still remember him holding up a claw hand making a monkey noise. An image in my head movies that pleases me to this day.
You see all of these people—named and unnamed—played an integral role in the Monkey Paw experience, and it took a little bit of everyone, from the visionary to the line cook, FOH to the bartender, manager to bar back, lead brewer to cellarman, all the way to the door to make it what it was for everyone. So there are quite a few players over the years who share a little history in the brewpub, many of which are active and quite vocal in the new and ever-changing landscape of craft beer and social media. Some appreciate and value their experiences more than others but the overall body of work during those pre-transition years was a result of all of the folks that put in the sweat and sacrifice.
Any final words for fans of Monkey Paw?
Liam Gallagher once crooned “don’t look back in anger,” and it couldn’t be more befitting. I realize there is a culture that embraces a more polarizing, toxic, and vitriolic approach to viewing history. I don’t. In the end, I’d prefer to ruminate on the meaningful times I had with all of the people—customers, friends, co-workers—who were part of Monkey Paw. I’m immensely proud of the work we did and the accomplishments we shared. I appreciate all of those times, both the smooth and the challenging, and I’ve learned a lot from it all. I’d like to wish all the past customers and co-workers the very best for their future. In ending, I hope folks will break out and wear their Monkey Paw beer gear—now collector items—often and with as much pride as I do. Let’s remember all the good times, the great people who have come through the system and all of the folks who helped make up the Monkey Paw experience. THANK YOU for the patronage and investments in all the memories. I’m sorry it has come to a close, but it was a rocket ride while it lasted. Cheers to monkeying around!