Welcome to Brewtopia: Modern Times

I kind of want to hate Modern Times. Its beer names are full of clever literary allusions, its taproom bar is made from a stack of second hand books, and there is an experimental inhouse coffee roasting business. I want to hate it but I can't.


I kind of want to hate Modern Times. Its beer names are full of clever literary allusions, its taproom bar is made from a stack of second hand books, there is an experimental in-house coffee roasting business and one whole wall of the Brewhouse is dedicated to a mural depicting Jeff Koons’ infamous gold statue of Michael Jackson (moonwalk Michael Jackson, not beer Michael Jackson) rendered entirely in Post-It notes. I want to hate it, but I can’t, because it’s completely genuine and, as such, utterly charming.

Modern Times is the result of the singular vision of its founder Jacob McKean, and his dogged determination to make its every detail a reality. Sales Manager Phil MacNitt is on hand to give us the tour and some background on the brewery.

“I’ve been here from the beginning, before we had the cool stuff, before we had any money. But even back then, Jacob had the full idea; he knew where it was going,” says Phil. “Even when I talked to him two years before the brewery opened he had all this. He knew the name Modern Times, the kind of beers he wanted to make, the kind of culture he wanted among the staff – it was a very complete and concise vision, which he knew how he was going to execute.”

Having worked previously at Stone San Diego, Jacob was also an avid home brewer and, as a freelance beer writer, also had a keen ear on the wider beer world. It was always his intention that Modern Times should focus on aroma and mouthfeel – qualities that make its stouts and NE IPA so distinctive and successful – and that the brand should be more interesting than your standard craft fare.

Phil continues: “We do a lot of beers that are sessionable. One of the ideas Jacob had was he saw that with IPA and craft in general in 2012, everything was steering towards high IBU, high ABV. He wanted to pull that back and create complex, interesting beers, but with the express intention that you can drink a bunch of them.”

The name ‘Modern Times’ itself was taken from a utopian community built on Long Island in 1850, by a group of freewheeling idealists (“we inherited a lot of philo-crazies from you guys”) who thought they could demonstrate to the world what a more perfect society might look like.

“The mentality of being pure and virtuous and all these things was part of the American identity at that time,” says Phil. “These guys were the exact opposite. They were free love anarchists, Basically proto-hippies: hyper-sexualised with no system of leadership or government. So we thought that was bad-ass.”

Fascinated by this idea of colourful, ambitious pockets of history that “develop in the folds of progress” Jacob decided to name all his brews after utopian projects, though for obvious practical reasons, this has been extended to fictional utopias and worlds. But this isn’t just marketing whimsy. Jacob clearly had very clear ideas about the kind of culture he wanted to see in his brewery, and has shaped it into a kind of utopian project in its own right – just like the meta-joke of recreating an iconic pop-art statue in Post-It notes.

There’s a big undercurrent of respect and autonomy

“Jacob’s always been very focused on the employees,” confirms Phil. “A really important part of the company is how we treat people, pay people, retain people. The kind of culture we have… there’s a big undercurrent of respect and autonomy. Folks on a production position like canning, the starting wage there is about 15 bucks an hour, which is a lot over minimum wage. For a full-time employee, you’ll get unlimited paid time off with approval. With five years (which I’m inching towards) you get a two-month paid sabbatical. That’s what’s important to him though: the actual personal growth of people and their wellbeing.”

One striking thing about everyone we meet at Modern Times is that they each seem to bring a lot of themselves to the job. Whether it’s the office dogs, the unofficial collection of vintage scooters that has built up in the warehouse, or the myriad selfstarted brewing projects that are on the go, encouraging employees to see Modern Times as more than a job has created a genuinely unique community atmosphere.

According to Phil though, this isn’t just hippy feel-good nonsense; it also underpins Modern Times’ notable commercial success; having opened just four years ago, Modern Times is one of the best-known, most respected and fastest growing San Diego breweries.

“The talent here is amazing, and everyone brings a tonne to the table, but that has to be the case. We’ve got so much going on: the taproom, the coffee business, the small special project stuff and the larger beers that we’re pushing out to bigger distribution. That all needs a lot of coordination and a lot of people working really hard.” 

Jacob’s dream hit an important milestone recently, when Modern Times announced that 30% of its ownership had been put into an employee stock ownership plan (with the long-term goal of growing this to 100%) making it the first brewery in California to go employee-owned.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, Jacob said: “Our trajectory shows that a company can grow at a meteoric rate while handsomely rewarding all of the people who made that growth possible; in fact, we show that it is necessary. Our values and culture are competitive advantages that have propelled us to where we are today.”

By this time, we’ve sampled most of the beers in Modern Times’ exceptional line-up, as well as a few works in progress, straight from the barrel. It’s rare to find a brewery going off in so many directions, but with such a distinctive house approach to making beer and we’re hugely impressed by everything we try. But sadly we’re now faced with the one appointment that we can’t phone ahead to postpone: our flight home.

On the drive to the airport, I find myself winding the window down and photographing the oddest things: road signs, an industrial plant, a rusted car being towed, the way the sun glints off the water. I want to remember as much of the detail as I can, because it’s the detail that has made this journey so special.

California is quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been – so diverse and yet so distinctive – and its incredible craft beer scene is a reflection of that. Each of the breweries we’ve visited, while special in their own way, could only have come from California, and that’s what makes it one of the greatest beer regions on Earth.

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