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Mill Valley Beerworks' Justin Catalana and David Wilcox on Demanding Patrons and Their New Brewery

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.

From left: [Photos: Aubrie Pick]

Though the brewery itself has been owned and operated by brothers and Mill Valley natives Justin and Tyler Catalana for around three years now, Mill Valley Beerworks became a serious restaurant just over a year ago. Expanding into the hair salon next door, MVB reemerged with a decked-out kitchen and former Gjelina chef David Wilcox at its helm. Over the past year, the revamped Beerworks has received praise from Michael Bauer and the like for its vegetable-driven menu, unique among beer-centric spots. Eater recently caught up with Justin Catalana and Wilcox to discuss party-crashing, demanding Marin patrons, the trouble with communal tables, and their plans for the future...which happen to include opening up a 20-barrel brewhouse in the Presidio.

It's been one year since you've opened up a kitchen in this remodeled space, what surprised you?

David Wilcox: I don't think we expected that we would get as good a response as we've gotten, and it was kind of overwhelming. I don't think anyone was really doing the beer-and-food thing when we started, and it was an idea we talked about endlessly before we opened. I think the biggest surprise was the overwhelming amount of excitement and critical reviews and everyone saying wonderful things about it and taking to it as well as they did. There's no burgers. There's no fried food.

Justin Catalana: There's no deep fryer.

DW: I walked into the kitchen, and the first thing I saw was the fryer. I said, nope, get rid of that. We're going to do grill. Not for health reasons or anything, but because we wanted to do something different and be vegetable-driven—not the obvious things to pair with beer.

JC: We were kind of surprised by all the people who came out of the woodwork in Marin County and Mill Valley, who were missing a place to get a really good meal. We don't let just the brewery or just the kitchen identify us. There's certain people who think, "Oh, Mill Valley Beerworks, it's just a brewery." But our kitchen is amazing. There were people who lived across the street who didn't think that they would come by, that weren't regulars before the kitchen, but as soon as we opened the kitchen, they became regulars. They have fallen in love with what we are. Our crowd is very, very local and very regular. We thought that would happen, but we were surprised with how much that happened. It's really what keeps us going, that Mill Valley was lacking a certain kind of restaurant. And we get told that all the time.

Beer and vegetables are not a typical combination. What inspired you to create this menu?

DW: I used to live in Michigan, and there was a lot of beer there. I like drinking beer as much as I like drinking a glass of wine and having a really nice meal. Every other beer place I've ever been to has been a sausage and hamburger and fries place—the same thing over and over again—and I've always been driven by the food that I like to eat. We're not strictly vegetarian. We make all kinds of charcuterie. We make our own bacon. I just think the aesthetic of creating a food style that is not fussy but refined is important. You can walk away from eating at a beer place not feeling laden with grease and like you want to roll into bed. I was very interested in fine dining and plating 10 years ago, but since living in California, everything has been much more relaxed. And this is the style of food that we would all want to sit down and eat.

You've been open for three years total, but after two years, you decided to renovate the space and change your concept. Why?

JC: I think it really started with not being fully satisfied with what we were doing food-wise. We had a kitchen before that was much smaller. We tried to use great ingredients with what we had, but we weren't satisfied. So, that, coupled with the space next door becoming available—

The hair salon?

JC: Yes, the hair salon. This space before was a frame shop, there was never a restaurant here before. We built this from scratch. More of my and my brother's background is in that. Then, we knew that we needed to bring someone like David here who was a very strong chef, because we knew we weren't going to be running the kitchen. We pride ourselves on making as much as we can ourselves. We brew a lot of the beer we sell, and we make a lot of stuff from scratch. It kind of all goes together—not really doing things the easy way, ever.

How did manage to pull David into the mix?

DW: [Calls into the kitchen.] Yella, can you come here for a minute?

Yella Catalana: Hi, I'm Yella. Nice to meet you.

DW: This is Yella. Yella is our pastry chef. Yella and I met in Los Angeles at Gjelina, and worked together for a year and a half. Then she moved back here. Her family is from here, and Yella married Tyler, Justin's brother. Then they were looking for a chef, and I always wanted to cook in the Bay.

YC: So then we flew down and approached him. And that's it.

So do you live in Mill Valley now?

DW: I do. I live 15 minutes away from here.

JC: In a treehouse.

DW: Yes, in a little treehouse, cabin thing. It's really nice actually. It's very different from living on the Venice boardwalk.

Was that a strange transition for you, going from Abbot Kinney to Mill Valley?

DW: I've lived in so many different places: from rural Michigan to rural Hawaii, to cities in Michigan, to Chicago, to L.A. I've always enjoyed everywhere I've ever lived. When I moved up here, it was the middle of rainy season and we weren't open yet. And it was great to just spend time cooking. I spent some time working at Chez Panisse, and just hanging out with friends like Laurence at Nopa. So, it was really seamless for me. I loved it. And I got to know all the farms and ranches.

In terms of produce and purveyors, do you prefer it here?

DW: It's unparalleled to anywhere I've ever worked. Unparalleled. L.A. has one of my favorite farmers' markets: the Santa Monica Market on Wednesdays. It's a haven for chefs, because you have such a range of produce throughout the entire year. Whereas here, it's kind of like everyone has the same stuff, but it truly feels seasonal. And it encourages me to preserve things, like I did in Michigan. And you don't get seafood in L.A. that comes right out of the water, like you do here. All of our seafood comes from the California coast. Same with all of our meat and vegetables. It's all within about a 200-mile radius. And as much as that is about buying something local for sustainable reasons, it's also about keeping the money within the foodshed. You want to know where your dollar is going, and I'd like to know that it is going to, say, Doug at Prather Ranch. I interact with him. He was hanging out here the other day, having a beer. We crashed his birthday party at his house, back before we opened, with a bunch of beer. You want to have the relationships and the community, and because of that access here, in the Bay Area, it's a special place. You can't do that anywhere else.

Justin, how many beers are you brewing at a time these days?

JC: Usually, we have anywhere between 8-10 house beers on the menu. We just brewed some really great bourbon-barrel-aged beers. We brewed the anniversary beer for Healthy Spirits. We're very experimental, trying new things out all the time. We present food that is pretty natural, and you see that with the type of beers we make. We make stuff we want to drink with the food that we make. And the way we pair those two things, it's holistic. It's not, "Hey, here's a pork chop, which beer does it go best with?"

Can you elaborate on what you mean by "natural?"

JC: There's something that seems too composed about saying, "Here is your amuse bouche and your sip of beer, and they bring out something in each other." We like the idea of how you would do it at home. A meal here is like if David were to come to your house and cook a meal for you. And these are the beers you can have with that meal. We don't want to be contrived. We haven't focused on the beer-pairing thing. We have seen some of the other places really focus on it, and we don't want tasting notes or anything. It's scaled back. We try to train the staff to help someone work through all of that.

DW: To add to that, you know when you go out to a wine place, and there's the formality of the pairings? When everyone started getting in on this beer and food thing, I think everybody wanted to basically match it. They felt like beer should be elevated to that. And I agree—absolutely. But I also think that the direction people went with wine wasn't necessarily the direction for everyone. To me, one of my favorite things to do is invite a bunch of people I know to a table and throw a couple bottles of wine down and ask them what they want. I'm not going to choose for you, but I can steer you in the right direction of what's great right now. It's thoughtful, but without having to force my ideals upon you. At the end of the day, it's about enjoying the company around you, just as much about the food and beverage. We want people to have a good time and not overthink it, not to wonder, "What was that thing in that bubble or that wine from 1989?"

After brewing beer here for three years, do you guys have any new experiments you're trying out? Or anything you're focusing on?

JC: Let me grab Mike. He's our head brewer.

Mike Schnebeck: Hi.

Mike, I was just asking Justin if you have any new experiments that you've been playing around with or if you have new ideas in mind for brewing in the near future.

MS: We're constantly checking out the botanical. It's a series we've been working on since we've been open.

JC: Yes, beers that have been brewed with fairly untraditional botanicals, along with hops. We have a beer that's brewed with yerba santa from Mt. Tam, a juniper bay beer, a licorice beer. We're trying to do it in a way that subtly influences the flavor of the beer with the botanicals. For instance, with the yerba santa one, we often give it to people and don't tell them what is in it, and they just find it to be an interesting-tasting beer. And that's what we're going for. We're not trying to give someone a bay leaf beer and have it taste like you're chewing on bay leaves.

Do you have a personal favorite botanical you like to work with?

MS: I really like the way the yerba santa came out. I was surprised and pleased by that one.

When you're brewing beer here, are you thinking about how it will pair with the food, or are you thinking about it more from a brewing perspective?

MS: Half the time I'm just entertaining ideas that I have or want to explore, but I think the way our beer pairs with the food comes more from the philosophy of the brewing, rather than making a specific beer for a specific pork chop. We have a philosophy to brew elegantly-balanced beers that have a point. And David's food is the same way: thoughtful and put-together.

JC: There is never really a conversation that is so direct between David and Mike, like, "Make a beer that tastes good with sesame seeds."

Are you looking into any other flavoring components, aside from botanicals?

MS: There's a cool saison yeast I've been using to explore different temperatures. That's been pretty fun.

I recall reading that you were going to brew kombucha when you opened. Did that end up happening?

JC: That was bad journalism. That was a misquote or something that was taken from us six months before we opened, and it has seeped through every mention we've had. If people weren't talking about the pretzels we had for the first few months, they were talking about the mythical kombucha.

So you're not brewing kombucha, and you don't have plans to do so.

JC & MS: No.

DW: We have plans to do a lot of things. But not that.

Let's talk about your actual plans, then. What do you have in store?

JC: Well, we're a year into the kitchen and things have really come into their own, to the point where the front-of-house staff has clicked really well. We want to just work on getting the word out about us more. I think we have a lot to offer, and we're really proud of the product we're offering. What we're working on now is consistency and getting stronger.

DW: I've finally started documenting what we do here, putting it out there on the website and our Facebook page. We want people to see that we're here. We're not in the city. But we want to be a reason for people to get out of the city, go hiking on Mt. Tam, and come down here and have a bite to eat.

JC: We've also started doing these Sunday Suppers, and we want to start doing them pretty regularly, at the end of each month. I think the idea of that is if someone is in Oakland or San Francisco, it's a really good way for someone to interact with Mill Valley Beerworks for the first time. It will really bring you up to speed with what we do here. And we're building out a 20-barrel brewhouse inside a Crissy Field warehouse.

When do you expect it to open?

JC: Hopefully by the end of this year. That's all I'll say for now. There will be more details about the project in the coming weeks.


Ok, Justin, what would you say your role is here on a daily basis, and do you and your brother have different roles?

DW: Harassing me [Chuckles.]

JC: I'm really good at plumbing.

That's a great skill to have.

JC: My brother and I do a lot of maintenance, and we're also the general managers. Usually one of us is here every night. There is a lot of overlap in our roles, but for instance, with our new space in the city, Tyler is over [in San Francisco] now because he's an architect by trade. He designed this whole place, and is designing the new brewery in San Francisco. We're two pretty different people, but it helps a lot because we have our different strengths and weaknesses. We're eight years apart. We get along for the most part. We get in big fights sometimes, but that's it and we move forward.

Do you both live in Mill Valley?

JC: Tyler lives above the restaurant with his wife, Yella. And I recently moved to the city.

How does it feel to open up a restaurant in your hometown?

JC: It feels good. We play an interesting role in Mill Valley. Some people really love it, and there are some people who don't like it so much. There's people who truly see this place as an asset to the town, and we get told that on a daily basis.

What do you think the reason is that some locals may not enjoy the space?

JC: I try not to harp on the negative things, but there's a lot of people in Marin County that really want any place they go to, to be the place they want it to be. I've never seen people get so angry because there isn't a hamburger. There are people who get genuinely upset because we're not what they want us to be. And it's frustrating, because we're really proud and happy with what we are.

What is the craziest complaint you've received thus far?

DW: Anytime you have a policy like we do, where we don't modify the food or make substitutions, there's going to be a percentage of people who get upset about that, and that's fair. I think the funny ones are the really nitpicky people, where they walk in and pick out the one thing they don't like. I think there was somebody who said they didn't like one of the cookbooks we had up there. [Points to shelving.] There's little things like that where you wonder, really, that's what you chose to not like? But, hey, that's the business, and you have to have thick skin.

You've mentioned the misconceived expectations some people have had about this being a brew and burger place. Have you encountered any other misconceptions?

DW: I think some people want this to be a romantic date space, but all of our seating is communal.

JC: I think it promotes interaction. We see a tremendous amount of interaction among guests who get to know each other. Sometimes we'll sit two groups next to each other and it will become one big party. But it also backfires sometimes. Sometimes people don't get along, or want their own space.

You've had customers not get along?

DW: People will mostly ask politely to move to a different spot.

JC: When you're sitting next to a couple who are breaking up, you're going to want to move over.

Do you have any noteworthy local patrons?

JC: My dad comes in here at night, almost every night.

DW: Sometimes more than once a night. Sometimes he'll be here at the beginning and at the end.

JC: He helped build this place with us. He's a contractor.

Does he get free beer for life?

JC: Yes, unfortunately.

DW: That's why he's back more than once a night!

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Mill Valley Beerworks

173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941 (415) 888-8218 Visit Website

Mill Valley Beerworks

173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941