Get to Know Your Local Beer-Maker: Q and A with Rock Bottom Long Beach’s Thomas Mercado

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Mercado pouring hops into the brew kettle. Photos by Sarah Bennett.

When Rock Bottom Long Beach’s Brewmaster Hayley Shine left to helm the chain’s Chicago flagship in December, she left behind a newly rennovated brewpub in a city teeming with craft beer potential. But the chain’s parent company CraftWorks (owners of Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants), had just done away with the loyalty rewards program Mug Club and redesigned the interior to look less like a pub and more like a casual dining establishment, leaving many regulars to worry about the company’s dedication to its beer lovers. 

Shine’s successor, however, has eliminated all those fears since starting as head of brewing operations at Rock Bottom over the holidays. 

Thomas Mercado, a relative newbie to the brewing industry, is a former NorCal homebrewer who cut his teeth with some of Rock Bottom’s best (including Shine) before getting his own system in Long Beach. His excitement for brewing and passion for discovering new recipes now guides the multiple rotating house taps, which continue to surprise customers who expect nothing but corporate-wide brews. 

As the only Rock Bottom in greater L.A. and one of only three breweries in Long Beach, Mercado’s location continues to hold its own as a part of the growing local beer community. And in honor of his arrival, we showed up on a recent brew day, as the smell of spent grain filled the fishbowl room in the front of the restaurant, to talk to him about recipe creativity, getting used to the new system and how he’s filling Shine’s shoes. 

rockbottom1Did you train under Hayley for a while?
Yeah because I wanted to watch her do what she did. We had very different practices in some senses. The way I was trained is that there’s only one way to do it and you have to do it that way. She definitely did not brew that way, but the beer is what matters—that’s what tells the story. If the beer tastes good then none of the other stuff really matters.

Do you ever feel like there are big shoes to fill?
I got really intimidated the first week especially because she was such good friends with the community and knew all the regulars really well. She walked me around and introduced me to everyone and everybody kept saying that. “You got some big shoes to fill.” So the first day my heart was racing—I’ve never run my own brewery before—but I think I’ve done pretty well since then.

So this is the first time you’ve been a head brewer?
Yeah, I’ve only been in the brewing industry for a year and a half. I got very lucky. As soon as I heard Hayley was moving to Chicago, I made some phone calls and told them I’m ready. I want the brewery now because I didn’t know when another opportunity would arrive. The distance between San Diego and Long Beach was so small that she can still work in San Diego. We’re living in San Clemente now.

Is it different being in a city where Rock Bottom is one of only a few breweries? You’re kind of a big fish in a small pond now compared to San Diego.
That was one of the great things about coming here was that rather than having to build up this big community base, I just walked into it. Something I didn’t realize about Long Beach is how loyal people are to businesses and how much pride they have in this area. They always support their local businesses and are so stoked about it. It was so great for me because in San Diego, we had an exodus of regulars and so by the time I got there, there were only a handful left and then here, they told me there would be regulars here, but really I see them like five times a week.

So how many of your beers are the same as ones you brewed in La Jolla?
Four beers are made company-wide, which was great for me as a novice head brewer because it really laid the foundation. I am making four of the same beers I’ve been making for almost a year and those base beers keep you moving. Plus, with the nuances that this particular brewery has, I’m familiar with the desired result so I can figure out how to get that here. It took me about a month to make a batch go smoothly without wasting time. It’s just a learning experience.

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Scooping out spent grain. 

Why is this system different?
I have no idea. It looks the same, was built by the same company. I think it’s something with the grind of the malt, so I asjusted that, but the frustrating thing is that Hayley did so well without even trying. When I was here shadowing her, it all happened so easy for her. And I was like, what am I possibly doing differently. I had to almost, you know, throw out some of my training and be like, “What would Hayley be doing and how can I do that the same way?” If you think about it–six years by herself in this…you get so familiar with your equipment, you kind of know what to expect. How to be successful. But it always worked out so easy for her. I mean one time we were already brewing and she was still waiting for the hops to arrive. And she was like well if they get here great, if not we can switch to this. And that was something I’d never heard before. But as I said, you know she’s got awards, she’s got a base and she’s got followers that love her here.

I think her independence in technique was important to her, especially after Rock Bottom was bought by Gordon Biersch and streamlined some of its recipes. 
Yeah, I don’t know if I share that same attitude about the changes. Cause you know the guy who trained me was one of four people that wrote those recipes. So it’s not like corporate said, “You have to make these recipes.” They took the most senior, most accomplished brewers in the company…they got together and compared their recipes. So I guess I’d say there was a time when people were brewing with a bit more freedom. But even in those times people were still offering a light beer, a wheat beer, a hoppy beer, a red ale, an amber and a dark. You know, the whole idea behind the taps is to have something for everybody. So, they basically took the four styles and made the best possible ones you can have.

Do you ever worry about that taking away some of your creativity?
I think there’s a dual purpose. Our creativity and freedom is still kept intact while providing something consistent. I don’t think that the company would ever think to take away all the individual creativity. Cause they know it’s a driving point for sales and the customers.

So how are the other beers decided? You have the four you’re always going to have. What are the rest of them?
So there’s one tap dedicated to a specialty dark ale–a porter, a stout, anything of that sort. And that goes along with what I was saying about offering something for everybodys taste. I mean you would never want to have eight taps and no black beer on. Some people that’s the only thing they like to drink: dark beer. And after that there’s three rotating beers. I like to do a rotating IPA, so right now I have a Belgian IPA on. When that ends, I have a wheat IPA waiting. And then I like to do a drinkable brown, pale or right now I have a Vienna lager on. You know just sort of things like that, where people who like kind of malty beers will still have something to drink. And the third tap’s up in the air. Right now I have a light lager on. But the next one after that will be a high alcohol Belgian Saison. 

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Mercado with Rock Bottom’s fermentation vessels.

So there’s always at least three beers on that are all you?
That’s correct. All those recipes come from me. And there’s two casks, too. When we had the remodel, they added guest beers here. Basically the reason corporate decided to invest in extra taps for us was to provide incentive to people who like light beers to still come in. So somebody only drinks Bud Light and a group of their friends comes in and they don’t want to come because it’s a craft beer bar, well we also have Bud Light. But at the same time we train our staff to give them a little sample of something lighter that we make, and wheat beers as well. And that’s how you access people into the craft beer community. You give them something that they want and offer them something a little similar. That’s why we have the kolsch as a house beer. It’s what I like to call a sort of introduction to craft beer. It’s just a bridge from whatever you drank for your whole life to something new, better quality beer. 

Do you think of Rock Bottom as kind of a gateway for people like that? You know, people come here for the food and they’re like, “Oh, there’s craft beer, too.What’s that?”
Yeah, absolutely. They feel comfortable here because it’s a well-known brand. So they will be more willing to try and branch out a little bit. And the kolsch is always on tap…it’s the introductory brew.

Did you maintain any of Hayley’s recipes or, these are all yours?
No. I mean from the moment I walked in here, she was like, “It’s your brewery now. What do you want?” I do research, and then I write up a recipe and then I send it to my former boss. I mostly consider him to be a really great brewer and a source of knowledge. So, usually I send him the recipe and he’ll tell me, “You should probably drop the chocolate down or by changing a little percentage of this your hops will be better.” I could just brew the beer, take some notes and brew it better next time, or I could just ask him with a real quick email and he’s so great. And I trust hiim so much because he is the guy that taught me most of what I know.

So do you ever homebrew anymore?
No, no. Brewing at home just frustrates me because there’s no control compared to the work environment. But at home it’s nothing but in-optimum situations.

How often do you have to explain that Rock Bottom, despite its corporate roots, actually has a brewer on site and is a local spot?
Actually, just the other weekend I was at a beer fest in Irvine, and it’s funny. Every time I have to explain to people that I know you may have heard of us as a franchise, but we’re very, very local. It’s produced locally. It’s just a neverending battle of explaining to people what our brand actually is. But I’m proud of what I do, and I think we do a great job.

Rock Bottom is located at 1 Pine Ave., (562) 308-2255, rockbottom.com

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.
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