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Old is New Again: Figurehead Brewing Company Turns 3

 

Today we welcome Holly Regan back to the Washington Beer Blog as a guest contributor.

Story by Holly Regan*

It’s late morning on an almost-fall day at Magnolia’s Figurehead Brewing Company. Filtered sunlight trickles in through the leaves, just beginning to turn, of the neighborhood’s many trees. There is a dull industrial hum in the background, but at this hour, the taproom is quiet and empty, save for myself and Bob Monroe: head brewer and one of the brewery’s three partners.

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Figurehead has always reminded me of the pubs I love in Europe, and that’s no accident. During operating hours, it boasts a friendly crew of locals. The space itself is small but cozy, with soft lighting and warm wood. The walls’ royal-blue trim and wainscoting is complemented by deep bluish-purple hydrangeas adorning the tabletops. A balloon valiantly hovers above, the sole survivor of their recent anniversary party. And of course, there’s the tap list, predominantly featuring English- and Belgian-style beers: those malty, complex concoctions that are often elusive in this part of the world.

History and tradition are at Figurehead’s core, and are much of what motivates Monroe. In just a few short years, he and his partners, Jesse Duncan and Jesse Warner, grew this place from a homebrewer’s dream to a proper pub with a loyal community. On their three-year anniversary, Monroe reflects on their journey, his personal triumphs and setbacks and what the future holds.
Engineering a Beer-Fueled Future

An Illinois native with an engineering background, Monroe moved to the Seattle area nearly 15 years ago to work for Boeing — but dreams of opening a brewery had always danced in his head. As his decade-long homebrewing hobby blossomed into a passion, Monroe began taking tangible steps toward making those dreams come true. He earned a Master’s of Business Administration from Seattle University and completed the American Brewers Guild Intensive Brewing Science & Engineering program, deepening both his business-savvy and his technical skills.

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Fate intervened when Monroe bought a house in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, and shortly after, the property behind him was purchased by a fellow homebrewer: Duncan. As the neighbors got to know each other, they realized their shared interests extended to beer styles, favoring European varieties over the IPAs that had taken hold of the West Coast.

A lifelong veteran of the maritime industry, Duncan serves to this day as chief engineer for Washington State Ferries. His mechanical skills were a perfect complement for Monroe’s business background — and they soon were forming plans to start a brewery together.

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After an unsuccessful attempt to find a space in 2014, Monroe took time off for the birth of his first child. Their second search quickly proved fruitful, and they signed the lease on their current space in December 2015.

Needing a name to put on the lease, the pair decided to pay homage to the maritime roots of both Duncan and the neighborhood itself (the fishermen’s terminal is right across the street). A “figurehead” is the carving at the helm of old-fashioned sailing ships. Today, the decor that adorns the taproom is modeled after the figurehead of historic Seattle steamship the Virginia V.

The rest happened fast. In just nine months, they secured the often-elusive approval of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and built out the space enough to open their doors — all while keeping their day jobs.

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“In the meantime, we realized that, one, we needed more money, and two, we needed more help,” says Monroe. He reached out to a friend from his Seattle University MBA program who also dabbled in homebrewing: Jesse Warner.

“We ended up bringing him on board as well, because we didn’t have enough Jesses,” Monroe chuckles. Warner lives in Japan and works for Boeing; he serves remotely as Figurehead’s chief financial officer, handling accounting, payroll, tax filings and more. He laments not being able to spend more time at the brewery, but is passionate about their mission.

“I wanted to join Bob and Jesse … because I believed in them as brewers, and in their brewing philosophy of highlighting and celebrating underappreciated beer styles and ingredients,” Warner says. “I was also confident that we had the right mix of skills and passions that complimented each other.”

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Meanwhile, back at the brewery, Monroe and Duncan found themselves nine months deep in the buildout, up to their eyeballs in beer and in dire need of some sales.

“We got to the point where we just had to open the doors. So we set Sept. 2, 2016 as the date,” Monroe says. “The last two or three weeks, we really scrambled. I was here til midnight most nights; Jesse was here all night and early, early morning, working to get this place built out.” They made it to their date with the space complete enough for a soft opening. After another brief closure to finish construction, they opened for good.

Crafting a Loyal Community

It didn’t take long for the young brewery to amass a dedicated crowd of regulars, Monroe says. The Magnolia neighborhood is laid-back, family-oriented and full of beer fans happy to support a new spot (it’s also home to Urban Family Brewing Co., for now, and Dirty Couch Brewing).

“When we opened, we didn’t quite know what this space was going to be,” Monroe says. “The space is really defined by the people who come in. That’s been the most rewarding thing about this whole experience: the community that we’ve found. … We’ve got tons of regulars who … support us in all kinds of ways other than just buying beer.”

In the European tradition, they strive to make their pub a welcoming place for the whole family, Monroe says. Games are always on hand, and they host kids’ crafting events every month. Even the space itself was designed with community-building in mind.

“One of my favorite parts about our spot is the absence of a television,” says Duncan, observing that TVs make “people stay disconnected from each other. I even built our bar with a curve, so people sitting on one side of the bar had a clear line of sight to people at the other side … and could be included in a conversation. In our taproom, people talk to people they don’t know, and often become friends.”

Don is one daily customer who quite literally has a barstool with his name on it, and “brings us gifts and things he thinks that we need around here,” Monroe says. “[This summer,] I was hot and we didn’t have any fans, so he brought in six fans for us!”

Another loyal patron, Al, is best-known for his regular Friday appearances bearing his own freshly baked bread.

“He brings something like 20 loaves and shares them with everyone who comes in,” says Monroe. “At our anniversary party, he did a blacksmithing demonstration in the parking lot. We call him ‘the most interesting man in the world,’ and he’s definitely a big contributor to building the community.”

This blog’s writer can vouch for that; my first-ever visit to Figurehead happened to be a Friday night. I was treated to several pillowy pieces of fresh bread and slices of artisan cheese, gifted by a kind and generous stranger surrounded by a crowd of his friends. The atmosphere, already cozy on a cold fall night, got a few degrees brighter.

Duncan adds that “lots of people call the brewery to see if Al is going to be there, and if we say no, you can hear the disappointment on the other side of the line.”

Turning Tragedy Into Inspiration

But no sooner had Monroe, Duncan and Warner made their dreams a reality than a nightmare scenario struck for Monroe. A mere five months after the opening, he began having mysterious health problems, including a severe pain in his side that landed him in the emergency room on several occasions. His doctors ordered some tests, and the diagnosis was alarming: pancreatitis.

“There’s really nothing to do for that, other than to stop drinking,” Monroe says. “So I haven’t had a beer since March 25th, 2017. That was pretty hard for me. Six months after [achieving] my lifelong dream of opening a brewery, I can no longer drink the beer we’re making.”

As setbacks often do, the diagnosis gave Monroe a new perspective. His family is his number-one priority, making the choice between beer and health an easy one — but “there are still days where it’s challenging,” he says, and he misses being able to fully partake in his passion. He does “swish and spit” tests for quality control, but enlists Duncan and the bartenders to validate the final product.

In the early days, Monroe found solace in the stories of great artists who were struck with afflictions that rendered them unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor: master painters who were blind; musical geniuses who were deaf. Inspired by these tales, Monroe says that he appreciates beer even more now that he can’t actually drink it.

“Maintaining my passion for brewing [has] kind of been up and down,” he says, “It’s not like I’m jonesing for a drink, but I’m spending all my time and energy around the beer.” He notes that it’s still tough when there are new releases or special casks tapped and he isn’t able to participate — but he hasn’t given up. On the contrary, he’s doubled down on helping Figurehead grow.

Monroe still loved being his own boss and owning his own business — but between his health issues, the birth of his second child in February and working two jobs, he realized he needed to make some choices. So he’s now in the midst of a year-long leave of absence from Boeing, focusing full-time on Figurehead. What’s more, he set a goal of doubling production by the end of that year.

Another way Monroe keeps the faith is through education, hosting a biannual beer-education class at the brewery. This four-session class deep-dives into the science of brewing and recipe creation, while sharing Figurehead’s mission.

“My goal is to come out with at least a handful of people that have a better appreciation for what we’re doing and for beer in general,” he says. “That’s helped maintain some of my passion and some of my drive, because if I spent time on brewing beer and people didn’t appreciate what we were doing — why keep doing it?”

On the fourth session of each class, Monroe adds, they develop a recipe, which interested students can return to help him brew. These are often unique concoctions that let him experiment with boundary-pushing twists on old styles, such as their current Earl Grey Belgian Wheat, which has been quite popular. The “Gin Rye-son” was another interesting creation that infused a Rye Saison with gin botanicals.

“It’s cool, because [these recipes] let me expand into things that maybe I hadn’t considered before,” Monroe says.

Monroe also keeps his creativity alive through frequent collaborations with homebrewers. The Saison de Terroir, currently on tap, was a joint effort with last year’s Washington Homebrewer of the Year. A super Saison brewed with Chardonnay must and chamomile, then aged in oak, it’s another recipe that puts a creative spin on a time-honored style.

A Tap List Steeped in Tradition

A respect for history is reflected in Figurehead’s tap list, which boasts 11 brews (plus a rotating guest cider) at the time of this writing of mostly malty, sessionable English and Belgian styles. As Monroe describes, “beauty in balance” is not just a tagline at Figurehead: it’s a philosophy, reflecting their love for the time-honored brewing and pub traditions of Europe: where everyone stops in for a few pints on the way home.

“We love seeing people every day, hanging around for awhile. That’s part of the draw to the beers that we make; you can come in and have a couple of them,” Monroe says.

“We’re trying to start a new trend … called ‘beer that tastes like beer,’” Duncan adds. “We opened the brewery with the hope that people would acquire a taste for 5-6% Ales that have a lot of flavor, but not over the top, so you can drink several.”

With the dawning of the IPA era, many breweries began using a neutral, West Coast American Ale yeast that allows the hops to take center stage, Monroe says. Figurehead’s nuanced approach involves using primarily English strains, which pack more fruit flavors and esters. Belgian varieties use their namesake strain: yeast-driven, often with notes of banana and cloves.

But to Monroe, “where the artistry comes in is with the malt. … The malt is the canvas that it’s built on; and that’s where — to me, anyway — the magic happens. A lot of our beers are more malt-centric, but … it’s always going to be balanced with what I feel is the appropriate amount of bitterness and hop flavors and aromas.”

Flagship offerings include the Patersbier — a light, sessionable, abbey-style Belgian — and the Midwatch, a Dark Strong Ale with a boozier kick that won the gold at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. They always have at least one IPA on tap, but even these tend to be lower-ABV and maltier in profile than many of their West Coast cousins.

Monroe adds that he’s not knocking IPAs — they’re just “not in our wheelhouse. We’re trying to stick to what we’re doing and hopefully find the people that are looking for that.” Indeed, many of their patrons are actively looking for a respite from the beer industry’s “flavor of the month” mentality.

To this end, Figurehead will have an array of old-is-new releases this fall and winter: a Kolsch; a German Altbier; and an Imperial Doppelbock in the “Samichlaus” style (brewed last year, according to tradition, on Dec. 6: Saint Nicholas Day). Monroe also plans to brew a Pilsner sometime soon.

The most recent of their multiple Washington Beer Awards wins was for a brew with a truly historical nod: The 1710 Saison is a lavender-rosemary saison brewed at Monroe’s own “farmhouse” (1710 was his house number), using lavender and rosemary from his own backyard.

“Some of these styles have been around for hundreds of years,” Monroe says. “I feel like they just stood the test of time for a reason.”

Doubling Down on the Future

So what lies ahead for Figurehead? Monroe hopes that with his goal of increased production, they can rotate the tap list more frequently, ramp up bottling and gain wider distribution. With over 100 breweries in the greater Seattle area, shelf and tap-handle space is rare and coveted; Monroe’s sister-in-law, who also works as a bartender, will focus on keg and bottle sales to help boost their presence.

However, the partners’ ultimate dream is “to outgrow this space,” as Monroe says, and turn Figurehead into a brewpub with a fully functioning kitchen.

“A big passion of mine is local, seasonal and delicious food, and eating that food with great beer,” says Warner. “I envision a neighborhood place where people can gather to not only enjoy our unique beer list, but also drink that beer with food that has the same level of quality, variety and passion.”

In the meantime, beer school will be back in session soon, beginning the first Tuesday of October (those interested can sign up via Facebook or stay in the loop by registering for their email newsletter), and collaborations are always brewing.

And the community they’ve built will keep growing: showing up every day to share a sessionable sip, a warm welcome and a soft slice of bread with anyone who wanders in.

*We are happy to share this story from Holly Regan, a freelance writer and editor, and a Seattle native. She specializes in food and beverage writing, both professionally and on her personal blog (www.praiseseitan.com). She has over a decade of experience and has been published in The New York Times Opinionator and The Huffington Post.