Getting to know: Modern Times

Bob Dylan told us The Times They Are a-Changin’.  But that was 1964.  The modern times are a-changin’, too.  In these modern times we’re a-changin’ how we not only look at beer, but also how we expect today’s brewery to be much more than simply a manufacturer of beer.  In these modern times we see our local brewery as a social conscience that has a direct or indirect impact on our community, an integral component of our cultural fabric.

Beer, once considered the preserve of working-class, blue-collar males, is today enjoyed by everybody in society and sits on a par with fine wine, fine dining, high culture, art, music, books and literature.  But that does not necessarily need to be the case for everybody.  Beer is such a versatile, impartial and unbiased public presence that it chooses to simultaneously belong to everybody and nobody, it chooses to transcend social norms and expectations to be a bond that ties everybody together in its joyous embrace.  Beer is the great leveller.

Many would argue that if beer were a society, it would be utopian.  A state of almost harmonious, idyllic perfection, of which a beer festival may be the closest representation.  All walks of life, a balanced cross-section of the population, all pleasantly revelling good-naturedly with a common, mutual objective: the love of beer.  Even the consumption of alcohol is not mandatory, and nobody requires it.  Each person enjoying something close to perfection; a communal sense of fun.

The utopian community after which Southern California’s Modern Times is named existed in New York during the mid-19th century.  It was an experiment that lasted for 15-years, until the Civil War finally brought an end to a vision that had been slowing drifting away from its original ideal; many participants had unwittingly settled into a status-quo of conventionality.

The utopian community of Modern Times is little more than an interesting footnote in history, which is why today’s Modern Times (the brewery) decided to take the name as its spiritual beacon.  The 19th Century inhabitants of Modern Times followed a sentient dream, to be themselves, to make a difference, to matter; and these are the thought patterns flowing through core of the brewery.

Modern Times is not so much a brewery as a collective with art, culture, individuality and a little, dare I say it, eccentricity at its core.  Don’t be fooled by the vast industrial operation at its Lomaland Fermentorium in San Diego’s Point Loma, Modern Times is far more than a brewery — it is a refreshing change, an invigorating alternative to a trend that favours urban dystopia in challenging times.

By adopting its name from a group of utopian visionaries, Modern Times could be perceived as namby-pamby Bohemianism.  That, however, would be a flawed presumption, given that Modern Times is a truly People-First organisation, something to which many other so-called progressive organisations pay only lip service.  Modern Times is a leading exponent of ethical social responsibility, and in doing so it embraces an anti-corporate approach that aligns with its philosophy of being a fair employer.

The staff at Modern Times are deemed its most important and talented asset, and all the stops are pulled out to not only motivate, care for and retain existing employees, but also to attract new colleagues into the Modern Times family, too.

An Investment in People is something we hear about too infrequently nowadays, yet Modern Times has bucked the trend by taking an almost unprecedented step of repurchasing shares held by external investors to create the Modern Times ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan).  In doing so, Modern Times has become the first employee-owned brewery in California, even though it is only 5-years old.

Because it is 30% employee-owned (100% is the goal), Modern Times inspires its staff to be impassioned, interested and motivated by the business’s future and direction, since each and every employee has a personal stake in its long-term, continued success.  The ESOP encourages employees to be engaged and active owners rather than simple titleholders on paper.

Like all other workplaces in which every employee is an enthused stakeholder, the resultant culture of collaborative teamwork breeds determination, vitality, innovation and a customer-orientation that aligns with high achievement.  Combine these qualities with an environment that’s pleasing and comfortable, and we start to see a cycle emerge — success feeds success.  Many may consider this situation to be pretty utopian.

It is not only the architects of the ESOP and the in-house team of artists who are innovative visionaries, but also the back-of-house brewing and administrative staff who, together with the customer-facing teams, make Modern Times something special.

Modern Times is as well-known for its extraordinary coffee as it is for its exceptional beer.  Beer-lovers entering the Lomaland Fermentorium will immediately detect the unmistakable, unique smell of a functioning brewery in operation, and yet there is something else discernible in the air too.  Coffee-lovers who enter will immediately recognise that aroma as a coffee-roaster working to service the large number of patrons enjoying one of the many hot or iced coffees in the Modern Times café.  The bourbon-barrel aged coffees are particularly noteworthy, and they’re so reminiscent of dark, coffee-roasted beers that it’s a struggle not to enquire about the ABV strength – but it’s just coffee, however.

Such is the quality and renown of Modern Times’ coffee that it can also be purchased in a number of high-quality outlets and grocery stores across the city of San Diego and beyond.

The brewery part of the operation is enormous and indicative of a successful brewery on the rise.  Besides its investment in People, Modern Times appears to have made a mindbogglingly huge investment in brewing equipment, supplies and growth, all with an environmentally-conscious concern.  The seemingly never-ending bottling-plant that is being decommissioned to switch entirely to canning is one example of the Modern Times approach.  The malt store in the Lomaland Fermentorium is larger than many other entire breweries — everything is on a grand, impressive scale.  It’s like a mini-city, a mini-utopia, with each team working in harmony with each other: the office staff administering, the laboratory staff sciencing, brewers brewing, and all other occupations occupied.  Impressive.

Then there is the art.  Mention the Lomaland Fermentorium to any local beer or coffee connoisseur and he or she will almost certainly comment on the almost-legendary Michael Jackson and Bubbles artwork that entirely covers the tasting room wall, and is made entirely of different coloured Post-It notes.

Maybe it is opposite wall that people mention, which is covered floor-to-ceiling (and across the entire surface of the café) by thousands of pages from well-known comics.  The comics were donated by Modern Times’ founder, Jacob McKean, who is a comic fanatic.  The most laborious part of creating the wall was not actually pasting the pages onto the wall, but double-checking each comic to ensure any rare, valuable gems were identified and saved.

Between Michael Jackson and the comics is the aforementioned café, the Mini Mart (a sizable merchandise shop) — yes, a separate shop! — and the tasting room, which is dominated by a lengthy bar-counter that stands atop thousands of vintage hardback books.  32-taps in the tasting room cater to everybody’s taste, from the Modern Times core beers through to various hybrids, from experimental batches to the in-house wilds and sours.  Each beer is named after a utopian idea, real or imagined, which aligns with the overall theme of the Modern Times utopian community after which the brewery is named.

The final piece of noteworthy art in the Lomaland Fermentorium are the velvet silk-screened portraits taking pride of place at the entrance.  The portraits depict members of The League Of Partygoers And Elegant People — the original primary investors in Modern Times.

Lomaland Fermentorium was Modern Times first location, opening in 2013, and there are now several other locations, including the Flavordome, a tasting room in San Diego’s trendy North Park area, The Dankness Dojo in downtown Los Angeles, which is the centre of Modern Times’ Research and Development, and the Belmont Fermentorium, far up the coast in Portland, Oregon.

Despite being one of the newer breweries in San Diego, it has established itself as a key point on the beer-tourist trail.  Visiting Modern Times is a must for the beer-traveller.  Conveniently located within a few minutes’ walk of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, getting to the Lomaland Fermentorium is pretty straightforward from downtown.  There is little reason not to visit.