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Tiny California brewery adjusts to changes after merger

A year ago, Alpine Beer Company founder Pat McIlhenney made a life-altering decision about the business he founded in 1999. McIlhenney merged Alpine, a “tiny” (his word) brewery nestled in the foothills of San Diego County’s Cuyamaca Mountains, with Green Flash Brewing Co., in San Diego proper.

Like any proud parent seeing his child off to other things, McIlhenney had mixed emotions. On the one hand, daily life would be easier. Working as a firefighter until just a few years ago, he had a hard time keeping up with Alpine’s popularity, and the demands that came with it. “It was extremely surprising,” says McIlhenney. “The original idea was to service the people of Alpine. If you have to answer five to 10 e-mails every day saying the same thing — ‘I’m sorry, we’re tiny, we can only fill so many accounts, we don’t have any beer for you’ — answering that every day wears on you.”

When McIlhenney says his brewery is tiny, he isn’t exaggerating. On average, Alpine produces 1,500 barrels of beer annually. The Green Flash merger will push that production to 20,000 to 30,000. It will also mean national distribution. For the first time, beers like Alpine’s Pure Hoppiness, with a perfect 100 score on RateBeer.com, will be available outside of San Diego County. Green Flash has just shipped limited amounts of Pure Hoppiness to 50 states. McIlhenney, his wife, Val, and a small staff will continue to brew specialty beers at the original location.

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And with big changes come mixed feelings: disappointment, for the way some Alpine fans reacted to the merger news; worry, for how it will go.

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“There was concern with quality,” says McIlhenney. “Green Flash had its own reputation. Some like them, some didn’t like them. I heard everything. But perception is reality. Most people, if they think that’s going to be bad, there’s nothing you can do to change their mind.”

And now there’s a laser focus to get it right. McIlhenney has worked closely with Green Flash brewers to tweak the recipe to work in larger batches on Green Flash’s machinery. The first batch of Pure Hoppiness brewed in San Diego is larger in volume than what Alpine typically releases in a year. “It’s still a work in progress,” says McIlhenney. “We’re not satisfied with the product just yet.”

He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “The reality of it is that the beer quality is going to be superior. I have no doubt in that.”

Alpine Beer Co. beers are sold at Social Wines, South Boston, 617-268-2974, and Julio’s Liquors, Westborough, 508-366-1942.

GARY DZEN