Brewmaster Hops Into Beer-making Business

photo: Maureen McGettigan

Joseph Agrillo, brewmaster at Eldo's,
checks the color of one of his locally-brewed beers.

By Fred Loetterle

"In Heaven there is no beer.
That's why we drink it here."

– German drinking song

When you think of a brewmaster, you may think of a kindly silver-haired barrel-bellied Bavarian grandpoppa in lederhosen, but the hippest brew boss in San Francisco is also one of the youngest in the world – Joseph Paul Agrillo of Eldo's on Ninth Avenue in the Sunset.

"I have been involved with fermentation for most of my life," said Agrillo, wearing a dark green Bob Marley T-shirt as he gave a tour through his designer brewery atop the restaurant, located at 1326 Ninth Ave.

That familiarity with fermentation, including wine, cider and gourmet Japanese miso, began at the age of five when little Joey opened beer cans at softball games for his third-baseman Dad and sucked the foam off the top of the cans.

"I liked the taste of it," confided Agrillo.

Now Agrillo is a king of beer, part scientist, part artist, all wizard. His immaculately-clean brewery, with its gleaming steel fermentation tanks with rows of levers and gauges, resembles a space program laboratory.

The brewing process begins on the third floor, where malt charts adorn the wall and an electric mill makes "mash" out of roasted barley seeds from Germany, England, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

"It's kind of like making coffee," Agrillo said, following the mash down to the second floor, where a mash tun ("tank" in German) acts like a giant coffee maker and "brews" WORT, a hot sugar-rich liquid that is then boiled in a giant kettle with hops added for flavor, aroma and color.

Fermentation is the next step, with yeast, a versatile fungus, turning sugar into alcohol.

Agrillo was born on Dec. 5, 1972 in 1,200-citizen Colrain, near ski slopes in the Berkshire foothills of western Massachusetts.

"It's a nice place for a brewery and, if I ever move back, I'll build one there," he promised.

Agrillo's gift for fermentation may have skipped a generation, but it is in the family blood.

His father, Paul, worked extensively in the engineering department of the Western Massachusetts Electric Company – but his Sicilian grandfather, Charles A. Agrillo, was a vintner extraordinaire and afficionado of the highly-esteemed Concord grape.

As for his love of beer, Agrillo is Irish on his mother Carol's side, with her father Arthur G. Coffey's clan in Boston tracing its roots back to County Roscommon in Ireland.

The University of California graduate (with a 1999 B.S. in environmental science) took a long and winding road to Eldo's, which was named in part for the El Dorado Cadillacs favored by the restaurant and brewery's flamboyant owner, George Smith.

Smith is planning to mount an El Dorado chassis on the wall above Eldo's curved bar.

If Agrillo's beer-making appears to have a touch of zen in it, it's because it does. At the South River Miso Company in Conway, Mass., Agrillo spent hours literally walking (with cotton socks) on an intoxicating mixture of hot soybeans and koji (spore-inoculated rice) to create a miso so traditional some made its way to the table of the emperor of Japan.

"It was actually quite soothing and relaxing," Agrillo said of the soybean stroll.

Meanwhile at home, Agrillo was making hard cider, a New England tradition, when the apple orchards were in bloom. He was a teenager when he made his first batch of cyser, a potent blend of honey and cider, under the influence of a friend from Vermont.

His wanderlust kicked in right after high school when he and three buddies, who are still friends – Jake Wilson, Eamon Doyle and Arlo Seaver (nephew of Baseball Hall of Fame member Tom Seaver) – set off to see the world in a restored 1973 Dodge motorhome named Rosie, after the AC/DC song "A Whole Lot of Rosie."

It was an adventure somewhere between "Easy Rider" and "Road Trip," Agrillo said.

Since then, he has visited every state except Alaska and Hawaii, worked the Napa Valley wineries (where he and a co-worker discovered a premium wine by accidently mixing $90,000 worth of the wrong grapes) and learned his art and craft from some of the best brewmeisters in the Bay Area.

Then, more than two years ago, he landed the top job at Eldo's by responding to a newspaper ad.

He has been brewing about once a week ever since, turning out 15 to 30 barrels of his unique gourmet brews, which are pumped directly to Eldo's taps downstairs or delivered by barrel to other Bay Area bars and restaurants.

His inventions have colorful names, such as Great White Wheat (5 percent alcohol), Californicator (a doppelbock with 7.2 percent) and the seasonal Croaking Toad barley wine, with such a wallop (10 percent alcohol) that it is served only in 14-ounce glasses.

The hand-crafted beers go for $4 a pint, $3 during happy hour, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. everyday and all day Sunday.

Agrillo says he has no favorites when it comes to beer.

"I like them all. It all depends on the mood. Different beers go with different moods.  For instance, the wheat's nice on a sunny day."

His Nine Ball Pilsner (4.9 percent alcohol) is the favorite of his girlfriend Jenny Breselow, owner of the bio-tech recruiting firm Rocket.

Agrillo believes people should support their neighborhood brewery.

"If you're in a bar, ask for a local beer," Joe suggested.

He is proud of his work, right down to the bottom of every glass.

"Beer is often associated with celebration and I'm glad to be part of that," he said.

A lot of relationships have been launched – and wrecked – on a sea of beer, but the same tide seems to keep on flowing from generation to generation.

"I believe they've found some archeological evidence of beer back to the Mesopotamian era," Agrillo said. "Farmers discovered fermentation quite naturally. Where there's agriculture, there's alcohol."

Even Cleopatra is said to have enjoyed an occasional quaff.