Humble Origins: The Story of KSA
From homebrew to flagship.
The origins of KSA go back years, to a time before Fort Point Beer Company was even an idea. The first iteration of this beer was a humble homebrew, first mashed in by Tyler and Justin Catalana (co-owners of Mill Valley Beerworks and eventual Fort Point founders) some time around 2010 over a propane burner in Marin County. I had just started working at Beerworks as bartender and was completely unaware that I was about to embark on a career as a brewer. KSA is special to me for a number of reasons, many of them nostalgic. But looking back now I’m mostly impressed by its audacity, especially considering our lack of experience at the time.
Brewdays were infrequent during the first few months at Beerworks. A few beers like Beerworks Black and various botanical beers made it into a semi-steady rotation, but while we were learning how to run the brewpub, we relied on guest beers to fill out the draft list. The most popular of these guest beers by far was Reissdorf Kölsch. Whatever it was about Reissdorf — the slender stange it was served in, its soft, bready drinkability, or just a bunch of confused customers looking for Danish lager (the Grolsch mispronunciations still continue to this day) — people loved it. Justin realized that we were missing out on a big opportunity to sell our own beer, and set forth to make a kölsch-style ale.
For context, hybrid light ales and lagers are fairly commonplace today — but in 2011, hoppy beer was at the forefront of everyone’s mind; even Belgian beer styles were still considered relevant. A classic German style with an American craft spin was not a common sight at most California breweries at the time. Drawing on his homebrewing experiments, Justin drew up the recipe for a light-colored, refreshing beer inspired by Reissdorf Kölsch. This beer would be more on the bready side, still dry and clean, but with a hint of citrus hop aroma. It called for a large portion of Pilsner malt, a bit of Vienna malt, and a smidge of Munich malt. On July 9th, 2011, Sweetwater Kölsch was born. The beer took its name from the popular Mill Valley music venue, whose original location was only a few doors down from Beerworks on Throckmorton Avenue.
Fun fact about kölsch: similar to the French appellation d’origine contrôlée that ensures champagne is from Champagne and Roquefort is from Roquefort, a true kölsch must be brewed in Cologne, Germany. Justin recognized this while developing the original recipe: we weren’t going to make a true kölsch anyway, so why not get inventive? That freedom inspired him to incorporate non-traditional ingredients, while still capturing the spirit of the kölsch style. Seven years later, what we now call KSA has grown into Fort Point’s best-selling beer.
KSA features a fairly traditional grain bill — primarily pilsner malt with varying amounts of Munich, Vienna, and wheat malts to provide depth and character. It’s the hops and yeast that provide the twist. Instead of just using classic German hops, we use Warrior from the Pacific Northwest for a clean bittering foundation, and German Saphir to provide a modern citrusy aroma. The result is subtle, creating a beer reminiscent of the classic European styles, but with a modern flair.
For yeast, we employ a versatile ale strain that was isolated from a well-known brewery in Scotland. This “Scottish Ale” yeast is comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and produces a clean, slightly malt-accentuated beer. This versatility made it a great choice for our house yeast strain at Beerworks, as it lends itself well to many different styles of beer. It allowed us to mimic the cooler fermentation profile that kölsch is known for and establish a smooth, malt-forward foundation for the beer.
The small-scale system at Beerworks allowed us to stay nimble and make small changes to the beer over the years, eventually leading to the KSA you are holding in your hands today. One of the trickiest parts of perfecting this beer was finding the right balance of specialty malts (or in this case, other base malts). Kölsch is generally straightforward in terms of the grain bill, but we wanted our interpretation to have more texture and depth. This was initially achieved with roughly equal parts of Vienna, Munich, and wheat malt. Vienna malt typically imparts a light malty sweetness with accents of nuts and honey, while Munich is a more robust malt flavor with notes of caramel, honey or bread crust. Over time, I traded in Munich for more Vienna, and gradually turned down the wheat. I had also begun experimenting with acidulated malt as a means to dial in mash pH and provide a little brightness to the beer. This was the final step in the transformation of Sweetwater Kolsch to KSA.
When Fort Point opened, we knew that we wanted a kölsch style beer in our portfolio. We had seen great success with Sweetwater at Beerworks and recognized that this beer really captured the essence of our brewing philosophy at Fort Point — balanced, nuanced, approachable beers that show restraint and harmony. The name KSA — Kölsch Style Ale — came up at a brainstorming session. We wanted to create a beer that would be memorable and grow into something larger than itself. The acronym is partly a riff on IPA, a term now ubiquitous with craft beer, but also has a bit of mystery to it that encourages people to engage with the beer a bit more than they normally would.
Watching the evolution of KSA from a simple homebrew recipe to the unexpected flagship of San Francisco’s largest independent craft brewery has been an incredibly humbling and fascinating process. The beer’s historic roots and modern twist on ingredients speak to craft beer’s continuous ingenuity — and are proof that good beer never goes out of style.