Pick Six: Henry Nguyen of Monkish, on Familiarity and Mystery

Given the choice, Henry Nguyen will choose possibility over certainty. Definitive answers create boundaries to exploration and a false sense of permanence in a world of ever-shifting experiences. Still, there are moments that shape the directions we take, and it can be useful to consider the impact those have on us.

For Nguyen, it was the flavor possibilities of Belgian and Belgian-inspired beers that made a deep and lasting impact on the direction of his brewing career. Today, the common thread connecting Monkish’s hazy IPAs (which the Torrance, California, brewery is best known for) with the mixed-culture saisons (which Nguyen loves) is their mutual embrace of the potential of yeast. But which specific beers are responsible for those pivotal and enduring moments in his beer history?

Leffe Blond

(Dinant, Belgium)
“I think the first beer that marked me was Leffe Blond. Having consumed a lot of early craft-beer imports early on, I then went to Cambridge and lived there in 2005. I got over pints of English cask ales pretty quickly but wanted to keep trying new beers even though I was getting bored with the flavor. One of the students I was studying with asked, ‘Have you ever had a Belgian beer before?’ I said, ‘No,’ and she replied, ‘You’ve got to try one. The flavor is amazing.’

“So I went to a bar and asked for a Belgian beer, and someone gave me a Leffe Blond. I remember drinking it and being impacted by the flavors. The idea of drinking what I know now as the ester and phenolic and not understanding that journey from initial sweetness to bone-dry finish—that really put a mark on me. I was excited to the point where I just kept drinking Belgian beers from that point on. That led to homebrewing and brewing only Belgian-style beers. That eventually led to Monkish, where we focused on Belgian-style beers. That beer definitely left a lasting mark on me.”

De Struise Brouwers Pannepot

(Oostvleteren, Belgium)
“Back in my homebrewing days, I listened to the Brewing Network a lot. I remember there was an episode where De Struise came on, and it turned out to be a four-, five-hour episode. I wanted that episode not to end just because of the excitement, the more interesting philosophical idea of this Belgian brewer who’s a little more forward thinking, and how his passion exuded.

“They described this beer, Pannepot, and how people were going crazy over it in America, too, at the time. I couldn’t find it and had never had it, but they gave a little clone recipe, and I did some research on it to try to brew it. The flavor profile just sounded so remarkable that I tried to brew a beer I had never had. I don’t think it worked, and I created something else, but when I finally tried Pannepot, it was pretty spectacular. I was still stuck in an American mindset when they described these bold flavors and expected it to be pretty rich, but then when I tasted it, everything was just so nuanced.

«And it really did taste like this Old World fisherman beer. Fishermen would drink a beer like this with some simple sugar and an egg yolk to make a nutritious drink out of it. I just love the whole backstory of that. Pannepot was definitely influential on my thinking about dark Belgian beers.

“That, and beers such as De Dolle’s Oerbier have been quite important to me in thinking about this time in Belgium when these brewers were making them, and they were always a little off, a little different. It’s also a way for me to think about beer’s past classics such as Orval that have impacted me, but what is it about Orval that makes it so loved? It’s the unpredictability.”

Hill Farmstead Brewery Arthur

(Greensboro Bend, Vermont)
“My third beer has to be a Hill Farmstead saison, and if I had to choose one of them, I’d say Arthur. I remember always hearing about Hill Farmstead saison, and with Shaun’s being the number one brewery in the world, people were always trading for it. I bought my first bottle off of some trading forum, and as I was drinking it, it was one of those moments where the beer really exceeded my expectation. It had those perfect nuances of flavor, and I just kind of felt that there was some sort of magic in that beer. It’s so simple yet expressive, and it’s extremely drinkable. That’s something I think about a lot with saisons and the beers we make. I’ll often have one of his beers as a reminder and yearly calibration of what that sensibility really is—that quest for something so simple yet so complex and so drinkable at the same time.

“Any of his farmstead beers could take this spot, especially the younger and non-barrel-aged ones. The ten-dollar 750ml bottles that he makes often can be so remarkable.”

Allagash White

(Portland, Maine)
“I think what I like about White is its ability to transcend beer drinkers in general. I’m always surprised that this beer is as popular as it is because it’s such a spicy beer. But if you go to a restaurant in Los Angeles, they’ll have two taps, and there’s a good chance that one is Allagash White and the other is an IPA or a pale ale. But that White tap seems to fulfill so many people, from an experienced beer drinker to a beginner. There’s something about this idea for me. People ask me a lot, ‘What beer do you drink in your off time? What beer do you enjoy?’ And to be honest, I don’t drink much beer because beer tends to be work. But the idea of a perfect beer to me is something that I want to pick up and drink and not have to think about, but know experientially or subconsciously that it’s a good beer and that I want to continue drinking it. There are very few beers that will get my mind thinking in the subconscious rather than thinking in the conscious, and Allagash White does that for me. The complexity, the mouthfeel, the super-drinkability, the amazing foam retention that keeps going on—it’s for me a quite remarkable beer.

“Thinking about other standards that brewers have chosen, such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—they’re good, and they’re timeless, but sometimes I drink a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and I have to look at the date on the bottle and evaluate whether it’s at its peak, whether it’s been on the shelf too long, or whether it’s very fresh. I’m always thinking about quality, but White seems very consistent across the board, even if it’s an older bottle.”

Cerveza Pacifico

(Baja, Mexico)
“I was going to go with something like Taras Boulba, then I thought I’d instead go with De Ranke Simplex, which I’ve been drinking a lot of. I like that it says, ‘Not a Pilsner.’ But then I asked myself what I really find myself drinking most often, and I drink a lot of Pacifico. I love Pacifico.

“There was this group that called themselves ‘The Pacifico Gang’ because one local brewer made fun of these guys because they were criticizing his beer. He said, ‘You guys don’t know what you’re drinking; you probably just drink Pacifico.’ So they created this group and called themselves The Pacifico Gang. They knew that I enjoyed Pacifico, so they would actually bring Pacifico to the brewery, and I’d trade them a four-pack of Monkish for a 12-pack of Pacifico. Then I would just toss cans out to all of our employees, and everyone would be drinking Pacifico.

“I like the idea of beer that represents a cultural context, a certain time. Being from Southern California—the idea of eating tacos and burritos and enjoying a nice beer—there’s nothing like a good Mexican lager.

“I know many people enjoy Coors Banquet, and I enjoy Banquet. I’m not a big Bud fan. Once in a while I do have a PBR, and Adriana loves PBR. But for me, it’s more Pacifico. The idea of drinking something as close to water as possible and also the demographic of living in Southern California and being a minority—drinking a beer that’s of that population I think is quite important for me.”

The Next Beer

“For my sixth beer, I don’t know that I could choose a single beer. This comes to more of a philosophical thing for me. I don’t have a favorite movie or favorite book because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. I like the unknown, the exploration, the quest of moving forward toward something better. It’s always nice to have that unknown beer that will make a mark on my life. I always have to keep that element of mystery.”

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