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Nathan McCusker

Episode 081

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Philanthropist & Brewer due to Cancer

Nathan McCusker's SGV3

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About Nathan McCusker

Born in Las Vegas, raised in Kingman, AZ, and now loyal Angeleno since 2002. Nathan’s beer-evangelist journey began one fateful day in 2002 after moving to LA and ordering Stone’s IPA. It was love at first sip. True to his inquisitive nature and newfound patronage at Eagle Rock Brewery, he dove into the world of homebrewing and realized the creative nature of brewing, recipe formulation, and experimentation.

Having overcome late-stage non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt lymphoma at the mere age of 8, Nathan has always been a philanthropist. Having 15 years of experience working in the non-profit sector with the American Cancer Society and raising funds for type 1 diabetes at JDRF, Nathan has spent much of his life building and supporting various communities. Fostering our own community at Angry Horse Brewing and contributing to the LA beer scene is exactly what Nathan is set out to do.

Instagram: @angryhorsebrewing

Website: angryhorsebrewing.com

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Nathan McCusker Quotes

  • “The first batch of beer I brewed I found online, and it was supposed to be George Washington’s beer.”
  • “But those bad batches are what lead to some of the best beer in the future.”
  • “You don’t know your own mortality at seven years old.”
  • “As a kid, you don’t know how sick you really are or what the ramifications of not getting through treatment are. So your mindset is different, and you respond differently to treatment because of that mindset, in my opinion.”
  • Nathan is a survivor of childhood cancer. Diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt Lymphoma, he was given three months to live, but thanks to the amazing doctors, he was in remission by the age of 9.
  • This experience has shaped him into the man he is today. As a volunteer and employee through the American Cancer Society, Nathan has worked to develop and grow communities.  
  • Through this passion for helping to build a community and his passion as a home brewer, Nathan and his brother started Angry Horse Brewing, where he is president and works to grow within the community and the revitalization of the Boulevard.

WHAT DOES THAT INVOLVE?

I run the day-to-day operations at Angry Horse, and in partnership with my assistant Brewer, we brew all the beer and create the recipes. Everything that we serve is made on-site. 

angry-horse-brewing-flight-of-beers-from-nathan-mccusker

HOW DO YOU GET INTO CREATING YOUR OWN BEER?

So I started as a home brewer in 06. I was home brewing for years and joined a home brewing club. We eventually decided to go pro in 2012 and started getting engaged in the professional brewing scene. 

We joined the Brewers Association, and shortly after that, we joined the Master Brewers Association of America and just started learning what it took to transition from being a homebrewer to or professional brewer.  

We attended the craft brewer’s conference, made friends in the industry, and started brewing on as many professional systems as possible to learn the ropes.

Since then, we’ve gone through the brewing and malting science course through MBEAA and have taken a couple of courses through UC Davis.

HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO STICK THROUGH THAT? I IMAGINE IT WASN’T EASY IN THE BEGINNING.

It’s interesting; the first batch of beer I brewed I found online, and it was supposed to be George Washington’s beer, and I thought, this is the coolest thing. I’m going to brew our founding father’s beer. I went to a library and Googled how to make beer, and that’s when I found out there were clubs, and then I made the worst batch of beer you’ve probably had.

I was trying to figure out what I did wrong by reading books, blogs, and forums and trying to figure out what I did wrong.

I started learning the right way of doing things, and we started brewing almost every weekend. We were brewing a five-gallon batch of beer, creating different recipes, learning from other people’s recipes, and a lot of disappointment early on. 

I don’t think people realize that being a brewer is like being a glorified janitor. The main thing we do is clean and sanitize everything. It’s a constant thing that we do several times a day.

But those bad batches are what lead to some of the best beer in the future because figuring out the mistakes that you made helps you to become a better brewer. 

YOU MENTIONED YOU HAD A GROUP OF FRIENDS DOING THIS TOGETHER WITH YOU.

I’ve brewed with a couple of friends over the years and was part of a homebrew club. Then my brother, who’s also my business partner, and I would brew quite a bit together. My partner Marlene and I would brew together as well.

I IMAGINE IT IS AN EXPENSIVE HOBBY.

It can be, but it’s similarly priced to buy a craft beer as it is to make your own beer. So you do it more for the love of the craft.

It’s not an inexpensive hobby, especially once you get into doing all-grain brewing and buying the stainless steel pots.

And a common trend with home brewing is the equipment side; there’s always something new and fancy and cool you can get to upgrade your system.

DO YOU DO HOME BREWING AS WELL AS AT YOUR BUSINESS?

We don’t do home brewing as much anymore; I’d like to get back into it.

We Brew so much professionally and so many unique brands and beers that at least a couple times a month, we have an experimental batch that we release just in The Tap Room.

Instead of doing it on the homebrew scale, we do it in a five-barrel batch. 

ARE YOUR TASTES AND FLAVORS UNIQUE TO YOUR BUSINESS?

Yes and no. We do have a couple of niches that we do like we have a milkshake series milkshake IPA which is a style of hazy IPA with lactose added.

So we have a relatively unique series; when we first started doing them, they were unique.

IN GERMANY, THEY HAVE THESE PURITY LAWS WHERE YOU CAN ONLY HAVE FIVE INGREDIENTS, AND THEY GET ALL THESE VARIETIES OF BEER FROM. DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THAT?

I do, but it’s interesting to hear the different dynamics of people’s thoughts on the history of that and how there are some people that really love that idea because it keeps beer very pure. Then there’s another school of thought that this is a way for the powers that be to essentially make it an exclusive thing to become a brewer.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN BUSINESS IN MONTEBELLO?

We opened our doors in 2017. We signed our lease shortly before that and took about nine months to build out and get all our licensing in place, and in March of 2017, we opened the doors.

LA COUNTY SHUT BREWERIES DOWN FOR 47 WEEKS. WHAT DID YOU DO TO SURVIVE?

We did a lot of direct consumers, and we did virtual beer tastings where people could order beer online, and then once a month, we’d do a zoom, and we’d walk through each of the beers.

We actually made some new customers across the state that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, which is kind of cool.

Actually, before the end of the year, we’re launching our new website so we can do direct consumer again through subscription programs and other fun things.

HOW WAS THE COMMUNITY? WERE THEY OPEN TO ACCEPTING YOU, AND DID YOU DEVELOP A GOOD CUSTOMER BASE?

They did. I’m super excited about Montebello. It’s such a wonderful community and such a tight-knit community. 

When we first came in, we were actually in the process of opening in downtown Los Angeles and running into a few different challenges. We aspired to be a benefit corporation. The mayor then reached out to us through a relationship that he had and let us know about another family hoping to start a brewery in Montebello.

He called us and said hey, I think that your brand would actually fit nicely because of your values about wanting to build community. So we planned to meet, and before the meeting, we drove around their warehouse district to look for different locations; when we sat down, I said the warehouse district wasn’t right for us. 

And the mayor said, I don’t want you in our warehouse district; I want you downtown. We’re really trying to bring back the Boulevard, and that’s why we really like you. We think your philosophy about building community fits really well into our trying to bring back the Boulevard.

I KNOW YOU HAVE AN INTERESTING STORY FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD. CAN YOU SHARE THAT WITH US?

It’s really what got us to the point where we started the business. I’ve been a long-time either employee and volunteer for the American Cancer Society. 

I started volunteering back when I was seven, and I was diagnosed with late stages Non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt Lymphoma. I spent a year and a half in and out of the hospital and going through treatments and clinical trials, and it’s because of those clinical trials that I’m here today.

My original prognosis was three months, and with a little bit of Grace and some clinical trials and funding from the American Cancer Society and great nurses and doctors, and an amazing team, I made it through it and started volunteering with the To Conquer Cancer and Relay for Life when I was a kid and when I moved here that’s what I eventually started doing for a profession. 

I worked for the American Cancer Society for ten years building communities in the fight against cancer through Relay for Life and then transitioned to another non-profit to help them with their fundraising campaigns and leadership before going full-time at the brewery. 

WERE YOU IN MONTEBELLO AS A CHILD WHEN YOU WERE GOING THROUGH THIS?

No. I was raised in Arizona until I graduated high school and moved to California after graduation.

YOU HAD SOME VERY GOOD DOCTORS AND MEDICAL TREATMENT WHERE YOU WERE.

Yeah, I was at St Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. It’s a four-hour drive from where we grew up, and the oncologist I had, Dr. Jesse Cohen, was just a phenomenal human being and always looking at the forefront of cancer research, and that’s what got us into the clinical trial program. 

HOW DID YOU LEARN OF YOUR CONDITION?

I started having some issues just with pain in my legs and stomach, and it got really bad. My parents are retired firefighters, and we were actually at the fire department when the pain in my legs got so bad during a holiday event I couldn’t leave the restroom, and I couldn’t stand up. 

We made several trips to the emergency room to get checked out, and at that time, you don’t expect a seven-year-old boy to be really sick, so they thought he was faking pain for attention.

Eventually found a rigid abdomen and thought the bowel kind of had grown on top of itself.

That led to one surgery to remove that, and then a few months later, I had a second one, and that’s when they went to fix the second one.

That’s when they found a tumor just filling up my entire abdomen. Because my parents were firefighters and engaged in the community, they knew about St Joseph’s and Phoenix and recommended that we be flown out to Phoenix to see an oncologist there.

THEY TOLD YOU THAT YOU HAD THREE MONTHS TO LIVE. DID THEY TELL THAT TO YOU OR TO YOUR PARENTS?

They told my parents. I didn’t learn about that until I was much older when my parents told me the back story. 

You don’t know your own mortality at seven years old.

As a kid, you don’t know how sick you really are or what the ramifications of not getting through treatment are. So your mindset is different, and you respond differently to treatment because of that mindset, in my opinion.

Another volunteer at the American Cancer Society wrote a great book called “Flying With Scissors” based on his experience doing this camp with the children that went through cancer.

It really shows how these kids are superheroes, and not knowing their own mortality, they are able to accomplish amazing things as they go through treatment and try to live their life as normal kids. 

YOU STARTED VOLUNTEERING AT AGE SEVEN. DID YOU COME AWAY FROM THIS EXPERIENCE WITH A DIFFERENT OUTLOOK ON LIFE, OR WERE YOU JUST APPRECIATIVE THAT THE PAIN GONE HAD GONE AWAY, BUT DID YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT HAD HAPPENED?

I definitely think that the experience I had with cancer and the experience with the people surrounding it helped me become who I am today. It’s one of the reasons I love volunteering for different things.

WAS IT OUT OF YOUR LIFE BY AGE 9?

For the most part. I got diagnosed in 1990 and was in remission in 1991. So after that, I would have to go in every six months to get checked up, and then it switched every year, and shortly after that, they said we don’t have to see you as often, and I kind of at that point was like all right I don’t need to be seen very often, and I’m never going again. 

It was pretty well out of my life by the time I was nine.

AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, YOU CAME TO CALIFORNIA. WAS IT JUST YOU, OR DID YOUR FAMILY MOVE TOO?

My brother was here two years before me. After he graduated, he moved out and was in the film industry.

I came out to visit him.

WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN YOU MOVED TO CALIFORNIA?

I started out in retail when I first moved in and started volunteering almost immediately for the American Cancer Society in Van Nuys.

At first, I was doing Road Recovery, which is driving cancer patients to and from their treatments. Shortly after that, they recruited me to volunteer for Relay For Life, and they invited me to apply for a job trying to grow the Relay for Life program throughout California.

One thing that led to another in the next ten years of my life was that we grew that program substantially and had a blast getting people involved in the fight against cancer.

FOR THOSE TEN YEARS, YOU WERE FOCUSED ON SERVICE TO THE CANCER COMMUNITY.

Yes and no. Through Relay For Life, we’re focused on building communities to celebrate the lives of cancer patients, to remember loved ones lost, and to empower communities to fight back against cancer.

HOW DID THAT DEVELOP INTO YOUR BUSINESS?

In 2012, my brother and I were talking about how he had gotten into an accident, and while he was recovering, we talked about what we wanted to do with our lives.

One of the things we talked about was wanting to start a business together. During that time, I was passionate about philanthropy and brewing beer.

Our goal was to start a company that would tie those two things together.

We started our corporation, which eventually became Angry Horse Brewing, with the idea that at some point, we’d be a benefit corporation and, written into our bylaws, would be giving back to the local community.

IS YOUR BROTHER THE ASSISTANT BREWER?

No. My brother is on the board and helps in the background, but he has his own company doing film work. 

My other partner is a brewer, but he has his own company too, so they’re a little bit more peripheral right now. 

But they both come in and help Brew on occasion and are involved with the decision-making process and growing the business.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE NAME ANGRY HORSE?

It came through our business partner Nate. When he joined, he came up with a name, and we just thought it was a cool name.

One of the reasons our logo is the burning barn is we want to spur dialogue. It’s been fun, especially when we first opened. We went on behind the bar serving people and then overhearing them talk with one another about the backstory of Angry Horse Brewing and how it came to be.

IS YOUR TIME SPENT MOSTLY BEHIND THE BAR?

I actually don’t spend as much time behind the bar these days. I still get some time in the Brew House and in the laboratory. We have our own quality control lab on-site, but lately, I’ve been really trying to spend a lot of time just focusing on growth and where we go from here. Our goal is to open up at least one other location in Southern California, similar to Montebello.

We want to find a community that we can become ingrained in.

HOW MANY BATCHES DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO SAY THIS IS A GOOD PRODUCT?

I mean to where I really started feeling comfortable; it took 30 or 40 batches before I started feeling like this, it is something I would want to share, and I felt confident that people would enjoy it. 

DO PEOPLE GO TO YOUR ESTABLISHMENT WANTING TO DRINK YOUR BEER, OR DO YOU SELL ALL OTHER KINDS OF BEER AS WELL?

With our current license, the only beer we’re allowed to sell is the beer that’s made on-site. So people come to, for the most part, to try our beer and to see what new varieties we have out.

We do have a core lineup as well, so we have some die hard fans for a couple of beers just like East LA IPA, but we have several people that come in because we have a new variety and want to try it.

WHAT KIND OF QUANTITY FOR A PLACE TO HAVE YOUR BEER ON TAP?

We do half-barrel kegs, which are 15.5 gallons. We do six stalls which are about 5.16 gallons, and then we do cases, so they’re 24 16-ounce cans.

IS THERE A DISTINCT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SOMEONE DRINKING YOUR BEER FROM A CAN OR FROM A DRAFT?

Yes. The fresher you can get it, the better. If you’re getting it on draft, it usually is a week, maybe two weeks old.

If it’s in a can, depending on the beer and the quality control process, it could be up to six months, and some beers actually get better with age. For the most part, as long as you’re getting a fresh can or if you’re getting it in a keg, it should taste pretty darn similar.

One of the things that we do as part of our quality control program is every time we can, we set cases aside and have one hot and keep one cold.

Every month we take the hot can and cool it down. We do a side-by-side taste test comparison to make sure that that particular batch of beer is what we call true to brand out in the marketplace so that we know that if it’s on a shelf and it’s this lot code, it’s tasting the exact way we want it to taste.

HOW MANY DIFFERENT FLAVORS DO YOU HAVE RIGHT NOW?

We always have 13 on top in the tap room at any given point. In total, we’ve brewed over 100 different varieties of beer that we’ve served throughout the years.

We have our core four beers that you can pretty much always get, and then we’re always rotating with one-off experiments, or we have some that come in every quarter.

Then we have beers that we do once a year. We’re about to do one called holiday pumpkin, which we haven’t done in four years.

 

SGV III

  1. The Arroyo Seco: This is where I ran almost every day.
  2. The Arboretum: 
  3. The Emerald Necklace: It’s a series of parks along the river from the dam on the 605 and goes all the way down to Montebello.

HOW CAN PEOPLE GET A HOLD OF YOU? WHAT IS THE ADDRESS OF ANGRY HORSES BREWING?

We’re located at 603 West Whittier Boulevard in Montebello. We’re open up every day of the week except for Tuesday. 

The best place to find out what’s going on at The Taproom, whether that’s karaoke or live music, or beer releases, is on our website: https://angryhorsebrewing.com/ or Instagram.