The Coast News Group
Aleks Kostka, center, had planned on a career in medicinal chemistry before Cari Mihalcean, right, Kostka’s best friend since middle school, urged her to leave Chicago and “try out San Diego for a year.” Kostka is now head brewer at Culture Brewing in Solana Beach. At left is Culture brewer Addison Poth. Photo by Bill Vanderburgh
Columns Craft Beer in North County

Craft Beer in North County: The serendipitous ascent of Culture’s head brewer

Aleks Kostka, head brewer at Culture Brewing Co., didn’t mean to become a brewer. She didn’t mean to stay in California, either. Craft beer lovers are lucky she did.

In just five years since moving to California, Kostka has worked her away up from bartender at Acoustic Ales, to distiller at the now-defunct Kill Devil Spirit Co., to cellar person, assistant brewer and ultimately head brewer at Culture Brewing.

Along the way she has won two prestigious medals at the Great American Beer Festival. The first was in 2016, when Kostka was assistant brewer: a gold medal for Culture’s Brown Ale. Then, in 2017, in her first year as head brewer, Culture won bronze for their Blonde Ale. At the time she took over as head brewer, Kostka was just 25 years old.

Born in post-Communist Poland, Kostka and her family emigrated to Chicago when she was 2 years old. Her family’s farmhouse burned down just around the time they won a green card lottery to come to the USA. In a hero’s origin story, that sort of life moment is the decisive break with the past that forces the hero to accept a new path. But for Kostka that path wasn’t revealed yet for many years.

Kostka completed her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry at Northern Illinois University in 2014. Kostka had been recruited to play NCAA D1 volleyball but her major was too demanding and she had to quit the team. As part of her degree, Kostka worked for two years on a research project with a professor, synthesizing anti-malarial drugs. She expected to use her degree and experience to find a job in medicinal chemistry.

On an eight-week Euro trip after college, Kostka decided she wanted to leave Chicago. That’s when Cari Mihalcean — Kostka’s best friend since middle school — called and asked her to “come try out San Diego for a year.” In a story common to many who move here from colder climes, they are both still here.

Taking a job bartending with Mihalcean was just to fill her time while she was “temporarily” in San Diego. One thing led to another, though, and soon Kostka realized brewing was a way to utilize her scientific knowledge and have a whole lot of fun doing it.

The switch from medicinal chemistry to brewing was more of a straight line than you might imagine. Kostka’s father regularly made his own whiskey and mead while Kostka was growing up. They had a home bar in the basement of their Chicago home where, like any good European, Kostka drank with her father before she was of legal drinking age. Kostka sometimes even thought of getting into the bar business with her father. Then, as a poor college student, Kostka started homebrewing for her roommates and friends as a way to save money. That’s how she discovered “the joy of making something for all my friends to enjoy and bringing people together.”

With hindsight, Kostka says that she probably wouldn’t have enjoyed sitting at a lab bench all day. She appreciates that brewing involves plenty of physical activity in addition to its technical and scientific aspects. Kostka and her brewer Addison Poth (whom she originally met when his distillery was next to the one she worked at) spend their days in a brew house that is open to the outdoors — in Solana Beach, so the weather is almost always perfect. And she and her co-workers have a ton of fun while they are working. Poth and Kostka are often heard singing along to the music blasting from the brew house stereo while they are working, and they are constantly cracking each other up with jokes and pranks. Mihalcean is now the events manager at Culture, too.

Kostka says it doesn’t feel like she is going to work, it feels like she is just going to hang out with her friends. “Thank God we work together,” Kostka says. “Who else would get our rad jokes?”

It is not all just fun and games, however. For example, when Kostka came on, Culture had entered their Blonde into competition before but had never won anything with it. Kostka did a deep dive on the water chemistry, changed things up, and a good beer became a great beer.

That’s the kind of attention to detail you’ll find in all of Culture’s beers, which are very well made, precisely “to style” and delicious. Culture doesn’t chase trends — you won’t find any pastry stouts or other outlandish beers, though they are now making a few hazy IPAs. As a bonus, Culture uses Clarity Ferm in most of their beers, an enzyme developed by local brewery supplier White Labs that cleaves proteins, rendering the beers safe to drink for those who want to or need to avoid gluten.

Culture believes in making a range of beers that can be enjoyed both by beer aficionados and complete newcomers to beer.

Culture Brewing has been on a steady growth trajectory. In addition to the brewery and tasting room in Solana Beach, they have satellite tasting rooms in Ocean Beach and Encinitas. A fourth location is due to open later this year in Manhattan Beach.

Culture sells almost all of its beer through its tasting rooms. That is a strategy more and more small breweries are adopting. Profits on beer sold on-site are about four times higher than on kegs sold through bars.

Because of continued growth of demand in the existing tasting rooms and in preparation for the new Manhattan Beach location, Culture has increased its brewing capacity significantly. They bought recently shuttered Council Brewing’s 30-barrel fermenters and installed them last month. They now have 270 barrels of fermentation capacity, up from 50 barrels when Kostka started at Culture. Their production capacity is now in the neighborhood of 2000 barrels per year.

At 28 years old, Kostka says she is very happy to continue doing what she is doing for several more years. “Our job is to make people have fun,” she says with pride. The physical part of brewing takes a toll on the body, though, so eventually she hopes to open her own brewery, where she can be the creative director, developing recipes and managing a team to produce the beer.

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