Artisanal Air

Apr 01, 2013 at 6am

Behind a nondescript door in Dogpatch, Jason Munchausen is trying to revolutionize the way we breathe – one jar at a time.

Fed up with the regular old nitrogen-oxygen blend (“So corporate,” Jason moans), Jason is a pioneer in the artisanal air movement. Inside his soon-to-be-opened shop, he lovingly crafts small-batch handmade air, bottled in repurposed Mason jars. His customers can’t get enough of the stuff. They come from Noe Valley and the Mission, and from SOMA all the way out to the western part of SOMA. Truly, it is a citywide phenomenon.

On a recent, particularly poor-aired day (Air Quality Index 88; Moderate), I dropped by Jason’s store to explore a world that heretofore was unknown to me, or many others, for that matter. Unfortunately, Jason keeps the production process shrouded in mystery. “Can’t give away all my secrets!” he chirps. Inside his shop is a complicated mechanism he built himself. “The chassis is mostly, uh, an old La Machina tortilla maker from a Chevys that closed down. There’s also an induction valve.” The mechanism looks like it could spring to life at any second and start delivering warm, fresh tortillas again. I ask him where the air comes out. “Here,” he says, pointing vaguely at La Machina. Like many craftsmen, Jason prefers to hold his secrets close.

What drives an otherwise successful guy to leave his job as the start-up coordinator at a start-up that incubates start-ups in its start-up incubator and then launches new start-ups to chase a crazy dream of handcrafting fine American air? “There was a need, really,” Jason says. “I mean, where I grew up, in the Midwest, there was one kind of air. You either breathed it or you didn’t. And then when I moved out here, I guess expecting to find, like, a thousand different kinds of air, no dice. Just the same air.” Jason started experimenting with different blends, compositions, and testing them out on his friends and his 12 roommates. 

“It was, like, crazy,” says one roommate, also named Jason, during a phone interview. “Some of them smelled bad. One of them I’m pretty sure was just Glade sprayed into a jar. One made me really sick.”

“That was an experiment with upping the carbon monoxide level,” Jason confides. “What I really wanted to do was get away from your conventional, mass-produced air and really make air that represented the area, and also who I am, both as a person and as an air producer.” Over the course of several months, Jason says, he finally got his formula down right. “It’s all in the argon,” he says, but refuses to divulge further details.

Inside the space, which until recently housed another operation – “What do you call those people who work on shoes?” Jason wonders. “Like, shoesters or something? I think one of those was here” – workers are busy lining the walls with wood upcycled from a 20th-century barn. Jason breathes in deeply. “Smell that? Good air. This barn was in good air.” 

Later I learned that the barn – or what’s left of it – is still in good air. I spoke via landline with Henry Clay Dobbs, a dairy farmer in Del Norte County, who still isn’t sure what happened to his barn, which was built in 1954. “One day it’s here, and the next a bunch of punks with flannel shirts and scraggly beards are crawling all over it and taking boards away. They scattered like yard rats when I fired a warning shot. Never got a good bead on any of ’em. Now I can see the goddam cows from my house. Are you the police? Are you gonna get my boards back? The fuck they want with some rank-ass cow boards anyway?”

In advance of the long-awaited opening of his retail location, Jason has already developed a deeply committed group of customers he’s been selling his air to, and those customers love what he does. Michael and Deetra are in their “mid-mid-30s, not late-mid-30s” and live in BiTarDs (between Bi-Rite, Tartine, and Dorland Street). They both used to run start-up incubators, but left to open a combined food truck/counseling center, Lettuce Address This. Both are huge fans of Jason’s air. “After a tough day making healthy, crisp salads and helping people process the shame they get from sleeping with uglier, dumber people, I can’t tell you how relaxing it is to come home, open a jar of pure artisanal air, and just breathe,” Deetra says. Michael nods in agreement. “There’s just something about it that…you know, normal air doesn’t have,” he says, glancing through the window at the sad, plain-aired world outside.

Jason’s nearby neighbors-to-be are looking forward to his store as well. Blasé Carmichael, who owns the Gentrification Station, a one-stop shop for old doorknobs, shadow box supplies, and “tasteful but strong” security gates, says he can’t wait to try the air, while the staff of the nearby café Is That Something To Eat Or What Is That Thing is already planning to carry Jason’s air in their shop. “We feel like Jason’s air will really complement our line of cryptopastries and imported ultra-low fructose corn syrup,” says café manager and “Biscotti Ninja” Bree Fired.

By the time I arrive back at the shop, Jason’s air production machine is whirring away, and Jason moves quickly, holding a Mason jar under the outlet valve, then quickly screwing the lid on. He’s wearing protective plastic goggles and an oxygen apparatus and looks not unlike a meth cook or a worker in a clean room. When I point out the resemblance, Jason warms to the analogy. “Yeah, it’s kinda the same thing,” he says, capping another jar of air. “But with less meth and more air.” And just as addictive, the young air-trepeneur hopes.

POSTSCRIPT: Jason still hasn’t settled on a name for the retail operation. “I was originally thinking Air, because we’ll sell air,” he says. “But people might get that confused with the band Air or with, just, air. Maybe we don’t need a name at all? Maybe we’ll just be ‘Nothing.’ People could say ‘I bought some Nothing today.’ How cool would that be?”

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