From the Beer Writer: Beers that find their way into barrels for extended aging are typically of the higher-alcohol variety. That additional fortitude helps the base beverage endure the test that is time spent picking up the oaken and vinous or spiritual character of those oaken receptacles. But with some care and conscientiousness (proper temperature-control, monitoring and frequent quality control), lower-alcohol beers can provide a barrel-aged tasting experience unlike those provided by the boozier norm. Take for instance a new release from Benchmark Brewing Company, their flagship Belgian-style singel—which comes in at a whopping 4% alcohol-by-volume (ABV)—aged in used wine barrels for more than half a year. The fact the beer (a standout in its unaged form) is so light in body and ABV allows Benchmark Table Beer On Oak to explode on the nose and palate with an almost completely unimpeded essence of American oak. Taking a whiff matches the olfactory experience of walking through a winery’s barrel room. Vanilla, violet, earth and funk intertwine into a telltale bouquet. It’s more of the same on the palate plus spiciness from the beer’s Belgian yeast profile, a bit of tropical fruit and yuzu, followed by a lasting barrel mustiness in the finish. Benchmark’s brew crew took a significant chance with this aging project, but it pays off with every complex sip.
From the Brewery: “Barrel-aged beer is something we’ve been dabbling in for a while. This is a fun side note to Benchmark’s central mission of brewing beer we want to take home and drink every day. Starting with a small Belgian-style beer is likely unexpected for many folks, but we love this beer and believe it deserves to be celebrated. Our first offering of Table Beer on Oak is a more traditional take on this beer. It was aged for seven months in a Justin Winery red-wine barrel, then (my wife and co-owner) Rachael and I blended it back to find a tasty balance between the beer and the wood. The oak brings out the spicy, earthy notes that are already in Table Beer, and is balanced by the hint of acid and the citrus-like character of the base beer. Bottle-conditioning offers a much more traditional carbonation level for the style, a softer mouthfeel and allows the natural biscuity notes to shine. It’s a small beer and we have taken care of the aging for you, so go ahead and crack the bottle open soon and enjoy. We plan to continue to dabble with a handful of barrels, and we will release the next batch when the beer lets us know the time has come.”—Matt Akin, Owner & Brewmaster, Benchmark Brewing Company
There may be no entrepreneurs better-suited to bring National City its very first local brewing company than the team behind Embarcadero Brewing (340 West 26th Street, Suite D, National City). A familial quartet of Hispanic military veterans who all hail from the South Bay, they bet big on beer back in early 2014 when they opened a homebrew supply shop, SoCal Brew Shop. Now they’re ready to double-down by getting into production and opening a tasting room. They know their surroundings and the tastes of their neighbors, ditto the predilections of the many Tijuana-based homebrew patrons they regularly service. Now, all they need is a final influx of capital, something they are hoping to achieve via a crowd-funding campaign currently underway.
Much of the Embarcadero teams funds were expended in their mission to bring a brewing interest to National City. The municipality lacked an ordinance to address a brewery facility, so City government tasked the quartet—Gustavo and Jorge Molina, Arturo and Marco Pena—with completing a conditional use permit (CUP), a task they describe as “arduous” and consumptive from both a time and money standpoint. But it was worth it. The National City Planning Commission passed the CUP last May, giving the Embarcadero team the green light to begin the process to obtain its ABC license.
In addition to feeling a deep-seeded connection to National City, these aspiring brewery owners have paid attention to the burgeoning beer scene in the South Bay. They realize that the surrounding coastal cities of Coronado, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach are all home to brewery-owned venues and feel placing one in National City will provide “the necessary handshake between the South Bay and the north.”
Despite having hoops to jump through before reaching brewery status, the Embarcadero crew has already served beer to the public at last year’s Best Coast Beer Fest. Their offerings that day were Fiesta IPA, an old-school India pale ale served with lime and a touch of sea salt, and a blonde ale sporting slices of organic strawberries. And while some purists may raise an eyebrow at the untraditional nature of those beers (or at least how they’re garnished), the beers tapped out and, “normal” or not, could do a decent job of converting a municipal population mostly unfamiliar with craft beer.
Embarcadero’s portfolio will consist of IPAs of varying strengths, a Vienna lager, brown and red ales. Again, not your everyday San Diego line-up, but the Embarcadero team is confident in its knowledge of local palates and ability to appeal to them. The plan is to contract brew at Chula Vista’s Bay Bridge Brewing, initially packaging exclusively in kegs with a plan to start bottling soon after. But first, they need to open. Should they meet their crowdfunding goals, they hope to open sometime this summer.
It’s easy to look at a seemingly successful large brewing company, see their beers (and those of their acquired brands) on the taps and shelves all over the county, knowing they are also distributed throughout most of the country, and assume all is well. But even though the craft-beer boom is in full swing, with a record number of new breweries opening throughout the nation, the industry has never been more challenging, especially for regional breweries ranking among the nation’s largest.
Last January, Mira Mesa-based Green Flash Brewing—which also operates a satellite barrel-aging brewery in Poway as well as a production brewery in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and a soon-to-open brewpub in Lincoln, Nebraska—laid off around 25 employees. Given Green Flash’s status as the 37th largest craft brewing company in the U.S., this was big news. And so, too, is today’s announcement that the company has made the difficult decision to let go of 15% of its workforce.
That percentage equates to 33 employees. Owner Mike Hinkley says that while no Green Flash tasting room or Alpine Beer Co. (a brand acquired by Green Flash in November 2014) staff will be impacted, it will touch on other departments, primarily those serving business administration functions—marketing, events and the like—in both San Diego and Virginia Beach.
“I am greatly saddened by folks having to leave the company. We simply could not compete effectively with such broad geographic reach,” says Hinkley. “We will soon discontinue shipments to distributors that currently constitute about 18% of our wholesale trade revenue. With that reduction in revenue, we have to reduce expenses accordingly.”
Hinkley reports the company has decided to consolidate distribution, reconfiguring to best serve locales nearer to its production facilities. Moving forward, beer brewed and packaged at Green Flash’s Mira Mesa facility will be shipped to California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Utah, while Virginia product will ship in-state as well as to Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. According to a press release, the refocus will enhance the company’s operations and ability to provide consumers with fresh beer.
When asked what factors led to the need to reconfigure distribution and consolidate Green Flash’s workforce, Hinkley responded, “The industry has continued to grow more crowded and complex in recent years. Big Beer’s acquisitions and consolidation of the biggest brewers created pressure from the top. Thousands of small brewers opening across the country created pressure from the bottom. Under those conditions, we are pulling back into the territory where we are the strongest and concentrating our resources.”
When asked about the future of Green Flash’s Poway-based Cellar 3 barrel-aged beer operation, Hinkley says it will remain open and that, months ago, the decision was made that, despite management’s belief that the beers are of high quality, the amount of beer that is packaged there and shipped to retailers will be reduced significantly.
Even in the midst of consolidation, Hinkley and company are looking to the future with optimism. The Lincoln brewpub is on-schedule with a February opening timeframe confirmed. Head brewer Jeff Hanson (formerly of Omaha’s Brickway Brewery and Upstream Brewing, and Boulevard Brewing) will create Green Flash core beers under brewmaster Eric Jensen’s supervision, as well as beers of his own devising, and that facility will eventually supply the entire state of Nebraska with Green Flash product.
Should this prove a viable business model, Hinkley says they will look to replicate it elsewhere, but there are no plans for such expansion in the immediate future. For now, the company will focus on its revised approach to distribution—it had distributed to 50 states, 35 more than the count listed on its newly announced business plan.
From the Beer Writer: Whereas most craft fans’ favorite beer style is IPA (not that there’s anything wrong with that…they’re incredible), my favorite beers are Belgian-style farmhouse ales. But wait, like the IPA fan who can tell you they specifically like unfiltered, 7% alcohol-by-volume, tropical-flavored India pale ales dry-hopped with Citra, Motueka and Nelson Sauvin, I too can get way too specific about the types of farmhouse ales (AKA: saisons) I prefer. I like when they are spiked with Brettanomyces and aged in barrels, particularly those which have formerly housed white wine. I prefer Sauvignon Blanc barrels, but I’m not a picky man (despite what everything leading up to this has led you to believe). So, when speaking with local brewer Robert Masterson about future plans he had for his then yet-to-open Resident Brewing, and he told me the first thing he was going to do was get his saison into white-wine barrels so he could start aging it, I tucked that nugget away and started biding my time. It was as if he had intercepted some letter to Santa and, despite my naughty status, decided to bring my beer wish to life. A few weeks ago, that beer, Resident Saison Prestige, made its debut in 750-milliliter bottles, and I went straight to work getting my hands on some. And I’m glad I did, because it is exceptional. Oenophiles will be drawn in by a lustrous bouquet rife with aromas of lemon peel, honeysuckle, pears and grape must, while lovers of farmhouse and sour ales will go gaga for a multifarious yet balanced taste sensation offering up passion fruit, lemongrass, white pepper and oak-borne vanillins with a touch of funk delivered against a textural backdrop that’s medium and slightly creamy, leaving lingering traces of vanilla and kiwi. It’s prestigious enough to live up to its name and available exclusively at Resident’s base of operations, downtown’s The Local Eatery and Watering Hole.
From the Brewery: “Saison Prestige is a barrel-fermented, mixed-fermentation saison aged in French oak Chardonnay barrels. This farmhouse-style ale gets its character from two types of saison yeast, multiple Brettanomyces strains and Lactobacillus. The beer rested in wine barrels for over a year, before being bottled in June 2017. The beer was inspired by a few amazing American farmhouse breweries that have been putting out amazing beers for the past half-decade. We secured some amazing Chardonnay barrels from Chateau Montelena. After the saison picked up their character, we selected the three barrels that had the best-tasting beer inside. We didn’t want to utilize fruit with these killer barrels. Instead, we wanted them to stand out on their own and show San Diego what a wine-barrel and funky, tart saison can taste like without fruit additions.”—Robert Masterson, Head Brewer, Resident Brewing Company
In 2010, an entrepreneur from north of San Diego County delivered a brewpub concept to downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter. Dubbed The Beer Co., it was a spin-off operation that failed to generate much of a reputation among San Diego’s craft-beer enthusiasts. Not even a gold medal from the 2012 Great American Beer Festival for its barrel-aged strong ale, The Manhattan Project, measured so much as a ripple in local waters. Still, it soldiered on for more than half-a-decade before closing down. Now, the space that housed it is ready to birth a second brewery-restaurant brought to San Diego by nearby out-of-towners, The Bell Marker (602 East Broadway, Downtown).
That business will debut on January 22, complete with a veteran, native San Diegan brewer at the helm. That individual, Noah Regnery hails from vaunted locally-based business, Pizza Port, where he worked at the chain’s San Clemente brewpub from 2007 to 2011 and contributed to its award-winning reputation before departing to become head brewer at Hollister Brewing in Goleta, California, a post he held until 2014 when he departed the industry altogether. His return should be highly anticipated, but as with so many developments in the suddenly complicated local suds scene, it comes with some drama. The Bell Marker is the first location south of Los Angeles for LA-based Artisanal Brewers Collective, a company established by Golden Road Brewing co-founder Tony Yanow. That in itself is not all that significant, but the fact Yanow and Golden Road partner Meg Gill sold the business to macrobeer conglomerate AB InBev in September of 2015 muddies things a bit for fans of independent craft brewers as well as members of the local industry.
Since Golden Road’s sale, Yanow (a bar owner before and throughout his tenure with Golden Road) and his ABC partners have been busy gobbling up hospitality venues throughout LA. The Bell Marker is the first to possess a brewing component and Yanow’s original venues—Mohawk Bend and Tony’s Darts Away—were craft-centric venues which were ahead of their time. Figuratively, this is not unfamiliar territory for this seemingly insatiable entrepreneur, even if it is from a geographic standpoint. How it will be received from a local population which vehemently eschewed last year’s arrival of AB InBev’s 10 Barrel Brewing brewpub in the East Village remains to be seen.
The Bell Marker houses a copper-clad, 15-barrel brewhouse that will be utilized to produce American, English, German, and Belgian beers. The opening-day line-up will include a cream ale, hefeweizen, brown ale, pale ale and IPA augmented by guest beers selected to fill in any stylistic gaps. There will also be a full cocktail program to appeal to non-beer fans. The 8,000-square-foot venue can seat 212 at a time and will be open seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.