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.
This month, the two craft-brewing industry trade organizations of the greatest importance to local breweries—national entity, the Brewers Association, and the San Diego Brewers Guild—have unveiled initiatives seeking to assist consumers in identifying products from authentically independent brewing companies. It started with the latter introducing decals that can be placed on the exterior of member organizations (all of which meet the SDBG’s independence standards). That was followed this week by the BA rolling out a seal of independence that qualifying breweries can feature on their beer-packaging at retail.
Both organizations share the same motivation. With macro-beer producers’ long-standing practice of creating faux craft brands, and the more recent phenomenon of those conglomerates purchasing craft breweries, in part or in whole, and using misleading and often times false information via advertising campaigns and product labeling to disguise their non-craft products, it has become essential for authentically independent operations to help educate consumers that they are, indeed, the real thing, as opposed to the likes of AB InBev-, MillerCoors– and Constellation Brands-owned interests.
In the words of the Brewers Association: When it comes to the origins of food and beverages, there is increasing public interest in transparency. Beer lovers are no exception. As Big Beer acquires former craft brands, beer drinkers have become increasingly confused about which brewers remain independent. They want to know who makes their beer. With the launch of [the BA’s independence] seal, the BA is making it easy to identify which beer is made by independent craft brewers.
The BA’s seal features an upturned beer bottle (signifying the manner in which craft brewers have turned the industry upside-down over the past several decades) and the words “Brewers Association Certified Independent Craft”. To be able to use the seal, companies must meet the BA’s criteria, which includes: annual production of six million barrels or less and being less than 25% owned or controlled by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer. In addition to bottles, cans, six-pack holders, case-boxes and other packaging, the seal can also be used at places of business and on marketing materials.
In San Diego County, the SDBG’s decals read “Proud Member San Diego Brewers Guild” and note the current calendar year. In addition to the decals, the SDBG is also creating flags and tap-handle danglers for use at tasting rooms and on-premise accounts. These are key components of the organization’s Conscious Consumer Campaign.
Recently, I was interviewed about the state of the local brewing industry in the wake of Big Beer interests—AB InBev-owned 10 Barrel, MillerCoors-owned Saint Archer, and Constellation Brands-owned Ballast Point Brewing—elbowing their way into the San Diego market. In answering questions, I echoed the primary lament of employees at independent breweries throughout our county, which is the concern that people who want to support local, authentically “craft” breweries will think they are doing so by purchasing beers from the aforementioned companies (as well as other acquired brands including Wicked Weed Brewing, Elysian Brewing and Goose Island as well as “faux craft” brands such as Blue Moon and Shock-Top) due to subterfuge and falsehoods conveyed via Big Beer marketing campaigns. It is a consumer’s right to choose. If they make an informed decision to purchase ales and lagers from Big Beer because they aren’t concerned about buying and drinking local, that is their prerogative. But for people who do care and go out of their way to buy local, San Diego breweries simply want those folks to get what they they think they are paying for and feel comforted in the knowledge that they are, in fact, supporting San Diego breweries.
At this point, I was asked what consumers can do to ensure they aren’t fooled. It’s a great question and, being so entrenched in the industry, something brewing company employees probably don’t think about as often as would be prudent. The obvious answer is “educate yourself”, but it leads to another great question: HOW? And I have a solid answer: Visit the Breweries list at SDBeer.com and scan the list of Guild members. The Guild’s regulations dictate that no brewing company owned in whole or in part by a Big Beer interest can qualify for membership. This is to protect the integrity of membership as the organization strives to educate the public on the importance of supporting local breweries (be on the lookout for an upcoming “get educated” campaign from the SDBG), especially as they find themselves under increasing attack from macro-beer giants with far greater resources and far less honorable (and far less legal) business practices. You can trust this list to guide you to bona fide independent operations. And you can help local breweries by sharing this online resource with others who share your locavorian ethics. It actually protects local consumers from more than just Big Beer.
Membership in the San Diego Brewers Guild and participation in its initiatives is voluntary. Although the Guild enjoys nearly 100% membership by qualifying businesses, no arms are twisted. The Guild has been key to the evolution and prominence of San Diego craft beer for the past two decades. Yet, believe it or not, there are some local brewery owners who choose not to be a part of it. While that decision in and of itself does not vilify a local, independent brewery, it does tell you something about that company. In a time when banding together and helping not only local businesses, but local consumers has never been more important, there are outliers who aren’t heeding the call to arms. Locavores looking to support local breweries would do well to patronize the 100-plus operations looking to actively protect this region’s reputation and incredible sense of community over those who abstain.
As an aside (and I am in no way asserting that owners of non-SDBG member breweries fit the following description), there’s a new strain of brewery entrepreneur out there—people who think they have all the answers; who don’t help their neighbors and colleagues; who go it alone because they think so highly of and want everything for themselves; who honestly believe that every component of their business should be proprietary in an industry built on the open and honest exchanges of information, equipment, ingredients, manpower and, of course, beer. It’s sad to see. Without the openness and friendship they opt out of, the American craft-beer movement would not have progressed to the point where they would be able to be a part of it. To enter the brewing industry and actively erode the sense of camaraderie that makes it so special rivals the obfuscation and monkey-wrenching of Big Beer. With so many San Diego breweries upholding the long-held values that make this region’s beer scene so special, there’s no reason not to patronize them first or even exclusively. The key component there is to know who is making your beer and who is behind each brewery. Because so many of these individuals are locally focused beer-lovers just like you, it’s a fun rabbit hole to venture into, and the best first step is SDBeer.com.
San Diego beer is a wonderful thing. Locals and guests alike should feel good about enjoying it. The latest efforts of macro-breweries and money-grabbing newcomers have complicated things and made it harder to have a beer in tandem with a clean conscious. Fortunately, consulting the list of active San Diego Brewers Guild members provides an easy way to put all the business BS aside and go back to savoring local, independent, artisanal beer.
Owner; Monkey Paw Pub & Brewing, South Park Brewing Company & Hamilton’s Tavern
Last week, local bar and brewpub powerhouse Scot Blair (Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery, Hamilton’s Tavern, South Park Brewing Company) spoke out about AB-InBev’s impending East Village 10 Barrel Brewpub project. He shot from the hip, sharing vividly honest opinions, but he had more to say about the local brewing industry, the effect independent breweries’ selling to Big Beer have had on it and the future of the rapidly changing San Diego suds scene. The latter are particularly startling considering some of the stark scenarios he sees for his own interests. A swan song for one of San Diego’s most successful craft-beer entrepreneurs? Yes, it’s possible, and he’ll tell you why.
What do you make of Big Beer mocking craft beer publicly, most notably in its Super Bowl spots, while simultaneously buying up craft breweries?
Scot Blair: Big Beer’s market-share is still undeniably strong, but their pockets are deep and they now have to address the issue that better beer is what more of the consumers are expecting, so they are finding ways to “capture” the audience’s attention without putting the development cycles and dollars in. If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.
Your bars still purchase beers from acquired brands such as Ballast Point and Saint Archer. Why is it you haven’t shunned such companies altogether?
After acquisitions like these, you obviously have many good people who are still employed, earn a living and continue to support the local businesses in our community as they always have. Issues like the one we have in our industry are very complex, which is why I haven’t and wouldn’t just outright boycott these homegrown San Diego brands. Supporting Ballast Point and Saint Archer isn’t a bad thing, but if folks are supporting these guys 10 times over the local small guy, it adds up and hurts the little guy. So what we are talking about is being more discerning with mine and your spending. If you knew the $100 you spent went to a mega-business that already has a giant distribution footprint and that your $100 continues their ultimate goal of monopolizing the market by pushing the smaller, less-fortunate brands to the outer edges of consumer reach and, by doing that, it, in turn, puts those small businesses in jeopardy, would you still do so? I am hoping by taking an extra 10 seconds to figure out where your money goes, you would choose to change your spending habits to 25/75 or 50/50 to help continue to balance the playing field, because monopolies are never good for anything. In terms of AB-InBev and 10 Barrel, we aren’t talking a scenario like Ballast Point and Saint Archer or their purchases/change-of-ownership. What I’m talking about is non-San-Diego entities capitalizing on a wave of local entrepreneurialism when the parent company is the most mal-intended and largest threat to small, independent beer in America. 10 Barrel is just an AB-InBev shill and, to be frank, with over 115 breweries in San Diego, what is the demand or the benefit for this outfit to come into our community? Zero. It only benefits them and their continuing obfuscation—search and destroy. Wouldn’t this be a better fit in a non-saturated market that is in desperate need of potentially better beer and a brewpub? Of course. Put it this way—if I told you some folks are going to plant some new trees from Oregon that are infested with diseases and toxins that are OK in their part of the country, but in San Diego they will attack our natural habitat and create destruction and damage, would that be okay? Well, that’s what’s happening. They are bringing sand to the beach. And not just sand—infected sand that is hazardous to our previously pristine environment.
Do Saint Archer Brewery and Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits shoulder responsibility for helping open the door to Big Beer in San Diego by selling out?
SB: It’s hard to blame them for the climate of today. Let’s remember Ballast Point is San Diego grass-roots and Saint Archer was incepted right here. They decided, from a business standpoint, that selling, making profit and expanding was principally their biggest business goal. They have that right, even if it may boost the armada of the Death Star, but with AB-InBev and 10 Barrel, what we are talking about is the worst form of third-rate carpet-bagging being helped along with even more confusion by special-interest real-estate. Let’s face it, things have been heading in this direction for some time now. I have been warning about this crisis since 2011 and, in my not-so-humble opinion, a lot of naïve people said I was being petty. But now, a few years later, look at our climate. We are more confused, more diluted and pumping worse beers out the door and into the hands of consumers than ever before. We have pseudo-craft everywhere and consumers are content with that. WE ARE LOSING BECAUSE WE COULDN’T BE HAPPY GROWING SMALL! What we now have are consumers who aren’t seeking out smaller and better. They are right where Big Beer wants them, and that is to be content to head down to their local Chili’s and grab their “local craft beverage” and sally forth regardless of the flavor or quality or craftsmanship or where their dollars are going. I never wanted armies of misguided and unknowingly disenchanted pseudo-beer experts. I’ve worked altruistically so people would think for themselves, learn about and want better beer. Now, people settle for the t-shirt, the buzz-phrase or the shiny picture instead of doing the hard work and understanding where their important dollars are going and how much their decision effects the overall landscape of what we as brewers and small-business owners do today and what we will do tomorrow. The world is better with these small, independent businesses growing small one-block-at-a-time, but soon we will have to shut the doors because we can’t compete with the conglomerates who can afford the largest microphones and billboards to confuse the public and, without the support from a knowledgeable consumer-base, small business is dead in our arena.
What do you see for San Diego’s beer scene in future?
SB: To be honest, I see myself probably having to sell my businesses or fold-up shop. It’s becoming harder and harder to compete in this market with all of the deception. We are dealing with a content-with-complacency consumer-base that has slowly been drinking the Kool-Aid and now they don’t even realize they are being mind-controlled. Everything I have done is about a desire to better a community at all costs. Who would have thought that, in such a short time, it would not be enough in his local beer industry to have award-winning establishments that are built around one simple, no-frills philosophy—SERVE GREAT BEER? So this shows just how serious the issue is. Our market saturation is beyond critical-mass and the quality has already begun to suffer. We aren’t cutting into fat at this point, we are carving into lean muscle and a lot of local breweries won’t be able to sustain this, and I’m not sure I could fault the giant monsters doing what they do versus the consumer-base who allowed this to happen on their watch.
Click here for the first half of our Q&A with Scot Blair from last week.