San Diego’s craft beer scene has come full circle before Arsalun Tafazoli’s eyes.
When Tafazoli opened Neighborhood Ale House in 2006, he didn’t want it to be another bar in Downtown where shiny-shirts came to get hammered. Instead, the 25-year-old San Diego native wanted a place where beer would be appreciated for having substance.
“When we were starting out, young brewers would come in and tell stories about how they mortgaged their houses—put everything on the line to get their product out there,” says Tafazoli. “There was so much passion behind it. It was incredible to me that it didn’t have the same credibility as wine.”
Tafazoli made moves. His staff of mostly women were pros on the ins and outs of beer styles and food pairings. He regularly hosted meet-the-brewer nights―with out of towners like the venerable Dogfish Head and Allagash. Lee Chase (Blind Lady Ale House, Automatic Brewing Co., Tiger! Tiger!) was hired as Neighborhood’s first beverage manager.
“If Lee’s behind the bar pouring you a beer—to this day—he’ll get you behind it. It’s amazing to watch,” says Tafazoli of Chase, a mad beer scientist of sorts who worked as head brewer at Stone for nearly 10 years until 2006. “That got really hip; people would come in to taste more stuff. We’d get letters saying ‘I didn’t know what good beer was before.’ We really built a community one person at a time.”
Around the time of the housing market crash, there was a boom of creativity among brewers, says Tafazoli. And newly-broke winos took note. This is when Neighborhood took off, and gave rise to a new order of local establishments.
“San Diego is littered with gastro pubs now,” Tafazoli says. “Nowadays, the word “craft,” the term “farm to table”—it’s all been commodified. It’s a trend that people exploit. You see these banners hanging in front of places everywhere say “craft beer.” It’s more than getting a tap system installed; that’s just one component in the context of this bigger picture. You have to make sure the whole story makes sense or else it doesn’t work.”
Having grown from 33 breweries in 2007 to 88 at time of print, some of the craft beer scene’s original players are wary of its sustainability.
“It used to be that there was this young guy starting a brewery, and you’d want to support it. And now every day it’s someone else. It’s great for the proliferation of the culture, but I think some people are getting into the business for the wrong reasons.”
Tafazoli’s approach to success has launched what is today one of San Diego’s most ambitious and talked about hospitality brands, Consortium Holdings (CH). In 2008 he joined forces with Nate Stanton (El Dorado), when both of their businesses were gaining momentum in the up and coming East Village. Since, the two have undeniably elevated drinking and dining culture in San Diego with eight successful concepts and counting.
It doesn’t hurt to have a dream team behind their backs, with two-star Michelin Chef, Jason McLeod, helming kitchen operations for all the projects, and highly reputed bartenders like Erick Castro (Polite Provisions) and Anthony Schmidt (formerly of Noble Experiment, now headed to new project Rare Form). Then there’s local designer Paul Basile, whose past projects include Bankers Hill Restaurant + Bar and Acme Southern Kitchen.
Just last year, CH won national praise for two of its projects. The speakeasy Noble Experiment (designed by Mauricio Couturier) made Esquire Magazine’s top 100 bars list and Polite Provisions won Imbibe Magazine’s Cocktail Bar of the Year. The James Beard Foundation also loved Erick Castro’s Mayan Concubine cocktail at Polite, naming it one of their favorites of 2013, from a spot that opened the same year, no less.
“We want our spaces to promote our core values. It’s why we don’t do vodka or shit beer, and think about every aspect of a space—because it’s a reflection of who we are and what we want to perpetuate to our community,” says Tafazoli. “It was the Greg Kochs [Stone CEO] and the Lee Chases who reaffirmed what I thought. At first, people were coming in to Neighborhood and not getting it, and sticking to our identity and not watering it down—back when everything was on the line—that’s what made us.”
CH’s first all-out culinary endeavor, Ironside Oyster, has been packed since opening in early May. In the works are North Park’s Underbelly, an East Village juice bar, and Rare Form, a Jewish Deli that will share space with a Stone tasting room in the historic Simon Levi building next to Petco Park.
Tafazoli says of the perceived “seasonal” neighborhood, “The stadium has shaped the cultural geography of East Village, and not in a good way. Too many businesses cater to the stadium crowd. It’s not about walk-by traffic for us, it’s about the great community of people who live there,” he says. “We’ll create a synergy there with the two different businesses. The idea is that our core values are very much alike. Stone knows who they are, they stuck to it, and it’s been effective. They paved the way for a lot of people. You have to respect it.”
No one could have predicted the force that craft beer would play in the trajectory of Tafazoli’s businesses, let alone its tremendous impact on the local economy. Tafazoli points out that the proof lies in a craft beer newspaper like West Coaster—something most people wouldn’t have looked twice at a decade ago.
Still, Tafazoli remains cautiously optimistic about San Diego’s brewing future.
“A lot of brewing companies have popped up without understanding the soul and economics of the business. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of these guys will be able to sustain,” he says. “In the end, I want everyone in the community to be successful, but unfortunately capitalism is harsh. I think there is a lot of local talent sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how things play out. I see them stepping up as other people phase out. Then, we’re going to experience a stronger renaissance.”
This column appears on page 8 of the May 2012 issue, downloadable here.
This year Starting today the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) is taking place in San Diego, and along with it comes the World Beer Cup, an event presented by the Brewers Association that takes place every other year at the CBC to recognize the best beers in the world. It is considered by many to be the most prestigious beer competition in the world because of the sheer number of entries, with nearly 4,000 this year. San Diego breweries are no stranger to World Beer Cup awards; Ballast Point and Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey have both won the Champion Brewery and Brewer Award in the Small Brewing Company Category (along with Oggi’s San Clemente when it was headed by O’Brien’s Tom Nickel), and in 2010 alone AleSmith, Ballast Point, Karl Strauss, Alpine Beer Co., Pizza Port and Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey all took home awards for their beers. Looking over that 2010 winners list, there are also a number of award-winners from outside of San Diego that are readily available to us here.
Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker has seen quite a bit of success at the World Beer Cup, winning the Champion Brewery and Brewer Award in the Mid-Size Brewing Company Category in 2004, 2006 and 2010. In addition to this award, in 2010 they also went home with medals for their Hefeweizen, Pale 31, Extra Pale Ale, P.L. IPA, Mission St. Pale Ale (sold under the Steinhaus Brewing Co. label at Trader Joe’s stores) and my personal favorite, Velvet Merkin, a roasty oatmeal stout which is now released in wide distribution as a fall/winter seasonal named Velvet Merlin. The Velvet Merkin name is reserved for the 100% barrel-aged version available only at the brewery. Remarkably, Firestone Walker took both Gold and Bronze medals in the ultra-competitive American-Style Pale Ale category with Pale 31 and Mission St. Pale Ale.
The Silver medal winner in the American-Style Pale Ale category can also be found in these parts. Drake’s 1500 by Drake’s Brewing, a Simcoe and Centennial-hopped 5.5% ABV Pale Ale, has plenty of pine and citrus flavors and aroma, but the lower alcohol level makes it easy to drink without falling down. Editor’s note: Drake’s and Triple Rock Night is this Friday at Small Bar.
The beers from Cooperstown, New York’s Ommegang are also easily found in San Diego, including two of the three 2010 medal-winners: Ommegang Abbey, a ruby-colored Belgian-style Dubbel with plum, raisin and fig flavors, and Ommegang Witte, an easy-drinking Belgian-style wheat beer. Ommegang also took home a silver medal for Bière De Mars, their take on a the French bière de garde style which is bottle conditioned with Brettanomyces bruxellensis. Bière De Mars isn’t easy to find in San Diego, but bottles can still be discovered from time to time. Editor’s note: Ommegang is part of a “tap takeover” with Stone and Cismontane tonight at Slater’s 50/50.
We get a lot of great Belgian and Belgian-style sour beers here in San Diego, so it can be easy to look past some of the more readily available beers in search of those that are more hard to come by. I’ll admit that I take Rodenbach for granted. Rodenbach, Rodenbach Grand Cru and Rodenbach Vintage are all so findable that I foolishly look past them because they can be found at nearly any beer store with a halfway decent selection. I was reminded of just how good we have it when a visiting brewer friend from Texas was shocked that the ordinary corner store that obviously didn’t put too much thought into their beer selection stocked both Grand Cru and Vintage. He told me beers from Rodenbach weren’t available at all in the state of Texas. In 2010, Rodenbach won a Silver medal in the Wood-and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer category for Rodenbach Vintage. Editor’s note: Meet Rodenbach Master Brewer Rudi Ghequire tonight at URGE American Gastropub or Friday night at Sessions Public.
Across the pond (remember, this is the World Beer Cup), Scotland’s BrewDog received a Gold medal in the Imperial India Pale Ale category for their Hardcore IPA, a 9.2% ABV, 150 IBU hop bomb which BrewDog claims has “more hops and bitterness that any other beer brewed in the UK.”
Our neighbors to the north in Canada took home seven total medals at the 2010 WBC, two of which went to Quebec’s Unibroue, a Bronze for sweet and tart Granny Smith apple-resembling Ephémère Apple in the Fruit Beer or Field Beer Category, and a Bronze in the Belgian-Style Pale Strong Ale category for Fin du Monde, a 9% ABV Golden Ale reminiscent of Belgian Tripels. Both can be found at better beer stores and even some grocery stores in San Diego, often at prices that won’t break the bank.
Back in the United States Portland Maine’s Allagash took home two medals, including a Gold in the Belgian-Style Witbier category for their flagship Allagash White, one of the craft beer juggernaut’s that seems to need to description.
Up in Oregon, the second most award-winning state after California, Full Sail Session Black won a Gold medal in the Dark Lager category. Packaged in recognizable stubby 11oz bottles, this dark lager is easy to drink with just a hint of roastiness. Equally as dark as Session Black, Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout from Mendecino’s Anderson Valley won Bronze in the Oatmeal Stout category. This smooth and roasty stout is a mainstay in San Diego bottle shops, which recently started showing up in cans as well as bottles.
One of the funny things about beer competitions is that the judges can love a beer one year, and not recognize it the next time around. Luckily, all of these award winners are obtainable in local bottle shops so you can try them for yourself. And, come May 5 when the 2012 World Beer Cup awards are announced, there will be a whole new set of winners, and with the amount of great beer we attract in San Diego, chances are a number of those beers will be available here as well.