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.
What are the best craft breweries in San Diego County? I get asked that all the time. When people pose that question, it’s usually because they’re visiting, so I tailor my response around the types of beers they enjoy, where they’re staying, if they have transportation, etc. But when I take stock for the purposes of an end-of-year article, I impose a different set of criteria. I begin by removing Big Beer-owned interests (it’s simply a different playing field, monetarily, than independent operations), then examine the make-up and, foremost, the overall quality of each brewery’s portfolio of beers. Is this the perfect formula? Probably not, but now you know where I’m coming from. Will my list match yours? Probably not, but that’s OK! Let us know your list in the comments. The wonderful truth is that there are many outstanding breweries in San Diego County, and a list of 15 only scratches the top layer of foam.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: A small brewery in an unincorporated town on the fringe of our county didn’t become a nationally respected cult-favorite by accident. This house built by hops continues to churn out largely hoppy stock worthy of coveting. More impressive, it’s keeping its street cred intact post-acquisition, something only good beer can accomplish.
Bagby Beer Co. | Oceanside: The sheer volume of beer produced and consistently on-tap is impressive, but the fact all of it is so traditionally to-spec and worthy of praise (as proven by an always-growing collection of Great American Beer Festival medals) is rather incredible. No place spends more time making unsexy styles utterly desirable.
Pizza Port | Bressi Ranch, Carlsbad, Ocean Beach & Solana Beach: To have one brewpub pumping out high quality beers across styles like any of Pizza Port’s do would be a big deal. To have four in a single county (plus another in San Clemente) and remain consistent year in and year out for the better part of three decades is the basis for legend status.
Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey / The Hop Concept | San Marcos & Cardiff by the Sea: No local tasting room offers as many expertly executed and variedly challenging beers as this triple-threat simultaneously focusing on West Coast IPAs, Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged everything. Even the occasional bottling hiccup barely detracts from feats accomplished here on an everyday basis.
Societe Brewing | Kearny Mesa: Batch-to-batch consistency across varied ales and lagers—hoppy, session, Belgians, stouts—and an expert level of balance and drinkability that even extends to wine-barrel-aged offerings keeps beer fans and brewers alike coming back to this living tribute to the quality and community of the San Diego beer scene. Disclaimer: I work for this company.
AleSmith Brewing | Miramar: From English session beers to high-octane Belgian, Scotch and coffee-infused juggernauts, this veteran continues to make flawless time-tested beers, but recent additions have been a mixed bag. A new pilsner is spectacular, a gimmick Mexican lager is blah, an extract orange pale is disappointing and the flagship IPA could use a youthful sibling.
Fall Brewing | North Park: The brewing team has experienced more than its fair share of fluctuation over the years, but through it all, its recipes and process remain sound. Stop in anytime, order a beer and you’re bound to encounter something both flavorful and refreshing, registering somewhere between very good and where-you-been-all-my-life status.
New English Brewing Company | Sorrento Valley: Consistently one of the most underrated local breweries, this one knocks it out of the park on the English ale front. That’s to be expected, but New World IPAs, the occasional Belgian beer and barrel-aged beers taste lovely. They have the best cask beer in town, too. (But, personally, I’d lose the Blueberry Blonde.)
North Park Beer Co. | North Park: Captivating the masses with largely session, internationally-inspired beers can be hard to do in the county’s hipster capital, but it’s been accomplished in spades at this two-story hub for members of the Finer Things Club. Consistency is up in Year Two and it’s been nice to see chances taken with occasional collaborative creations.
Second Chance Beer Co. | Carmel Mountain & North Park: Not a lot is flashy about this company’s beers, and not because of stringent traditionalism. They actually tend to veer slightly away from the norm. It would seem balance is the brewmaster’s chief aim, and he achieves it big-time as proven by devout patronage and big beer-competition wins.
Benchmark Brewing | Grantville & Bay Park: This place is all about “beer-flavored beer,” and if that’s what you prefer—straightforward ales made for everyday drinking—you’ll seldom be disappointed here. It would be nice to see new beers come along more often, but limited focus has led to arguably the best table beer, brown ale and oatmeal stout in town.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: A blending of punk-rock bravado and respect for the classics has resulted in a unique brewery offering delicious beers both New and Old World in nature. There are plenty of hop-heavy numbers to choose from, but Belgian-style ales and a crowd-favorite pilsner diversify this company’s offerings and cement its cut-above reputation.
Eppig Brewing | North Park: The lagers produced at this Brewery Igniter standout are of the highest grade. They make up only one third of the beers on the board, sharing space with IPAs, kettle sours and a rogue’s gallery of outliers. All are enjoyable even if some have room for improvement, but this business is just one year old and well ahead of the game.
Karl Strauss Brewing | Pacific Beach, 4S Ranch, Carlsbad, La Jolla & Little Italy: Many regions have elder-statesman fixtures like this. They’re old, boring and averse to change. This business is not. It actively works to remain current and relevant, and has succeeded at that. Its brewpubs produce creations of varied quality, but their overall track record is impressive.
Rip Current Brewing | San Marcos & North Park: This company’s love of seemingly all of the world’s beers (despite trendiness or marketability) makes for one of the most diverse beer boards in San Diego. Batch-to-batch consistency suffers sometimes, but they regularly do right by locales and artisanal heritages seldom celebrated by others in the local beer community.
Author’s Note: Breweries in each tier are presented alphabetically.
In reading a list of most-improved breweries, one can make the assumption that in order to make that roster these interests must have been pumping out bad beer at some point. While this certainly could be true, it is not always the case with brewing companies that find themselves a part of this annually shifting assemblage. In most cases this year, the operations mentioned were already making good beer—or even great beer—but are now performing even better from a manufacturing standpoint. There is always room for improvement, proof of which is provided below.
2kids Brewing | Miramar: This nano-brewery has actually been on an upward trajectory over the past few years, but this year, the level of refinement in this Miralani OG’s beers jumped quite a bit. Hoppy beers exhibit more vibrancy in their aromas and flavors, while maltier beers seem more cohesive and balanced overall. It’s no wonder this operation’s cultish fan base continues to grow, and a pleasure to see this husband-wife venture continue its steady ascent.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: Alpine makes great beer. Tell you something you didn’t already know, right? Since being acquired by Green Flash Brewing Company in 2014, many have complained about perceiving a drop-off in quality between beers brewed in Alpine and those brewed on a larger scale and packaged for distribution, but this year, numerous canned offerings tasted better, more consistent and truer to the beers that inspired the purchase of that famed East County interest.
Bear Roots Brewing | Vista: Though a tiny nano built into a homebrew shop, this family-run brewery has been churning out enjoyable beer from the get-go. As such, the grizzly interest has earned a solid reputation and following, enough that ownership considered expanding brewing capabilities. Even though it opted against getting a bigger, more sophisticated brewhouse (instead fortifying the business with an outdoor patio), it has still managed to up the brightness and flavor of its beers.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: One of the most buzzed-about new breweries to open in the past two years, El Cajon’s best (and only) fermentation facility opened with an impressive beer line-up that only keeps getting better. The key is the brewing team’s devotion to fine-tuning until they get beers where they and their fans want them. Throw in this year’s barrel-aged specialties and you have an operation that managed to increase its angle of ascension in 2017.
Council Brewing | Kearny Mesa: When this husband-wife business first opened, its little-guy charm and friendly staffers made up for occasional inconsistencies. As it grew, sour beers of varied composition expanded the business’ rep and reach while taking center stage, portfolio-wise. The deliciousness of those brews continues to increase. Ditto non-sour beers, most impressively Council’s hoppy stock, which used to be a tad hit-and-miss, but now wows on a regular basis.
Division 23 Brewing | Miramar: This lesser-known brewery has had numerous head fermentationists since debuting in 2015, leading to varying quality across the beer-board. This year saw continued vocational movement within the brewhouse, but as of now, this operation’s beers are tasting better as a whole than they have at any point, making the long, winding road one must take to get to this tucked-away industrial park venue worth the maneuvering.
Indian Joe Brewing | Vista: The beer at this native American-owned brewery was at its best right before it shuttered in 2015. After a lengthy search for an ideal, much larger base of operations, the business reopened this year with a new head brewer and a laundry list of house beers coming in at 30. Variety remains the name of the game, making it harder to keep every member of the diverse line-up in check; still, Indian Joe’s beers are the finest they’ve been during either of its iterations.
Kilowatt Brewing | Kearny Mesa & Ocean Beach: This business is in the process of expanding its brewing capabilities, but before trading up to a larger brewhouse, they took the wise step of bringing on a head brewer with experience garnered over years spent at AleSmith Brewing. He has tinkered with several beer recipes and the early results are extremely promising. This should be a fun brewery to keep an eye on over the coming year.
Each month, we present several best-bet local beer-related events for the following 28 to 31 days, but as we all know, November isn’t any normal month in America’s Finest City. It’s the month that houses San Diego Beer Week (SDBW), a ten-day span encompassing literally hundreds of events. So, we’re doing things a little different this month, providing a little insight on some of the biggest and most unique happenings taking place from November 3-12. Enjoy, but don’t forget to check out other goings-on via our events page and the official SDBW website.
Friday, November 3
Saturday, November 4
Sunday, November 5
Monday, November 6
Tuesday, November 7
Wednesday, November 8
Thursday, November 9
Friday, November 10
Saturday, November 11
Sunday, November 12