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.
Today, the Brewers Association released its annual set of lists of Top 50 Breweries from the last calendar year. The rankings are based on beer sales volume, and broken into two lists—Top 50 U.S. Craft Brewing Companies and Top 50 Overall U.S. Brewing Companies. The latter includes the likes of Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors as well as former craft-brewing interests that no longer qualify as craft breweries under the BA’s definition, such as Lagunitas Brewing Co. and locally based concern Ballast Point Brewing.
The Top 50 U.S. Craft Brewing Companies list includes three San Diego County businesses—the same ones that have graced the list for the past several years. Escondido’s Stone Brewing is the highest ranked at #9 (they are listed at #17 on the Overall U.S. Brewing Companies list), with Green Flash Brewing Co. rising four spots from the year prior to #37 (#46 on the Overall list) and Karl Stauss Brewing Co. ascending five spots to take its place at #41.
D.G. Yeungling & Son, Inc. retained the top spot on the Craft Brewing Companies list, followed (in order) by Boston Beer Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., New Belgium Brewing Co., Gambrinus, Duvel Moortgat USA, Bell’s Brewery, Deschutes Brewery, Stone and Oskar Blues. The top 10 for the Overall list was as follows: Anheuser-Busch, Inc.; MillerCoors; Pabst Brewing Co.; D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc.; North American Breweries; Boston Beer Co.; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.; New Belgium Brewing Co.; Lagunitas and Craft Brew Alliance. Ballast Point registered at #13.
Until this month, the farthest I’d driven to check out locally owned brewery properties was Nickel Beer Company in Julian or Pizza Port’s San Clemente brewpub. But I easily eclipsed the distance to those out-there spots when, while on vacation in Washington, DC, I rented a car and drove south to Richmond, Virginia, to see the 14-acre East Coast incarnation of Stone Brewing.
It sounds funny, but I knew I was there when I saw the huge brown building with no sign. Stone CEO Greg Koch has a rule against such markers, wanting the company’s venues to be enough of a destination that they aren’t simply happened upon. That has worked in the past on Escondido’s Citracado Parkway. When the company’s current headquarters was built, there was little else on that road. Such is the case in the Fulton section of Richmond, where the intent is for Stone to play a major role in revitalizing an area of the city that has been mostly ignored or forgotten.
Guests can approach Stone Brewing – RVA from unattached parking lots on the east or north side of the sprawling 200,000-square-foot brewery. Both routes take visitors across bridges of varying lengths and designs. From the north, a covered bridge takes one under an operating set of railroad tracks. On the east, an angled and enclosed two-part bridge traverses a tall-grassed lawn leading to the beginnings of a garden, including vegetation and a retaining pond. Both bring imbibers to a patio area featuring umbrella-equipped picnic benches, most of which were packed with people the Saturday afternoon I stopped by.
Double doors lead into a spacious tasting room. To the right are more tables and more gargoyle merchandise than you can shake a mash-paddle at. To the left is the main-event, a bar stocked with beers from Stone and its sister-operation, Arrogant Brewing. Although the brewery was constructed to handle heavy-duty brewing of core beers such as Stone IPA (a new recipe for which is currently in circulation, replacing the original flagship) and Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0, a number of rare and seasonal beers are regularly shipped there from the Escondido brewery to keep things interesting and give fans a reason to return.
Brewery tours are offered, in which guests are escorted up a staircase and ushered through a set of gargoyle horn-adorned wooden doors leading to the deck of the facility’s 250-barrel Krones brewhouse. Coming in at the size of competitor Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits’ newest brewing apparatus, it is built for the same purpose—to pump out beer in multiple batches and keep a nation of beer consumers supplied with ales. Currently, Stone Brewing – RVA has eight 1,000-barrel fermenter tanks and as many 250-barrel fermenters, plus four 1,000-barrel bright tanks up and operational. But there’s room for an eventual 40 tanks.
Peter Wiens (formerly of Anheuser Busch-InBev and, more locally, Temecula’s Wiens Brewing Company) is in charge of brewing operations in Richmond. He and roughly eight other employees from the Escondido facility came over to take up various roles in RVA. And a number of other brewing and packaging employees came over from the nearby Budweiser facility in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Beyond the brewery lies a wealth of packaging muscle. Modern technology is everywhere, providing more automation than the Escondido facility. That machinery includes a state-of-the-art Krones bottling line capable of filling 600 bottles-per-minute. In the not-too-distant future, a canning line will be added to the mix. Also on the production floor is a sizeable quality assurance lab that Stone allows lab-less local breweries to use. But that isn’t where RVA brewing camaraderie ends. Already, Stone has brewed collaboration beers with and at numerous Richmond operations.
The projected production goal for Stone Brewing – RVA’s first 12 months of operation is forecast at 100,000 barrels of beer. This will allow the company to distribute that product to all states east of the Mississippi by the end of this summer. Having spent a great deal of time at Stone’s Escondido brewery, I found the layout and innovation behind its Richmond counterpart to be both impressive and encouraging. So, too, was the fact that the seven-days-a-week operation has garnered a good amount of business, while establishing a solid stock of regulars.
Seeing Stone through a new set of eyes—the eyes of the Richmond employees as well as the city’s denizens—felt different…and really good. It reminded me of what it was like to discover Stone back in the late ‘90s, where people found themselves in awe that something so cool was right in their backyard. Best of all—and I mean no disrespect to fans of Arrogant Bastard Ale (it was my first craft-beer, after all)—none of the “Arrogance” has settled into the Richmond facility as of yet. There is no leftover air of you’re not worthy pompousness that needs to be wiped clean. The roughly 60 RVA employees are mostly brand-new and extremely excited to be part of this venture, as well they should be. That leads to a great level-of-service and overall friendliness that I very much enjoyed.
I found myself rather proud to see Virginians enjoying an authentically hoppy and justifiably proud taste of San Diego County, more than 2,600 miles removed from my hometown. Even without the two-story Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens restaurant that will debut down the hill near the James River sometime next year, Stone Brewing – RVA provides plenty of reasons to visit and a great deal of promise for the future.
Green Flash Virginia Beach Update
Just as this article was going to press, Mira Mesa-based Green Flash Brewing Company announced that its East Coast facility in nearby Virginia Beach, Virginia, would open to the public on November 13. In celebration, the company will offer a full week of events, including the third annual East Coast iteration of its Treasure Chest Fest benefiting the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer charity organization the day prior to the official debut, November 12. The estimated annual production capacity for the Virginia Beach facility will be 100,000 barrels. Construction of the brewery can be viewed via an online live-cam.
Mitch Steele, Stone Brewing’s brewmaster of 10 years, will be leaving his post at the end of the month to pursue a new opportunity. The specifics of that new venture have yet to be officially dispersed, but despite a lack of details, this is news that will be widely reported today. And it should be. Steele is one of the brewing industry’s blue-chip members. Not only has he overseen brewing operations at one of the country’s fastest-growing brewing companies — even during high-profile expansions to the East Coast and Europe — he literally wrote the book on India pale ales: IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. His loss will be palpable for Stone, but not just because of his brewing prowess and professional skills, which led to numerous industry awards.
Having worked with Steele for three years, I can tell you that he brought another x-factor to Stone. In addition to being a consummate professional, he is also a good person with a big heart who not only loves beer and the art of brewing, but tirelessly supports the sharing of information for the purpose of educating and inspiring others about beer, brewing and his craftsperson industry. Though Stone has often been described as brash, polarizing or downright bastardly, such characterization has never been applied to Steele. He is one of the most respected and positively received public-facing employees the company has ever had, and it will no doubt be very sad for his colleagues to see him go, but in speaking with a number of them in preparation for this article, their happiness for him is both real and unanimous. Count me among those sending best wishes for his next venture, for which he was sought out by industry professionals recognizing the talent and intangibles he brings to the brew-deck.
Steele entered the brewing industry in 1988, four years after graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Fermentation Science. His first job was manning a 14-barrel system at the San Andreas Brewing Company. In 1992, he started work at Anheuser-Busch, managing brewhouse and fermenting operations in three different breweries while developing new beers as part of the company’s Specialty Brewing Group. An employee of Big Beer seemed an unlikely candidate for induction at Stone, which has railed against macro-entities since its 1996 founding, but Steele won over owners Greg Koch and Steve Wagner and proceeded to take San Diego County’s largest brewery from annual production of 48,000 barrels to more than 325,000 in 2015.
Steele’s last day at Stone will be June 30. As is customary, the brewery has produced a video (embedded below) to communicate this development with its fans via social-media. In it, Steele shares stories from the past decade, praises key members of his brewing staff and struggles with emotions throughout. Such emotion is understandable. It’s the end of an era, both for Steele and for Stone. Rather than fill the brewmaster position, Stone will employ an “innovation team” headed by chief operating officer Pat Tiernan and key individuals from the company’s brewing team. That group will develop new beers with concepts and recipes approved by Koch and Wagner.
This is not uncharted territory for San Diego’s brewing scene. Last September, Green Flash Brewing Company—probably the San Diego company closest to Stone in its make-up with its hoppy beer portfolio, status as one of the country’s 50 largest craft breweries, multiple local locations and Virginia expansion project—abruptly lost its brewmaster when 11-year veteran Chuck Silva resigned in similar fashion. His mission was to return to his San Luis Obispo County roots and open his own brewery. That project, Silva Brewing, is well underway with plans to open later this year in Paso Robles. When that happened, Green Flash did not crumble, and neither will Stone. It will just be…different.
Brandon Hernández previously worked for Stone Brewing as its Senior Communications Specialist from 2012 to 2015.