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.
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.