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Trade organizations seek to communicate brewery independence

Jun 27

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.

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San Diego businesses make list of 2016 top 50 U.S. craft brewing companies

Mar 15

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.

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2016 Recap: San Diego’s Best Breweries Right Now

Dec 15

What are the best breweries in San Diego? Having reported on the San Diego brewing industry for nearly 10 years and having written a guide to San Diego breweries, I get asked this question all the time. My answers vary quite a bit. Prior to 2012, that list didn’t change all that much. Heavy hitters like Ballast Point Brewing Co., Green Flash Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing were ever-present. Those interests got big making great beer that couldn’t be matched by smaller operations. These are not the times we are living in. Not only are small breweries able to keep up, because of their size, they are able to be nimble and do a lot more than large breweries. They can venture outside the box whenever they feel like it, chase any trend they like or even create their own, while the big boys find themselves locked into brewing the same core beers and a handful of seasonals to meet sales and distribution obligations. A new beer for them is a high-risk proposition that requires months (or even years) of test-batches and refinement.

Due to all of the above, my list of the best breweries in San Diego County is much different than ever before. Only one of the four San Diego interests in the Brewers Association’s list of the 50 largest craft breweries is on there, and its one that wouldn’t have been there several years ago. But there are five on the list that are less than three years old, nine that have a single brewhouse producing their wares, and seven that distribute their beers exclusively (or almost solely) in San Diego County. The following is my current (alphabetical) list of the top 12 brewing companies in San Diego County. (And please remember, there are more than 130 operating brewhouses in the county—not making this list doesn’t make a brewery below-average by any stretch.)

AleSmith Brewing Co., Miramar: This maker of BJCP-geared Old World beers has been around so long it’s now of legal drinking age. It has grown from a single suite to a sprawling manufacturing plant with an expansive, multi-faceted tasting-room component. Through that transition, the beer has remained solid. If anything, it would be nice to see some new beers. Disclosure: I used to work at AleSmith.

Alpine Beer Co., Alpine: Break out the asterisk. This back-country operation, which was purchased by Green Flash in 2014, makes this list for the beers it produces at its original brewery in its namesake town. There’s just something magical about that brewhouse and the pros who man it; they are the folks who built Alpine’s stellar rep and are maintaining it on a local level.

Bagby Beer Co., Oceanside: It’s no surprise that Pizza Port product and GABF master Jeff Bagby was able to transfer his brewpub prowess to his own project, but not only does he keep tons of quality beer on-tap, those taps are installed in an inviting two-story, indoor-outdoor coastal spot built by he and his wife’s true passion for craft-beer and the people who enjoy it.

Benchmark Brewing Co., Grantville: Beer-flavored beer sums up this entire operation. AleSmith alum Matt Akin keeps it simple; something that’s surprisingly challenging. Don’t believe it, see if you can find someplace that can sustain as good a reputation as Benchmark does armed primarily with a pale ale, IPA, brown ale and oatmeal stout while leading with a table beer.

Fall Brewing Co., North Park: Journeyman brewer Ray Astamendi isn’t looking to make the best beer you’ve had in your entire life. He’s more interested in giving imbibers a bunch of great beers to enjoy on any given night, and he does just that care of an impressive portfolio that includes ales and lagers alike, ranging from the hoppiest end of the spectrum to the maltiest.

Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Multiple Locations: San Diego’s longest-running post-Prohibition era brewing operation has taken recent steps to modernize its beers, introducing dry, hoppy ales, drawing attention to a constantly evolving line of beers that also show great technique. Recently constructed brewpubs in LA and the OC should keep Karl’s crew on their upward trajectory.

The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co. / The Hop Concept, San Marcos: Whether it’s Port’s SoCal-centric family of largely hoppy beers, The Hop Concept’s (THC, get it?) exploratory line of lupulin-laced imperial IPAs or The Lost Abbey’s unique array of Belgian-inspired, floral, bready, woody, tart and/or boozy ales, quality and innovation await at Pizza Port’s triple-threat packaged-beer cousin op.

New English Brewing Co., Sorrento Valley: One would be challenged to find a brewery in San Diego with as great a degree of quality and consistency as this interest. The only thing keeping it in unjust obscurity is its devotion to less-popular English styles, but the introduction of expertly crafted IPAs has opened some eyes and helped grow a following and, in turn, brewing capacity.

Pizza Port, Multiple Locations: Perhaps no other local brewing biz more succinctly embodies San Diego’s style, brewing and otherwise. Expertise across all styles with flashes of ingenuity and inventiveness, tons of awards but none of the pomp and ego that comes with shiny medals, a laid-back surf-vibe inviting tanks and flip-flops—Pizza Port is America’s Finest on many levels.

Rip Current Brewing Co., San Marcos: The founders of this business deserve big-time credit for sticking to their guns. They could make more money focusing on their excellent hoppy beers, but are so devoted to keeping the homebrew spirit alive, they toil away on dozens of other lesser-selling styles, many of which win awards but still get ignored. It’s a shame.

Second Chance Beer Co., Carmel Mountain: During his decade-plus brewing at La Jolla’s Rock Bottom, Marty Mendiola was well-respected in the industry, but fairly unknown among San Diego beer-drinkers. Since opening his own spot in 2015, he’s finally gained the recognition from the public that he always deserved behind long-time and newly built recipes alike.

Societe Brewing Co., Kearny Mesa: I work here, so I am biased, but this list would be incomplete were Societe not on it. Fans flock here for a rotating family of IPAs as well as Belgian-style ales, dark beers and oak-aged sours that, after many years of maturation, are starting to trickle out of the barrel-room at a steady clip. Versatility and consistency are the keys to this operation’s success.

Author’s Note: This is the third post in a three-part series of pieces which previously examined San Diego’s Best New Breweries and San Diego’s Most Improved Breweries over the past year.

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QUAFF takes national homebrewing crown

Jun 13
PHOTO © BREWERS ASSOCIATION

PHOTO © BREWERS ASSOCIATION

Why is San Diego such a hotbed of quality brewing? It’s a popular question with many answers. Most brewing professionals agree that a major key to the permeation of the suds subculture into the board-short fabric of San Diego is the prominence of homebrewing throughout the county. Many of San Diego’s commercial brewers and brewery owners spent years honing their craft on a recreational level before going into business. As hobbyists, homebrewers collaborate, learning from each other as well as the numerous pro-brewers who revel in maintaining their connection to the amateur-fermentation ranks. For many in San Diego, homebrewing is as big a deal as what goes on at Stone, Ballast Point or Green Flash. And once a year, the county’s homebrewers pit their best beers against those of homebrew clubs throughout the world at the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrew Competition (NHC), winners of which were announced over the weekend from Homebrew Con in Baltimore, Maryland.

San Diego’s largest homebrew-club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity), was named the NHC Homebrew Club of the Year—the most prestigious honor of the entire competition. The 2016 NHC featured 7,692 entries from 3,396 homebrewers hailing from every U.S. state as well as 13 other countries. Numbers like that equate to big-time bragging rights for the hundreds of members of Carlsbad-based QUAFF. But the QUAFF member who gets to do the most bragging is San Marcos’ own Nick Corona, who earned Homebrewer of the Year honors after beating out 175 other entrants in the German Wheat and Rye Beer category with his homespun weissbier.

Other local winners include West Coaster staffer Ryan Reschan, who took first-place in the heavily contested Pilsner category (215 total entries). The runner-up to Reschan was also a local, Jeremy Castellano, who entered without affiliation to any particular homebrew club. Other successful QUAFFers included Curt Wittenburg (first-place in the Other American Ale category), Mike Habrat (second-place in Traditional Mead) and Tim Wang (third-place in Light Hybrid Beer). This isn’t the first time QUAFF has experienced success at the NHC. Quite the contrary. From 2001 to 2006, the organization won Homebrew Club of the Year a record six consecutive times. In 2011, Paul Sangster—co-owner of San Marcos’ Rip Current Brewing Company earned the Ninkasi Award for most wins at that year’s competition. These are just some of the major accomplishments this standout organization has amassed at the country’s premier homebrewing competition.

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Four breweries among largest in US in 2015

Apr 5

baIt’s that time of year again. The Brewers Association, the national trade organization representing American breweries, has released its lists of the top 50 breweries and “craft breweries” in the country, based on barrels of beers sold during calendar year 2015. Four breweries from San Diego County are included in the “craft brewery” list.

Once again, Stone Brewing is tops on the list, but the Escondido-based company slipped from ninth to tenth in the standings…one notch above Miramar-based Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits, which rose a full 20 points from its 2014 position. But wait…after being sold for $1 billion to Constellation Brands late last year, Ballast Point no longer qualifies as a “craft brewer” by the BA’s standards (*). But they are on the list based on the decision to include companies that met the BA’s criteria for all or part of 2015.

Mira Mesa-based Green Flash Brewing Company rose from 48 to 41 this year, while San Diego’s oldest continuously operating brewing operation, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, came in at 46 (down a notch from 45 in 2014). On the list of U.S. breweries, which does not consider businesses’ “craft” nature, Stone placed 15, Ballast Point came in at 17 and Green Flash edged in at 49. All three operations figure to produce far more beer in 2016 once additional brewing facilities and equipment come on-board.

Stone is looking to a third-quarter debut of breweries in both Richmond, Virginia and Berlin, Germany, while Ballast Point recently upped its production capabilities in a big way by adding a 300-barrel brewhouse and securing space in Long Beach for a barrel facility that will give birth to sours. Meanwhile, Green Flash is still hard at work on finishing construction of its East Coast brewery in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

  • BA Craft Brewer definition—Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Independent: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer. Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

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