Winners from the 2017 edition of the Great American Beer Festival were announced earlier this morning. Held annually by brewing-industry trade organization, the Brewers Association, in Denver, Colorado, this year’s GABF saw nearly 8,000 beers entered by more than 2,000 breweries in 98 style categories. 293 were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals after being evaluated by 276 judges. GABF is the country’s largest and most prestigious professional brewing competition. San Diego County breweries have historically fared incredibly well. This year saw another strong showing with the region’s brewers racking up double-digit awards.
Eleven local brewing companies brought home 14 medals this time around, including five golds in the Robust Porter (Second Chance Beer Co.) Honey Beer (Karl Strauss Brewing Company‘s Carlsbad brewpub), Imperial India Pale Ale (Ballast Point Brewing) Other Specialty Belgian Ale (Stone Brewing World Brewing & Gardens – Liberty Station) and Session Beer (Pizza Port‘s Ocean Beach brewpub) categories. That went along with six silver medals and three bronzes.
Notable is the fact only one individual brewing facility in the county won more than one medal, Carmel Mountain Ranch’s Second Chance with a gold and a silver. Newly launched SouthNorte Brewing Company garnered a bronze medal in the Specialty Beer category for a beer called AgaveMente that hasn’t even been released to the public yet. And Monkey Paw Brewing, which Coronado acquired earlier this year, earned a silver medal in the English-style Summer Ale category. Also, Vista-based Mother Earth Brew Co. medaled in the Fresh or Wet Hop Ale category for Fresh As It Gets, a beer brewed at its Nampa, Idaho production facility.
Adding to the unofficial medal count was Belching Beaver Brewery, which for the second time in its history won top honors at the Alpha King Competition. Held in conjunction with GABF each year, this friendly competition crowns the brewing company that submits the hoppiest offering amid a stacked field of IPAs. Belching Beaver previously won Alpha King in 2014. On top of that, Chula Vista Brewery owners Timothy and Dalia Parker received the Samuel Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship, following in the footsteps of Ramona-based ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, who earned the same opportunity in 2014.
The following is a complete list of the winners from brewing facilities located within San Diego County…
Many are those who tour Ballast Point Brewing’s enormous Miramar headquarters with its 300-barrel and 150-barrel brewhouses and rows of sky-high fermenters feel the county’s largest brewing company must have all the room it needs, especially with additional brewing facilities in Scripps Ranch, Little Italy, Long Beach and Roanoke, Virginia. The Miramar facility comes in with greater production capability than any other in San Diego, but rapid expansion has rendered it out of space, leading parent company Constellation Brands to secure an 80,000-square-foot building directly north of the Miramar home base.
Ballast Point currently has control of 60,000 square feet of that structure for what it calls its Trade Street Facility. It has been divided into three equal-sized sections serving completely different purposes. One third is simply storage, while the middle third houses an abundant and growing stock of beer-filled oak barrels procured from various wineries and distilleries. The current barrel count comes in at approximately 1,400, with an additional 900 barrels in another facility less than a mile west on Crestmar Point. There are three full-time employees manning this section, and it will soon have tanks added to handle production of beers destined for those oak receptacles, which include about every type of liquor and wine imaginable with more on the way.
Ballast Point intends to up its number of barrel-aged beer releases which are currently held quarterly and locally. Those specialties will be distributed nationally, including four-pack releases of popular beers such as aged versions of its vanilla- and coffee-infused imperial porter, Victory at Sea. Other beers the team is looking forward to debuting include Sea Monster imperial stout and Piper Down Scottish ale in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Navigator Doppelbock in brandy barrels, Barmy apricot and honey golden strong ale in neutral oak, plus various Belgian-style farmhouse, tripel and quadruple ales. In addition to its own needs, Ballast Point regularly fulfills requests from other breweries for barrels from its stock, including nearby Green Flash Brewing Company and 32 North Brewing Company.
The remaining third of the Trade Street facility is for “dirty beer”, referring to sours and bacteria-laden wild ales that, if not sectioned off, would stand a significant chance of infecting the clean beer as well as their production and storage mechanisms. This area has its own 40-barrel brewhouse feeding into more than 30 fermenters. It can produce up to 20,000 barrels of beer annually, some of which will make its way into six new 40-barrel, glycol-equipped, temperature-controlled fouders. The dirty area also has its own devoted bottling line, which recently packaged a national release’s worth of six-packs of Sour Wench blackberry ale.
Key to the new dirty beer operations is a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of providing as many quality assurance touch-points as the large lab at Ballast Point’s HQ. Prior to brewing Sour Wench for the most recent release, technicians conducted numerous tests, including analysis of myriad brands of blackberry puree and Lactobacillus strains, in search of the most ideal types for the beer. What they found was that the puree and strain the company was already using worked best, meaning the current batch of Sour Wench is very similar to the first batch ever homebrewed in 1998 (back when it went by the name Marion Berry’s Better-Than-A-Crack-Whore). While primary wild ale operations will now take place on Trade Street, Ballast Point hopes the aforementioned Long Beach facility will become the research-and-development feeder for the new facility.
I’ve religiously covered the San Diego brewing industry for a decade. A big part of that has included checking out new breweries. Interviewing so many brewery owners prior to their debut, it’s always interesting to see their visions brought to life. Unfortunately, the brick-and-mortar realization of these entrepreneurs sometimes pale in comparison to their lofty aspirations. Bad beer—it happens. Drinkers go into new breweries realizing it, but it doesn’t remove the sting of encountering subpar ales and lagers, especially when your purpose for visiting is to honestly assess the quality of an establishment’s wares in print.
There was a three-year period from 2012 to 2015 when I was overwhelmed with the number of new San Diego County breweries opening with beer that tasted like bad homebrew or, worse yet, exhibited significant defects (diacetyl, dimethyl sulfide, acetaldehyde, isovaleric acid, oxidation, low attenuation, etc.). There were some years, as many as half (if not more) of the new operations I would visit would come in low on the quality scale, with some being downright unacceptable. It was a major problem, more for others than myself. I only write about beer, but those who make it—veterans of the local industry brewing good beer—grew increasingly and vocally concerned about the impact the rapidly increasing amount of substandard product would have on our region’s reputation.
Fortunately, San Diego’s status as one of the finest brewing regions in the world has remained intact. So why bring up this dark chapter in an otherwise bright saga? Because over the last two years, visiting new breweries has gone from the iffy chore it had become to the inspiring pleasure that it should be in a premier county for craft beer. So often I’ve left a first session at a rookie brewery feeling pleasantly surprised and incredibly pleased; that lovely feeling that inspires you to want to come back and support the people behind these fledgling businesses. This heart-warming phenomenon has occurred with such regularity that I’d go so far as to venture that the beer in San Diego County, as a whole, is better than it has been at any point in this storied area’s nearly 30 years of beer production.
Each year, I examine the new breweries that are performing best among their recently debuted peers. In the aforementioned era, it was rather easy to separate the cream from rest of the crop. If anything, some so-so interests squeezed in, but the past two years have been different. I have had to increase the number of new breweries to praise to a half-dozen, and even that forced me to leave out some start-ups worthy of recognition last year. Burning Beard Brewing, North Park Beer Co., Resident Brewing, Pure Project Brewing, Bear Roots Brewing and Bitter Brothers Brewing comprised my best-of rookie class for 2016, but I will be the first to say that popular operations Mason Ale Works and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego had as much right for inclusion as the others. In the end I had to split hairs, awarding points for operations that had great beer out of the gate versus those that seemed to find their way several months in. It’s a good time for brewers and drinkers alike when an octet of breweries of this quality open in a single year and I’m forced to scrutinize to this degree.
So what happened to turn things around? Some would say that the current, crowded, ultra-competitive business climate demands it. There are more than 150 brewhouses churning out beer in San Diego County, and plenty more competition from outside interests as well as the ever-present multi-national conglomerates and their acquired and crafty brands. Certainly the need to compete is a driver, but I believe there’s more to it than just that. After all, many say that if you don’t make good beer you’ll be weeded out and left behind, but we have decades of empirical evidence that proves otherwise. So there has to be something else, something more. I think in many cases, it comes down to pride, which is not a deadly sin when it motivates people to be and do their best.
From interviewing many new brewery owners, it seems more and more of them are asking questions of local brewing professionals during and beyond the start-up process. Local brewery owners’ and brewers’ openness to newcomers and would-be competitors has been a hallmark of the San Diego suds scene and cited innumerable times as a key reason the region has risen to prominence. More importantly than having conversations and posing questions, it would seem these entrepreneurs are listening, even when the answers and feedback they receive aren’t what they want to hear, and adjusting their courses accordingly or striving harder to produce quality beer. Many are the homebrewers in the past who were so enamored with their recipes and the 100%-positive feedback of their friends and family that they felt no need to ask for help or lean on the immense experience located almost inconceivably right at their fingertips.
And speaking of homebrewers, while there’s still a large number of them getting into the professional brewing ranks without ever having worked a day in a commercial brewery, more brewery owners are either employing or consulting with fermentation specialists who have built résumés sporting stints well beyond their garages. And it’s making a big difference in the quality of product. Since Bill Batten, the former head brewer for Mikkeller San Diego and senior brewer for AleSmith Brewing, resigned in March, he has consulted on a handful of projects, offering invaluable advice, while he waits to take the reins at his future home, TapRoom Beer Company, a brewpub being built in North Park by the owners of Pacific Beach bar and eatery SD TapRoom. Other brewing-industry veterans have been brought in to ensure smoother sailing, both at work-in-progress interests and already operational facilities, and it has paid off in each case.
Then there are the large breweries incapable of providing enough advancement opportunities to maintain staff because there are only so many master, head, senior and lead positions to go around. This requires brewers further down on the org chart to climb the ladder by switching employers. Of course, some of them were only there to get their boots wet in the first place, learning the ropes in order to apply lessons and experience to their own breweries at some point. To see this in action, one need look no further than the Brewery Igniter complex in North Park, where Ballast Point Brewing alums Clayton LeBlanc and Nathan Stephens are gaining a fast name for their new employers at Eppig Brewing behind top-notch beers, and former Stone Brewing small-batch brewer Brian Mitchell is crafting quality out-there beers at his passion project, Pariah Brewing. And up in Vista, another pair of Ballast Pointers, Ryan Sather and Chris Barry, have won over North County imbibers at their fantasy-themed Battlemage Brewing.
Frankly, experienced talent like this wasn’t available in such quantity in the darker days. There are more skilled employees for brewery owners to secure and utilize to their fullest, and they are, even with an unprecedented level of attrition. In recent years, San Diego has lost a certain percentage of top-name talent to other regions. Key departures include former Green Flash Brewing brewmaster Chuck Silva who returned to his Central Coast roots to open Silva Brewing, Pizza Port Solana Beach head brewer Devon Randall moving to Los Angeles to helm Arts District Brewing Company, as well as Cosimo Sorrentino and Ehren Schmidt of Monkey Paw Brewing and Toolbox Brewing, respectively, both of whom moved to Denmark to accept high-profile positions.
Further aiding the cause are the camaraderie and support of San Diego industry organizations such as the San Diego Brewers Guild and the local chapter of the women’s advocacy-focused Pink Boots Society. These have always been factions built to support the rising tide and individual riders of that wave. They are safe havens of sorts for those who choose to pull into port. There are still those who eschew the Guild or feel that mostly-volunteer organization should come to them and win them over before they join (incorrect), but largely, those who want to be a part of the local industry realize the strength and resources that come with the numbers and relationships to be formed in such groups, and register their businesses as soon as they are able. Not coincidentally, member breweries tend to do much better than those who elect to be outsiders.
In addition to the openness and espirit de corps of the Guild and PBS, there is an undercurrent of don’t screw this up for the rest of us that inspires if not forces members to do their darnedest not to fall out of favor with membership by hurting the region’s overall reputation care of bad beer or ill-advised business practices. It’s hard to show your face among your contemporaries when your business or its products are known for having a counterproductive effect that potentially effects them (unless you are completely oblivious and lack self-awareness, and there certainly are plenty of those individuals in the mix). To a degree it comes down to the power of peer pressure, which like pride, it is not necessarily a bad thing when it motivates people to be and do their best.
The past two years have also seen more brewery closings than any 24-month stretch in the history of the local brewing scene. A number of these operations made poor beer, and their removal from the pool raised the level of the liquid within it. And a significant number of the breweries that previously made low-quality beer have upped their game over the years. To some extent, that has to do with the natural evolution of brewing. More people are doing it, thus information regarding techniques yielding optimal results is more readily available than ever before, as is top-notch and ever-advancing technology, but in most cases, it simply comes down to those operations gaining much-needed experience and driving themselves to be better, which is to be recognized and praised.
Four years ago, I ventured the opinion that there had never been more bad beer being brewed in San Diego than ever before, but things have changed for the better. Exploring new breweries—and breweries in general—is fun again, and more likely to involve defect-free and, often, exceptional ales and lagers. For the reasons above (and many more), the quality of San Diego beer as a whole is better, in my opinion, than at any time since I’ve been covering this beat. Kudos to the many in the industry working collectively and individually to maintain our region’s integrity and reputation.
Before Ballast Point Brewing was a company capable of commanding decuple figures, before it grew into San Diego County’s largest brewery and one of the biggest beer-producers in the country, before there even was a brewery called Ballast Point, there was Home Brew Mart (HBM). That Linda Vista hobby shop—one of the first to grace America’s Finest City—opened quietly in 1992 and, over the following quarter-century, has ignited a fire for recreational fermentation within a great many ale-and-lager neophytes. That includes individuals who now own breweries and brew professionally. Some of that contingent even worked for HBM in its early days. In celebration of the big two-five, Ballast Point is creating Family Reunion collaboration beers with those ex-employees as well as former BP brewers, an impressive assemblage of well-known, award-winning talent.
Several of the beers have already been released, while others are scheduled to be brewed in time for them to all be on-tap at HBM’s 25th anniversary event on September 24. The following is a breakdown of the collaborators, their creations and their past.
In an effort to increase its current employee base’s knowledge on the history of BP and its eldest venue, vice president Colby Chandler asked each collaborator to speak to present-day brewers about their time with the company, how it was then and how it prepared them to venture out on their own. Many said that making beer at such a fast-growing brewing company provided them wide-ranging experience as well as reference points for overcoming myriad obstacles. According to Chandler, many brewery owners, in particular, felt their time with BP made it much easier once they were working for themselves.
In addition to the HBM anniversary event, BP is also holding a series of beer-pairing dinners incorporating the aforementioned collaboration brews at HBM. The next will take place on August 24 and include five courses served with Swemiceros, Bay to Bay, Scripps Tease and various other BP beers. Chandler, Tweet, Stephens, LeBlanc and Ceniceros will all be in attendance.