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Opinion: San Diego beer is better than ever

Aug 23

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.

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First Look: Viewpoint Brewing Company

Jul 11

Photo by William Perls

Back in March, we introduced you to key personnel from Viewpoint Brewing Company (2201 San Dieguito Drive, Del Mar), Charles Koll and Gunnar Plantar. The former conceptualized the business and brought on the latter to lead the kitchen, but both are chefs with white-linen backgrounds. Over the past four months, they’ve been busy putting finishing touches on their brewpub (Del Mar’s first-ever beer manufacturer), which included hiring a head brewer. Not surprisingly, that individual, Moe Katomski, amassed years of chef experience before transitioning to the fermentation industry via a job with Vista’s Bear Roots Brewing. As soon as next week, the general public will be able to see what this trio of toques has been working on when Viewpoint opens its doors.

Photo by William Perls

The opening has been a long time coming—more than three years, in fact. Having recently toured the space, that time was put to good use. Viewpoint is in a simultaneously great and not-ideal location. Located across the San Dieguito Lagoon from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, it is highly visible and should receive plenty of patronage, not only from San Diego County Fair and Del Mar Racetrack visitors, but Del Mar residents, in general, and walkers on the trail abutting Viewpoint’s shaded outdoor patio. The latter area is outfitted in a mixture of concrete and artificial turf, with live-edge, wooden communal tables and banquettes with tabletop fire features, as well as large, open, globe-shaped swings and corn-hole setups. These contemporary SoCal environs are particularly inviting and will surely inspire would-be exercisers to sit a spell and shift from calorie-burning to consumption.

Photo by William Perls

Those dropping in by car might find themselves a little less enamored rolling into a parking lot that, with Viewpoint’s industrial roots fully exposed (perhaps to too great an extent, aesthetically), doesn’t appear to house a restaurant. The front door is small and inauspicious, but upon stepping through it, guests figure to be glad they did. While not as luxurious as the patio, the main dining room is neatly situated and comfortable. A zig-zagging bar gives way to two high-top communal tables and additional bar-seating bordering Viewpoint’s fermenter tanks. Roll-up garage-style doors provide access to the outdoor area as well as a pair of Skee Ball tables, further increasing the family-friendly aspect.

Photo by William Perls

Viewpoint’s license allows for sale of guest beers to supplement a selection of house brews currently coming in at five. Katomski’s wares include a single-malt-and-single-hop (SMASH) beer made with Maris Otter and Chinook hops, a rye IPA with Red X malt that lends a chocolate-like character washed away by a dank finish, and a light-bodied Belgian-style saison that’s herbaceous and lemony with a hint of bubble gum. There is also a pair of pale ales. The first, Pleasant Surprise, was the initial beer run through Viewpoint’s 15-barrel system and didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but is not without its charms. Built on a Kölsch-recipe base with minimal infusion of Chinook hops for bittering, it may actually be a big hit with Del Martians. The second go at that beer is big on citrusy Mandarina Bavaria hops and a much more successful iteration in Katomski’s opinion. That recipe is now set in stone.

Photo by William Perls

Drinkability and approachability were strived for and achieved with Viewpoint’s first beers, but Katomski also plans to follow some suggestions from Plantar, who regularly turns him on to exotic ingredients from the culinary world. For now, he’s fighting the urge to get “too crazy” and that seems a good game-plan for a community that has yet to have much exposure to craft beer.

Photo by William Perls

With so many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a for-chefs-by-chefs menu that’s overly extensive and out of control. Viewpoint’s is relatively brief but offers variety, including an assortment of appetizers that includes riffs on poutine and Jidori chicken wings served by the dozen with house sauces, charcuterie, salads, sandwiches, entrées (steak frites, salmon) and desserts. Beer and its ingredients make it into accoutrements such as a hop vinaigrette and milk stout demi-glace. Then there’s a rare first for the local beer scene, a beer-and-food flight wherein three of Viewpoint’s beers are served with a trio of pretzel bao buns stuffed with ingredients selected to match their liquid counterparts.

Following its debut, Viewpoint will be open seven days a week. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. it will operate as a tasting room offering light bites, before converting to a full-on restaurant from 4 to 11 p.m.

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Beer to the Rescue back bigger than ever to help lupus patients

May 3

When I was diagnosed with the chronic auto-immune disease, lupus, in 2014, I felt very ill and entirely defenseless. I’d been suffering from the condition without a diagnosis for nearly a decade and was dismayed that there is no cure or medications specifically engineered to combat lupus. Nearly three years later, I am still rather ill, but I feel emboldened and lifted by the support of so many in the brewing community (60-plus and counting)  who have come together to help, not just me, but lupus patients throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties, by participating in the Beer to the Rescue charity campaign established to raise funds for the Lupus Foundation of Southern California.

Over the past two years, this campaign has raised more than $70,000 to fund the complimentary support services the LFSC provides locals in need as well as their work to support research and educational initiatives. Because dozens of San Diego County breweries brewed charity beers, made donations and held fundraising events, the LFSC is able to do more and people like me have reasons to be more helpful. We also have cause for increased happiness. Before Beer to the Rescue, most of the lupus sufferers the organization helps only saw each other when commiserating at support group gatherings. A fringe benefit of this cause is that its events are fun ways for lupus patients to comingle in an enjoyable, uplifting atmosphere where they feel cared for and supported. For that, we thank the participating breweries as well as the many, many beer fans who have come out to support the cause. It’s all of this that led me to push to make this year’s Beer to the Rescue campaign the biggest and best yet for all of us.

The 2017 Beer to the Rescue calendar kicked off on May 1 and includes over 40 events packed into the month of May—Lupus Awareness Month. At least one event will take place at a local brewery or watering hole each day this month, and hit numerous communities from Downtown to Fallbrook to Oceanside to PB to La Mesa and more, providing opportunities for beer enthusiasts and humanitarians all over the county to take part and enjoy some good beer and good times, in many cases right alongside the LFSC’s volunteers and beneficiaries. The full schedule is provided below. Thank you to everyone out there who has helped move the needle and make a positive difference for our region’s lupus patients. It means more than you can know and we look forward to seeing you around San Diego in May! To keep up with Beer to the Rescue, you can check out the campaign’s official website or follow on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (@beertotherescue).

All-Month 5/1-31
Spring Fling Lemon Verbena Saison @ Bitter Brothers Brewing Co.
Daily Grind Coffee Cream Ale @ All Oggi’s Locations
Monday 5/1
Beer to the Rescue Kick-Off @ Rip Current Brewing Co. – North Park
Tuesday 5/2
Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
Wednesday 5/3
Dank Drank Charity Beer Fundraiser @ Pariah Brewing Co.
Thursday 5/4
Coffee IPA Fundraiser @ Duck Foot Brewing Co.
Beer to the Rescue Night @ Thorn St. Brewery
Friday 5/5
– Cinco de Drinko Fundraiser @ Booze Brothers Brewing Co.
Saturday 5/6
– A Sweet & Sour Fundraiser @ Indian Joe Brewing
Sunday 5/7
– Beer to the Rescue Day @ Pure Project Brewing
Monday 5/8
– Beer to the Rescue Rafflemania @ All Barrel Harbor Brewing Co. Locations
Tuesday 5/9
Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
Wednesday 5/10
Mason Ale Works Charity IPA Fundraiser @ All Urge Gastropub Locations
Brett Coast IPA Fundraiser @ Green Flash Brewing Co. – Cellar 3
Thursday 5/11
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ North Park Beer Co.
Friday 5/12
– Specialty Beer Fundraiser @ Mission Brewery
– Hoppy Saison Fundraiser @ Kilowatt Brewing Co.
Saturday 5/13
– Dank & Sticky XPA Fundraiser @ Second Chance Beer Co.
– Prodigy Brewing Co. Collaboration Nelson Lager Fundraiser @ Dos Desperados Brewery
Sunday 5/14
– Hazy Double IPA Fundraiser @ All Amplified Ale Works Locations
Monday 5/15
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ New English Brewing Co.
Tuesday 5/16
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
Resident Brewing Co. Beer to the Rescue Night @ The Local Eatery Downtown
Wednesday 5/17
– Blood Orange Double IPA Fundraiser @ Division 23 Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ 32 North Brewing Co.
Thursday 5/18
Nickel Beer Co. Hops to the Rescue Double IPA Fundraiser @ O’Brien’s Pub
Friday 5/19
– South African Nelson IPA Fundraiser @ Bay City Brewing Co.
Saturday 5/20
Prodigy Brewing Co. Collaboration Nelson Lager Fundraiser @ Dos Desperados Brewery
– Beer to the Rescue Day @ Bolt Brewery La Mesa
Sunday 5/21
– Blonde Session IPA Fundraiser @ 2kids Brewing Co.
Monday 5/22
– Beer to the Rescue Cask Night @ Benchmark Brewing Co.
Tuesday 5/23
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
Wednesday 5/24
– Beer to the Rescue Week Kick-Off @ White Labs
Thursday 5/25
– Charity IPA Fundraiser @ Belching Beaver Brewery – Oceanside
Friday 5/26
– Corn-Hole & Foosball Tournament @ Iron Fist Brewing Co. – Vista
– Belgian Coffee Ale Fundraiser @ Burning Beard Brewing
Saturday 5/27
– Bottle Beer Release @ Toolbox Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Day @ Fallbrook Brewing Co.
Sunday 5/28
– Oat Imperial Pale Lager Fundraiser @ ChuckAlek Biergarten
Monday 5/29
– Trending Travis-ty Hazy Session IPA Fundraiser @ Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station
Tuesday 5/30
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
Wednesday 5/31
– Beer to the Rescue Closing Ceremonies @ Rip Current Brewing Co. – San Marcos
Thursday 6/1
– Nickel Beer Co. Hops to the Rescue Double IPA Fundraiser @ West Coast BBQ & Brews

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Beer of the Week: Bear Roots Bear Cookie

Feb 24

Bear Cookie Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout seved on nitro at Vista’s Bear Roots Brewing

From the Beer Writer: Peanut-butter beers enjoyed a brief boom two or three years ago, but even at the height of their popularity, they were polarizing. Adventurous drinkers and fans of the flavor of peanut-butter embraced them with open arms while “beer purists” denounced them as nutty bastardizations of their beloved beverage of choice. While there are few I’ve enjoyed, I’ve never had anything against these brews. Made with various (in the best cases, all-natural) peanut additives, they are usually dark beers that are brewed with deeply-kilned malts, and sometimes cacao or chocolate, to bring on a dessert-like flavor-profile. I approach these beers the same way I approach the last course of a meal, in search of a luscious, sweet sensation. But because it’s beer versus a hibernation-inducing slab of cake, drinkability is important. It can’t be overly sugary and has to balance that peanut-butter essence. Most breweries’ attempts at this come up short, but this is not so at Vista’s Bear Roots Brewing. This one-year-old nano’s Bear Cookie chocolate peanut butter stout is like a well-made truffle filled with nut-infused nougat. These flavors are presented in just the right proportions in a 6.4% alcohol-by-volume beer that has a gently satisfying presence on the palate that’s soft and velvety when dispensed on nitrogen. It is hands-down the best peanut-butter beer being made in San Diego County right now.

From the Brewer: “When I first started home-brewing and dreaming of the idea of opening a brewery, I made a lot of beer around the styles my wife and I enjoyed drinking. Bear Cookie was one that was brewed for my wife and inspired by other great versions on this style. When we first opened our doors, we had not planned on coming to market with this style, as North County had a few already, but given this was my wife’s favorite of my home-brews, it was hard not to eventually put it on tap. Originally, we poked fun at ourselves by calling it ‘We Made One Too”. One thing we love about the craft industry is that you can run a serious business but have a lot of fun doing it along the way! After all, we make beer for a living. Eventually, we realized that coming up with actual names for our beer would be important as we grew, so we turned to our most trusted source for some naming advicec…our then three-year-old. Anytime I would work late nights at the brewery, he would ask if I was going to the Bear Cookie store. Given our name, Bear Roots, our sons’s love for cookies, and the fact that our beer has cookie elements in it, my wife and I thought “Bear Cookie” was very fitting. We use eight different malts, including chocolate, roasted barley, Munich, oats and a few more. The base of the beer is bready, but has a lighter body and crisp finish. On nitro, I think the flavors really blend nicely and it’s one of my go to beers when enjoying a pint at the brewery. Given the fact we are attached to a homebrew store, we have been able to experiment and refine this recipe over the last year, making it one of our most popular beers. I love that we have a completely different take on the style, yet it is enjoyed by many craft-beer fans who dabble in chocolate peanut butter goodness!”Terry Little, Owner & Brewmaster, Bear Roots Brewing Company

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Best Beer Futures: Expansions

Oct 26
A rendering of Karl Strauss' proposed Santee complex

A rendering of Karl Strauss’ proposed Santee complex

For years, I’ve named the most promising work-in-progress brewing companies on a bi-annual basis. The scene is always changing and new projects are always coming onboard, requiring a twice-per-year check-in. Earlier this month, I examined the most intriguing new breweries being chiseled into reality in the north and south regions of San Diego County. In this third of a three-part series, I’m taking a look at new venues being opened by existing local brewing operations.

Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Santee: Karl Strauss is San Diego’s longest-running post-Prohibition brewing interest and the reigning Champion Medium-Sized Brewing Company after big wins at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. Those wins came courtesy this 27-year-old stalwart exhibiting greater innovation than at any time in its history, extending to the magnificent design of its recently opened Anaheim brewpub. It figures this train of high-quality will keep chugging along when Karl’s crew comes to Santee to build its biggest project to-date, an expansive facility at Town Center Parkway and Cuyamaca Street that will serve as its new headquarters. Like many East County brewery-owned projects, it’s faced more than its fair share of governmental and public scrutiny, but is still high on Karl Strauss’ project list if not a bit far off, time-wise.

Mason Ale Works, San Marcos: The Urge Gastropub chain will add another link next year when Urge Common House opens as one of the anchor businesses of San Marcos’ upcoming North City development. Designed to appeal to nearly every demographic with a full-scale restaurant, multiple bars, bowling lanes and bocce ball courts, it will also include a second brewery for the business’ brewing arm, Mason Ale Works. That brand has done well since debuting its beers early this year, creating the need for increased brewing capacity to support distribution demand.

San Diego Brewing CompanyNorth Park: It only took this business 23 years to grow out of its Grantville brewpub. The vehicle for them to do so is H.G. Fenton‘s Brewery Igniter model, wherein business owners takeover ready-to-brew combo breweries and tasting rooms, installing their own concept. It will be interesting to see what the SDBC team does with increased production from an independent 10-barrel system and extra cellar capacity and how their beers fare on the open market, now that they will be distributed versus exclusively available at the original location.

Groundswell Brewing Company, Santee: Due to the small size of the brewing system and cellar at its Grantville brewery, Groundswell explored contract-brewing options, having some of its beers brewed for them by Twisted Manzanita Ales. The latter business folded in March, putting its combo brewery, distillery and tasting room up for sale. Bolstered by increased beer-quality from a new brewmaster, Groundswell’s going all-in, snatching up that East County real-estate for its own use…and even making plans to begin distilling in the not-too-distant future.

Thorn St. Brewery, Barrio Logan: Many have touted the rebirth of Barrio Logan for years, and it has far more to offer than it did when it was less hospitable and, in many peoples’ eyes, a dangerous place to found one’s self after dark. With each new business that takes a chance on the neighborhood, the better it gets. Two breweries (Border X Brewing and Iron Fist Brewing) have done that, but Thorn St. will be the first to bring in brewing equipment with a small system that will service its tasting room and retail operation.

Other Exciting Projects

Barrel Harbor Brewing Company, Miramar: The owner of this Vista-based brewery is teaming with a Miramar gaming spot to open the first-ever brewery tasting room with table-top/role-playing amenities.

Bear Roots Brewing Company, TBA: It remains to be seen how this breakaway hit nano-brewery will expand, but with quality beers and two viable plans, it will be a storyline worth following.

Kilowatt Beer Co., Ocean Beach: OB has two brewpubs and four tasting-rooms, but there’s room for this Kearny Mesa’s western satellite, which will be black-lit, artistic and wholly original.

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