Last year, beer fans started noticing vehicle signage and a “golden IPA” from an unknown entity throughout San Diego County. They inquired to me directly and questioned the masses via social media: “Anybody know anything about this Beach Grease Beer Co. I’ve been seeing around?”
This went on for most of 2018 until last November when I was able to get the background on what turned out to be a local operation from owner James Banuelos. A fan of beach culture and classic automobiles, he had a spot on Scott Street in Vista that served as his headquarters. The only problem—it lacks brewing equipment.
Until now, Banuelos has gotten around that by having his beer contract brewed by Mission Brewery. Additionally, Banuelos has assisted that East Village interest by helping out with marketing duties. All the while, he maintained a search for a facility of his own, and he found it in the brewery-equipped space recently shut down by the owners of Vista’s SpecHops Brewing.
Located at 1280 Activity Drive, the 6,500-square-foot industrial-park suite is part of a cluster of Vista ale-and-lager interests that includes Latitude 33 Brewing, Toolbox Brewing, Belching Beaver Brewery’s Pub980, Barrel Harbor Brewing and Booze Brothers Brewing. Its 15-barrel brewing system was lightly used in the 10 or so months SpecHops was open to the public before shutting down at the end of the year.
Banuelos is pleased to now have a base of operations that will allow him to get his beers to market. Those will include various IPAs as well as a hoppy pilsner called Piston Palm. He is currently in search of a brewer and reports a great deal of interest on that front.
In addition to brewing capabilities, Beach Grease’s new home offers a tasting room with an L-shaped bar and a spacious interior area on the building’s south side that was previously furnished with sofas and picnic tables. The manufacturing area is completely visible and separated from public space by a rail bar. There is no immediate timetable for its debut under the Beach Grease flag.
North County’s Belching Beaver Brewery boasts five locations throughout San Diego County—a large production facility in Oceanside, an indoor-outdoor brewpub in Old Town Vista, tasting rooms in North Park and Ocean Beach, and its original Vista brewery. With so many properties and ownership’s eyes on potential future facilities north of San Diego, there were plans to let go of the latter, but an idea from creative employees of the five-year-old company to add an in-house food component to the spot where it all began for the Beav’ saved it from being sold. After eight months of design and construction, that concept, Pub980 (980 Park Center Drive, Vista) is set to debut to the public on Monday, January 15.
Much like when the company took over a former bank and converted it into Belching Beaver Brewery Tavern and Grill, one can’t help but speculate at how well an interest most known for fermentation will do with a restaurant concept. And much as with its first foray into food service, Belching Beaver has come through with flying colors with Pub980. What was once a single-suite combination brewery and tasting room now utilizes double the indoor square-footage to deliver a split concept that relies on a shared bar to deliver a choose-your-own-adventure experience.
Visitors to Pub980 who merely want to sample through Belching Beaver’s beers can do so in the original tasting room on the right side of the space, while those who wish to dine can head left where high-top wooden tables of varying sizes await, dressed with red, lumberjack flannel runners conveying a camping theme that’s driven home by numerous clever elements. Those include a beautiful living wall with a pair of tents pitched above it that hovers over a stone-enclosed fish pond, tree branches bundled into a wall in front of the restrooms and the pièce de résistance, a fully operational kitchen made to look like a towed-in trailer complete with white-wall tires. These elements mesh nicely with oak-occupied barrel racks, strands of hanging bulbs and a large Chuck E. Cheese-like beaver statue (the non-creepy audio-animatronic type).
Additionally, the Belching Beaver team has done a great job incorporating a pre-existing outdoor patio complete with fire-pits and Adirondack chairs (a design staple that can also be found at its original brewpub). To really bring home the camping motif, the kitchen offers hot-dog and s’mores kits complete with lengthy skewers so patrons can prepare their own vittles over open flames should the mood strike them. Those are offered on top of a robust menu of pub grub ranging from hot wings, cheese curds, fish tacos and sandwiches to a surprisingly wide array of salads. The menu isn’t a huge departure from the original pub (it was developed by the same chef), but it is intentionally different. Owner Tom Vogel and company aren’t naïve to the fact Belching Beaver’s pair of eateries are a mere six miles apart, and want to offer unique experiences at each.
On the food side, particularly impressive are the cheesesteaks, which are authentic in their use of shaved quality ribeye, but upgrade the fromage element, going with real cheese and “Beaver beer cheese” versus Philly-preferred Whiz. A Classic, SoCal (avocado, Swiss and jalapeño-avocado sauce) Hawaiian (Kalua pork, pineapple and teriyaki sauce) and chicken-bacon versions are available. Burgers, a Chicago dog, assorted wraps and Troy’s corn dog (named after brewmaster Troy Smith) round out the hand-held mains. The latter isn’t the only item named for someone. Vogel dug in his heels to get Tom’s fried clams on the menu. They can be had with a beer for a discounted price the Friday during week-long grand-opening festivities, January 15-20, when a different $9.80 food-and-drink deal will be offered each day.
Pub980 is very well done, especially given the relatively modest size of the project. Vogel says the new venue is all about family, and that creating a place where parents can bring their kids to do more than sit around while their parents drank beer was a big focus during the design phase. Having visited during a rehearsal dinner service where children were present (and having made s’mores with several of them outside) I can say with confidence they’ve come through in spades on this objective. Pub980 should serve those who venture to it, as well as the clientele lured from the many nearby business and industrial parks, quite well.
Pub980’s hours of operation will be 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 am. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays.
Two days ago I recapped last year’s brewery closures, citing eight that had shut their doors, including two that did so the final week of 2017. Just four days into 2018, it’s already time to cover the New Year’s first impending closure. This time it’s Oceanside Ale Works (1800 Ord Way, Oceanside), which announced yesterday via social media that it will be shutting down, but not before a final service on Saturday, January 6. OAW holds the dubious distinction of being the longest tenured local brewery to go out of business in the modern brewery era.
Inquiries to ownership were not immediately answered.
Established in 2006, OAW rose to popularity as an after-hours industrial-suite hangout, gaining enough of a mostly-local following to substantiate a move to a second location roughly a half-decade later. At that point, ownership upped its available square-footage and brewing capacity while adding a barrel-aging program that went on to earn critical acclaim. After the move, OAW’s traditionally low prices remained below the industry average, but heavy patronage made the math work.
When OAW opened, Breakwater Brewing was its only competition in the City of Oceanside. Now, fermentation operations of all sizes dot the landscape from the renowned Bagby Beer Co. to large-scale operations like Belching Beaver Brewery and Mason Ale Works to Camp Pendleton-adjacent Legacy Brewing to more recent additions such as Black Plague Brewing, Midnight Jack Brewing and Northern Pine Brewing to rival for municipality-namesake status Oceanside Brewing. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the 20-plus breweries in the neighboring Vista and Carlsbad communities.
On a personal note, OAW was one of the very first breweries I visited when I really began getting into locally-produced craft beer; venturing to production facilities to find out who made my beer and experience the full breadth of their creations versus simply drinking whatever I encountered on tap at retail establishments. From the moment I walked into OAW, owner Mark Purciel and his staff made me feel right at home and excited about beer. Keep in mind that I was not yet a journalist, simply an eager enthusiast, so the treatment I received was the type afforded every customer.
Having shared conversations with many OAW patrons, including professional brewers such as Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station brewing manager Kris Ketcham, who participated in his first professional brew with Purciel at the company’s original location on Oceanic Drive, Purciel was a positive driving force that reeled them in and kept them coming back. A former school teacher with a fun brand of mentorship at the core of his being, he was the face of the business, and he will surely be missed in the San Diego brewing scene.
This year saw more new-brewery openings than any in San Diego County’s history. Happily, in this reporter’s opinion, more of them were of good quality than in year’s past. Enough that whittling down a list of the top half-dozen was extremely difficult, and ranking that sextet even harder. At least three breweries were on the bubble for the last spot, so if you’re using this as any sort of guide to the good stuff, don’t feel encouraged to limit your brewery touring to these selections. These are just your best bets based on the opinion of one well-researched individual. In that spirit, feel free to leave comments about any exceptional new breweries you’ve discovered over the past 12 months in the comments section. (Author’s Note: Breweries marked with an asterisk opened in 2016, but too late to be considered for the list of best new breweries for that calendar year.)
Eppig Brewing * | North Park: Nathan Stephens and Clayton LeBlanc, the duo producing the beers at this Brewery Igniter standout have a tasting room exhibiting the variety of the Little Italy outpost of their previous employers, Ballast Point Brewing. That’s saying something, especially since brewing days there resemble a game of life-sized Tetris. Still, some of the finest, most consistent lagers, plus an array of nice hoppy and even sour ales provide glimpses of what seems a very bright future for this reincarnation of a nineteenth-century family fermentation business.
Wild Barrel Brewing | San Marcos: Beer fans everywhere couldn’t help but wonder how well infinitely popular ale-and-lager expert “Dr.” Bill Sysak would fare as a brewery owner. Commenting on beer is one thing, but manufacturing it is a different game entirely. With the help of head brewer Bill Sobieski, he’s fared extremely well, hitting the ground running this fall with quality IPAs, an effective entry-level witbier and a brilliant coffee stout. Throw in a stellar tasting room complete with a gargantuan barrel at its center, and you have something special.
Burgeon Beer Co. * | Carlsbad: After gaining experience at Stone Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing and Back Street Brewery, Anthony Tallman united with long-time friends to forge his own business, and it’s been going strong since day one. Built around a smart, modern-day business model combining outside keg sales with regular in-house can releases, this newcomer has built a solid following around an array of multi-faceted IPAs and dark beers. No trend is off limits for them. That said, they’re at their best when they stay true to tradition.
Pariah Brewing | North Park: Some say this Prince-ly purple, dungeon-esque Brewery Igniter spot is no place for beer purists, and while it’s true that Stone and Helm’s Brewing alum Brian Mitchell specializes in beers that go outside the box by incorporating an array of flavorful adjuncts as simple as coffee and orange peel to as oddball as fenugreek and uni (yes, sea urchin), there are to-style gems like Indie Or Bust IPA. But this place is geared to adventurous drinkers and provides an impressive departure from the everyday, even in a town soaked in beer.
Battlemage Brewing | Vista: Role-playing game enthusiasts got a brewery playing to their passions when yet another former Ballast Point duo, Ryan Sather and Chris Barry, teamed to open this testament to the communal power of beers and broadswords. It’s become an ideal backdrop for fans of RPG and tabletop enterprises, but you don’t have to know the difference between a Halfling and a half-orc to appreciate the beers, which flow into rarely charted territory (dark mild, old ale) and come across clean and tasty. Perfect sustenance for a lengthy campaign.
Black Plague Brewing | Oceanside: An operation that looked like it might veer off course at the onset of its journey steered its way into veteran leadership when it contracted former AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer Bill Batten to assist with its fermentation operations. The resulting line-up of beers, including multi-fruited takes on an IPA that’s best on its own, plus myriad other styles, is fun and highly drinkable. The name, plague-doctor motif and black-walled tasting room are strange, but the beer provides a guiding light.
This Year’s Other Contenders: Align Brewing (Miramar), Alta Brewing (Barrio Logan), Chula Vista Brewery (Chula Vista), Circle 9 Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Ebullition Brew Works (Vista), Escondido Brewing (Escondido), Jacked Up Brewing (Escondido), Knotty Brewing * (East Village), OB Brewery * (Ocean Beach), Protector Brewery (Miramar), Rouleur Brewing (Carlsbad), Smoking Cannon Brewery (Ramona), SpecHops Brewing (Vista), SR76 Beerworks (Valley Center), Thunderhawk Alements * (Miramar), Viewpoint Brewing (Del Mar)
Maybe Next Year (Late Additions): California Wild Ales (Sorrento Valley), Deft Brewing (Bay Park), Horus Aged Ales (Oceanside), Northern Pine Brewing (Oceanside), Oeuvre Artisan Ales (Miramar), Savagewood Brewing (Scripps Ranch)
Previous Top-Ranked New Breweries
2016: Burning Beard Brewing (El Cajon), North Park Beer Co. (North Park), Resident Brewing (Downtown), Pure Project Brewing (Miramar), Bear Roots Brewing (Vista), Bitter Brothers Brewing (Bay Ho)
2015: Fall Brewing (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing (South Park), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing (Vista)