I remember sitting in the FM 94/9 studio during an edition of the station’s Rock and Roll Happy Hour that brought together members of AleSmith Brewing Company and newly established Mikkeller Brewing San Diego. Long-time AleSmith brewer Bill Batten was on the microphone, professing that he would always be AleSmith at his core, while explaining that he was transitioning to a new role as head brewer for Mikkeller. While he may be AleSmith for life, the same cannot be said for Mikkeller. Batten resigned last week, choosing to move on due to what he describes as creative differences with company co-owner Mikkel Borg Bjergsø.
Batten joined AleSmith in 2002. During his 13 years with the company, he served in both sales and brewing capacites, ending out as senior brewer. When AleSmith owner Peter Zien moved the company to a larger facility in 2015, he formed a creative partnership with Bjergsø to form Mikkeller San Diego, retaining a minority-stake in the business. Batten stayed at the original brewery, becoming a full-time employee of Mikkeller San Diego, heading production and leading an eventual team of brewers.
It’s Batten’s opinion that both he and Mikkeller San Diego will be better off in the long run following his departure. As for his future, it is wide open. When resigning, he did not have another job lined up. Given his tenure and popularity within the industry, matched with the number of operations in town in search of a veteran brewer, he is sure to command a great deal of interest on the open-market.
As for the future of the position Batten vacated, representatives from Mikkeller San Diego had not yet formulated a long-term solution, but cited faith in their remaining brewing team. Brewers Daniel Cady, Chris Gillogly and Jacobo Mendoza will continue to produce the increasingly diverse line of beers Bjergsø conceives from afar. Currently, the brewery’s majority-owner devises concepts for recipes he shares via regular conference-calls and email communications. Those ideas and initial recipes are then adjusted by on-site staff to work with the Miramar brewery’s equipment.
Last year, 10-year Denmark-based gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø hammered down stakes in Miramar, transforming AleSmith Brewing Co.’s original brewery into Mikkeller Brewing San Diego. His brewing team spent most of 2016 getting the feel of the facility. Now that group feels ready to be more aggressive in its fermentation activities. Bjergsø has vowed his brick-and-mortar will debut one new small-batch beer on a weekly basis beginning January 12 at its tasting room with a trio of new offerings: bourbon barrel-aged Beer Geek Brunch imperial oatmeal coffee stout, Fruit Face raspberry-coffee Berliner weisse and Uklar IPA. Future “San Diego Beer Release Series” debuts will take place every Saturday starting January 21. Keeping up with such a rapid rate of innovation and execution is no easy task. Curious about this and what it’s been like for this world-famous brewer to find his feet in San Diego, we sat down with him to pick his brain.
WC: What are some surprises you’ve encountered in San Diego?
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø: It’s been surprising how different the beer scene is in the U.S. compared to Europe. There are so many great players—especially in San Diego—and so many great beers. You really have to make an effort to stand out. I think with the new special-release series we will.
WC: What drove the decision to release a new beer every week?
MBB: Brewing a lot of different beers and beer-styles is in our DNA, and it was only a matter of time before we set out to launch a similar release schedule in San Diego. At this point we have an amazing crew in place, the brewing equipment is all dialed in, and our management setup is so in tune with our vision that we are confident now is the time. Most people will associate us with a hectic output of beers in all styles, shapes and formats, which is exactly what they should expect. That, and the totally unexpected, of course. Having your own brewery opens up a world of possibilities that are not usually doable when working in someone else’s brewery, whether it’s contract brewing or on a collaboration basis.
WC: What is your day-to-day involvement like regarding brewing at Mikkeller SD?
MBB: We’ve had to adjust to both the physical distance and time difference, but I am fortunate in the sense that I have to rely on the very capable hands of our head brewer Bill Batten and his team of skilled assistant brewers. It’s still my recipes and vision, which we will discuss through our daily email chains and our weekly conference-call.
WC: What other interesting or exciting developments are on the horizon for Mikkeller SD?
MBB: There are a lot of super-exciting things under development, but the sour and barrel-aged beer programs are two projects we are putting a lot of effort into. We have such a creative team over there, and it seems that no matter how crazy the idea and/or recipe I throw at them, they enthusiastically turn those into great beer. We are also working on new collaborations with other breweries, and non-brewers as well.
WC: You’ve spent more time than ever in San Diego. What are some of your favorite local breweries?
MBB: I hate to name favorite breweries as it pushes the rest to the side. In the San Diego area there are obviously a ton of amazing brewers, from the old guys like Stone Brewing, Green Flash Brewing Co. and Ballast Point Brewing, to the young guns like Abnormal Beer Co., Toolbox Brewing Co., Modern Times Beer Co. and many others. I still have a big heart for our friends at AleSmith, so if I have to name one…
From the Beer Writer: When Mikkeller announced plans to merge with San Diego stalwart AleSmith Brewing Company, I, like many, was very excited. This partnership brought together two very different yet reputable brewing interests—a gypsy with a flair for the wild and dramatic, and a 20-year-old brewery with a portfolio of traditional hits. When Mikkeller Brewing San Diego debuted in April, it was with great anticipation that I tasted through its first-run beers. That list was well over a dozen strong, but the greatest feature of the beer line-up was its length. I had hoped for more adventurous beers in keeping with the decade-old Mikkeller MO, but most of the offerings were either traditional beers—pale ale, porter, Berliner weiss, old ale—or one-off versions of staples like Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast. Frankly, it was pretty underwhelming. But there was one beer that stood out from the crowd right off the bat; one that I would go on to rave about during many a conversation about local beer…Mikkeller Amoeba Brett IPA. The Brettanomyces that gives it its funky, dry, peppery qualities is profound, but not overly so. The wild yeast teams with the beer’s hop-bill to form a nice symbiosis hinted at by the pine-forest-meets-barnyard scents rising from this India pale ale’s fluffy white head. Up until now, I haven’t had the opportunity to have as much of this beer as I’d have liked, but that all changed two weeks ago when the brewery canned what is now the only Brett-infused beer I’ve seen in aluminum cylinders. It’s best to keep this beer refrigerated to retard the effects of the wild yeast and keep the hoppiness at maximum levels, but with flavors this good, it’s unlikely long-term storage will be much of an issue.
From the Brewer: “Amoeba Brett IPA is available exclusively at our tasting room. It’s designed to showcase the flavor and aroma complexity that can be created by using certain hop varietals along with different Brettanomyces strains. Amoeba is a 100% Brettanomyces-fermented IPA with an alcohol content of 6.5% . Our inaugural canned batch showcases a blend of Galaxy, Centennial, Columbus and Equinox hops. With this combination, we focused on notes of passion fruit, papaya, citrus and pine, which creates an incredible stage to layer with the tropical-fruit notes that the specialty Brettanomyces strain that we have selected can create. This special blend creates an aromatic and flavorful treat that any IPA aficionado will be sure to appreciate. The intention of Amoeba is to create a beer without boundaries that will be ever evolving, so be sure to try our future releases and follow this unique style that will be ever-changing and always offer something unique.”—Bill Batten, Head Brewer, Mikkeller Brewing San Diego
This weekend, long-awaited international collaborative project Mikkeller Brewing San Diego opened its doors. The place was mobbed, both by everyday customers stopping in for a taste of the numerous beers in the tasting room, and next-level beer geeks assembling in the lot behind the brewery for a beer-festival that included various local interests as well as hard-to-get beers from cult-favorite brewing companies outside San Diego. When the dust cleared, I was left with a sated palate, a bunch of notes and some photos to share with West Coaster readers. Before we get started, skeptics, haters and trolls will be glad to know that I’m leaving my opinions on beer aroma, flavor and quality out of this. It’s only right. While I do not work for Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, I do work for AleSmith Brewing Company, the founder and CEO of which also has a substantial ownership stake in MBSD. So, I’ll share the basics so you know what to expect going in. But I’ll also share a bit of insight from behind this operation, because there are some fun little items that I’m sure San Diego beer enthusiasts will be interested in.
For those who somehow haven’t heard the story of how Mikkeller SD (as we affectionately refer to it) came to be, here’s the basics. After 19 years of brewing in a small, off-the-beaten-path set of business suites on Cabot Drive in Miramar, AleSmith owner Peter Zien signed on the dotted-line for a 105,500-square-foot facility two blocks away on Empire Street (which the City of San Diego later renamed AleSmith Court). That left Zien to decide what to do with AleSmith’s original facility. A number of companies (even those many craft-beer fans would politely refer to as “unsavory”) came knocking, but instead of entertaining the highest-bidder, Zien pursued an idea based on a nearly decade-old friendship with Danish gypsy-brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergso.
Prior to starting the business he would dub Mikkeller, Bjergso reached out to Zien as a homebrewer to a pro and asked for tips on integrating coffee into an oatmeal stout that, after this question was answered, would go on to be Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast. That beer made a name for Mikkeller, which has since gone on to become an international force worldwide…despite the fact Bjergso has never had a brewery to call his own. Looking to hand over his spot, turnkey-style, he reached out to Bjergso to see if he had any interest in a brick-and-mortar. The answer is yes and the rest is 15 months of history that consists solely of the duo and the recently assembled Mikkeller SD staff working hard to bring this project to life.
Though installed in the same spot as AleSmith’s former tasting room, Mikkeller’s recognizably quirky artistic stamp is all over the place. The floors have been painted turquoise, a mural featuring two very basic (and very flexible), iconic illustrated characters takes up the west wall of the sampling space with additional print art adorning the walls. AleSmith’s curved orange wall has been replaced with contemporary wooden slats that, when matched with modern light-fixtures, are a bit reminiscent of some of MIkkeller’s bars and bottle-shops, of which there are more than a dozen sprinkled across the globe. Best of all, the smallish space has been added to, care of the conversion of some of AleSmith’s former office-space into an overflow seating area just off the main entrance.
The opening-weekend tap-list consisted of 18 beers. It was important to the team at Mikkeller SD to offer a wide array of beers and styles, but I can say from witnessing what into it that it wasn’t easy. Delayed licensing and permitting alone made for a tough row to hoe, but we’re talking 18 beers here. That’s more than many breweries have to offer after having been open for months. And then one must consider the process of getting these beers dialed in to where Bjergso, who spent the majority of his time 10,000 kilometers away in Denmark but came up with base ideas and recipes for the Mikkeller SD beers, was comfortable with them. Beers would be brewed, fermented, then shipped to Denmark. Three of those initial beers—an American pale ale, India pale ale and porter—went through several iterations and were on at AleSmith’s current tap-room over a span of several months. They took a great deal of time and consideration, leaving a mere 15 beers to be brewed before last weekend’s opening—about six weeks down the road.
This is where the story gets pretty cool and the “creative-partnership” between AleSmith and Mikkeller that this new business is labeled became just that. Zien, who has been instrumental in early recipe-refinement (nobody knows the brewery like the man who built it and worked it up from the day’s when it was comprised solely of dairy equipment), pulled out some homebrew recipes and methodologies. Members of AleSmith’s brewing team collaboratively assisted, most notably on Mikkeller SD’s first bottled beer, an English-style old ale dubbed Ny Verden. Other beers that made it in time for the opening were a Belgian-style blonde ale, saison, trippel and dark strong ale, several more IPAs (including a Brettanomyces-spiked offering that I really enjoyed FWIW), a Berliner weisse, a pilsner (and a version of that beer with blood orange), an imperial stout and numerous members of the Beer Geek family of coffee beers.
Overseeing all of this work and brewing all of these beers (with the help of his crew, of course) was head brewer Bill Batten. After well over a decade with AleSmith, he knows the Cabot Drive system like the back of his hand, so when Mikkeller SD was set to become a reality, both he and Zien knew it made sense for this industrious and adventurous brewer to transfer himself, and with him a ton of history and knowhow, to the new business. While I can’t get too opinionated here, I can share that we at AleSmith are extremely proud of Batten, who went as far as roasting some of the coffee for the Beer Geek beers at his own residence. He is the glue that held together a rapidly developing project with the eyes of beer-obsessed people all over the planet.
And the fact he got by with a little help from his friends just makes the story all that much more San Diego in nature. Such camaraderie and willingness to do whatever it takes to make great beer is what this culture is all about, and it’s a big reason why Bjergso was excited to plunk down his first full-time brewery in America’s Finest City. Kudos to a good decision, cheers to a local beer landmark staying that way via a new identity, and props to the beer-lovers who have made and continue to make San Diego the very special place that it is.
There aren’t many beer drinkers in San Diego who haven’t heard of Hamiltons Tavern. Its vocal publican Scot Blair — an instructor in SDSU’s Business of Craft Beer program — has helped push the local craft brewing scene forward in ways few others have; you can read his recent manifesto here. This month, Blair & co celebrate nine years in South Park with a flurry of thoughtful events. Already, they were the first to tap the Juli Goldenberg/Monkey Paw/Stone 24 Carrot Golden Ale on October 2, before hosting an Oktoberfest pub crawl along with Small Bar and Monkey Paw that featured more than 55 German and German-inspired beers on October 4.
Yesterday, beertenders tapped a one-off barrel-aged stout, Ourboros, created in tandem with Green Flash’s Pat Korn and former brewmaster Chuck Silva; the brewery has created a special beer for each of Hamiltons’ nine anniversaries. Another night with Green Flash on October 21 will feature fundraiser beer Treasure Chest and a limited-edition keeper glass. This event coincides with DrinkAbout, a free shuttle to multiple neighborhood bars sponsored by Brewery Tours of San Diego.
Today at 5 p.m., The Lost Abbey takes over more than 20 taps for the tavern’s monthly “Second Saturday” event; several of the beers are considered quite rare, demonstrating Blair’s respect within the industry. The Spanish missionary-themed food menu is impressive, and free, so show up early.
On Friday, October 16, beer from another local legend — Tom Nickel at Nickel Beer Co. — graces the cask. An English-style best bitter brewed as a “pseudo-experiment” with Blair in Julian, there were no hops in the boil, but plenty of fresh local hops added afterwards, leading to a mildly bitter, malty finish.
Two other “Firkin Friday” events are planned. On October 23, Hamilton’s welcomes New English Brewing and a cask of their Adams Ave Imperial Porter, a collaboration celebrating bottleshop Bine & Vine’s 4th Anniversary. Seven more New English beers are expected, including the GABF gold medal-winning Zumbar Chocolate Coffee Imperial Stout (both Nitro & CO2 versions). A week later on October 30, a cask of AleSmith seasonal beer Evil Dead Red duels with Monkey Paw/Bill Batten (AleSmith) Ashes from the Grave Smoked Brown.
November’s no slouch, either, with San Diego Beer Week coming November 6-15. Check out details on all the events here.
Disclosure: Hamiltons is an advertising supporter of West Coaster, but this post was unsolicited.