Earlier this year, Bear Roots Brewing owner Terry Little enthusiastically shared his plans to graduate from the nano-brewing ranks by installing a six-barrel system at his Vista combo brewery and homebrew shop in order to increase production and begin self-distributing beers around San Diego County. He also filled me in on his other job as chief operating officer and head brewer for Oceanside’s Black Plague Brewing Company. When reconnecting with Little last week, he shared that he had stepped down from his second job and since decided to keep Bear Roots small, investing would-be expansion dollars on different aspects of his business. When asked about his change of heart, he cited the state of the industry and where it appears to be going.
What made you decide to stay small?
Looking at the business model we have and lessons learned over the last 12 months, I thought instead of working on exterior market expansion it was smarter to focus resources internally and put capital into leaner, more efficient systems to maximize production with lower overhead on the same slightly-upgraded equipment, with a few major cellar upgrades. We are still looking at expanding our cold storage and dry storage with heavy future focus on specialty small batch, while maintaining our core line-up of 16 beers. Personally, we have always focused our brewery on giving back to the local community and relied on a heavy tasting-room model for gross sales. That being said, even being small with minimum overhead and, in essence, two business models with our homebrew store, we have had modest revenue and seen slower growth. This is a new industry to me, personally, and I got into the business because of my passion and perseverance. It was never easy and yet always rewarding. We have just worked too hard to get where we are today. I felt it too risky with the number of breweries opening—at a rate of 2.25-per-month since we opened our doors in December 2015—with a plan similar to the one we had for expansion last summer. Maybe I’m preparing for a storm that won’t hit, but we have decided to hunker down for the next 12 months and keep investing in our current model, continuing to run our business on a givers gain philosophy.
What improvements did you re-appropriate funds toward?
We were able to upgrade our branding and define our marketing strategy, which I’m very happy with. We designed and built the Bear Roots van with an A-Team vibe, again with a lean concept for easy break-down and set-up, with the ability to pour right out the side of the van. I think the best upgrade was focusing on our tasting room layout and maximizing the space, by learning what we didn’t need and implementing new things. We have added multiple TVs, a pool table, and have focused events on what the community would like. Two major improvements are the taco truck we have contracted with for service seven-days-a-week, and the new patio space, which will be open to the public this fall.
What happened to your involvement with Black Plague?
I stepped down in July. It was a great opportunity to be part of an exciting team and be involved with a complete build-out of the 20-barrel brewery from the ground up. It was also nice to put my capital-expansion hat on again and help facilitate the opening. Opportunities like that don’t happen often and I’m glad I was able to take advantage of it. I have a strong belief in what craft beer is and what it can do for a community, and I feel Bear Roots is the best way forward for me to stay focused on my core and why I originally got into craft. I was taxed for time and Black Plague is just starting up. That requires a lot of work. It’s nice to focus my energy with my family and Roots. Fortunately, Black Plague has a great leadership team and (ex-AleSmith Brewing Company and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer) Bill Batten is brewing for them. I wish them huge success and am still here for them when needed as a partner.
Where do you see the industry going and what businesses are best insulated from obstacles?
The industry is still growing at a remarkable rate and I’m not sure the market share can sustain. I feel any organic-growth business model is always a little protected, but with that said, uncertainty is in the air. I think focusing on quality and camaraderie is a good business practice for quarter four and moving forward into next year. From my personal experience, no business is ever protected from failure, but perseverance, good leadership and a strong staff who believes in the company is key.
What are some exciting things on the horizon for Bear Roots?
We are excited to keep adding to our barrel-aging program, and we’ll be releasing a barrel-aged double IPA called Deeply Rooted during San Diego Beer Week. We will start bottling in October and plan to have our chocolate peanut butter stout Bear Cookie be our first — available exclusively in our tasting room. We also have our monthly charity event the first Friday of every month. The next one will focus on Operation Hope, a women and family homeless shelter that is doing great work here in North County.
Evan Smith enjoys creating things and pushing the envelope in the process. That’s the approach he took with his family business, Escondido Feed and Pet Supply, which has been in operation for decades but gained a reputation as one of the nation’s best stores of its kind only after Evan took the reins. When looking to take on a new entrepreneurial enterprise, he set his sights on craft brewing. A friend of Jordan Hoffart, he had discussions about investing in the pro-skateboarder’s Black Plague Brewing, which recently opened in Oceanside with a 20-barrel system, and grand-scale sales and distribution ambitions. In the end, the big-time wasn’t for Evan. So he went the exact opposite route, building San Diego County’s smallest fermentation interest, Escondido Brewing Company (649 Rock Springs Road, Escondido), which opened last weekend.
In doing so, Evan enlisted the services of an Escondidian homebrewer with scads of beer-competition wins under his medal-clad belt, Ketchen Smith. Together, they went to work building their brewery “like a tiny home.” With only 300 square feet at their disposal, even the most common construction tasks had to be analyzed and strategically managed. They had to cut a vertical foot off the cold-box and reverse the door. They had to install a sink small enough that it would allow them to open doors to that cold-box and the dishwasher on either side of it. And they had to install a bar-top that can be removed to allow a roll-up garage door to fully close. But they relished these challenges and maximized their space in the process. That removable bar-top can also be shifted to a lower rung to allow for service to patrons in wheelchairs, and visible fermenters stored in a converted liquor-store refrigeration unit are lit in a way they lend ambience to the place.
Having seen many a brewery in my day, Escondido Brewing is a testament to thoughtfulness, elbow grease and sheer will to make something happen. The Smiths smithed most of this big little project on their own, and what they didn’t do themselves, they got help from courtesy of friends and relatives. The business is a sterling example of what a hometown brewery should be, right down to founders whose aspirations are entirely confined to the city they love and live in. With shaded bar-seating and a trio of picnic tables making up the entirety of Escondido Brewing’s seating options, the business is a far cry from the sprawling gardens and critically acclaimed two-story restaurant at nearby Stone Brewing, the county’s largest independent craft-beer producer. And that’s the point. It’s a nice departure, especially for locals looking to avoid out-of-town beer geeks and tourists; a polar-opposite option that larger, regional breweries needn’t worry about competing with.
Amore for Escondido is further communicated through the names of the brewery’s beers—Hidden City Pale, Rock Springs Red, Hopcondido IPA—and most are based off homebrew recipes Ketchen has won multiple awards for. The most pertinent of those is the first release in a rotating Hop Animal series of ever-changing India pale ales called Marshall Nose IPA, the recipe for which took second overall at last month’s Homebrew Con, the country’s foremost amateur-brewing competition. Pale gold in color and hopped with massive amounts of Citra and Mosaic, it features big aromas of lemon balm, hay and loam accented by flavors of melon, mango, lemon and orange. Smith says it’s inspired by West Coast breweries that have pushed for so long to develop hop-forward beers devoid of caramel color and heavy malt presence. Smith’s other IPA, Hopcondido, comes across like lemon meringue pie on the nose and fresh-cut grass on the tongue, while his pale (which was previously brewed at Coachella Valley Brewing Company following a win at the Hops and Crops homebrew competition) goes from delicate in the front to assertive, late-90’s bitterness on the back end. A milk stout referencing Escondido’s year of incorporation (1888) is all chocolate and cola, while a whiskey barrel-aged version brings vanilla and caramel into the equation without lending over-the-top booziness. All in all, it’s a fun and enjoyable opening line-up, especially given the intimate environs in which these ales were birthed.
Being so small and brewing beer one-and-a-half barrels at a time makes for the real and constant possibility that the Smiths will run out of beer. To combat that, they have trimmed their hours of operation to Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 8 p.m. However, they do plan to play off a description lauded on them by several of their customers deeming them the brewery equivalent of a food-truck, by having spontaneous pop-up openings when beer inventory allows for it. Another fun twist that couldn’t exist at a brewery registering as any more than “tiny”.
They say there’s a beer festival every weekend in San Diego County, but this May marks an unprecedented saturation of craft-brewing events. There will be at least one every day. Read more about that and some standout happenings below, then switch over to our events page for a listing of the many other opportunities to drink in the local beer culture this month.
May 1-31 | Beer to the Rescue: At least one fundraising event supporting the Lupus Foundation of Southern California will take place in San Diego County every day in May (Lupus Awareness Month). Some will involve specially brewed beers, others casks, raffles and games, but all will involve plenty of fun and helping local lupus patients get the support they desperately need. | Various Locations, Times Vary, Click here for a full schedule of events
May 6 | Rhythm & Brews Festival: This year, the San Diego Brewers Guild is taking its premier annual spring beer-and-music festival to new levels, inviting the Grammy-nominated home-towners from P.O.D. to headline after performances by Ashley Hollander and The Tighten Ups. Their musical stylings will accompany a sudsy symphony more than 100 brews strong. | Historic Vista Village; South Citrus Avenue and East Broadway; Vista; VIP: 12 p.m., General Admission: 1 p.m.
May 5 | 1347 IPA Release Party: If you’ve been wanting to get a look at Oceanside’s work-in-progress Black Plague Brewing, this is your chance. A sneak peek will be granted to all who attend this ticketed event, complete with pints of the first brew—a hazy IPA named for the year the Black Plague swept through Europe—plus food, a pint glass and entry into a raffle. Sick! | Black Plague Brewing, 2550 Jason Court, Oceanside, 6 p.m.
May 20 | Over the Line Beer Fest: The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club has hosted its famous (and infamous) over the line tournament since 1954. In recent years, participants have urged OMBAC to bring in craft beer. This spring tourney answers all that popular demand. Trade in OMTOKENS for local brews to enjoy in tandem with heroics from crazily named ale-thletes. | Mariners Point, Times Vary
May 20 | Festival of Arts in North Park: Live music and a block where craftspeople will be creating works of art spanning various mediums are highlights of this fest, as is a dual-session beer-festival sponsored by Waypoint Public that will take up its own “Craft Beer Block” and will offer unlimited tasters of beers from more than 30 craft breweries as well as a karaoke stage. | North Park; Session A: 12 p.m.; Session B: 5 p.m.
May 21 | Cellar 3 Anniversary: It’s been two years since Green Flash Brewing Company opened its barrel-stocked brewing outpost. That’s enough time to brew up scads of tart, booze-infused beers, the rarer of that bunch will be served up at this celebration, which will also include a Q&A with barrelmaster Pat Korn, a cask tapping and music from The Barnacles. | 12260 Crosthwaite Circle, Poway, VIP: 11 a.m.; General Admission: 12 p.m.
Terry Little is in the middle of expanding the nanobrewery he built in the back of his homebrew shop, Bear Roots Brewing (1213 South Santa Fe Avenue, Vista), into a larger operation. That means going from a one-and-a-half-barrel system to a six-barrel brewery and outfitting his cellar with six-barrel fermentation tanks. In addition to this sizable undertaking, he’s recently taken on a new job…as director of brewer operations for another brewery altogether.
That operation is Black Plague Brewing Company (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside) a work-in-progress slated to open later this year in North County. We originally reported on this upcoming business last February, citing Vista as its prospective location and Philip Vieira as the business’ head brewer, but outside obligations have forced Vieira to back out of the brewhouse and Black Plague has since settled in a 12,945-square-foot facility in O-side. The company’s ownership saw securing Little as a way to better ensure brewing goes as well as it can early on.
It started with the Black Plague team (which includes pro skateboarder Jordan Hoffart) simply asking brewing-oriented questions of Little, who, in the spirit of San Diego brewer camaraderie, was happy to share whatever he could. Eventually, they found his assistance so helpful they made him an offer to oversee their brewing program as well as test out their prototype beers on Bear Roots’ system versus Black Plague’s 20-barrel system.
The first of those test-beers, an India pale ale called 1347, was on-tap during last weekend’s first-anniversary festivities. The beer is a cross between a West Coast and East Coast IPA that was hazy and big on fruit character. The palate presented flavors of guava, peach and orange, with the slightest bit of toastiness and a lasting resinous quality in the finish. It was very enjoyable and made this reporter excited for future beers from Black Plague.
In February, I introduced the world to business-in-planning, Black Plague Brewing. At the time, co-founders John Kilby, Jordan Hoffart, Jarred Doss and Philip Vieira were about to close on a space in Vista in which to house a 15-barrel brewhouse and serve patrons from a tasting room as well as a 2,000-square-foot patio. The selection of Vista seemed sensible given the fact that city is home to more breweries than any municipality in the county other than San Diego. But as it turns out, Black Plague won’t become Vista’s thirteenth brewery. Instead, the business is headed to the city with the fastest-growing brewing scene of any municipality in the county other than San Diego—Oceanside.
Black Plague will be installed in a 12,945-square-foot facility in the Jason Court Business Park on the east side of town halfway between State Routes 76 and 78. But that’s not all that’s changed. Now, the owners are looking to go with a 20-barrel brewing system straight out of the gate. Once that is operative, Vieira will serve as brewmaster and immediately get to work producing the company’s Black IPA and Golden Rye, both of which will be pushed to market in 22-ounce bottles as quickly as possible. Back at Black Plague’s taproom, roughly a dozen beers will be available.
In the past six months, four breweries have opened in Oceanside (Belching Beaver Brewery, Mason Ale Works, Midnight Jack Brewing Company and Oceanside Brewing Company), bringing the community’s total to eight. Black Plague figures to come in as number 9 or 10, depending on when fellow work-in-progress Northern Pine Brewing selects its site and opens. Currently, Black Plague is scheduled to begin producing beer around the end of 2016 or the start of 2017.