It’s the type of moniker that inspires more question marks than exclamation points: Black Plague Brewing (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside). The first time I heard about it was nearly two years ago when I first interviewed the owners of the now-open business. And over that span, the odd resonance of that name hasn’t diminished in the least. Part of it may be the fact the words are typically presented along with a spooky logo featuring an ancient, crook-beaked plague doctor, but mostly it’s the reference to the historic bubonic plague (AKA “the black death”), which wiped out between 75 and 200 million Europeans (30-60% of the continent’s entire population) from 1346 to 1353. But there’s more to a business than its handle and motif. I was sure to remind myself of that as I entered Black Plague’s tasting room for the purpose of sampling its beer and atmosphere as part of a recent brewery touring session.
Walking through the door, I bid adieu to a perfectly sunny day and took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the space. Though outfitted with skylights and a lobby bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls are painted jet black. Furniture hues range from brown to ebony and the only relief from the dim color palate is a beer board decorated with colorful, artful names and descriptions, plus rudimentary thin, white-line sketches of the plague doctor and such. It was around Halloween when I visited, but it’s clear the creep factor had little to do with that macabre holiday. And while it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, I had to hand it to the folks who handled the interior design. They took a thematic, embraced it and delivered. It’s complete and makes good on a promise set forth by the brand and its back story, even adding a touch of whimsy here and there in the process.
Fortunately, the service element does not fall in line with what one might find in the midst of a continental pandemic. The bar staff is rather friendly. My only knock was a seeming lack of knowledge or interest in the finer points of beer and brewing, but not everyone can be a nerd. They knew Black Plague’s beers enough to be helpful, and made a point to note something very cool (literally): a glycol-chilled copper strip running down the center of the bar. That amenity keeps beers cool should you be consuming a style that you’re not looking to warm for increased sensory effect. The customers, too, were in a jovial mood as they drank their beers and watched football on a screen mounted left of the beer menu. As I received my taster flight, I looked forward to falling into their frame of mind.
Prior to coming to Black Plague’s tasting room, I had sampled only one of the company’s beers, 1347 IPA. Named, as they say, for “the year of the plague,” it was hazy and juicy. Now, however, it’s no longer Northeastern in body and has far less of a fruit-juice character. If anything, it’s much drier and exhibits a grapefruit pithiness more evocative of a San Diego-style IPA. For those looking for fruit, however, there are multiple versions of this beer available, all of which have been infused with a different fruit (mango, pineapple, blood orange, grapefruit, blueberries) as well as habanero peppers. Plenty happy with the base beer, I chose the purist route, moving on to a Kölsch called Remedium that was crisp and balanced, and Nelson Pandemia, an IPA hopped with “an outbreak of Nelson hops,” that had a sharp, bitter finish that left a sticky, peppercorn-like spice in its wake.
From here it was on to more avant-garde beers, starting with ChaI.P.A. Fans of chai (which I am) are likely used to encountering this exotic-tasting adjunct in beer, but typically styles on the darker end of the spectrum. I was skeptic of how it would come across in a lighter-bodied, hoppy beer, but it was a winner. All chai in the nose and only slightly bitter, allowing the added spices to come through, it was my favorite of Black Plague’s beers. Second place went to Samoa Stout, a beer brewed with chocolate, roasted coconut, maple syrup and graham crackers to emulate the Girl Scout Cookie of the same name. Dessert-like, but not overly sweet, it comes across as dark chocolate with a supportive caramel backdrop.
While my inner-marketing professional shudders when presented with this brewery’s branding, I would happily reach for one of its beers. Though its owners lack beverage-industry experience, they have been wise enough to consult with professionals who possess just that. Their brewhouse is currently benefiting from the services of ex-AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego fermentationist Bill Batten, who specialized in traditional beer styles for more than a decade before shifting to more experimental brews at his most recent gig. He seems a perfect fit for his current digs while he waits for his next post, North Park’s TapRoom Beer Co., to be constructed. From what I tasted, he’ll leave some big boots to fill.
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.
With 28 years under their belt, the folks at Karl Strauss Brewing Company have done a great deal: opening San Diego proper’s first post-Prohibition Era brewery, building the county’s largest network of brewpubs, contract brewing out-of-state and later bringing fermentation operations back to America’s Finest City, building venues in Orange County and Los Angeles. They could have rested on their laurels or become stagnant at any point, but founders Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner continue to look for ways to innovate and identify new revenue streams. The latest example of that is Karl Strauss’ recent establishment of its own distribution arm.
The company has been laying the framework for a distributorship for several years, but recently launched delivery of beers from its first two distributed brands, new Oceanside-based business Black Plague Brewing Company and Grantville’s four-year-old Benchmark Brewing Company. The latter’s Orange County launch took place last week, though Karl Strauss had been in talks with Benchmark for well over a year.
“We’re expanding on our on-premise, self-distribution network in San Diego and Orange County to now include a select group of local, independent breweries,” says Mark Weslar, Karl Strauss’ vice president of marketing. “Delivering our own beers on-premise has helped us develop an expertise selling to and servicing local bars and restaurants. We look forward to helping some brewery friends build their business.”
The first San Diego County brewery to go from brewing to manufacturing and distributing not only its own beers but those of fellow local brands was Stone Brewing. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner often cite that as a key moment in the company’s history, and a business move that kept Stone from going out of business. After having many doors slammed in their face by distributors unwilling to take a chance on their new, small operation, they decided to do it themselves. In opening Stone Distributing Co. in the late-nineties, they brought aboard brands such as AleSmith Brewing and Coronado Brewing, later adding brands from across the country as well as numerous international brewing companies. Today, that entity is responsible for distribution of 44 brands—that like Karl Strauss’ portfolio are all independent—throughout Southern California.
Karl Strauss has no immediate plans to bring on additional brands, but plans to be selective when they do, focusing on local and independent interests representing a partnership that would make sense for all parties involved. Says Weslar, “It’s an exciting new venture, but it’s also business as usual here at Karl Strauss with all of us maintaining our focus on making, selling and distributing great beer.”
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.
Trademark issues are common in the brewing industry. With thousands of businesses in operation and plenty more looking to get into the business, brewing companies are often forced to abandon names they are fond of because somebody got there first. Such was the case with the founders of Dark Ages Brewing. After coming up with that name and drawing up a “plague doctor” logo, they were forced to let the name go and come up with something new. But they loved that logo, so now that business, which is slated to open in Vista, shall be known by the rather menacing handle, Black Plague Brewing Company.
According to company co-founder John Kilby, England’s infamous Black Plague gave rise to the tavern in certain townships as people gathered in search of communalism during the worst of times. In a much brighter sense, Black Plague Brewing hopes to celebrate bringing people together for purposes of socializing and celebration. But first, there’s much work to be done. KIlby and company are about to close on a spot sharing space with an existing restaurant that includes a 2,000-square-foot outside patio. That may be done by the time this article goes to print. After that will come the installation of a brewhouse—likely a 15-barrel system—followed by brewing. Even with all of that, the Black Plague team is aiming for a summer opening.
Once constructed, the brewery will be the domain of Dr. Philip Vieira, a neuroscientist with experience working at a Southern California nanobrewery after earning numerous awards as a homebrewer. The amount of beer he’ll brew annually has yet to be determined (between 1,500 and 10,500 barrels), but his standard portfolio should come in around 10 beers with a quartet of specialty offerings. Core beers will be varied from a body standpoint (light, medium, dark) and include a cream ale, golden rye ale, Irish red ale, Scotch ale, India pale ale, black IPA and stout. Expect more adventurous styles—sours and Brettanomyces-fermented beers—from their specialty brews.
Though too early to be working toward steps two through 200, Black Plague’s ownership team says the sky is the limit and is entertaining out-of-state distribution and multiple taprooms in the future. For now, it’s about incubation in hopes of effecting a full-on mid-summer outbreak.