In early April of this year, Tom and Brett Gent realized a dream, opening the doors to Wiseguy Brewing in Carlsbad. The father-son duo signed a lease to install their business in one of the ready-to-brew units at developer H.G. Fenton’s North County Brewery Igniter campus. The pair of suites in that facility house identical brewhouses, cellar setups and tasting-room footprints, and are blank slates for tenants to personalize as they please. As one would expect, the Gents were excited at the prospect and approached the project with gusto, but unfortunately, less than six months after its debut, an A-frame sign stands outside of Wiseguy’s tasting room proclaiming that this Saturday, September 30 will be its last day of operation.
The Gents set out to craft traditional beers using the 10-barrel system that came as part of their lease with H.G. Fenton. Early on, they were able to cultivate a following, literally working side-by-side with Brewery Igniter neighbors at Rouleur Brewing Company. The breweries even held a dual grand-opening event using their shared front lawn. While Rouleur has begun to distribute its beers in North County San Diego and begun the process of regular can-release events, Wiseguy has made the decision to exit the industry.
When reached for comment, Brett Gent cited difficulties with the overhead for his facility, a lack of steady business in Carlsbad, and the inability to put up street-facing signage as reasons for pulling out. Online, he expressed that he is “super-bummed,” adding he “will take another crack at this one day” and stating he “learned a lot.” Other Brewery Igniter tenants attest that the model is expensive and unsustainable over a prolonged period. For most, it is a means of achieving proof of concept before garnering additional financial backing and moving on to open a permanent brick-and-mortar elsewhere. One Brewery Igniter tenant, speaking on condition of anonymity, shared that H.G. Fenton has exhibited a tendency to be strict even with struggling tenants, stating they tend to compare them all to Pure Project Brewing. That business is easily the most successful of the septet of companies leasing space between the three Brewery Igniter sites.
Pure Project and Amplified Ale Works were the first to experiment with the model at H.G. Fenton’s initial rentable brewing campus in Miramar. The former has been a runaway success behind frequent can-release events and barrel-aged bottle releases, but appears to be an anomaly. Arguably the next most successful Brewery Igniter tenant is Eppig Brewing Company, which is nearing its one-year anniversary as the first business to open at H.G. Fenton’s second beer-making site, a three-suite facility in North Park. Eppig has earned acclaim for its beers, primarily its lagers, prompting its owners’ recent securing of a satellite tasting room in Point Loma, but even with solid returns out of the gate, that business will inevitably reach a point—sooner than later—where it must move to a larger facility with greater production capabilities, more space for customers and lower monthly expenses.
Brewery Igniter was developed as a stepping stone for aspiring brewers as well as an option for existing companies seeking a secondary brewing facility as a means to increase production. Amplified Ale Works and San Diego Brewing Company, a 20-plus-year stalwart of the local industry that leased space at the North Park campus to brew enough beer to start distributing beyond its namesake pub, fit into the latter, less common category, while Pure Project, Eppig, Rouleur and Pariah Brewing Company (also in North Park) fit the bill of entrepreneurs looking to realize fermentation aspirations, a faction Wiseguy was part of for a sadly far-too-short period of time.
This weekend, West Coaster obtained official communications from representatives of Helm’s Brewing Company (5640 Kearny Mesa Road, Suites C & N, Kearny Mesa) stating that the five-year-old business is accepting offers from interested parties. Ownership will entertain offers of $500,000 and above.
Helm’s Brewing opened its doors in 2012. Founded by a homebrewer and associates from his primary career, the company’s first head brewer was Brian Mitchell, who went on to work as a small-batch brewer for Stone Brewing before opening his own project, Pariah Brewing Company, at North Park’s Brewery Igniter complex on El Cajon Boulevard earlier this year. Under Mitchell and subsequent brewing personnel, Helm’s’ beer quality has fluctuated, leading to something of a hit-or-miss reputation among consumers. Still, the company was able to add a satellite tasting room in 2016, becoming the third to open in now satellite-saturated Ocean Beach.
The OB tasting room, which is located at the corner of Newport Avenue and Cable Street (the same block as tasting rooms for Belching Beaver Brewery, Culture Brewing Company and Kilowatt Brewing Company) will be included as an acquired asset should Helm’s sell. Among attributes listed for that venue in the company’s solicitation communique are the fact it faces the neighborhood’s Wednesday farmer’s market and “has posted strong revenue numbers through its first year-and-a-half in existence.”
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.
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).
– Spring Fling Lemon Verbena Saison @ Bitter Brothers Brewing Co.
– Daily Grind Coffee Cream Ale @ All Oggi’s Locations
– Beer to the Rescue Kick-Off @ Rip Current Brewing Co. – North Park
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
– Dank Drank Charity Beer Fundraiser @ Pariah Brewing Co.
– Coffee IPA Fundraiser @ Duck Foot Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ Thorn St. Brewery
– Cinco de Drinko Fundraiser @ Booze Brothers Brewing Co.
– A Sweet & Sour Fundraiser @ Indian Joe Brewing
– Beer to the Rescue Day @ Pure Project Brewing
– Beer to the Rescue Rafflemania @ All Barrel Harbor Brewing Co. Locations
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
– Mason Ale Works Charity IPA Fundraiser @ All Urge Gastropub Locations
– Brett Coast IPA Fundraiser @ Green Flash Brewing Co. – Cellar 3
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ North Park Beer Co.
– Specialty Beer Fundraiser @ Mission Brewery
– Hoppy Saison Fundraiser @ Kilowatt Brewing Co.
– Dank & Sticky XPA Fundraiser @ Second Chance Beer Co.
– Prodigy Brewing Co. Collaboration Nelson Lager Fundraiser @ Dos Desperados Brewery
– Hazy Double IPA Fundraiser @ All Amplified Ale Works Locations
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ New English Brewing Co.
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
– Resident Brewing Co. Beer to the Rescue Night @ The Local Eatery Downtown
– Blood Orange Double IPA Fundraiser @ Division 23 Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Night @ 32 North Brewing Co.
– Nickel Beer Co. Hops to the Rescue Double IPA Fundraiser @ O’Brien’s Pub
– South African Nelson IPA Fundraiser @ Bay City Brewing Co.
– Prodigy Brewing Co. Collaboration Nelson Lager Fundraiser @ Dos Desperados Brewery
– Beer to the Rescue Day @ Bolt Brewery La Mesa
– Blonde Session IPA Fundraiser @ 2kids Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Cask Night @ Benchmark Brewing Co.
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Week Kick-Off @ White Labs
– Charity IPA Fundraiser @ Belching Beaver Brewery – Oceanside
– Corn-Hole & Foosball Tournament @ Iron Fist Brewing Co. – Vista
– Belgian Coffee Ale Fundraiser @ Burning Beard Brewing
– Bottle Beer Release @ Toolbox Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Day @ Fallbrook Brewing Co.
– Oat Imperial Pale Lager Fundraiser @ ChuckAlek Biergarten
– Trending Travis-ty Hazy Session IPA Fundraiser @ Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station
– Charity Tuesday @ Societe Brewing Co.
– Beer to the Rescue Closing Ceremonies @ Rip Current Brewing Co. – San Marcos
– Nickel Beer Co. Hops to the Rescue Double IPA Fundraiser @ West Coast BBQ & Brews
When Rawley Macias spoke with me about what he planned to produce at his work-in-progress brewery, he said he’d be going for a style-defying portfolio of beers. After visiting his now soft-opened Rouleur Brewing (5840 El Camino Real, Suite #101, Carlsbad) last week, it would appear he’s backed off of that a bit in favor of proving the versatility of Belgian yeast. Personally, I consider this a concept upgrade. While Belgian beer-styles have risen in popularity over the past decade, few are the operations that specialize in them in San Diego County. And no other company is trying to do as much with Belgian yeast strains as Macias.
Rouleur’s opening septet of beers all utilize Bastogne strain with the exception of a golden strong ale, and all will be available at the business’ official grand opening, an indoor-outdoor affair that will take place starting at noon on Saturday, April 8 (the same day as next-door neighbors, Wiseguy Brewing) and include live music and food trucks. That beer features big flavors candied lemon peel and peach commonly found in imperial IPAs, plus added fruit notes from the Belgian-yeast esters. Aside from being slightly sweet—which is pretty common in double IPAs—it really works.
Rouleur’s single IPA, The Clydesdale, isn’t as successful a foray into the merging of the Old and New Worlds. The beer is brewed with Centennial, Cascade and Amarillo hops, yet the beer is seriously lacking in aroma. Still, the beer is grassy and earthy, showing potential that may be realized soon. Macias’ Carlsbad contemporaries from Burgeon Beer Company have offered up some friendly advice about dry-hopping techniques. Rouleur’s owner happily accepted it. While he’s homebrewed prolifically for a dozen years, the seven beers available at Rouleur represent the first seven times he’s brewed on a professional system, a fact that makes the quality of his other beers that much more impressive.
The Domestique, a 5.6% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) blonde is nice and light, allowing the floral and citrus character of the yeast to shine through. It was my favorite beer of the bunch. A Belgian pale ale called The Puncheur is balanced, as is Macias’ golden-child, a golden strong ale dubbed The Soloist (because it utilizes one grain and one hop) that comes in at 8.8% ABV but doesn’t taste overly alcoholic and has an almost champagne-like effervescence and dryness. All three of these beers feature varying degrees of an orange-like flavor from the yeast, which works with all three. On the darker side, a red ale came across dry with a touch of spice, but a tad flat on the palate, while a 6.7% dark ale had a big roasty nose followed by prune, plum and anise character on the taste buds.
Aside from offering a respectable lineup of beers out of the gate, Rouleur has a lot of good things going on from an interior design prospective. Macias’ other passion, biking, is on full display care of a collage of vibrant modern and vintage photos (some dating back to the 1930s)—including some on the west wall that can be purchased if they catch your fancy—plus shots of Rouleur’s beers in yet-to-be-manufactured bottles leading to the brewery. an impressive bike-wheel sculpture of sorts Macias engineered on his own, and a rare 100% steel Masi Gran Criterium bicycle with Rouleur’s logo hand-painted on by legendary frame-painter Jim Allen. Rouleur’s space came as a blank white canvas in the third of developer H.G. Fenton’s Brewery Igniter complexes and Macias has gone to a great deal of work to deliver a complete concept from the get-go. That should help him pull ahead of the pack.
Additional reporting by Katie Conner