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 former Green Flash Brewing Company brewmaster Chuck Silva first told me he was resigning so he and his wife could leave San Diego to build their own brewery, I was crestfallen. Silva was a respected, positive force within the local brewing scene; a veteran of more than a decade who helped usher in the age of the mainstream, ultra-hoppy, San Diego-style IPA. Definitely not the type of craftsman you want to see exit stage right, but when he informed me he was heading to Paso Robles to install his passion-project it lessened the sting considerably. My wife and I visit Paso several times a year, meaning I’d be able to stay in touch with Silva and his liquid wares.
The Silvas opened their eponymous venture, Silva Brewing (525 Pine Street, Suite B, Paso Robles), last December. On Day One, they had just one beer—Paso Pale Ale—but that didn’t stop droves of curious imbibers from crowding into Silva’s tiny (a mere 333 square feet), brewery-abutting tasting room to sate their thirst and curiosity. By the time I got there a couple of months ago, there were five beers on—an IPA named for the business’ address (525 Pine), a recently debuted walnut milk stout called Nut Farm, and a German-style amber (Suite B) and blonde. The latter goes by the name First Gold, indicating its status as Silva’s first blue-ribbon garnering recipe.
After hours on the road, those inaugural offerings were welcomed with open taste-buds. As I tasted my way through them, I found myself rather surprised. These ales tasted nothing like what I’d come to know from Silva during his days at Green Flash where hops rule the day, to the point where one imperial selection proclaims in name and theory to wreck palates. The Silva Brewing portfolio instead revolved around drinkability, balance and finesse. Yeast and malt character were at the forefront with the German ales, and though there were nice piney, citrus-like aroma and flavor notes in the pale and IPA, they were subdued. Instead of hop-bombs, they are the types of crisp, clean beers just about anybody can enjoy and put away. It’s a real departure from how he made his name in San Diego, and figures to be a hit in Silva’s old new digs (he actually grew up in San Luis Obispo County, and that was the impetus for his return), where nearby Firestone Walker Brewing Company and its balanced, to-style brews are the local measuring stick for beer-drinkers.
Silva has since released a double IPA, saison and various other beers. He has a portfolio of 20 recipes to rotate on and off of the 10-tap setup at his tasting room. That space is accessible via a front and back entrance, both of which are a bit tricky to find if you don’t know the setup. One can enter through an off-street, back-alley door or venture through the entry to craft-beer bar The Pour House and head to a small back-hall. Turning left takes you to shared restrooms, while a right turn leads straight to Silva’s tasting room, featuring a stainless bar, and dark-wood shelving holding all manner of black-and-orange, logo-emblazoned merchandise and a crowler machine. It’s a small but effective setup and one worth seeking out. It will be fun to see how Silva Brewing progresses, especially given its surprising start.
And if you can’t make it to Paso right now, you’re in luck. Silva personally delivered kegs to several San Diego accounts over the weekend. Drop-off spots included Fathom Bistro, Hamilton’s Tavern, Small Bar and Ballast Point Brewing‘s Little Italy brewpub. One of the beers he brought to the latter is a collaboration smoked porter called S-Shot that he brewed with BP’s Colby Chandler, which will be on-tap during a tap-takeover with Chandler and Silva tonight. Prior to this, the only San Diego establishment to carry Silva Brewing beer was the Round Table Pizza in Mission Valley. That business is owned by Izak and Teresa Ondre, who were instrumental in helping the Silvas get their brewery off the ground.
Earlier this week, news broke about popular local brewer Cosimo Sorrentino resigning from his dual-head brewer post at Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery and South Park Brewing Co. A fixture in the community who made a point to communicate and collaborate with nearly every brewery within the county, it was surprising to here he was stepping down, but even more confounding to discover he would absolutely be leaving San Diego come the New Year. More information was in order, so we went to the source to appease readers’ logical queries and concern.
West Coaster: What led you to depart your position heading Monkey Paw and South Park Brewing?
Cosimo Sorrentino: A combination of factors, the biggest of which is a necessity for personal growth. I was lucky to learn my craft in the community I grew up in and under an owner that has so much passion, but I feel that I have reached a point where to progress I need a little less comfort and a new environment.
WC: Though your next step has yet to be determined, you are certain you will leave San Diego. Why is that?
CS: I feel San Diego has crossed over to a new era in brewing. The community spirit is being fractured; too many breweries fighting over the same styles, following trends for profit, not enough quality staff to provide front-of-house service…and let’s not get into the distributor issues. This was inevitable and will not necessarily be a bad thing for those making or drinking beer. San Diego beer will get better and those that succeed will benefit from the competition! For myself, I hope that finding a location where the scene is a bit younger will allow me to help foster the same type of conscious collaborative growth that has led to San Diego’s emergence as the beer capitol of the world. It might be selfish, but I have really enjoyed the journey so far and want to keep making new beers with and for new people.
WC: After being such a peacemaker and heavy collaborator within the San Diego industry, is it difficult for you to move on?
CS: Not to be cliché, but this is truly the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It means stepping away from, not only the coolest brewing job I’ve seen, but leaving family, friends and, potentially even my dog. I am bummed that I will not have the chance to collaborate with some guys and gals in town—especially some of the new breweries—and that I will not be part of Monkey Paw’s next step as a business, whatever that may be.
WC: What will you miss the most about the San Diego brewing and beer scenes?
CS: One word: HOPS! No, but seriously, I will miss the universal nature of the love for beer and brewers in this city. It will be weird to walk into three-or-four bars in an evening and not run into a fellow brewer or maybe even an educated beer-drinker. I’ve never felt the camaraderie and respect that I have experienced in San Diego with brewers and consumers alike.
WC: What are some of your finest memories of your time brewing professionally in San Diego?
CS: Wow. Hardest question…I’ll never forget the first week I got the job at Paw. I had every brewer that I had looked up to either drop in or hit me up on the phone to help me get dialed in. It was a whirlwind, and I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but this foundation paid off and I will be forever grateful. Those memories were revisited last year when I got to sit in on a collab at Karl Strauss on Columbia Street. Not only did we have (KS brewmaster) Paul Segura, (Gordon Biersch head brewer) Doug Hasker and (Monkey Paw/South Park Brewing owner) Scot Blair brewing that day, (Ballast Point Brewing VP) Colby Chandler dropped in to open some bottles as a farewell to (former Green Flash Brewing Co. brewmaster and current Silva Brewing owner/brewmaster) Chuck Silva on his last day in San Diego. This was only made better by the fact that I had invited (North Park Beer Co. assistant brewer) Joaquin Basauri to drop in. This was early on in Joaquin and I’s friendship and the look on his face as we drank barleywine and talked shop with these godfathers brought me back to that feeling of awe.
WC: What were your goals for the semi-controversial public-forum you held to discuss the changing landscape of San Diego beer?
CS: While the forum never became a series, I hope that the discussion was opened and people are more likely to speak honestly and in an informed manner about the evolution of our city and the industry. I am glad there is a reduced amount of animosity because that energy can be redirected towards progression instead of hate and fear.
WC: Any parting words for our readers?
CS: Thank you for absolutely everything. I hope I’ve returned 10% of the happiness and joy you have given me.
Mitch Steele, Stone Brewing’s brewmaster of 10 years, will be leaving his post at the end of the month to pursue a new opportunity. The specifics of that new venture have yet to be officially dispersed, but despite a lack of details, this is news that will be widely reported today. And it should be. Steele is one of the brewing industry’s blue-chip members. Not only has he overseen brewing operations at one of the country’s fastest-growing brewing companies — even during high-profile expansions to the East Coast and Europe — he literally wrote the book on India pale ales: IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. His loss will be palpable for Stone, but not just because of his brewing prowess and professional skills, which led to numerous industry awards.
Having worked with Steele for three years, I can tell you that he brought another x-factor to Stone. In addition to being a consummate professional, he is also a good person with a big heart who not only loves beer and the art of brewing, but tirelessly supports the sharing of information for the purpose of educating and inspiring others about beer, brewing and his craftsperson industry. Though Stone has often been described as brash, polarizing or downright bastardly, such characterization has never been applied to Steele. He is one of the most respected and positively received public-facing employees the company has ever had, and it will no doubt be very sad for his colleagues to see him go, but in speaking with a number of them in preparation for this article, their happiness for him is both real and unanimous. Count me among those sending best wishes for his next venture, for which he was sought out by industry professionals recognizing the talent and intangibles he brings to the brew-deck.
Steele entered the brewing industry in 1988, four years after graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Fermentation Science. His first job was manning a 14-barrel system at the San Andreas Brewing Company. In 1992, he started work at Anheuser-Busch, managing brewhouse and fermenting operations in three different breweries while developing new beers as part of the company’s Specialty Brewing Group. An employee of Big Beer seemed an unlikely candidate for induction at Stone, which has railed against macro-entities since its 1996 founding, but Steele won over owners Greg Koch and Steve Wagner and proceeded to take San Diego County’s largest brewery from annual production of 48,000 barrels to more than 325,000 in 2015.
Steele’s last day at Stone will be June 30. As is customary, the brewery has produced a video (embedded below) to communicate this development with its fans via social-media. In it, Steele shares stories from the past decade, praises key members of his brewing staff and struggles with emotions throughout. Such emotion is understandable. It’s the end of an era, both for Steele and for Stone. Rather than fill the brewmaster position, Stone will employ an “innovation team” headed by chief operating officer Pat Tiernan and key individuals from the company’s brewing team. That group will develop new beers with concepts and recipes approved by Koch and Wagner.
This is not uncharted territory for San Diego’s brewing scene. Last September, Green Flash Brewing Company—probably the San Diego company closest to Stone in its make-up with its hoppy beer portfolio, status as one of the country’s 50 largest craft breweries, multiple local locations and Virginia expansion project—abruptly lost its brewmaster when 11-year veteran Chuck Silva resigned in similar fashion. His mission was to return to his San Luis Obispo County roots and open his own brewery. That project, Silva Brewing, is well underway with plans to open later this year in Paso Robles. When that happened, Green Flash did not crumble, and neither will Stone. It will just be…different.
Brandon Hernández previously worked for Stone Brewing as its Senior Communications Specialist from 2012 to 2015.
From the Beer Writer: I saw the name come through the online trademark database—Green Flash Passion Fruit Kicker. No way, I thought. How could San Diego’s third-largest craft brewery be planning to package a beer that complex? For those who’ve never heard of Passion Fruit Kicker, that name was developed when former Green Flash brewmaster Chuck Silva and director of beer education Dave Adams worked with yours truly to develop a recipe to brew for the Beer to the Rescue anti-lupus campaign. The most complex of the 30-plus beers the fundraising effort birthed, PFK was a wheat India pale ale (IPA) with Brettanomyces and passion fruit procured from Stone Farms that was dry-hopped with experimental hops and blended with a wine barrel-aged IPA. While it was delicious and even thought-provoking in its unique character, going national with something like that hardly seemed feasible. Then I read the approved label and discovered the name was applied to a low-alcohol wheat ale brewed with passion fruit concentrate and passion fruit tea. While almost totally different, it’s also quite nice. Based on the base recipe for Alpine Beer Co.’s wheat ale, Willy (Green Flash Brewing Company acquired Green Flash in 2014), it has a subtle creaminess that gives way to restrained fruit tartness in the finish. A mineral quality similar to Sauvignon Blanc wine is also present. This 5.5% alcohol-by-volume session ale has a lot going for it…and is a heck of a lot easier to explain than its namesake.
From the Brewer: “Passion Fruit Kicker has a pretty unique origin story. It came about when two different ideas from two different sources merged. The brewers had been experimenting with teas in casks and single-keg one-off beers. Our favorite tea to use was a passion fruit tea (from local company, Tea Gallerie). It has an amazing aroma and flavor like a ripe passion fruit. At the time we were playing around with that tea in different beers, the idea for a tart, fruity wheat beer emerged. So naturally we tried making that beer with the passion fruit tea. It was a perfect match! We combined passion fruit concentrate with the tea to make a uniquely pungent, aromatic, tart and refreshing wheat beer. It actually smells and tastes like you’re drinking it out of a hollowed-out passion fruit gourd! The background of a very clean, crisp, lightly bittered wheat beer lets the passion fruit shine for a truly great fruit beer experience.”—Kevin Barnes, Lead Brewer, Green Flash Brewing Company