Before Ballast Point Brewing was a company capable of commanding decuple figures, before it grew into San Diego County’s largest brewery and one of the biggest beer-producers in the country, before there even was a brewery called Ballast Point, there was Home Brew Mart (HBM). That Linda Vista hobby shop—one of the first to grace America’s Finest City—opened quietly in 1992 and, over the following quarter-century, has ignited a fire for recreational fermentation within a great many ale-and-lager neophytes. That includes individuals who now own breweries and brew professionally. Some of that contingent even worked for HBM in its early days. In celebration of the big two-five, Ballast Point is creating Family Reunion collaboration beers with those ex-employees as well as former BP brewers, an impressive assemblage of well-known, award-winning talent.
Several of the beers have already been released, while others are scheduled to be brewed in time for them to all be on-tap at HBM’s 25th anniversary event on September 24. The following is a breakdown of the collaborators, their creations and their past.
In an effort to increase its current employee base’s knowledge on the history of BP and its eldest venue, vice president Colby Chandler asked each collaborator to speak to present-day brewers about their time with the company, how it was then and how it prepared them to venture out on their own. Many said that making beer at such a fast-growing brewing company provided them wide-ranging experience as well as reference points for overcoming myriad obstacles. According to Chandler, many brewery owners, in particular, felt their time with BP made it much easier once they were working for themselves.
In addition to the HBM anniversary event, BP is also holding a series of beer-pairing dinners incorporating the aforementioned collaboration brews at HBM. The next will take place on August 24 and include five courses served with Swemiceros, Bay to Bay, Scripps Tease and various other BP beers. Chandler, Tweet, Stephens, LeBlanc and Ceniceros will all be in attendance.
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.
I’m pretty good at maintaining confidence, but I hate keeping secrets. So it pleases me that I can finally share what, up until now, I have been contractually obligated to keep under wraps for over six months. Being in the beer industry has many pluses, one of which is occasionally being invited to exclusive events. Last year, while working for Stone Brewing Co., I had the opportunity to take part in the filming of an episode of Top Chef that took place here in San Diego. (Many thanks to Stone community relations manager Chris Cochran for this awesome experience!) Shot at former Top Chef contestant and Top Chef: All-Stars champion Richard Blais‘ Little Italy restaurant, Juniper and Ivy, that episode aired last night. Many of you likely saw it and, being craft beer fans, wondered about the quartet of brews that Stone and Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits supplied the hit Bravo TV show. I tasted them all along with some of the dishes they were paired with and am happy to provide my impressions along with some fun insights from the filming.
Coming into this experience, I was excited to taste the pair of pilot beers Stone research manager Steve Gonzalez and the company’s small-batch team put together. They were completely new base beers built to include a number of interesting ingredients thrown at them by two of the judges: Blais and co-host Padma Lakshmi. The first was a Belgian-style golden strong ale brewed with ginger (added in the boil), tamarind (whirlpool) and jalapeño peppers (bright tank) that was vibrant and refreshing with nice spice and a restrained tartness from the tamarind. Back then, I was in charge of Stone’s beer-naming team and recommended “Padma in Gold Lamé.” It didn’t stick, as Bravo preferred the simple “Padma’s Golden Ale,” but tell me that wouldn’t have made for good TV. Stone’s other beer was a red stout brewed with beets, chocolate and ras el hanout (a North African blend of spices including cumin, coriander and cinnamon). A golden stout brewed with Guatemalan coffee from North Park’s Dark Horse Coffee Roasters served as the base for the beer, which was earthy in its spice characteristics with nice notes of roast and a dry finish. Both beers were tasty and tremendous from a food-friendliness perspective.
Ballast Point’s beers were good, too, though not as inspired. I don’t say this as a homer (I don’t even work at Stone anymore) or someone miffed about the Constellation acquisition. BP simply took two of their core beers, Black Marlin Porter and Wahoo White, and added specialty ingredients to them. To be fair, they have been doing this for years, mostly from their Home Brew Mart and Little Italy locations by the hand and under the advisement of specialty brewer Colby Chandler, so it was no surprise that the beers were big on flavor, but they were a little overbearing in their adjunct influence whereas the Stone beers balanced the ingredients with the beers themselves. I would have actually expected the opposite with BP being so known for balance and Stone so prone to going over-the-top, but all four beers did a good job showcasing San Diego brewing prowess.
The local epicure contingent is buzzing about the local-boy we had in the competition, Chad White. After several years cooking at and helming several San Diego restaurants, White shuttered his East Village spot, Común, and moved to Washington State to establish a new farm-to-table venture. Some say this somewhat unceremonious exit is a sign that he won, but only time will tell. All I can say is that I was able to taste the dish he prepared for this episode of Top Chef (in which 11 chefs competed)—herb-roasted opah with tamarind-roasted carrots, ginger-pine nut froth and a hominy puree—and it was outstanding. Each component was bright in its flavors and brought its own unique earthiness, acidity and spice, coalescing into a dish that was rather complex. As I sat at my table, glimpsing White explaining his dish to those famous judges, I flashed back to many conversations I’d shared with the chef over the years, starting with the first time I met him and he hurriedly retreated back to the kitchen where he had accidentally burned a piece of toast in a frying pan. Talk about having come a long way. It was easy to be proud of and root for him.
And speaking of the judges, my dining companions and I had a good time monitoring their beverage intake. I was proud to see Emeril Lagasse, the star-chef who had me on his shows nearly a decade ago, finish all or close to every drop of each beer put in front of him. It was a stark contrast to Blais, who sporadically sipped. And though they come across a bit cold from time-to-time—usually when axing a losing contestant—I wondered what Tom Colicchio and Lakshmi would be like in-person. The answer: quite nice. Both made a point of getting to know Gonzalez, Ballast Point brewmaster Yuseff Cherney and the rest of their colleagues in the staging area prior to the taping.
For all the Hollywood glitz and window-dressing that goes into television productions, I was surprised to see so little of it on this day. What you viewed last night (or will eventually see if the espisode is still emblazoned on your DVR) was what actually happened without a ton of edits, re-shoots or audience plants. It was as authentic as the beers that were brewed for it, and that’s pretty cool.
March 28th was a near perfect day in North County, San Diego, and there was a clear excitement in the air at Bagby Beer Company in Oceanside. Brewers and volunteers were busy running back and forth setting up for the event at Bagby Beer’s “campus,” an expansive location replete with four different draft service areas, a full kitchen, and plenty of spacious viewpoints and settings where it is easy to get lost in a glass of perfectly crafted San Diego beer.
Normal bar service is fantastic at Bagby Beer Company, but this day would be different. This day was BagbyFest, the Grand Opening celebration for what has arguably been the most successful new brewing operation to open in San Diego County within the past few years. Bagby Beer Company is the personification of the people who are behind the company, in this case, namely Jeff Bagby and his wife, Dande. Together, with a supporting cast of kitchen, hospitality, service, and brewing staff, they have built a beer destination unlike anything else. And folks recognize that this has been no small accomplishment.
“This might be the first beer festival that I have ever actually participated in,” said Tom Nickel, brewer and owner of Nickel Beer Company in Julian, California. “I have organized maybe 55 festivals, but it’s cool that this [BagbyFest] is my first festival where I am pouring Nickel beer.” And Tom Nickel was not the only well-known brewer to show up in support of Jeff Bagby, and to acknowledge what it means to have the former head brewer and director of brewing operations for Pizza Port back brewing again in San Diego. Colby Chandler of Ballast Point, Chuck Silva from Green Flash, and Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing Company and The Lost Abbey were all there. Pat and Val McIlhenney were there, pouring Alpine Beer. Adam Avery from Avery Brewing Company came all the way from Boulder, Colorado, and Matt Van Wyk from Oakshire Brewing came all the way from Eugene, Oregon. Bill Batten, brewer at AleSmith, Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes from Pizza Port Ocean Beach, Arne Johnson from Marin Brewing Company, Kyle Smith from Kern River, and Dustin Kral, the head brewer at Firestone Walker, as well.
All these incredible brewers were on hand at the festival, both to represent their respective breweries and to share some special beers with the folks who attended BagbyFest. But, more importantly, these brewers were all at Bagby Beer Company to pay testament to a brewer who paved the way for San Diego beer in so many ways. From his GABF medals and recognition, to the Alpha King awards, to the now infamous “Who the F#CK is Jeff Bagby?” tee-shirts, to the party pants…Jeff Bagby epitomizes what is means to brew clean, awesome beers across a diverse range of styles in an absolute professional manner, all while having a great time doing it. Without Jeff, and without everything that he has accomplished, the brewing community in San Diego would not be the same. Everyone in this industry here should never forget what he, in part, has helped to create. It was incredibly humbling and exciting to be a part of BagbyFest, recognizing what Jeff and Dande have done to elevate beer in San Diego, and working hard every day to not mess that up.
This article appears on page 12 of the February 2011 issue.
STEAM BEER WAS BORN — A look at the past and present of a uniquely Californian beer style
I have a couple of posters up in my apartment, both depicting scenes from 19th century San Francisco. The first is from 1843 and shows several sailing ships anchored in the bay and on the shore stands a scattering of rustic buildings. These buildings make up the town of Yerba Buena, which was renamed “San Francisco” in 1847. Only a year after that, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and thousands of “49ers” embarked on the long and treacherous journey from the east to the gold mines. Along with their hunger for fortune, they brought a thirst for beer.
The second painting dates from 1876, showing a view of San Francisco from Telegraph Hill. The transformation over this period of time is incredible; what was once a small trading and fishing town became the gateway of California. The surge in population brought with it brewers eager to satisfy the demand for beer. These brewers adapted European brewing traditions to fit local ingredients and process constraints. Previously confined to its native home of Bavaria, lager brewing was quickly spreading by the mid-1800s. The golden Pilsner, which originated in Bohemia, was beginning its march across the world, destined to evolve into the dominant style of beer in nearly every part of the globe. Local brewers brought with them the new lager yeast but lacked ice or refrigeration in order to cool the fermenting beer to its typical 45-50 degrees. Lagering the beer at near freezing temperatures was out of the question for the same reasons. What brewers did have in San Francisco was the naturally cool and foggy weather, which allowed them to ferment their beer at slightly cooler temperatures than was typical for ale brewers. Steam beer was born.
Those two posters I have are from Anchor Brewing Company. Anchor is the only surviving steam beer brewery from the 1800s, and despite the brewing renaissance of recent decades, remains one of the only breweries in the world to regularly produce the style. They ferment their steam beer from a wort made of North American 2-row pale malt, caramel malt, and Northern Brewer hops. Their yeast strain is a special type of lager yeast that has adapted to fermenting at typically warmer ale fermentation temperatures in open, pan-like fermentors that are 12-18 inches deep. Fermentation temperature is regulated only by the ambient room temperature of 61 degrees, and the large surface-area-to-volume ratio of the fermenting beer. Anchor Steam Beer is a dry, malty, and bitter beer of moderate alcohol content that has a distinct woody and spicy hop flavor and a unique fruitiness from the warm lager fermentation. It’s also the only beer that you will see actually labeled “Steam” because Anchor hold a trademark for the name. Nowadays beer brewed in the steam style will be labeled something like “California Common” or “Common Lager.”
There are some descriptions of Steam beer from before prohibition, but because Anchor is the only brewery that survived into the modern era, our understanding of the style is greatly influenced by Fritz Maytag’s vision for it once he bought the struggling brewery in 1965. Before then, the beer was brewed with adjuncts such as corn grits or sugar syrups, and a dark version was brewed with caramel coloring. It was a cheap and inconsistent beer that was often infected, too. Older sources tell us that the style was krausened in casks to a very high level of carbonation and had to be vented before serving to release the immense levels of pressure. The beer would still pour very foamy into the glass and is likened to trying to pour a glass of steam. This is one possible source of the steam beer name, though it has also been said that it comes from the sight of steam rising from the wort as it cooled in shallow coolships in the attics of the local breweries. The boiling wort would be pumped up into these shallow metal pans to allow the cool San Francisco breeze to do its thing and bring the wort down to fermentation temperatures.
Brewers in San Diego have taken a few cracks at the style but it remains mostly unknown as of late. Two versions called San Diego Brewers Guild UnCommon Lager have been brewed for purchase by Guild Allied Members and for pouring at various San Diego beer festivals, including the Guild Fest. The first of these beers was brewed in 2007 at Karl Strauss in Carlsbad with brewer Matt Walsh, and the second was brewed at Alpine Beer Co. with owner Pat McIlhenney and Chuck Silva from Green Flash in 2009. Colby Chandler from Ballast Point/Home Brew Mart had a hand in both beers and is a fan of the style. “I like it,” he said. “We brew clean and crisp beers in San Diego County. The ‘Steam’ yeast strain, a lager yeast fermented at 60 degrees, is great for achieving a clean and crisp beer.” Those beers deviated from the Anchor model because they were brewed with a myriad of hop varieties donated by Guild Brewery Members, but used the White Labs-provided San Francisco Lager yeast strain, which is the same type that Anchor uses. Hop Union also donated choice Cascade hops for dry hopping, while Brewers Supply Group came through with the necessary malt.
For homebrewers who don’t have temperature control allowing them to brew normal lagers, the White Labs 810 San Francisco Lager strain is perfect during this time of year. “In the middle of this frigid, skin chilling San Diego winter you can usually find a five day stretch that averages 60 degrees. Perfect temperature for home brewing a California Common,” said Chandler. “Let’s hope a version of the San Diego Brewers Guild UnCommon Lager could make a come back for the 2012 Craft Brewers Conference and World Beer Cup being held in Mission Valley?” I’ll throw in my request for another version as well. Steam beer is one of America’s few unique beer styles, and something that I hope we’ll see more of in the future.