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.
From the Beer Writer: If there’s any gringo brewer that’s going to do right by both San Diego and Baja, it’s Ryan Brooks. He has lived a cross-cultural life, residing in Tijuana and working with brewers spanning as far east as Mexicali, soaking up the cross-border brewing culture along the way. Brooks is so enamored with the exciting things happening in his adopted region’s brewing scene that his new business, SouthNorte Beer Company (a spin-off brand of parent-operation Coronado Brewing Company), aims to celebrate the flavors and ingredients of Mexico along with the personal brewing heritage he amassed in Southern California. A key component to doing so is forging a flagship Mexican-style lager, and Brooks has done so with SouthNorte Sea Señor. Rather than rely on bells, whistles and adjuncts to add extra character, this inaugural 4.5% alcohol-by-volume offering is as true-to-form as it gets, relying on traditional ingredients to produce a crystal-clear, clean and incredibly refreshing beer. Tinged with the slightest bit of sweetness and complimentary herbal notes (think thyme and marjoram), it has what it takes to serve as an ambassador to the glories of craft beer for Latinos, who until recently, haven’t been marketed to all that well nor given much reason to give locally produced ales and lagers a shot. That changes here and now. Viva la revolución de la cerveza artesanal!
From the Brewers: “Sea Señor is the flagship beer that really kickstarted the idea of SouthNorte Beer Co. I was experimenting with the flavors and ingredients of Mexico, and brewing my take on a Mexican lager. I wanted something refreshing and easy to drink—like the beers I was enjoying in Baja—but brewed locally with quality ingredients. I use crisp pilsner malt and a classic yeast strain to get the smoothness typical of the style, but with a fuller flavor. We use European Noble hops at low hopping rates so the beer is balanced but not overly bitter. We then lager for three weeks so the beer is incredibly smooth and goes down easy, whether it’s by the pool or over a meal with friends. I’m excited for people to experience what SouthNorte is all about. Sea Señor is just the first of what’s to come—I am so inspired by our border culture and I can’t wait to brew recipes that showcase our ‘crossroads of cultures’ style.”—Ryan Brooks, Founder/Head Brewer, SouthNorte Beer Company
Judging brewing competitions can be a reassuring exercise on many levels. If one devotes themselves to the process and takes it seriously, they often gain validation of their powers of evaluation through their panelist peers. And when everyone gives it their all, taking time to thoroughly analyze each entrant and debate top contenders’ rankings, it often leads to a truly high-quality beer taking top honors. This was what played out for me last Saturday when judging homebrew entries in Green Flash Brewing Company’s Genius Lab competition.
Held in conjunction with the company’s annual Treasure Chest Fest, a beer-and-food festival raising funds for the local chapter of Susan G. Komen, this battle of recreational brewers drew 31 entries. Contestants were permitted to brew any style of India pale ale they chose be it session, fruited, imperial, Belgian, black or hazy. Even with that much guideline leniency, a popular fact was easily proven true. IPAs are the toughest style of beer to brew at home; especially to standards that merit reproducing a beer in a professional setting. That was the first-place award for this competition.
Originally, our panel, which consisted of organizer Brian Beagle of local podcast San Diego BeerTalk Radio and Green Flash representatives including brewmaster Erik Jensen, had hoped to advance 15 beers from the first round to the second. It was about a third of the way through that it became apparent that this would not be possible. From aroma to flavor, the flaws were many. Some beers reeked of butyric acid (reviled for possessing a scent evocative of vomit), while others were as vegetal as a plate of Brussels sprouts. One even tasted like—I kid you not—Cinnamon Toast Crunch. In the end, we squeezed out 12 second-rounders by allowing in some “maybes”, but it really came down to four beers that had a chance at the top spot.
My comments above may make it seem like beer judges’ senses lead to instant consensus in most cases, but that hasn’t been my experience. Often, second- and third-round judging involves a great deal of discussion and debate. It’s a key part of the process, as it was in this instance. In the end, we selected an IPA called Searching For Clarity that, post-judging, we learned was entered by Nick Corona. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he won Homebrewer of the Year honors at last year’s Homebrew Con, the country’s largest recreational brewing competition, held annually by the American Homebrewers Association. A member of local club QUAFF, Corona is also the reigning homebrewer of the year for his winning entries at the 2017 edition of the San Diego County Fair‘s annual homebrew competition.
Corona’s win was announced the following day at Treasure Chest Fest, along with the second-place winner, a Northeast-style IPA from Solomon Cantwell, and the second-runner-up, Summer of Hops from Caden Houson (who is Corona’s co-brewer). Look for the winning beer to debut at Green Flash’s Mira Mesa tasting room as part of its small-batch Genius Lab program during San Diego Beer Week in early November.
Each June, San Marcos’ Rip Current Brewing Company uses Rip Current Awareness Week, a seven-day period designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as an opportunity to raise public knowledge about its wares through special events and offers at its tasting rooms. It’s a clever marketing effort; enough so that another San Marcos-headquartered brewing company isn’t waiting for a governmental agency to institute an educational span in its honor. Enter, Mason Awareness Week, taking place August 28 to September 1.
Mason Ale Works, the in-house brewing operation of the 3LB Restaurant Group built within its Urge Gastropub brewpubs in Oceanside and San Marcos, is teaming with high-profile accounts throughout San Diego over a five-day span to increase imbibers’ consciousness of the brand. According to 3LB co-owner Grant Tondro, Mason Ale Works has been able to gain a good following in North County, but isn’t as relevant south of Miramar. So, they’re bringing the brand south via special events and promotions.
The week will kick off with a Monday steak night at University Heights’ Small Bar that, instead of featuring a keep-the-glass aspect, will allow patrons to keep a Mason-branded steak knife. Tuesday a beer-can koozie will be the keeper du jour at High Dive in Bay Park. Wednesday the Mason crew will return to Urge Common House in San Marcos for a “mini-Lebowski fest” marking the release of a “vegan White Russian beer” brewed in collaboration with Modern Times Beer. Thursday will see a keep-the-glass and cask-night combo at Kearny Mesa’s O’Brien’s Pub, followed by special bottle pours and custom t-shirts at Toronado in North Park.
Like many new local brewery owners, Tondro says opening a brewing company in the current, crowded marketplace is challenging. He says the number of slices of the pie are growing faster than the pie at this point, making it all the more important to differentiate one’s brand and beers, and fueling the decision to reach out in order to introduce themselves to San Diego beer drinkers.