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.
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.
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.
Having lived in the area for more than a decade, Morris and Robin Nuspl always wanted to bring a brewery to their community, but finding good, industrial-zoned real estate was problematic. So they considered Kearny Mesa, Mission Valley and areas near Lindberg Field before coming upon the eventual home for Deft Brewing (5328 Banks Street, Suite A, Bay Park), a 1950s gable-roofed former fishing-boat factory in a cul-de-sac a block off Morena Boulevard, Linda Vista and Friars Roads. Plenty of windows, a roll-up door and a patio were deal-sealers for them.
Morris will serve as head of brewing and operations. A former electronics-industry executive and engineer, he is an avid homebrewer who believes in small-batch creation. He and assistant Mike Finn will employ a two-barrel pilot system to develop and fine-tune beers before installing an eventual 10-barrel brewhouse to ramp up production. That move is currently slated for next year and will only happen after Deft brings on a professional brewer with experience running larger breweries. At that point, 10- and 20-barrel fermenters will be brought in to replace the current stock of two-, five- and eight-barrel tanks.
The company’s product portfolio will be made up mostly of ales of British, Belgian and German origin, each infused with twists—described as “deftness”. While there will be hop-forward offerings (English-style IPA), Morris intends to make approachability (Kölsch) his primary focus and isn’t scared to bring malt-heavy beers (Irish-style red ale) to a county that generally eschews grain-centric brews. He’s also eager to present Western European styles seldom produced on a commercial level. Year One production is estimated to meet or exceed 500 barrels.
Despite being a rather centralized neighborhood accessible from Interstates 5 and 8, the Nuspls concede Bay Park is still tucked away and unfamiliar territory for many San Diegans. They hope to do their part to change that by adding good beer with existing Bay Park interest Coronado Brewing Company and the incoming tasting room from Grantville’s Benchmark Brewing Company. They believe in the camaraderie of the industry and cite Home Brewing, Duck Foot Brewing, Eppig Brewing, Bitter Brothers Brewing (in nearby Bay Ho) and Hauck Architecture as businesses that have helped them a great deal over the past year-and-a-half. Deft is on track to open around Labor Day.
Summer’s in full swing and so is San Diego’s beer-drinking public. Rather than beat the heat, get right out in it and combat it with local ales and lagers at any of the featured events below. Still thirsty? No problem. Check out even more beery happenings on our events page.
July 11 | Beer Dinner No. 2: North Park Beer’s first beer dinner was impressive, enough that one attendee, O’Brien’s Pub’s Tyson Blake, signed up him and his boss, Nickel Beer Co. brewmaster Tom Nickel, to participate in this month’s feast, which will feature house, guest and collab beers plus fare from on-site Mastiff Sausage that goes beyond its everyday meaty fare. | North Park Beer Company, 3038 University Avenue, North Park, 7 p.m.
July 19 | Hop-Con 5.0: Stone Brewing will celebrate a half-decade of boozy, (partially) barrel-aged beer that salutes and speaks to nerds of all walks of life when it taps five consecutive vintages of Drew Curtis / Wil Wheaton / Greg Koch Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout and an immense list of specialty brews, serves up gourmet food and plugs in its vintage #HopCade. | Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station, 2816 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma, 7 p.m.
July 21-23 | Craft Beer Block Party: The tenants of the North Park Brewery Igniter campus—Eppig Brewing, Pariah Brewing and San Diego Brewing—are teaming up for the first time to present a fun weekend that will feature a Friday-night progressing beer-pairing dinner featuring three courses from Biersal Food Truck, and a two-day “local maker’s market”. | CRAFT by Brewery Igniter, 3052 El Cajon Boulevard; North Park, Times Vary by Day
July 29 | Arts & Amps: Ales and art in multiple forms will be celebrated at Karl Strauss Brewing’s PB tasting room and beer garden. There’ll be live mural art by Cohort Collective, a gallery show from Creative Souls on the West, live music by The Schizophonics and Creature Canyon, and food from Tasting Room Del Mar. An event like this could be pricey, but admission is free! | Karl Strauss Brewing Company, 5985 Santa Fe Street, Pacific Beach, 4:30 p.m.
July 29 | HESSFEST 7: Mike Hess Brewing has been getting by with a little help from their friends for a whopping seven years. Breweries from here to Arizona come out to bolster this festival, which benefits Next Step Service Dogs and the YMCA, and will feature nine collaboration beers with the likes of Council Brewing, Eppig Brewing, and Second Chance Beer Company. | Mike Hess Brewing, 3812 Grim Avenue, North Park, 12 p.m.