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2017 Recap: San Diego County’s Most Improved Breweries

Dec 20

In reading a list of most-improved breweries, one can make the assumption that in order to make that roster these interests must have been pumping out bad beer at some point. While this certainly could be true, it is not always the case with brewing companies that find themselves a part of this annually shifting assemblage. In most cases this year, the operations mentioned were already making good beer—or even great beer—but are now performing even better from a manufacturing standpoint. There is always room for improvement, proof of which is provided below.

2kids Brewing | Miramar: This nano-brewery has actually been on an upward trajectory over the past few years, but this year, the level of refinement in this Miralani OG’s beers jumped quite a bit. Hoppy beers exhibit more vibrancy in their aromas and flavors, while maltier beers seem more cohesive and balanced overall. It’s no wonder this operation’s cultish fan base continues to grow, and a pleasure to see this husband-wife venture continue its steady ascent.

Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: Alpine makes great beer. Tell you something you didn’t already know, right? Since being acquired by Green Flash Brewing Company in 2014, many have complained about perceiving a drop-off in quality between beers brewed in Alpine and those brewed on a larger scale and packaged for distribution, but this year, numerous canned offerings tasted better, more consistent and truer to the beers that inspired the purchase of that famed East County interest.

Bear Roots Brewing

Bear Roots Brewing | Vista: Though a tiny nano built into a homebrew shop, this family-run brewery has been churning out enjoyable beer from the get-go. As such, the grizzly interest has earned a solid reputation and following, enough that ownership considered expanding brewing capabilities. Even though it opted against getting a bigger, more sophisticated brewhouse (instead fortifying the business with an outdoor patio), it has still managed to up the brightness and flavor of its beers.

Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: One of the most buzzed-about new breweries to open in the past two years, El Cajon’s best (and only) fermentation facility opened with an impressive beer line-up that only keeps getting better. The key is the brewing team’s devotion to fine-tuning until they get beers where they and their fans want them. Throw in this year’s barrel-aged specialties and you have an operation that managed to increase its angle of ascension in 2017.

Council Brewing | Kearny Mesa: When this husband-wife business first opened, its little-guy charm and friendly staffers made up for occasional inconsistencies. As it grew, sour beers of varied composition expanded the business’ rep and reach while taking center stage, portfolio-wise. The deliciousness of those brews continues to increase. Ditto non-sour beers, most impressively Council’s hoppy stock, which used to be a tad hit-and-miss, but now wows on a regular basis.

Division 23 Brewing | Miramar: This lesser-known brewery has had numerous head fermentationists since debuting in 2015, leading to varying quality across the beer-board. This year saw continued vocational movement within the brewhouse, but as of now, this operation’s beers are tasting better as a whole than they have at any point, making the long, winding road one must take to get to this tucked-away industrial park venue worth the maneuvering.

Indian Joe Brewing

Indian Joe Brewing | Vista: The beer at this native American-owned brewery was at its best right before it shuttered in 2015. After a lengthy search for an ideal, much larger base of operations, the business reopened this year with a new head brewer and a laundry list of house beers coming in at 30. Variety remains the name of the game, making it harder to keep every member of the diverse line-up in check; still, Indian Joe’s beers are the finest they’ve been during either of its iterations.

Kilowatt Brewing | Kearny Mesa & Ocean Beach: This business is in the process of expanding its brewing capabilities, but before trading up to a larger brewhouse, they took the wise step of bringing on a head brewer with experience garnered over years spent at AleSmith Brewing. He has tinkered with several beer recipes and the early results are extremely promising. This should be a fun brewery to keep an eye on over the coming year.

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Mikkeller San Diego hires new head brewer

Oct 10

Last month, Joe Lisica resigned from his post heading fermentation operations for Miramar-based Little Miss Brewing. He cited an amicable parting of ways with owners Greg and Jade Malkin, who brought him on as the company’s first-ever brewmaster and a partner (though goals that would have triggered part-ownership were not reached prior to Lisica leaving). The Malkins wanted to go one direction with the beers they produced, while Lisica favored an altogether different creative trajectory.

Lisica departed without a plan for his next step. He said he was actually looking forward to enjoying a little down-time after spending the past year-plus planning, hammering together and running a brand-new brewery. A life of rest and refueling must not have agreed with him, because he went back to work yesterday after being hired by Mikkeller Brewing San Diego to serve as its head brewer. Lisica worked at Green Flash Brewing Company in Mira Mesa before moving on to move up with Little Miss. Here, he will be responsible for the manufacture of many more styles than he tackled at his last place of employ, filling a beer-board 19 strong and crafting weekly new releases.

This will be the Miramar-based brewery’s second head brewer. Initially, the company—the brick-and-mortar overseas interest of Copenhagen, Denmark-based entrepreneur Mikkel Borg Bjergso—brought veteran brewer Bill Batten over from sister-company AleSmith Brewing Company to lead brewery operations. Batten resigned in March and has gone on to consult for several San Diego County brewing companies while waiting to take the reins at his eventual home, TapRoom Beer Company, which is currently being birthed in North Park by the owners of Pacific Beach bar SD TapRoom.

Back at Mikkeller San Diego, the company maintains a cult following, but appears to be struggling with the inherent difficulties of having an owner that spends the majority of his time away from the business while guiding brewery decisions from afar. In other Mikkeller San Diego news, the company has removed the anvil that was formerly a component of its logo meant to communicate its partnership with AleSmith. AleSmith owner Peter Zien says that, although he sold stocks in 2016 to give control of Mikkeller San Diego to Bjergso, he remains a partner from an artistic and financial perspective until Mikkeller San Diego’s lease expiration, at which time Zien will transition to a point where he is no longer a financial principal.

Author’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect facts presented following its initial posting.

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Sampler Flight: October Events

Oct 3

The approach of All Hallow’s Eve certainly isn’t scaring local breweries away from holding a freakishly large number of events throughout San Diego County in the coming months. There are far too many to illustrate the full breadth in a short-list of four, so start with the hand-picked happenings below, then proceed to the full list on our events page.

October 8 | Oktoberfest Celebration: At this point, you’ve likely indulged in multiple O-festivities, and there’s no reason not to stop now. Hit Green Flash Brewing Company’s German-themed celebration to taste three special beers, including In der Mitte Märzenfestbier and a zwickel version of Sea to Sea Lager. | Green Flash Brewing Company, 6550 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa, 12 p.m.

October 13 | Blahktoberfest: Don’t pack those lederhosen up just yet. Blind Lady Ale House is having the eighth annual running of its Oktoberfest celebration with keeper pints (that you can fill with their Autobefest beer) and a unique house-made offering—bratwurst pizza. | Blind Lady Ale House, 3416 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights, 11 a.m.

October 21 | BagbyFest II: Even one of the most award-winning brewers of all times knows there’s more to the beverage world than just beer. Bagby Beer Company will section its expansive brewpub into zones celebrating wine, spirits, cocktails (and, yes, beer) from numerous regions of the world along with foods to go with them. | Bagby Beer Company, 601 South Coast Highway, Oceanside, 12 p.m.

October 21 | Anniversary Events: It seems October’s a fertile month. Three breweries are celebrating birthdays on the same day: Belching Beaver Brewing (5 years, special beers galore), Iron Fist Brewing Company (7 years, special beer and live music) and Legacy Brewing Company (4 years, Oktoberfest shindig). | Belching Beaver Brewery, 1334 Rocky Point Drive, Oceanside, 3 p.m.; Iron Fist Brewing Company, 1305 Hot Springs Way, Suite 101, Vista, 12 p.m.; Legacy Brewing Company, 363 Airport Road, Oceanside, 1 p.m.

October 21 | Ye Scallywag: Kickass beer and kickass punk rock will share space on the San Diego Bayfront when 100 beers are tapped against the backdrop of live performances from Pennywise and a motley crew of musical acts including The Vandals, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and more). | Waterfront Park, 1 Park Boulevard, Downtown San Diego, 12 p.m.

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Ballast Point’s new Trade Street facility

Sep 26

Many are those who tour Ballast Point Brewing’s enormous Miramar headquarters with its 300-barrel and 150-barrel brewhouses and rows of sky-high fermenters feel the county’s largest brewing company must have all the room it needs, especially with additional brewing facilities in Scripps Ranch, Little Italy, Long Beach and Roanoke, Virginia. The Miramar facility comes in with greater production capability than any other in San Diego, but rapid expansion has rendered it out of space, leading parent company Constellation Brands to secure an 80,000-square-foot building directly north of the Miramar home base.

Ballast Point currently has control of 60,000 square feet of that structure for what it calls its Trade Street Facility. It has been divided into three equal-sized sections serving completely different purposes. One third is simply storage, while the middle third houses an abundant and growing stock of beer-filled oak barrels procured from various wineries and distilleries. The current barrel count comes in at approximately 1,400, with an additional 900 barrels in another facility less than a mile west on Crestmar Point. There are three full-time employees manning this section, and it will soon have tanks added to handle production of beers destined for those oak receptacles, which include about every type of liquor and wine imaginable with more on the way.

Ballast Point intends to up its number of barrel-aged beer releases which are currently held quarterly and locally. Those specialties will be distributed nationally, including four-pack releases of popular beers such as aged versions of its vanilla- and coffee-infused imperial porter, Victory at Sea. Other beers the team is looking forward to debuting include Sea Monster imperial stout and Piper Down Scottish ale in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Navigator Doppelbock in brandy barrels, Barmy apricot and honey golden strong ale in neutral oak, plus various Belgian-style farmhouse, tripel and quadruple ales. In addition to its own needs, Ballast Point regularly fulfills requests from other breweries for barrels from its stock, including nearby Green Flash Brewing Company and 32 North Brewing Company.

The remaining third of the Trade Street facility is for “dirty beer”, referring to sours and bacteria-laden wild ales that, if not sectioned off, would stand a significant chance of infecting the clean beer as well as their production and storage mechanisms. This area has its own 40-barrel brewhouse feeding into more than 30 fermenters. It can produce up to 20,000 barrels of beer annually, some of which will make its way into six new 40-barrel, glycol-equipped, temperature-controlled fouders. The dirty area also has its own devoted bottling line, which recently packaged a national release’s worth of six-packs of Sour Wench blackberry ale.

Key to the new dirty beer operations is a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of providing as many quality assurance touch-points as the large lab at Ballast Point’s HQ. Prior to brewing Sour Wench for the most recent release, technicians conducted numerous tests, including analysis of myriad brands of blackberry puree and Lactobacillus strains, in search of the most ideal types for the beer. What they found was that the puree and strain the company was already using worked best, meaning the current batch of Sour Wench is very similar to the first batch ever homebrewed in 1998 (back when it went by the name Marion Berry’s Better-Than-A-Crack-Whore). While primary wild ale operations will now take place on Trade Street, Ballast Point hopes the aforementioned Long Beach facility will become the research-and-development feeder for the new facility.

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Shake-ups abound for Little Miss Brewing

Sep 14

Earlier this month a for-lease sign went up beside the signage for Little Miss Brewing’s much-anticipated tasting room on Ocean Beach’s Newport Avenue. The conversion of the site’s interior into a French World War II-themed sampling space is roughly halfway complete and the company’s logo has been mounted outside, making this an unexpected turn of events for everyone, including owners Greg and Jade Malkin. The marrieds behind this Miramar-based company’s satellite project have been paying rent on the space since last December and, in the time it has taken to attempt to obtain approval from the local faction of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), have opened another tasting room in Normal Heights. But the ABC process for their would-be OB interest has been nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare.

The Malkins submitted their ABC application for the OB tasting room a week after sending the same paperwork for the Normal Heights project. Early on, things went as expected, including receipt of protests during the 30-day period when residents are allowed to formally raise issues. The majority of the protests were rescinded once the Malkins reached out to the individuals who had initiated them. What the Malkins were unaware of, however, is that a private meeting had been held without their notification or knowledge in late-April—outside of the public-protest period—between ABC supervisors, representatives of the San Diego Police Department (SDPD), a State Assembly member and additional OB residents not in favor of the tasting room. ABC representatives claimed the meeting was not specifically about Little Miss, but rather all tasting-room licenses pending on Newport Avenue, but Little Miss’ was the only license of that type pending at the time. The negatives that came out of that meeting, where the project was scrutinized without the applicants being able to defend their business, followed the Little Miss project file through its lifespan without the Malkins even knowing. But this constitutes only a portion of the obstacles.

While the Malkins respect the job and authority of the ABC and appreciate the hard-working nature of ABC employees, they echo the opinion of most (including ABC employees) that the department and its local offices are severely understaffed during this time of unprecedented brewery openings. During the many months they spent trying to open the OB tasting room, meetings with ABC agents typically yielded little in the way of concrete answers or reliable advice. Often, one agent would contradict the other. In the cases where they agreed, other governmental factions saw things differently. Additionally, the Malkins were told to call ABC reps at different offices as well as various individuals at the City of San Diego offices and SDPD. Most calls went unanswered, as did requests for information.

The key piece of info they coveted during the process were crime logs. During a meeting with the ABC on July 20, the Malkins were shown a letter from the SDPD dated June 29 stating it would not support the issuance of Little Miss’ OB license. The reason: the neighborhoods the Western Patrol Division serves (Ocean Beach, Hillcrest, La Playa, Linda Vista, Loma Portal, Midtown, Midway District, Mission Hills, Mission Valley West, Morena, Old Town, Point Loma Heights, Roseville-Fleetridge, Sunset Cliffs, University Heights and “Wooded Area”) had experienced an overall increase in crime and could not handle another ABC license issued in the area. The ABC said they would not go against the SDPD’s recommendation because they felt it was impossible to change their opinion. Determined to give that a try on their own, the Malkins asked to see the crime reports for the aforementioned communities. The ABC had those reports, but said they were not allowed to provide them to the Malkins, and directed them to obtain the data from the City. They attempted to do so, but after more unanswered calls, ended up downloading the information they needed from the City of San Diego’s website instead.

Through this fact-finding exercise, they discovered that, although alcohol-related crime had gone up in the Western Patrol Division’s patrol area as a whole, it had gone down in OB by a whopping 40% since the November 2014 introduction of the neighborhood’s first brewery tasting room—Culture Brewing Company on Newport Avenue. Also, the number-one alcohol-related crime in OB is open-container violations, primarily on the beach. They presented this information to multiple City Councilmembers, the Mayor’s office and ABC, even going so far as to waive Little Miss’ ability to sell packaged beer or growlers to go, but never received an answer. The final straw was a call earlier this week when the Malkins say it seemed like someone at the ABC had decided they were going to deny the license long ago—possibly as far back as the meeting that they weren’t given the opportunity to attend—but nobody wanted to be the bearer of bad news. It prompted them to officially pull the plug on the OB project.

New Little Miss Brewing brewmaster Mike Morbitzer

This drama isn’t the only turbulence for the company, which last week parted ways with the only brewmaster it has known during its first year of existence. This seems a much easier hurdle to get over than ABC issues. Former Green Flash Brewing Company brewer Joe Lisica spearheaded brewery and tasting room construction and beer production for Little Miss. His desire was to create clean, clear beers, including an assortment of single-malt-and-single-hop (SMASH) beers. While quality was never an issue and ownership appreciated Lisica and his beers, their vision for Little Miss’ portfolio was vastly different, leading to an amicable parting of ways. Mike Morbitzer, a fellow Green Flash alum Lisica hired as his assistant, has been promoted to brewmaster and will be responsible for reshaping Little Miss’ offerings to match the Malkin’s desires, which includes more new-school beers such as hazy IPAs and beers brewed with fruits and other adjuncts across varying styles. Meanwhile, Lisica is taking a brief hiatus from the industry to contemplate his next move, while entertaining offers from companies in need of his services.

Little Miss’ business model from the get-go has been to open six satellite tasting rooms under their manufacturing license, focusing on unsaturated neighborhoods — besides the planned OB location. The Malkins are leery of filing through the San Diego office again. A local ABC agent advised them to apply in La Mesa, a municipality that only recently began encouraging brewing companies to lay down stakes, but they will also likely look north once they have some time to gain some distance and lick their wounds.

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