This weekend, West Coaster obtained official communications from representatives of Helm’s Brewing Company (5640 Kearny Mesa Road, Suites C & N, Kearny Mesa) stating that the five-year-old business is accepting offers from interested parties. Ownership will entertain offers of $500,000 and above.
Helm’s Brewing opened its doors in 2012. Founded by a homebrewer and associates from his primary career, the company’s first head brewer was Brian Mitchell, who went on to work as a small-batch brewer for Stone Brewing before opening his own project, Pariah Brewing Company, at North Park’s Brewery Igniter complex on El Cajon Boulevard earlier this year. Under Mitchell and subsequent brewing personnel, Helm’s’ beer quality has fluctuated, leading to something of a hit-or-miss reputation among consumers. Still, the company was able to add a satellite tasting room in 2016, becoming the third to open in now satellite-saturated Ocean Beach.
The OB tasting room, which is located at the corner of Newport Avenue and Cable Street (the same block as tasting rooms for Belching Beaver Brewery, Culture Brewing Company and Kilowatt Brewing Company) will be included as an acquired asset should Helm’s sell. Among attributes listed for that venue in the company’s solicitation communique are the fact it faces the neighborhood’s Wednesday farmer’s market and “has posted strong revenue numbers through its first year-and-a-half in existence.”
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.
I’ve interviewed many brewers in my day, and when asked about their portfolios, nearly every one of them rifles off the same statement: “We brew beers that we want to brew.” This answer’s ubiquity in no way detracts from its authenticity, but it means a lot more for the most recent fermentationist to say it to me, Brian Mitchell of Pariah Brewing Company (3052 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park). Doing things his way doesn’t mean daring to brew a lager in ale-town San Diego, brewing gluten-free beers or shooting for extreme alcohol-by-volume. His family of beers—which will make their official debut at a trio of grand-opening sessions (which are nearly sold out) next weekend, before Pariah’s tasting room opens to the public on Sunday, February 12—are unlike anything being brewed anywhere in San Diego, or pretty much anywhere else.
Of the six beers that will be on-tap when Pariah opens, the tamest is Off-White Wit, a Belgian-style witbier inspired by Taiwanese boba tea. Honey, green tea, lemongrass, ginger and orange find their way into this exotic brew, but Mitchell leaves out one of this style’s most traditional ingredients, coriander. The result is a wheat beer with herbal notes versus overbearing citrus character. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Uni Stout…and it’s just what it sounds like, a take on an oyster stout brewed with lacto-sugar, sea salt and fresh sea urchin gonads from Catalina Offshore Products. The sea fare (added in the whirlpool) combats some of the sweetness, drying things out and leaving flavors of chocolate and pumpernickel behind. It makes Dorcha, a nicely balanced stout brewed with molasses, cacao nibs and a proprietary blend of coffee from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters seem everyday by comparison.
There is one traditional beer on the board, a West Coast IPA fortified with Amarillo and Mosaic hops that’s been cleverly dubbed Dank Drank. Dry with a lasting lemon pithiness, it’s 6.66% ABV and comes in at 66 on the IBU (international bittering unit) scale. But even it is offset by a more avant-garde IPA that’s brewed with mangoes, peach-flesh and hemp oil. Mitchell hates fruit IPAs produced by “certain local companies” and aimed to use real fruit (versus extract) to marry with and amplify the qualities of the hops used for this beer. The result is an IPA with malt character reminiscent of a Pacific Northwest IPA and heavy tropical flavors.
The most ambitious of the lot is Erotic City. The name is inspired by the dearly departed “Purple One”, while the recipe for this strong ale resulted from a challenge issued by Mitchell’s wife, who wanted a beer brewed with Muscat grapes, honey and grains of paradise. The resulting beer is big on grape flavor, but low on the mustiness that typically accompanies wine-grape beers. There is some sweetness, as one would expect, but I’ts earthy and honey-like as opposed to cloying. This is a beer for adventurous drinkers, but that seems to be the point at Pariah.
And these aren’t specialties or one-offs. The beers described above comprise Pariah’s core-beer line-up. That’s gutsiness that bleeds over into Dogfish Head territory. (Erotic City actually closely resembles Dogfish’s “ancient ale” Midas Touch.) That Delaware-based veteran brewing company has been manufacturing “off-centered ales for off-centered people” for 21 years, growing into the 16th largest craft brewery in the country in the process. Mitchell’s aspirations aren’t that large, however, he does want to grow his business. As such, he has hired employees to handle sales and distribution, something not that many new breweries devote start-up funds to. His business practices seem sounder than many, lending method to what, to beer purists might seem light outright madness.
With new breweries opening at a rapid clip and nearly 140 operating brewhouses, many wonder if our county needs any more brewing companies. This opinion is fueled mostly by people who feel the majority of each business’ offerings are nearly identical, especially where hoppy beers are concerned. Pariah’s wares soundly answer any questions about why this interest exists—because without Pariah, beers like this wouldn’t exist…anywhere. It’s refreshing to come across a new brewery with so many unique offerings, and even those who don’t take to Mitchell’s creations will likely agree with that sentiment.
Pariah’s out-there line-up offers an advantage to a pair of other breweries—Eppig Brewing and San Diego Brewing Company. Those businesses are located on either side of Pariah in the second of H.G. Fenton’s Brewery Igniter complexes. All three companies entered these ready-to-brew, tasting room-supplied spots with equal brewing and cellar capacity. It was up to each to differentiate themselves and that’s just what’s happened. San Diego serves its vanguard staples plus worldly one-offs, while Eppig is gaining a good name behind high-quality lagers and a mixed-bag of hoppy beers and kettle-sours. Then there’s Pariah, which also features the most jarringly disparate environs. Purple (more Prince influence) is the main color in the dimly lit space, which San Diego Brewing co-owner Lee Doxtader has taken to (respectfully) calling “the dungeon”. But how many captive environments are so nerdy about glassware that every beverage served there comes in its own specific type of glassware (including the aromatic-enhancing Spiegelau IPA glass)?
Pariah’s tasting room will be open Monday through Wednesday from 12 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from noon to midnight and Sundays from 12 to 7 p.m. The tasting room is equipped with 13 taps that will soon be filled. Bottled wild ales are also in the works, as is a three-way collaboration between the North Park Brewery Igniter’s tenants.
They were the last to go into H.G. Fenton’s three-suite Brewery Igniter campus, but San Diego Brewing Company (3052 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park) became the second tenant to open last week. The veteran business’ 2,500-square-foot tasting room is open seven days a week and accepting all comers. The beer flowing from its 15 taps is a mix of longtime staples such as Blueberry Wheat, Old Town Nut Brown and Google-search darling San Diego IPA, as well as newer creations like Pale In Drop D session ale and Black Orchid imperial chocolate milk stout.
Head brewer Jeff Drum opened with one entirely new beer on-tap, a Scottish Ale called 80 Shilling (named for its alcohol-content per historic Scottish practices). He has another beer in development which he plans on debuting at the new space, an IPA called Shadow Fall. In addition to all that ale, San Diego Brewing’s satellite also serves house-made root beer and a pair of kombuchas, one of which is pumpkin pie-flavored and served on nitro.
The North Park facility is equipped with a 10-barrel brewing system Drum uses to double-batch into 20-barrel fermentation and conditioning tanks. The tasting room is open to the public from 4 to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m. on Fridays, noon to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m. An official grand-opening event will take place from 12 to 4 p.m., Saturday, January 28 and feature brewery tours, a raffle and food from various mobile vendors. The space is kid- and dog-friendly with a large-screen TV to occupy the former…and their parents.
It’s the final month of the year, and time to reflect on the year nearly gone-by. For me, that means assessing San Diego County’s brewery landscape. That’s what I’ll be doing in a three-part series of posts this week, starting with a look at the plethora of new brewing operations that opened in 2016. More breweries opened this year than any in history. And it’s important to note that more good breweries opened in 2016 than in the past several years. Many tout the double-digit number of rookie fermentation operations added to San Diego’s brewery-count each year, but I’ll be honest and say that the past half-decade has seen too many average-to-subpar businesses join the fold. Sure, some duds opened in 2016, but the same can be said of any food-and-beverage business. The bottom-line is, aspiring entrants into the local suds-scene seem to understand, now more than ever, that they better have good beer if they’re going to compete, and that’s leading to better breweries, from conception to birth and beyond. The following are my picks (in order) for best new breweries of the past 365 days (with the exception of some that were simply too new to be fairly evaluated).
Burning Beard Brewing Co., El Cajon: Rockin’ beers and rock-and-roll make for amenities worth an East County excursion at this small but well-run spot featuring a variety of beers ranging from Belgians to San Diego-style hop-elixirs to deep, dark stouts and, eventually, fouder-aged ales. Throw in employee exuberance that ranges from the brew-crew to the bar staff, and it’s sort of a holy-grail situation.
North Park Beer Co., North Park: One of the most anticipated new brewery project of the past four years, the brainchild of its namesake community’s proud denizen Kelsey McNair finally came to life. Its former MMA gym home has been transformed into a beautiful, two-story, wood-paneled den of communal enjoyment of beers that are largely sessionable and rely on impressive balance versus belligerent brawn.
Resident Brewing Co., Downtown: Urban bar and eatery, The Local, is a long-time supporter of the craft-beer movement, but when it added on-site fermentation to its equation, the resulting product was something special. An award-winning homebrewer-turned-pro is pumping out some of the bolder, ideally hopped West Coast-style beers of the rookie-class while bringing flavor with myriad other styles.
Pure Project Brewing, Miramar: If a wide array of easy-drinking beers—crisp to full-bodied, clear to hazy, fruited to (GABF medal-garnering) barrel-aged—weren’t enough reason to become enamored with this, the first brewery to test out the Brewery Igniter ready-to-brew model, the fact it’s a generous One Percent for the Planet business is enough to pull the wishy-washy off the fence.
Bear Roots Brewing, Vista: A small homebrew-supply store opening a three-barrel nano-brewery with a bar that takes up half its shop…sounds risky if not ill-advised, but a husband-wife duo have not only made it work, but amassed such a cult-following behind a varied beer line-up that includes a tasty cookie-inspired dessert beer that they’re looking at growing their baby to papa-bear status in 2017.
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co., Bay Ho: The first brewery to open in 2016 has done well for itself, producing a solid line-up of hoppy beers offset by a number of English-style malt-driven styles and “candy-bar” beers. Further refinement of its wares in the coming year should keep this operation on its upward trajectory, as should fun, well-done quarterly beer dinners in its tasting room.
It’s important to note that, in previous years, a half-dozen picks for best new brewery would have been excessive. This year, I could have added another two or three rather easily. The following are those that missed the cut, but never before has the division between the best and the rest been so slim. Cheers to that!
This Year’s Contenders: Culver Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Guadalupe Brewery (Carlsbad), Kensington Brewing Co. (Mission Valley), Little Miss Brewing Co. (Miramar), Longship Brewery (Mira Mesa), Mason Ale Works (Oceanside), Midnight Jack Brewing Co. (Oceanside), Mikkeller Brewing San Diego (Miramar), Oceanside Brewing Co. (Oceanside),
Maybe Next Year: Burgeon Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Eppig Brewing Co. (North Park), Knotty Brewing (East Village), OB Brewery (Ocean Beach), Thunderhawk Alements (Miramar)
Previous Top-Ranked Breweries
2015: Fall Brewing Co. (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing Co. (South Park), Bay City Brewing Co. (Point Loma), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing Co. (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing Co. (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing Co. (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing Co. (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing Co. (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing Co. (Vista)