Brett Gent lived in Linda Vista and passed vaunted recreational supply-store, Home Brew Mart, almost daily. On one such day, he finally turned his steering wheel, pulled into the driveway, entered the store and purchased his first home-brew kit. Ten years after that watershed occasion, he is in the process of opening his own brewery, and its name was inspired by the movie that was playing during his first day using the aforementioned kit—Goodfellas. As he mashed in, boiled and lautered, one word kept getting thrown around via that cinematic classic…wise-guy. As a result, Carlsbad residents can look forward to receiving Wiseguy Brewing Company come the front-end of 2017.
Over the past decade, Gent won numerous awards for his home-brewed ales and lagers, leading him and his father, Tom, to take things to the next level. Wiseguy will be located near the McClellan-Palomar Airport off El Camino Real, and have a tasting room equipped with around 10 taps. Gent likes breweries where visitors have a communally driven experience that allow for the striking up of conversations and friendships, so he plans to lean in that direction with his sampling site. Aesthetically, the team will aim for a beach theme, using imagery from Gent’s brother—a professional photographer—to help convey that.
Wiseguy will have a 10-barrel brewhouse and a cellar consisting of five 20-barrel fermenters. Gent says he is a fan of all styles, but is a card-carrying hop-head. So, there will be a number of India pale ales and other hoppy beers augmented by a pilsner and German classics such as an altbier, doppelbock, schwarzbier, dunkelweizen and more. But don’t expect a Brett beer. Despite the fact it would be his namesake creation, Gent is a purist where beer is concerned, to the point where he also won’t be adding fruits, flora or other adjuncts to his beers.
Above all, Gent wants to create high-quality beer. With this being San Diego County, a hotbed of brewing ingenuity and success, he says he knows there will always be a bigger or better brewery than his, but also states he’s not in this for the money. He says getting into the brewing business is all about his legitimate love for beer, and that his main goal is for people to leave Wiseguy feeling every beer they had was really good.
When we first met Terry and Page Little, they were installing a nano-brewery into their business, Vista’s Home Brew Supply. They weren’t the first to do so (ever heard of a wee operation called Home Brew Mart which spawned the fairly sizeable billion-dollar Ballast Point Brewery & Spirits?), but of the recent crop of suppliers-turned-manufacturers—including The Home Brewer’s Home Brewing Company and Carlsbad Brew Supply’s Guadalupe Brewery—their Bear Roots Brewing Company has gained the most and fastest traction with customers. As previously reported, it’s inspired the Littles to think bigger, enough that they have made the concrete decision to expand their brewery. Now, all they have to do is decide how they want to go about doing that.
The Littles are mulling two options. The first would see them assembling a three-barrel system in their current building on Santa Fe Avenue near Vista’s Old Town area. It would also entail implementation of a program called “brewing success and changing the culture”, which would involve corporate and small-business teams coming to Bear Roots for private brewing sessions. A team-building exercise of sorts, with participants being taught about brewing; everything from logistics to ingredients to processes and even marketing of the finished product. The Littles foresee release-parties for beers produced via this program, wherein program participants reassemble with friends and family to taste the fruits of their brew-day. While there is a brew-it-yourself operation called Citizen Brewers in Grantville, this would be the only local production operation offering such an experience.
Option-number-two would involve the Littles moving the brewery off-site to a larger production-geared facility that would house a 10- or 15-barrel brewhouse. This would include construction of a small tasting room and the ability to distribute Bear Roots beers into the market. The homebrew store would continue to operate as it currently does were this plan to be enacted. Should they go this route and the operation prove successful, the Littles would aim to open a larger tasting room and brewery “training center” in adjacent business suites that would include a “very interactive” homebrew store.
Aside from production, the Littles site a strong desire to share their passion for craft-beer with as many people as possible, hence the team-building and educational endeavors built into both of their plans. Terry has professional background in business and team management from the day-job he will be walking away from to go all-in with Bear Roots. The Littles estimate having their expansion plans completed by October. Timing on debut of the next phase of their business will depend on which direction they go at this meaningful fork in the road.
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.
There is never a shortage of news in the San Diego beer industry, especially with so many businesses opening. Keeping up with newcomers is a job all its own, but there was more than the normal thrush of new businesses arriving; 2015 saw more suds drama than any year prior—good and bad. Here’s this writer’s take on some of the stories that captivated the county’s beer-drinking public:
Saint Archer sells out: This is a good place to start, since this move signaled the beginning of a new era for San Diego beer; one in which Big Beer (or “macrobeer” if you prefer) occupies real estate within the county. This comes courtesy of the money-grabbers at Saint Archer Brewery, a built-to-sell interest that somehow gained traction with craft beer fans who, largely, have since turned their back on the business since SABMiller acquired a majority stake in September.
Ballast Point to go public: Even before Saint Archer sold, members and fans of the craft beer industry had begun to worry about their favorite breweries getting gobbled up by Big Beer conglomerates waving fat checks. Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits was one brewery rumored to have taken meetings with such corporations, but not to fear, the company quelled any worries by initiating the first steps associated with an initial public offering. Now, that’s a cool way to raise capital for expansion and growth while keeping it real, thought San Diego beer enthusiasts. But, wait.
Ballast Point sells out, too: Just kidding. The IPO was never meant to be. Shortly after those initial filings, Ballast Point agreed to sell to Constellation Brands…for $1 billion! While Saint Archer was a company with only two years of spotty peaks and valleys to its brief history, Ballast Point is deeply ingrained in the tapestry of San Diego beer. Birthed in Linda Vista’s storied Home Brew Mart, a place where many of today’s brewing superstars got their first home-brew kits, BP was the epitome of San Diego craft to many people. Many are the longtime beer fiend who swore by Sculpin, and before that Big Eye and Yellowtail (the original name for today’s Pale Ale, youngsters). Losing Saint Archer meant little. Losing Ballast Point, frankly, still stings.
Going next-level: San Diego County’s breweries are growing up and growing out. Stone Brewing Co.’s pair of projects in Richmond, Virginia and Berlin, Germany are coming along quickly. In fact, the first beers produced at the latter debuted earlier this month. Meanwhile, work continues on Green Flash Brewing Company’s Virginia Beach brewery and Mother Earth Brew Co. is about to construct a brewing facility in Nampa, Idaho. Here at home, AleSmith Brewing Company (my other employer) completed a transition to a facility five-times the size of its original digs and, in the process, opened the largest brewery tasting room in the county. And Coronado Brewing Company christened its third spot, a bar and restaurant in Imperial Beach, while buying up buildings abutting its headquarters in Bay Park.
Lots of new breweries, many helmed by homebrewers: More than 20 breweries opened this year, another record for the county. Unlike in years past where the likes of Jeff Bagby and other industry veterans of varying tenure have served as touchstones for beer fans wondering what to expect of new businesses, this year the majority of the brewers behind rookie operations came from the homebrew ranks or outside San Diego’s roster of hometown players. Many point to work-in-progress breweries’ HR needs exceeding the number of brewers with professional experience, but that’s only part of it. An experienced brewer has many more options than in years past, and usually opt for greater pay and growth opportunities presented by mid-level breweries.
Changes of address: Speaking of human resources, brewery HR departments stayed very busy this year as the rate of turnover among the county’s brew crews rose in tandem with the number of new operations. From small operations like 32 North Brewing Company, who lost its opening-day brewer only a few short months into its lifespan (but replaced him and now has better beer to show for it) to the big guys at Green Flash who lost 11-year brewmaster Chuck Silva (the man universally lauded for saving the business from early extinction), nobody was safe from the lure of individuals’ career aspirations. Then there was Toolbox Brewing Company, which bid adieu to its wild ale specialist, Peter Perrecone, but was fortunately able to bring on a similarly bug-focused brewer to install a whole new sour program at the all-wild Vista interest. Perrecone’s next chapter began just as quickly, when he headed to nearby Belching Beaver Brewery and fetched a job heading their barrel-aging efforts the day after being let go.
Great American Beer Festival supremacy: San Diego is never a slouch at the country’s largest annual brewing competition, the Great American Beer Festival, but it had been a while since our guys left a mark as significant as the one imparted this year. San Diego breweries brought home an astounding 19 medals, including six golds (one of which was in the most hotly contested category of the entire competition, India Pale Ale). Additionally, San Marcos-based Rip Current Brewing Company was named Very Small Brewery of the Year. It’s that kind of dominance that earned San Diego’s brewers such an incredible reputation, and the perpetuation of such skilled artisanship that keeps them at the top of an ever-growing heap.
Wait, the title of this, the last in a three-part year-end series, is “Beer’s Future?” So far, this has been a retrospective, but that was to set up the type of news I hope I get to report on in 2016. So, without further adieu…
Open, open, open: There are currently more than 40 brewery-owned businesses in the planning or construction stages throughout the county, and many of them show great promise. A lot of them are second, third and otherwise satellite venues owned by existing brewing companies such as Amplified Ale Works (opening a production brewery at Miramar’s Brewery Igniter campus), Belching Beaver (opening both a larger production brewery in Oceanside and a brewpub in Vista’s Old Town area), ChuckAlek Independent Brewers (a tasting room in North Park), Fall Brewing Company (considering a South Bay facility), Fallbrook Brewing Company (teaming to provide the beverage equation at a new restaurant in its namesake town), Karl Strauss Brewing Company (opening another brewery restaurant, possibly in Santee), La Jolla Brewing Company (constructing a contract brewery called Fighter Town Brewing Company in Sorrento Valley) and 32 North (a tenant taproom inside Liberty Station’s Moniker collective development).
More veteran-owned new breweries: It is always exciting to see homebrewers ascend to the professional ranks, but here’s hoping some more veterans spread their wings in 2016. Just enough to keep things varied and interesting. It’s a shame that the aforementioned Silva is opening his eponymous passion project in San Luis Obispo County instead of here, because outside of Mikkeller‘s Mikkel Borg Bjergsø (who is opening Mikkeller Brewing San Diego in conjunction with AleSmith at the latter’s original brewing complex) there are few established brewers associated with upcoming San Diego projects. That said, many of San Diego’s most well known and respected brewers came into the industry after achieving homebrew success, so our next crop of all-stars could very well come from those making the transition in 2016. Also, it’ll be really cool to see Kelsey McNair finally bring his North Park Beer Co. dream to life.
A more scrutinizing consumer: While there has certainly been a fair amount of outrage, many have yawned off the purchase of craft breweries by Big Beer, saying things along the lines of: It’s just capitalism. That’s true enough, but it’s more than just that. And here’s hoping consumers who love craft beer as much as they say they do can recognize the impact of buying beer from macro-owned entities. A portion of revenues gained through the sale of macro-owned beers, be they Bud Light and Blue Moon or Saint Archer White and Bourbon County Stout, will certainly be used to help muscle craft off shelves and tap lists. It’s understandable that people continue to love a beer that was manufactured by a legitimate craft brewery one day, even though that company changes hands and goes corporate the next, but there are a host of ramifications for continuing to purchase said beers. If such purchasing patterns continue, there is a real chance there will be very few choices beyond those marco-produced beers in the future.
Craft breweries unite: It can’t all be about the big guys and it can’t all be about the consumer. Craft breweries will also have to adapt in these ever-changing times. While the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-buy-‘em model is far from new, Big Beer continues to change the face of brewing and selling beer while craft brewing companies, largely, do things the same way they always have. It should be enough to simply make great beer, but will it be? It’s impossible to say, but it’s likely too idealistic a game-plan to carry the day, kind of like hoping for a peaceful world by saying there’d be no war if everybody was just nice to one another. Not everybody is going to be nice. Also, not everybody is going to make great beer. Many are the ill-suited brewers who taint the reputation of craft with substandard ales and lagers. Additionally, the gargantuan companies making the worst beer are constantly scheming new ways to de-level the playing field in their favor. A world in which entities like that make any headway after David (craft beer) has somehow been able to slowly yet surely gain ground on such mighty Goliaths doesn’t look good. So perhaps it’s time craft breweries explore new ways to outsmart Goliath or meet him on more equal terms. No one brewery can do it alone, but maybe craft breweries could band together in a new way; form their own business alliances through meaningful mergers for shared financial resources, profits, distribution, sales efforts, etc. A true craft conglomerate would be anything but the cold Big Beer machines that are so desperately trying to convince the public they would never even dream of tinkering with the craft breweries they’ve purchased. Of course they wouldn’t…until A) they can do it without losing market share, or B) they have enough market share that they can do it and there is nothing the consumer can do about it. Instead of spending time on unscrupulous brain-teasers like that, a powerhouse band of quality craft breweries could focus on making better beer and a better beer climate than what awaits if macros get their way.
So there it is—my 2016 wish-list. It’s pretty simple: more craft, less macro and faux-craft…more beer, less business of beer. Here’s hoping that comes true and that San Diego’s brewers continue to flourish no matter what’s thrown at them. Cheers to local (craft) beer!