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.
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.
From the Beer Writer: Last year, Benchmark Brewing Company began canning beers in its Parks Collection series. The first to get the cylinder treatment was an extra pale ale (or XPA, acronym purism be damned) called Benchmark Beaten Path. Like the vast majority of this Grantville brewery’s beers, it is beautiful in its simplicity, relying on nothing more than traditional ale-brewing ingredients to carry the day. And while Citra hops are at the forefront of this sunny seasonal, they are in perfect balance, enough that rather than shove their way to the forefront, they casually make their presence known from sip to swallow care of citrus notes lifted by light carbonation and accentuated by a hint of malt sweetness. Four-packs of the beer recently went on sale at Benchmark’s tasting room, making this the perfect time to give this fresh, rather silky pale ale a try. Last year, it was a beer I consumed more than just about any other of its kind. It’s an ideal summertime beer for those who value balanced craftsmanship and hops presented in perfect proportions.
From the Brewers: “This beer was originally designed to celebrate the fifth anniversary of SD DrinkAbout: five percent alcohol-by-volume, five ingredients, five years. It was brewed totally Iron Chef style, because the turnaround on the beer needed to be fast, so we could only use ingredients we already had in-house. The five ingredients are oats, California Ale yeast, water, pale malt and Citra hops. Beaten Path highlights and celebrates the amazing flavor and aroma of this hop. The resulting beer is something that is just so easy to drink, bright and juicy with a smooth body, it is totally crushable. It comes in 16-ounce cans and is available on draft. We make this beer about four times a year, and the entire team here just itches for the next brew every time it runs out.”—Matt Akin, Co-owner & Brewmaster, Benchmark Brewing Company
The City of Encinitas has a history of staunch resistance toward beer manufacturers looking to set up shop within its boundaries. It’s where prestigious brewer Jeff Bagby (who has roots in Encinitas) and his wife initially sought to set up his acclaimed brewpub, Bagby Beer Company before a property that was much more attractive than the idea of embarking on Encinitas’ difficult permitting process led them to select Oceanside instead. The move has paid off as Bagby Beer’s opening fell in line with an overall food-and-beverage renaissance in Oceanside that has included establishment of several other brewing interests in the years since. Meanwhile, Encinitas is one of only four municipalities (out of 18 in San Diego County) without a single brewery in a county awash with local beer. (There was brewpub called The Red Kettle that operated along then First Street in the early-nineties, but it was very short-lived.) That will change to an extent, however, as the city is on track to welcome multiple brewery-owned tasting rooms.
Culture Brewing Company has a 1,048-square-foot tasting room in the works. That spot is scheduled to open at 629 South Coast Highway on August 12. The smallish nature of that venue seems to have been key in getting approval from the City’s Planning Commission, which granted the Solana Beach-based business permit approval in January.
When approached by Point Loma-based Modern Times Beer about a vastly larger satellite project—a space capable of holding approximately 150 people at a time—the commission stiffened once more. So much so that Modern Times put out an email blast to its consumers asking them to come to a City meeting held last week to voice their support for the project and help sway the Planning Commission’s vote. A substantial number of fans attended, vocally going toe-to-toe with Encinitas residents opposing the project. In the end, it would seem that maneuver resulted in Modern Times gaining the razor-thin voting edge that will lead to the permit approval they so desperately coveted. Located at 470 South Coast Highway across from the iconic La Paloma Theatre, that venue is estimated to open next year.
Further north in Leucadia (which is within and under the jurisdiction of the City of Encinitas), Miramar-based Saint Archer Brewery aims to install a tasting room in a space between beer bar The Regal Seagull and Surfy Surfy surf shop. If approved, it will be the first satellite venue from the macro-beer interest, which was purchased by MillerCoors in 2015 after just over two years in business. The newest of the proposed brewery-owned ventures in Encinitas, it has yet to inspire as much concern from the City or its residents as Culture and Modern Times. Instead, the main opponents are from craft beer fans who eschew Big Beer and the recent string of craft acquisitions.
It would seem City officials take cues from their constituents when attempting to defend their community from beer manufacturers. There is a vocal percentage of Encinitas citizens who are concerned that their city, particularly the commercial stretch of Coast Highway in the downtown core, is over-saturated with alcohol-centric hospitality venues. That is a matter of opinion, but even if one shares that point of view, City government permitted those booze businesses in the first place, including a wine-making facility, Solterra Winery and Kitchen, not far from Saint Archer’s proposed location in Leucadia. If Encinitas’ portion of the 101 resembles Pacific Beach’s Garnett Avenue as the City and its people fear, it would seem that municipal government has no one but themselves to blame.
This is the last of a four-part series of posts noting some of the most promising future brewing projects currently under construction in San Diego County. So far, we’ve tackled the eastern, western and northern communities. Today, we’ll delve into the southerly portions of the county, where a great deal is going on of late.
TapRoom Beer Co., University Heights: Earlier this month, news broke that former AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer Bill Batten had signed on to help the owners of SD TapRoom bring a two-story brewpub concept to life on El Cajon Boulevard. Brewing and restaurant experience plus a shared devotion to local beer make this a project to watch. Batten plans to brew a mix of traditional and avant-garde beers.
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Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Co., Chula Vista: This business started out borrowing beer space from Finest Made Ales before securing a three-story building in the heart of the downtown Village area. A rock-themed tasting room will have stainless steel vessels jutting up from the basement and serve beers that, leading up to this point, have been well received by local craft-beer enthusiasts, all with a view of cross-street neighbors Chula Vista Brewery.
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Coronado Brewing Co., Imperial Beach: CBC opened Imperial Beach’s first brewery-owned venue in 2014, but it’s about to upgrade after securing one of two twin buildings at the upcoming Bikeway Village. In addition to installing a brewpub with a 10-barrel brewhouse, distilling is also in the plans. While the project is under construction, CBC will setup a temporary outdoor tasting room accessible by a rotating fleet of mobile food vendors.
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