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2017 Recap: Best New San Diego County Breweries

Dec 19

This year saw more new-brewery openings than any in San Diego County’s history. Happily, in this reporter’s opinion, more of them were of good quality than in year’s past. Enough that whittling down a list of the top half-dozen was extremely difficult, and ranking that sextet even harder. At least three breweries were on the bubble for the last spot, so if you’re using this as any sort of guide to the good stuff, don’t feel encouraged to limit your brewery touring to these selections. These are just your best bets based on the opinion of one well-researched individual. In that spirit, feel free to leave comments about any exceptional new breweries you’ve discovered over the past 12 months in the comments section. (Author’s Note: Breweries marked with an asterisk opened in 2016, but too late to be considered for the list of best new breweries for that calendar year.)

Eppig Brewing * | North Park: Nathan Stephens and Clayton LeBlanc, the duo producing the beers at this Brewery Igniter standout have a tasting room exhibiting the variety of the Little Italy outpost of their previous employers, Ballast Point Brewing. That’s saying something, especially since brewing days there resemble a game of life-sized Tetris. Still, some of the finest, most consistent lagers, plus an array of nice hoppy and even sour ales provide glimpses of what seems a very bright future for this reincarnation of a nineteenth-century family fermentation business.

Wild Barrel Brewing | San Marcos: Beer fans everywhere couldn’t help but wonder how well infinitely popular ale-and-lager expert “Dr.” Bill Sysak would fare as a brewery owner. Commenting on beer is one thing, but manufacturing it is a different game entirely. With the help of head brewer Bill Sobieski, he’s fared extremely well, hitting the ground running this fall with quality IPAs, an effective entry-level witbier and a brilliant coffee stout. Throw in a stellar tasting room complete with a gargantuan barrel at its center, and you have something special.

Burgeon Beer Co.

Burgeon Beer Co. * | Carlsbad: After gaining experience at Stone Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing and Back Street Brewery, Anthony Tallman united with long-time friends to forge his own business, and it’s been going strong since day one. Built around a smart, modern-day business model combining outside keg sales with regular in-house can releases, this newcomer has built a solid following around an array of multi-faceted IPAs and dark beers. No trend is off limits for them. That said, they’re at their best when they stay true to tradition.

Pariah Brewing | North Park: Some say this Prince-ly purple, dungeon-esque Brewery Igniter spot is no place for beer purists, and while it’s true that Stone and Helm’s Brewing alum Brian Mitchell specializes in beers that go outside the box by incorporating an array of flavorful adjuncts as simple as coffee and orange peel to as oddball as fenugreek and uni (yes, sea urchin), there are to-style gems like Indie Or Bust IPA. But this place is geared to adventurous drinkers and provides an impressive departure from the everyday, even in a town soaked in beer.

Battlemage Brewing | Vista: Role-playing game enthusiasts got a brewery playing to their passions when yet another former Ballast Point duo, Ryan Sather and Chris Barry, teamed to open this testament to the communal power of beers and broadswords. It’s become an ideal backdrop for fans of RPG and tabletop enterprises, but you don’t have to know the difference between a Halfling and a half-orc to appreciate the beers, which flow into rarely charted territory (dark mild, old ale) and come across clean and tasty. Perfect sustenance for a lengthy campaign.

Black Plague Brewing | Oceanside: An operation that looked like it might veer off course at the onset of its journey steered its way into veteran leadership when it contracted former AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer Bill Batten to assist with its fermentation operations. The resulting line-up of beers, including multi-fruited takes on an IPA that’s best on its own, plus myriad other styles, is fun and highly drinkable. The name, plague-doctor motif and black-walled tasting room are strange, but the beer provides a guiding light.

This Year’s Other Contenders: Align Brewing (Miramar), Alta Brewing (Barrio Logan), Chula Vista Brewery (Chula Vista), Circle 9 Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Ebullition Brew Works (Vista), Escondido Brewing (Escondido), Jacked Up Brewing (Escondido), Knotty Brewing * (East Village), OB Brewery * (Ocean Beach), Protector Brewery (Miramar), Rouleur Brewing (Carlsbad), Smoking Cannon Brewery (Ramona), SpecHops Brewing (Vista), SR76 Beerworks (Valley Center), Thunderhawk Alements * (Miramar), Viewpoint Brewing (Del Mar)

Maybe Next Year (Late Additions): California Wild Ales (Sorrento Valley), Deft Brewing (Bay Park), Horus Aged Ales (Oceanside), Northern Pine Brewing (Oceanside), Oeuvre Artisan Ales (Miramar), Savagewood Brewing (Scripps Ranch)

Previous Top-Ranked New Breweries

2016: Burning Beard Brewing (El Cajon), North Park Beer Co. (North Park), Resident Brewing (Downtown), Pure Project Brewing (Miramar), Bear Roots Brewing (Vista), Bitter Brothers Brewing (Bay Ho)

2015: Fall Brewing (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing (South Park), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing (Miramar)

2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing (Vista)

2013: Rip Current Brewing (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)

2012: Societe Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing (Vista)

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Opinion: 10 Barrel is NOT local beer

Mar 31

I work for a San Diego brewery. There aren’t enough words or page-space on the planet to adequately convey how much that means to me and others in San Diego County’s craft-brewing community. Membership means so much: pouring one’s heart and soul into a collective movement; being engaged, thoughtful, upright stewards of a region’s hard-earned reputation; helping out would-be competitors by lending them time, ingredients, machinery, cold-box space, advice and even manpower; standing shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and colleagues in the name of lifting a rising tide. And it means doing all of this in one of the most competitive environments for beer in the world. Many are the brewers crafting world-class India pale ales that aren’t even in most peoples’ top 50 IPAs. Those beers would kill most anywhere else, but being a part of this scene is so special, brewers are willing to trade fame elsewhere for the challenge of securing their own piece of the San Diego brewing dream—one that was realized through the sweat, elbow-grease and determination of artisans who’ve fought for years, armed with little more than quality ales and lagers, to garner recognition that’s hard to come by in a culture dominated by the likes of Budweiser, Coors and Miller. So you can understand why many of us are more than a little angry to see Big Beer hijack our hometown’s name on a technicality in an attempt to fool locals and visitors alike into thinking one of their brands is one of us when they most certainly are not.

The 10 Barrel brewpub project site in the East Village

Last January, news broke that a 10 Barrel Brewing brewpub was coming to downtown San Diego’s East Village area. Many beer fans are familiar with 10 Barrel as the Bend, Oregon-based craft brewery that sold out to AB InBev in 2014, then immediately expanded its brewing capacity and beer distribution after major investments from its new owners. It is one of the numerous craft interests to sell part or all of itself to giant macro-beer conglomerates in the past half-decade as Big Beer behemoths struggle with decreasing market-share, thanks in significant part to the rise of the craft-beer movement and the country’s shift to buying local products and supporting local businesses. Seeing the steady increase of craft’s market-share, Big Beer went with the if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em model, gobbling up regional brands as quietly as possible and winning back shelf- and tap-space nationwide. And now, with people shifting to the support-your-local-everything model, AB InBev is constructing “local” 10 Barrel brewpubs in cities with notable craft-beer cultures and sales, including Portland, Boise, Denver and our very own San Diego.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this project. If you haven’t, it definitely isn’t for lack of trying on AB InBev’s part. With the San Diego pub scheduled to open next week, in typical Big Beer fashion, they are making a full-scale marketing push with media tours and advertisements (one as flashy as a full back-page and partial front-page wrap in a popular gratis San Diego publication printed over consecutive weeks) proclaiming their shiny new property as a “San Diego pub and brewery”. Yes, it’s a pub. Yes, it’s a brewery. Yes, it’s in San Diego. But this would be like seeing a Waffle House or White Castle come to town and bill itself as “a San Diego eatery and place to detox after the bars close.” Yes, it’s an eatery. Yes it’s a place to detox after the bars close. But it’s in no way “San Diego” just because of geography. These are chains that have no history here. They belong to other communities, communities that it would be a lot more respectful to name versus omit, but to do that would undermine AB InBev’s entire mission: to blend into the fabric of one of the country’s most revered brewing regions to snag a piece of the pie for themselves and, in the process, destabilize a vital craft-centric area. The 10 Barrel brewpubs are to small, local breweries what Wal-Mart is to Main Street USA mom-and-pops and hometown interests, built to replace in the name of growth and prosperity at the expense of all others.

America’s drink-local shift is one of the best things to ever happen to regional breweries…but it’s the bane of the big boys, whose only playing pieces in the micro-regional game are the pawns they’ve shelled out millions for in hopes the public won’t be able to tell the difference and will patronize thinking they are supporting actual, authentic craft-beer companies or, in this case, local craft breweries. Siting their two-story, roof-deck adorned, aesthetically pleasing, bell-and-whistle rich brewpub in downtown San Diego was no accident. The number of visitors who stay, play and attend events at the nearby San Diego Convention Center is immense. The vast majority of them won’t know the 10 Barrel brewpub is different from downtown’s legitimate local brewing operations (Half Door BrewingKarl Strauss BrewingMission BreweryMonkey Paw Pub & BreweryResident Brewing and Knotty Brewing, for those looking to make an informed decision), and will likely flock there as it will certainly have robust advertising geared directly to out-of-towners. A percentage of these misinformed individuals will go on to tell others about drinking “San Diego craft beer” at this place called 10 Barrel, the lie will be perpetuated and—like the notion that Budweiser is some all-American (it’s not) king of beers (as much as the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s team” simply because their owner says so)—AB InBev will chalk up another small victory against the thousands of craft breweries that know they’ll never win, but simply wish to compete on a level playing field they will never have. Big Beer simply won’t allow it, because if those corporations had to rely solely on the merit of their products, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

The brewhouse at 10 Barrel in San Diego

San Diego is already home to satellite links in national brewpub chains, namely Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom, neither of which make such attempts to proclaim themselves as San Diegan…even though they’ve paid plenty of dues and, in turn, have every right to count themselves as real and respected members of our community. The head brewer for the former is San Diego’s most respected lager expert. In addition to offering advice to the many dozens of local brewers who’ve sought it, he also holds numerous industry mixers to help foster the camaraderie of our county’s fermentation specialists, and has helped countless local charities. And the brewer who helmed Rock Bottom’s San Diego brewpub for nearly a decade-and-a-half served as the president of the San Diego Brewers Guild during a time when that volunteer position’s luster was at an all-time low. These brewpubs deserve the description AB InBev is self-proclaiming…but they are far from the only ones who’ve paid their dues.

Last weekend, Pizza Port’s Solana Beach brewpub celebrated its 30th year in business. In three decades, Pizza Port has grown into an empire of five coastal brewpubs that has earned scores of national and international medals for beers spanning styles the world over, and brought up more talented young brewers than I have time to list here. Its tiny but mighty Solana Beach spot opened nearly a decade before the likes of San Diego County breweries that would go on to become giants, seeing the beauty in brewing house beers before it was a proven business model rife with modern-day pomp and prestige. Pizza Port blazed trails and helped a great many along the way, all the while staying true to its local roots. Now there’s a business that should have ads plastered all over the local rags with the proud proclamation SAN DIEGO PUB AND BREWERY.

Big Beer looks at an institution like Pizza Port, Karl Strauss’ quintet of local brewpubs (including San Diego’s longest continually operating post-Prohibition brewery downtown), the 20-year-old San Diego Brewing Company and other authentically local operations, and they think to themselves: How can we make consumers think we’re every bit as local as them?

Make no mistake. AB InBev isn’t interested in being a member of San Diego’s brewing community. The purpose of installing a 10 Barrel brewpub in the heart of San Diego is to chip away at the local brewing community, siphoning off precious market-share from other San Diego craft breweries through its latest attempt at consumer deception. And to do it with a purchased craft-brand hailing from another city that even 10 Barrel barely belongs to at this point is about as convoluted as it gets. Which is a great thing for AB InBev. In a few years, how many people will remember this progression? Right now, even with the subject of acquisitions and locality at the forefront in the brewing industry, only the most engaged beer enthusiasts know which brands are truly craft and which are now Big Beer concerns or faux-craft brands created by macro-beer conglomerates to look like legitimate craft interests. It’s only going to get more difficult.

Monkey Paw’ Pub & Brewery’s sign and brewpub are visible from the upstairs deck at 10 Barrel’s San Diego brewpub.

When meeting with 10 Barrel co-founding partner, Garrett Wales, earlier this week at his downtown property, he said he feels good about his company’s “partnership” with AB InBev in light of acquisitions that have taken place after he and his partners’ decision to sell, pointing to Ballast Point Brewing, Lagunitas Brewing and Stone Brewing, which he says sold a big portion of the company to a private investors and was subsequently “gutted.” (When reached for comment on this subject, Stone co-founder Greg Koch, commented that he and co-founder Steve Wagner “remain the majority owners, maintain full board control, are 100% within the Brewers Association’s definition of a ‘craft brewer,’ and pull their own strings and write their own checks, thank you very much.”) Wales says 10 Barrel is 100% responsible for all of its brewpub expansion initiatives and that AB InBev merely signs off on ideas and subsequently signs checks. He says that the San Diego pub is not being billed as a part of the Bend-based business and instead as a “San Diego pub and brewery” because it will operate as an “independent arm of 10 Barrel” that will be “completely localized” and have its own regional feel.

When asked about the elephant in the room—namely, the bitter reception from San Diego brewers and devout fans of local craft beer—Wales contested, saying the reception has been “extremely good”. He mentioned a great deal of positivity on social media and said his team has visited many of San Diego’s breweries, interacted with their personnel and said they are as psyched 10 Barrel is coming. However, in communications conducted yesterday on the condition of anonymity, 80% of local brewery owners questioned stated they feel 10 Barrel’s arrival is a bad thing, with most of them expressing anger over deceptive advertising tactics as well as perceived underhanded and destructive motivations on AB InBev’s part..

Wales is aware that there are those who are against his project, but dubs them “a vocal minority.” Overall, he is bullish on the brewpub’s chances for success and urges locals to take 10 Barrel at face-value and give the business a chance. San Diego brewers are used to being in the minority; it’s a craft brewer’s lot in life, thanks mostly to Big Beer’s efforts to keep smaller competitors down. Please just give us a chance is the war cry of the entire craft-brewing industry. Like labeling an out-of-town Big Beer venue as “San Diego”, it sounds silly for a corporate wolf in local sheep’s clothing to lift that mantra from small businesses that actually need attention from a populace that so heavily consumes macro-beer over craft-beer—even at the height of the latter’s popularity—that Big Beer boasted well over 75% market share by volume nationwide in 2016, according to brewing industry trade group, the Brewers Association.

San Diego’s beer culture and reputation didn’t happen overnight. Our people—your people, San Diegans—worked unbelievably hard to build this magical confluence of flavor, quality and cachet in our own backyard. We will continue to protect and preserve it and hope San Diegans will do the same. Supporting local businesses is a noble notion and an even nobler practice. To each their own, of course, but if you agree, be sure your money is going where you think it is and not to a multi-national conglomerate Trojan horse.

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2016 Recap: San Diego’s Best New Breweries

Dec 13

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 Company in El Cajon

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.

Downtown’s Resident Brewing Company

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 in Vista

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)

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Knotty Barrel expanding to add Knotty Brewing

Dec 28

knottybrewingTo the unfamiliar, the craft beer subculture can be confusing. For instance, many are the customers at downtown San Diego’s Knotty Barrel (842 Market Street, East Village) figured the beer-centric bar and restaurant brewed its own suds. That’ isn’t the case, but soon it will be. Ownership is in the process of establishing a brewery component called Knotty Brewing that will operate

Knotty Barrel president Ken Lovi sees adding a brewhouse as the next logical step in Knotty Barrel’s evolution. To do it, he and his partners have taken over the space next-door formerly occupied by Valentines Mexican Food. A five-barrel system with three 10-barrel fermenters and an additional five-barrel fermenter by Tempe, Arizona-based Bru Gear has been installed there and will be visible through a nine-foot-tall glass wall connecting both spaces.

The search for a head brewer is still on, but Rich Haley will be coming over from sister business Ciro’s Pizza and Brewhouse to serve as assistant general manager and assistant brewer. Haley possesses background, not only in beer sales and purchasing, but also brewing, having served as a guest brewer at Southern California operations such as Mike Hess Brewing, Ironfire Brewing Company and Thorn St. Brewery.

In building Knotty Brewing, space has been left within a footprint that’s built for the business to expand as needed. For the most part, beers will be “straightforward and drinkable.” Lovi lists a British-style pale ale, German-style Pilsner, London Porter, Belgian-style witbier and Irish red ale among future core beers. No barrel-aged beers are planned out of the gate, however 400 square feet are reserved in the back of the facility for future barrel storage.

Knotty Brewing is currently set for an April grand opening. The production goal for Year One is 1,000 barrels of beer, with plans to eventually grow annual barrelage to 5,000. Lovi says many local breweries have been helpful as he and his team have worked to set up the brewery. He respects how many above-average breweries there are within San Diego County and thinks Knotty Brewing’s passion for British and other Old World European styles is what will help set them apart from the rest of the pack.

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