In 2010, an entrepreneur from north of San Diego County delivered a brewpub concept to downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter. Dubbed The Beer Co., it was a spin-off operation that failed to generate much of a reputation among San Diego’s craft-beer enthusiasts. Not even a gold medal from the 2012 Great American Beer Festival for its barrel-aged strong ale, The Manhattan Project, measured so much as a ripple in local waters. Still, it soldiered on for more than half-a-decade before closing down. Now, the space that housed it is ready to birth a second brewery-restaurant brought to San Diego by nearby out-of-towners, The Bell Marker (602 East Broadway, Downtown).
That business will debut on January 22, complete with a veteran, native San Diegan brewer at the helm. That individual, Noah Regnery hails from vaunted locally-based business, Pizza Port, where he worked at the chain’s San Clemente brewpub from 2007 to 2011 and contributed to its award-winning reputation before departing to become head brewer at Hollister Brewing in Goleta, California, a post he held until 2014 when he departed the industry altogether. His return should be highly anticipated, but as with so many developments in the suddenly complicated local suds scene, it comes with some drama. The Bell Marker is the first location south of Los Angeles for LA-based Artisanal Brewers Collective, a company established by Golden Road Brewing co-founder Tony Yanow. That in itself is not all that significant, but the fact Yanow and Golden Road partner Meg Gill sold the business to macrobeer conglomerate AB InBev in September of 2015 muddies things a bit for fans of independent craft brewers as well as members of the local industry.
Since Golden Road’s sale, Yanow (a bar owner before and throughout his tenure with Golden Road) and his ABC partners have been busy gobbling up hospitality venues throughout LA. The Bell Marker is the first to possess a brewing component and Yanow’s original venues—Mohawk Bend and Tony’s Darts Away—were craft-centric venues which were ahead of their time. Figuratively, this is not unfamiliar territory for this seemingly insatiable entrepreneur, even if it is from a geographic standpoint. How it will be received from a local population which vehemently eschewed last year’s arrival of AB InBev’s 10 Barrel Brewing brewpub in the East Village remains to be seen.
The Bell Marker houses a copper-clad, 15-barrel brewhouse that will be utilized to produce American, English, German, and Belgian beers. The opening-day line-up will include a cream ale, hefeweizen, brown ale, pale ale and IPA augmented by guest beers selected to fill in any stylistic gaps. There will also be a full cocktail program to appeal to non-beer fans. The 8,000-square-foot venue can seat 212 at a time and will be open seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
This is the third in a four-part series examining work-in-progress brewery projects throughout San Diego County. This component shines a light on the most promising businesses in the North County expanses. Click the following links to take a look back at assessments of WIP brewery projects in the south and east, then check back next week as we close out with a look at future East County venues.
Julian Brewing Company | 2315 Main Street, Julian: Pizza Port co-founder Vince Marsaglia is reopening and reimagining this business, turning it into a mountain farmhouse brewery, offerings from which will include lambics and saisons using fruits, vegetables and herbs from an on-site two-acre garden. The five-barrel system will also be used for pilot brews of experimental beers from sister business The Lost Abbey, while the country casual restaurant portion of this brewpub will serve up smokehouse fare augmented by pizza, sandwiches and various pickled items.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company | San Marcos: In the past few years, San Diego’s longest continually operating post-Prohibition brewing company has expanded, doing so mostly in LA and the OC. But new facilities are in the works locally, as well, including an R&D brewery on a recently secured two-acre lot in the city of San Marcos. It remains to be seen whether it will include a hospitality component, but more beer and more beer-styles from this award-winning operation are always a plus.
Beach Grease Beer Company | 3125 Scott Street, Vista: This newcomer was founded by a successful veteran of the street-wear/action sports clothing industry who loves craft beer and feels no existing brands have authentically engaged the folks in his social circles. A contract-brewed IPA called Surf Reaper is already on tap at roughly 50 local accounts, but future beers will be produced at an upcoming brewing facility with a 10-barrel system and a tasting room decked out in a modern art gallery aesthetic.
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.
With 28 years under their belt, the folks at Karl Strauss Brewing Company have done a great deal: opening San Diego proper’s first post-Prohibition Era brewery, building the county’s largest network of brewpubs, contract brewing out-of-state and later bringing fermentation operations back to America’s Finest City, building venues in Orange County and Los Angeles. They could have rested on their laurels or become stagnant at any point, but founders Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner continue to look for ways to innovate and identify new revenue streams. The latest example of that is Karl Strauss’ recent establishment of its own distribution arm.
The company has been laying the framework for a distributorship for several years, but recently launched delivery of beers from its first two distributed brands, new Oceanside-based business Black Plague Brewing Company and Grantville’s four-year-old Benchmark Brewing Company. The latter’s Orange County launch took place last week, though Karl Strauss had been in talks with Benchmark for well over a year.
“We’re expanding on our on-premise, self-distribution network in San Diego and Orange County to now include a select group of local, independent breweries,” says Mark Weslar, Karl Strauss’ vice president of marketing. “Delivering our own beers on-premise has helped us develop an expertise selling to and servicing local bars and restaurants. We look forward to helping some brewery friends build their business.”
The first San Diego County brewery to go from brewing to manufacturing and distributing not only its own beers but those of fellow local brands was Stone Brewing. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner often cite that as a key moment in the company’s history, and a business move that kept Stone from going out of business. After having many doors slammed in their face by distributors unwilling to take a chance on their new, small operation, they decided to do it themselves. In opening Stone Distributing Co. in the late-nineties, they brought aboard brands such as AleSmith Brewing and Coronado Brewing, later adding brands from across the country as well as numerous international brewing companies. Today, that entity is responsible for distribution of 44 brands—that like Karl Strauss’ portfolio are all independent—throughout Southern California.
Karl Strauss has no immediate plans to bring on additional brands, but plans to be selective when they do, focusing on local and independent interests representing a partnership that would make sense for all parties involved. Says Weslar, “It’s an exciting new venture, but it’s also business as usual here at Karl Strauss with all of us maintaining our focus on making, selling and distributing great beer.”
Belching Beaver Brewery’s growth has been some of the fastest and most obvious of any local brewing company. What started as a single, Vista-based brewery operation has come to include (in order of construction) a North Park tasting room, Oceanside production brewery, Vista indoor-outdoor brewpub and, as of last month, a second satellite tasting room in Ocean Beach. It’s a lot of properties to manage. Might there be some sort of potential consolidation in the works…or perhaps even more expansion. A recent conversation with Belching Beaver owner Tom Vogel confirms that anything is possible, but nothing has been decided.
Even with two brewhouses in Vista—a 15-barrel system at the original headquarters plus a 10-barrel system at the brewpub—and 60,000 annual production capacity at its current Oceanside base of operations, Vogel would like to add a small production facility to his empire. This one would be outside San Diego, within Los Angeles’ budding beer-scene. He would also like to see a tasting room or two connecting the dots from SD to LA in Orange County.
Belching Beaver is currently scouting both LA and the OC for potential sites. Vogel is currently focusing on Tustin and Huntington Beach on the tasting-room front, and sees Culver City as an advantageous spot for a production facility. He actually attempted to sign a lease on a space within that community, but parking issues squashed the deal. Should a brewery be installed in LA, it will be much smaller than Belching Beaver’s others, likely a system coming in at under 5,000 barrels in batch-size.