With so much happening within the local beer industry, covering all of it at length can be difficult, at least from the perspective of keeping ahead of it for readers while tracking down leads and digging for details that go beyond the title and subhead. In the interest of sharing some items before they’re old news, I’m rolling out some short-form reporting to keep you all in the know.
According to sources within the company, Kearny Mesa-based Helm’s Brewing has been purchased by a private investment group. Its Kearny Mesa Road brewery is not open to the public, but its Ocean Beach tasting room is fully operational and serving the company’s beers. The manufacture of those liquid assets is now the charge of former Green Flash Brewing brewer, Kevin Barnes, who was hired several months ago. Ownership is currently looking to expand production capacity and square-footage, either at its Kearny Mesa headquarters or elsewhere, if necessary.
Last September, the father-son duo behind Wiseguy Brewing exited their lease with H.G. Fenton for the Carlsbad Brewery Igniter suite the business occupied for a brief six months. That facility is now under contract to brewing-industry veteran Mark Amador, who most recently worked in sales for Vista’s Indian Joe Brewing before following his passion to open the upcoming Papa Marce’s Cerveceria. Billed as a “house of artisan sours, ales and lagers,” it was to originally be named Lone Osos Brewing, but trademark issues inspired a switch to the current moniker, which pays homage to a patriarch from the maternal side of Amador’s lineage. Back at Brewery Igniter’s North Park complex, the split-level suite formerly occupied by San Diego Brewing Company has suitors, one of which is a kombucha operation.
In Little Italy, construction has temporarily halted on Mikkeller Brewing San Diego’s future satellite tasting room. After securing a space on India Street, the company went full-steam-ahead without getting permission from landlords or proper permits from the City of San Diego. The former issued an Owner’s Notice of Non-Responsibility, stating it had obtained knowledge that certain construction, alterations, repairs or other works of improvement were being made on the property by Mikkeller, and that Cabot Square L.P. would not be responsible for any claims arising from those activities. The majority of the flooring in the space has been dug up, leaving earth, rebar and piping exposed.
We’ll continue to follow the stories above and provide additional information as it becomes available.
In 2015, Ballast Point Brewing was acquired by Constellation Brands, a multi-national corporation with financial fortitude far exceeding that of the San Diego-born company’s previous ownership (as well as pretty much every craft brewery in the country). The backing of Constellation Brands instantly made formerly cost-prohibitive ventures feasible, opening up a wealth of opportunities for Ballast Point to go places their contemporaries couldn’t even fathom. Case in point, the combination brewery, tasting room and kitchen the company today announced it is constructing in the heart of the Downtown Disney District in Anaheim.
This will be Ballast Point’s seventh Southern California location and first erected in Orange County. Scheduled to open in late 2018, it will come in at 7,300 square feet and include a three-barrel research-and-development brewery as well as a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. The brewery will offer mainstays from Ballast Point’s beer portfolio, and also produce ales and lagers unique to that location (under the direction of a yet-to-be-determined member of the company’s brewing team), shipping some of those offerings to its sister venues. The food menu will consist of beer-friendly SoCal dishes, some of which will be plucked from the menus of BP’s brewpubs in Little Italy, Miramar and Long Beach.
Ballast Point currently operates a sextet of California tasting rooms plus a public-serving venue at its brewery in Daleville, Virginia. In addition to the Downtown Disney location, the company is also at work constructing a brewery-equipped kitchen operation in Chicago, Illinois. While Disney California Adventure Park has long included beery offerings from numerous brewing companies, Ballast Point’s new venue will provide Disneyland Resort with its first ever onsite brewing facility. Its addition further signals the advancing reputation and perceived importance of craft beer in America, especially among larger corporations who see the value it can add to their operations.
What are the best craft breweries in San Diego County? I get asked that all the time. When people pose that question, it’s usually because they’re visiting, so I tailor my response around the types of beers they enjoy, where they’re staying, if they have transportation, etc. But when I take stock for the purposes of an end-of-year article, I impose a different set of criteria. I begin by removing Big Beer-owned interests (it’s simply a different playing field, monetarily, than independent operations), then examine the make-up and, foremost, the overall quality of each brewery’s portfolio of beers. Is this the perfect formula? Probably not, but now you know where I’m coming from. Will my list match yours? Probably not, but that’s OK! Let us know your list in the comments. The wonderful truth is that there are many outstanding breweries in San Diego County, and a list of 15 only scratches the top layer of foam.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: A small brewery in an unincorporated town on the fringe of our county didn’t become a nationally respected cult-favorite by accident. This house built by hops continues to churn out largely hoppy stock worthy of coveting. More impressive, it’s keeping its street cred intact post-acquisition, something only good beer can accomplish.
Bagby Beer Co. | Oceanside: The sheer volume of beer produced and consistently on-tap is impressive, but the fact all of it is so traditionally to-spec and worthy of praise (as proven by an always-growing collection of Great American Beer Festival medals) is rather incredible. No place spends more time making unsexy styles utterly desirable.
Pizza Port | Bressi Ranch, Carlsbad, Ocean Beach & Solana Beach: To have one brewpub pumping out high quality beers across styles like any of Pizza Port’s do would be a big deal. To have four in a single county (plus another in San Clemente) and remain consistent year in and year out for the better part of three decades is the basis for legend status.
Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey / The Hop Concept | San Marcos & Cardiff by the Sea: No local tasting room offers as many expertly executed and variedly challenging beers as this triple-threat simultaneously focusing on West Coast IPAs, Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged everything. Even the occasional bottling hiccup barely detracts from feats accomplished here on an everyday basis.
Societe Brewing | Kearny Mesa: Batch-to-batch consistency across varied ales and lagers—hoppy, session, Belgians, stouts—and an expert level of balance and drinkability that even extends to wine-barrel-aged offerings keeps beer fans and brewers alike coming back to this living tribute to the quality and community of the San Diego beer scene. Disclaimer: I work for this company.
AleSmith Brewing | Miramar: From English session beers to high-octane Belgian, Scotch and coffee-infused juggernauts, this veteran continues to make flawless time-tested beers, but recent additions have been a mixed bag. A new pilsner is spectacular, a gimmick Mexican lager is blah, an extract orange pale is disappointing and the flagship IPA could use a youthful sibling.
Fall Brewing | North Park: The brewing team has experienced more than its fair share of fluctuation over the years, but through it all, its recipes and process remain sound. Stop in anytime, order a beer and you’re bound to encounter something both flavorful and refreshing, registering somewhere between very good and where-you-been-all-my-life status.
New English Brewing Company | Sorrento Valley: Consistently one of the most underrated local breweries, this one knocks it out of the park on the English ale front. That’s to be expected, but New World IPAs, the occasional Belgian beer and barrel-aged beers taste lovely. They have the best cask beer in town, too. (But, personally, I’d lose the Blueberry Blonde.)
North Park Beer Co. | North Park: Captivating the masses with largely session, internationally-inspired beers can be hard to do in the county’s hipster capital, but it’s been accomplished in spades at this two-story hub for members of the Finer Things Club. Consistency is up in Year Two and it’s been nice to see chances taken with occasional collaborative creations.
Second Chance Beer Co. | Carmel Mountain & North Park: Not a lot is flashy about this company’s beers, and not because of stringent traditionalism. They actually tend to veer slightly away from the norm. It would seem balance is the brewmaster’s chief aim, and he achieves it big-time as proven by devout patronage and big beer-competition wins.
Benchmark Brewing | Grantville & Bay Park: This place is all about “beer-flavored beer,” and if that’s what you prefer—straightforward ales made for everyday drinking—you’ll seldom be disappointed here. It would be nice to see new beers come along more often, but limited focus has led to arguably the best table beer, brown ale and oatmeal stout in town.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: A blending of punk-rock bravado and respect for the classics has resulted in a unique brewery offering delicious beers both New and Old World in nature. There are plenty of hop-heavy numbers to choose from, but Belgian-style ales and a crowd-favorite pilsner diversify this company’s offerings and cement its cut-above reputation.
Eppig Brewing | North Park: The lagers produced at this Brewery Igniter standout are of the highest grade. They make up only one third of the beers on the board, sharing space with IPAs, kettle sours and a rogue’s gallery of outliers. All are enjoyable even if some have room for improvement, but this business is just one year old and well ahead of the game.
Karl Strauss Brewing | Pacific Beach, 4S Ranch, Carlsbad, La Jolla & Little Italy: Many regions have elder-statesman fixtures like this. They’re old, boring and averse to change. This business is not. It actively works to remain current and relevant, and has succeeded at that. Its brewpubs produce creations of varied quality, but their overall track record is impressive.
Rip Current Brewing | San Marcos & North Park: This company’s love of seemingly all of the world’s beers (despite trendiness or marketability) makes for one of the most diverse beer boards in San Diego. Batch-to-batch consistency suffers sometimes, but they regularly do right by locales and artisanal heritages seldom celebrated by others in the local beer community.
Author’s Note: Breweries in each tier are presented alphabetically.
Many are the local entrepreneurs who have fallen in love with the idea of brewing at the historic Mission Brewery Plaza. Located in the City of San Diego’s Five Points neighborhood, it is easily accessible from Little Italy, Old Town, Mission Hills, Hillcrest and Point Loma, and a stone’s throw from San Diego International Airport. Numerous interests have called it home: Mission Brewery, Five Points Brewing Company, New English Brewing Company, Coronado Brewing Company and its current resident, Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment. The latter is on its way out, opting to move north to build a larger facility in Carlsbad, making way for a new business to make a home at this historic site, Latchkey Brewing Company.
Founded by brothers in law with a dream, and now a brewery, Latchkey is in a holding pattern while Acoustic completes work on its future North County facility, but is hoping to debut to the public in spring of 2018. They figure taking over the brewery should be relatively simple given the turnkey nature of things. There is a chance the two businesses may actually share the production component depending on how everything shakes out, which is important because Latchkey intends to brew and distribute out of the gate.
As far as the 3,000-square-foot tasting room, ownership wants to overhaul it so the venue is 100% Latchkey from a branding standpoint. This is likely to take a significant amount of time, especially considering the amount of updating the owners have planned. While they appreciate the classic industrial brick-and-timber architecture, they want to add a variety of modern, clean finishes. Aware of the hundreds of workers occupying the 50,000 square feet of office space making up the remainder of Mission Brewery Plaza, plus an attached apartment complex, they will also construct a full-scale kitchen so Latchkey can offer light breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options as added enticements. Private event space will be offered as well.
Latchkey’s brewing team will be headed by a veteran who has worked at numerous established breweries. He and his brother-in-law plan to explore the lighter side of the beer spectrum, while also satiating San Diegans’ thirst for hop-forward beers. Their portfolio of American and international styles will lead with American “banquet beer”, Japanese-, Mexican- and German-style lagers, plus session English-style ales, augmented by hoppy lagers and, of course, India pale ales. Those beers will be produced on a 15-barrel system feeding into 15- and 30-barrel fermenters and a mixed array of bright tanks.
When asked about the inspiration behind the company’s names, the owners say that they were latchkey kids in the ‘70s, but there’s more to it than that. While a typical latchkey kid comes home to an empty residence, these brewery owners to be say they are stepping outside the comfort zone of their careers to enter a new industry, unsupervised and left to their own devices. As they put it, that’s what makes the whole thing fun.
Many are those who tour Ballast Point Brewing’s enormous Miramar headquarters with its 300-barrel and 150-barrel brewhouses and rows of sky-high fermenters feel the county’s largest brewing company must have all the room it needs, especially with additional brewing facilities in Scripps Ranch, Little Italy, Long Beach and Roanoke, Virginia. The Miramar facility comes in with greater production capability than any other in San Diego, but rapid expansion has rendered it out of space, leading parent company Constellation Brands to secure an 80,000-square-foot building directly north of the Miramar home base.
Ballast Point currently has control of 60,000 square feet of that structure for what it calls its Trade Street Facility. It has been divided into three equal-sized sections serving completely different purposes. One third is simply storage, while the middle third houses an abundant and growing stock of beer-filled oak barrels procured from various wineries and distilleries. The current barrel count comes in at approximately 1,400, with an additional 900 barrels in another facility less than a mile west on Crestmar Point. There are three full-time employees manning this section, and it will soon have tanks added to handle production of beers destined for those oak receptacles, which include about every type of liquor and wine imaginable with more on the way.
Ballast Point intends to up its number of barrel-aged beer releases which are currently held quarterly and locally. Those specialties will be distributed nationally, including four-pack releases of popular beers such as aged versions of its vanilla- and coffee-infused imperial porter, Victory at Sea. Other beers the team is looking forward to debuting include Sea Monster imperial stout and Piper Down Scottish ale in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Navigator Doppelbock in brandy barrels, Barmy apricot and honey golden strong ale in neutral oak, plus various Belgian-style farmhouse, tripel and quadruple ales. In addition to its own needs, Ballast Point regularly fulfills requests from other breweries for barrels from its stock, including nearby Green Flash Brewing Company and 32 North Brewing Company.
The remaining third of the Trade Street facility is for “dirty beer”, referring to sours and bacteria-laden wild ales that, if not sectioned off, would stand a significant chance of infecting the clean beer as well as their production and storage mechanisms. This area has its own 40-barrel brewhouse feeding into more than 30 fermenters. It can produce up to 20,000 barrels of beer annually, some of which will make its way into six new 40-barrel, glycol-equipped, temperature-controlled fouders. The dirty area also has its own devoted bottling line, which recently packaged a national release’s worth of six-packs of Sour Wench blackberry ale.
Key to the new dirty beer operations is a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of providing as many quality assurance touch-points as the large lab at Ballast Point’s HQ. Prior to brewing Sour Wench for the most recent release, technicians conducted numerous tests, including analysis of myriad brands of blackberry puree and Lactobacillus strains, in search of the most ideal types for the beer. What they found was that the puree and strain the company was already using worked best, meaning the current batch of Sour Wench is very similar to the first batch ever homebrewed in 1998 (back when it went by the name Marion Berry’s Better-Than-A-Crack-Whore). While primary wild ale operations will now take place on Trade Street, Ballast Point hopes the aforementioned Long Beach facility will become the research-and-development feeder for the new facility.