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 month, the two craft-brewing industry trade organizations of the greatest importance to local breweries—national entity, the Brewers Association, and the San Diego Brewers Guild—have unveiled initiatives seeking to assist consumers in identifying products from authentically independent brewing companies. It started with the latter introducing decals that can be placed on the exterior of member organizations (all of which meet the SDBG’s independence standards). That was followed this week by the BA rolling out a seal of independence that qualifying breweries can feature on their beer-packaging at retail.
Both organizations share the same motivation. With macro-beer producers’ long-standing practice of creating faux craft brands, and the more recent phenomenon of those conglomerates purchasing craft breweries, in part or in whole, and using misleading and often times false information via advertising campaigns and product labeling to disguise their non-craft products, it has become essential for authentically independent operations to help educate consumers that they are, indeed, the real thing, as opposed to the likes of AB InBev-, MillerCoors– and Constellation Brands-owned interests.
In the words of the Brewers Association: When it comes to the origins of food and beverages, there is increasing public interest in transparency. Beer lovers are no exception. As Big Beer acquires former craft brands, beer drinkers have become increasingly confused about which brewers remain independent. They want to know who makes their beer. With the launch of [the BA’s independence] seal, the BA is making it easy to identify which beer is made by independent craft brewers.
The BA’s seal features an upturned beer bottle (signifying the manner in which craft brewers have turned the industry upside-down over the past several decades) and the words “Brewers Association Certified Independent Craft”. To be able to use the seal, companies must meet the BA’s criteria, which includes: annual production of six million barrels or less and being less than 25% owned or controlled by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer. In addition to bottles, cans, six-pack holders, case-boxes and other packaging, the seal can also be used at places of business and on marketing materials.
In San Diego County, the SDBG’s decals read “Proud Member San Diego Brewers Guild” and note the current calendar year. In addition to the decals, the SDBG is also creating flags and tap-handle danglers for use at tasting rooms and on-premise accounts. These are key components of the organization’s Conscious Consumer Campaign.
Recently, I was interviewed about the state of the local brewing industry in the wake of Big Beer interests—AB InBev-owned 10 Barrel, MillerCoors-owned Saint Archer, and Constellation Brands-owned Ballast Point Brewing—elbowing their way into the San Diego market. In answering questions, I echoed the primary lament of employees at independent breweries throughout our county, which is the concern that people who want to support local, authentically “craft” breweries will think they are doing so by purchasing beers from the aforementioned companies (as well as other acquired brands including Wicked Weed Brewing, Elysian Brewing and Goose Island as well as “faux craft” brands such as Blue Moon and Shock-Top) due to subterfuge and falsehoods conveyed via Big Beer marketing campaigns. It is a consumer’s right to choose. If they make an informed decision to purchase ales and lagers from Big Beer because they aren’t concerned about buying and drinking local, that is their prerogative. But for people who do care and go out of their way to buy local, San Diego breweries simply want those folks to get what they they think they are paying for and feel comforted in the knowledge that they are, in fact, supporting San Diego breweries.
At this point, I was asked what consumers can do to ensure they aren’t fooled. It’s a great question and, being so entrenched in the industry, something brewing company employees probably don’t think about as often as would be prudent. The obvious answer is “educate yourself”, but it leads to another great question: HOW? And I have a solid answer: Visit the Breweries list at SDBeer.com and scan the list of Guild members. The Guild’s regulations dictate that no brewing company owned in whole or in part by a Big Beer interest can qualify for membership. This is to protect the integrity of membership as the organization strives to educate the public on the importance of supporting local breweries (be on the lookout for an upcoming “get educated” campaign from the SDBG), especially as they find themselves under increasing attack from macro-beer giants with far greater resources and far less honorable (and far less legal) business practices. You can trust this list to guide you to bona fide independent operations. And you can help local breweries by sharing this online resource with others who share your locavorian ethics. It actually protects local consumers from more than just Big Beer.
Membership in the San Diego Brewers Guild and participation in its initiatives is voluntary. Although the Guild enjoys nearly 100% membership by qualifying businesses, no arms are twisted. The Guild has been key to the evolution and prominence of San Diego craft beer for the past two decades. Yet, believe it or not, there are some local brewery owners who choose not to be a part of it. While that decision in and of itself does not vilify a local, independent brewery, it does tell you something about that company. In a time when banding together and helping not only local businesses, but local consumers has never been more important, there are outliers who aren’t heeding the call to arms. Locavores looking to support local breweries would do well to patronize the 100-plus operations looking to actively protect this region’s reputation and incredible sense of community over those who abstain.
As an aside (and I am in no way asserting that owners of non-SDBG member breweries fit the following description), there’s a new strain of brewery entrepreneur out there—people who think they have all the answers; who don’t help their neighbors and colleagues; who go it alone because they think so highly of and want everything for themselves; who honestly believe that every component of their business should be proprietary in an industry built on the open and honest exchanges of information, equipment, ingredients, manpower and, of course, beer. It’s sad to see. Without the openness and friendship they opt out of, the American craft-beer movement would not have progressed to the point where they would be able to be a part of it. To enter the brewing industry and actively erode the sense of camaraderie that makes it so special rivals the obfuscation and monkey-wrenching of Big Beer. With so many San Diego breweries upholding the long-held values that make this region’s beer scene so special, there’s no reason not to patronize them first or even exclusively. The key component there is to know who is making your beer and who is behind each brewery. Because so many of these individuals are locally focused beer-lovers just like you, it’s a fun rabbit hole to venture into, and the best first step is SDBeer.com.
San Diego beer is a wonderful thing. Locals and guests alike should feel good about enjoying it. The latest efforts of macro-breweries and money-grabbing newcomers have complicated things and made it harder to have a beer in tandem with a clean conscious. Fortunately, consulting the list of active San Diego Brewers Guild members provides an easy way to put all the business BS aside and go back to savoring local, independent, artisanal beer.
Mitch Steele, Stone Brewing’s brewmaster of 10 years, will be leaving his post at the end of the month to pursue a new opportunity. The specifics of that new venture have yet to be officially dispersed, but despite a lack of details, this is news that will be widely reported today. And it should be. Steele is one of the brewing industry’s blue-chip members. Not only has he overseen brewing operations at one of the country’s fastest-growing brewing companies — even during high-profile expansions to the East Coast and Europe — he literally wrote the book on India pale ales: IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. His loss will be palpable for Stone, but not just because of his brewing prowess and professional skills, which led to numerous industry awards.
Having worked with Steele for three years, I can tell you that he brought another x-factor to Stone. In addition to being a consummate professional, he is also a good person with a big heart who not only loves beer and the art of brewing, but tirelessly supports the sharing of information for the purpose of educating and inspiring others about beer, brewing and his craftsperson industry. Though Stone has often been described as brash, polarizing or downright bastardly, such characterization has never been applied to Steele. He is one of the most respected and positively received public-facing employees the company has ever had, and it will no doubt be very sad for his colleagues to see him go, but in speaking with a number of them in preparation for this article, their happiness for him is both real and unanimous. Count me among those sending best wishes for his next venture, for which he was sought out by industry professionals recognizing the talent and intangibles he brings to the brew-deck.
Steele entered the brewing industry in 1988, four years after graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Fermentation Science. His first job was manning a 14-barrel system at the San Andreas Brewing Company. In 1992, he started work at Anheuser-Busch, managing brewhouse and fermenting operations in three different breweries while developing new beers as part of the company’s Specialty Brewing Group. An employee of Big Beer seemed an unlikely candidate for induction at Stone, which has railed against macro-entities since its 1996 founding, but Steele won over owners Greg Koch and Steve Wagner and proceeded to take San Diego County’s largest brewery from annual production of 48,000 barrels to more than 325,000 in 2015.
Steele’s last day at Stone will be June 30. As is customary, the brewery has produced a video (embedded below) to communicate this development with its fans via social-media. In it, Steele shares stories from the past decade, praises key members of his brewing staff and struggles with emotions throughout. Such emotion is understandable. It’s the end of an era, both for Steele and for Stone. Rather than fill the brewmaster position, Stone will employ an “innovation team” headed by chief operating officer Pat Tiernan and key individuals from the company’s brewing team. That group will develop new beers with concepts and recipes approved by Koch and Wagner.
This is not uncharted territory for San Diego’s brewing scene. Last September, Green Flash Brewing Company—probably the San Diego company closest to Stone in its make-up with its hoppy beer portfolio, status as one of the country’s 50 largest craft breweries, multiple local locations and Virginia expansion project—abruptly lost its brewmaster when 11-year veteran Chuck Silva resigned in similar fashion. His mission was to return to his San Luis Obispo County roots and open his own brewery. That project, Silva Brewing, is well underway with plans to open later this year in Paso Robles. When that happened, Green Flash did not crumble, and neither will Stone. It will just be…different.
Brandon Hernández previously worked for Stone Brewing as its Senior Communications Specialist from 2012 to 2015.