From the Beer Writer: In a time that could have been labeled the “dark ages,” beers bolstered by bright, green hops and obsidian malts were everywhere. They were the it beers of the early twenty-teens and so popular there was a battle over the style name they went by. Most referred to them as Black IPAs (India pale ales), but brewers in the Pacific Northwest attempted to lay claim to them, dubbing them “Cascadian dark ales.” Figuring flashy hop-impact was San Diego brewers’ calling card, a local brewery went completely against the Cascadian evergreen grain, calling their black IPA a “San Diego dark ale.” Just as the debate reached a fever pitch among those in the brewing community, the drinking public decided they didn’t care about the name of the style…or the style itself. Sales dropped off and within a year or two, nearly every black IPA on the market was eliminated from portfolios across the country. They were the hazy IPAs of their day, and then they were gone. But some determined brewers who see the beauty in the contradictory big-hops-meets-heavy-roast nature of these beers dare to continue crafting them. Count Home Brewing Company‘s George Thornton and Jacob Bauch key members of that group. They brew their black IPA, El Matador on an annual basis. This year, it’s available in cans as part of Home Brewing’s year-long program of rolling out four-packs of canned collaboration beers brewed with local fermentationists, including Gordon Biersch‘s Doug Hasker, Daniel Cady of Mikkeller Brewing San Diego and Mike Skubic of Old Harbor Distilling. Though Thornton contests this black IPA is really a “hoppy porter” (the debate continues), it drinks like the former, exhibiting great balance between lemony hops and roasty specialty malts. Those polar-opposite ingredients dovetail nicely in the finish with a coffee-like richness and piney tackiness finding common, lasting ground. It’s a splendid version of a style that probably should never have disappeared from the scene, and a brilliant way to remember a good man who many wish hadn’t sadly and unexpectedly followed suit.
From the Brewer: :”El Matador is a tribute to Jeff McCue. Jeff was one of those people that had more groups of friends and admirers than you could possibly imagine. We knew him as an avid homebrewer that shared our passion for education and growth. He was a graduate from SDSU’s Business of Craft Beer Program, a Certified Cicerone and was working on his BJCP beer-judge certification. He was also a professional photographer, verified parrot-head, loving husband, absolute goofball, giant sweetheart and wine lover. His passing from a brain aneurysm was a complete surprise for all of us. He was an otherwise healthy and happy person. He was a guy who liked to get the last word, and I think he succeeded when he managed to get more than 100 people from every facet of his dynamic life together in one place to send him a final ‘F*ck you McCue!’ Truth is, that wasn’t the final ‘FU McCue.’ I use the phrase often, usually in moments where I feel like I’m overwhelmed and wish that I had his witty charm to get through a stressful moment. Then I realize that by thinking of him, it’s still there…and he once again has the final word. ‘FU McCue.’ El Matador was a recipe he brewed for one of his friends’ thirtieth birthday and it was one of his wife’s favorite beers. We brew this beer every year to celebrate his birthday. #cheerstoyoumccue”—George Thornton, Owner, Home Brewing Company
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.
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. * | 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)
SD TapRoom celebrated its tenth anniversary in February. The bar and restaurant was one of the first businesses to champion the charge of craft beer in its home community of Pacific Beach. That area has a big reputation as a party-town fueled by happy hours and discount brews, so trying to adapt mostly young, non-affluent locals and college-age visitors to the glories of a higher-priced but abundantly superior artisan ales was challenging, but fraternal owners Kevin and Kyle Conover stuck with it and gained the respect of the brewing community and the drinkers it caters to in the process. Now, that duo is ready to take things a step further via a new project: TapRoom Beer Company.
Equipped with a seven-barrel brewhouse and 50 taps, this brewpub will be located at 2000 El Cajon Boulevard, on the corner of El Cajon and Florida Street in University Heights. The Conovers have wanted to get into brewing for some time. It took a year to select and secure the spot they have. It was important that they find a location that was right for a brewpub as they were not interested in running a production brewery. The Conovers aim to keep this business true to the spirit of their flagship, citing a focus on community as an attribute that will carry over from PB.
But what about the beer? That will be the charge of local brewing-industry veteran Bill Batten. Batten resigned from his post as head brewer at Miramar’s Mikkeller Brewing San Diego in March. He opened that operation after transitioning over from AleSmith Brewing Company, the interest he worked for from 2002 to 2016. AleSmith owners Peter and Vicky Zien hold a minority ownership stake in Mikkeller SD, so entrusting that business’ brewing operations to Batten was a logical step, making it all the more surprising that he would voluntarily walk away after 15 years of loyalty.
Batten cited creative differences with majority owner Mikkel Borg Bjergsø when announcing his departure, but the likelihood of encountering those at TapRoom Beer seems slim. The Conovers say they are looking forward to Batten unleashing his skill and creativity, and are excited to see the direction he takes their brewpub. According to the team, the venue’s beers will run the gamut from a style standpoint. Classic English-style extra special bitters to San Diego-style hop-bombs and a variety of experimental beers will all be explored, but creating a mix of traditional and innovative ales and lagers is the goal.
Key features of the two-story project include a beer-cellar that will be located on a top-level mezzanine that is visible to customers. Half of the total space’s 5,000 total square feet is outdoors, providing opportunities to enjoy San Diego beer in tandem with its amicable trademark weather. Beers will primarily be available on draft, with occasional releases of bottles and/or cans. TapRoom Brewing is slated for a December 2017 or January 2018 opening.
We’ve reached the halfway mark of 2016. Over the past six months, roughly a dozen new breweries have opened (including one that had been producing beer without a tasting room for a couple of years). This seems a good time to assess this field of newcomers and pick out those that are producing the best beer thus far. It’s but one writer’s opinion, so feel free to disagree and share who you think is best in the comment section. And if you haven’t checked any of these places out just yet, they’re definitely worth a visit.
Burning Beard Brewing, El Cajon: At a time when El Cajon needed a suds-savior like never before, this op touched down like a caped superhero, bringing with it a beer list offering great diversity plus quality across styles. The pilsner, pale, IPAs and coffee-stout are standouts but don’t overlook the ESB or Belgian singel. All are made even better when enjoyed in a rockin’ tasting room by a staff that’s as exuberant as the punk power chords pumping out of the sound-system. And they have foudres!
Resident Brewing Company, Downtown: Does this operation’s coconut IPA taste as good as the award-winning batch its brewmaster created as an amateur. Yes, but there’s so much more to this newbie than that. Abutting its parent-business, the Gaslamp’s long-running watering hole, The Local, the brewhouse is pumping out Americanized takes on English styles that are crisp, balanced and refreshing yet big on hop-driven flavors. It’s good to see them starting to trickle to outside accounts.
Pure Project Brewing, Miramar: This One Percent for the Planet operation (1% of profits to go to non-profit organizations) has endeared itself to beer-lovers behind a beautiful earth-and-elemental tasting room motif, friendly service and beers that go down easy while bringing forth lesser-seen adjuncts and flavor combinations (coconut quad or strawberry-vanilla cream ale, anyone?). The majority of the beers are sessionable, making it easy to taste their rotating rainbow of selections.
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co., Bay Ho: They’re the fastest success story of the upstarts, getting signed by Stone Distribution straight out of the gate and selling enough beer that they’re already adding fermentation space. The interest’s name might lead you to believe they are all about hoppy beers (they have some and they’re quite tasty), but theirs is a varied young tap list offering numerous flavor-oddities, and their subtler wheat ales are very enjoyable…and not the least bit bitter.
Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, Miramar: There’s a lot of pressure for a gypsy brewer opening their first brick-and-mortar, especially half-a-world away from their home, but the brew-crew assisting said nomad, Mikkel Borg-Bjergso, has stepped up admirably. Numerous takes on java-rich Beer Geek Breakfast and a Brett IPA have been fab, but most people are still waiting to be wowed by beers exhibiting the ingenuity and whimsy that Bjergso built his reputation on over the past decade.
Mason Ale Works, Oceanside: So the restaurant- and bar-owners behind Urge Gastropub & Whiskey Bank love beer, but what do they know about brewing it? Not enough, so they went out and got an industry veteran who once headed The Lost Abbey‘s production. That key move allowed the brewpub to put out solid beers from the start. Mason has also secured early distribution and its array of hoppy, dark and Belgian-inspired beers are doing well, though they face stiff competition from impressive guest beers on a daily basis.