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 May, 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.
Each June, San Marcos’ Rip Current Brewing Company uses Rip Current Awareness Week, a seven-day period designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as an opportunity to raise public knowledge about its wares through special events and offers at its tasting rooms. It’s a clever marketing effort; enough so that another San Marcos-headquartered brewing company isn’t waiting for a governmental agency to institute an educational span in its honor. Enter, Mason Awareness Week, taking place August 28 to September 1.
Mason Ale Works, the in-house brewing operation of the 3LB Restaurant Group built within its Urge Gastropub brewpubs in Oceanside and San Marcos, is teaming with high-profile accounts throughout San Diego over a five-day span to increase imbibers’ consciousness of the brand. According to 3LB co-owner Grant Tondro, Mason Ale Works has been able to gain a good following in North County, but isn’t as relevant south of Miramar. So, they’re bringing the brand south via special events and promotions.
The week will kick off with a Monday steak night at University Heights’ Small Bar that, instead of featuring a keep-the-glass aspect, will allow patrons to keep a Mason-branded steak knife. Tuesday a beer-can koozie will be the keeper du jour at High Dive in Bay Park. Wednesday the Mason crew will return to Urge Common House in San Marcos for a “mini-Lebowski fest” marking the release of a “vegan White Russian beer” brewed in collaboration with Modern Times Beer. Thursday will see a keep-the-glass and cask-night combo at Kearny Mesa’s O’Brien’s Pub, followed by special bottle pours and custom t-shirts at Toronado in North Park.
Like many new local brewery owners, Tondro says opening a brewing company in the current, crowded marketplace is challenging. He says the number of slices of the pie are growing faster than the pie at this point, making it all the more important to differentiate one’s brand and beers, and fueling the decision to reach out in order to introduce themselves to San Diego beer drinkers.
From the Beer Writer: Saisons are my favorite beer style and I, like many a San Diegan, adore hops. So you can imagine my excitement when encountering a farmhouse-style ale given a punch of botanical goodness care of a “super” infusion of lupulin-laced greenery. Adding to my excitement was the rare chance to taste a beer with Home Brewing Company roots outside its enclave within North Park shop The Homebrewer. This opportunity came care of 32 North Brewing Company, which invited Home’s crew to their Miramar home to create this beer, Sharks with Blazers. Described as “an aggressively hoppy super saison,” it comes in at 7% alcohol-by-volume with plenty of grapefruit and orange notes. Bold yet refreshing, it’s an awesome summer beer that I’ve found myself reaching for with great regularity. The hops make themselves known in the bouquet, and their flavors meld perfectly with yeast-borne esters. It’s impossible to tell where the fruitiness from one ends and the other begins, which is a wonderful testament to outstanding ingredient selection and recipe development.
From the Brewers: “Brewing with friends is what beer is all about. George and everyone at The Homebrewer, past and present, are amazing. It was fun to combine our knowledge of the
craft to come up with this beer was fun. A mix of San Diegan hop-forward [character] and a distinct saison yeast strain make for a unique, hoppy, super saison. I love the fact we canned this beer and would love to brew it again”—Nick Ceniceros, Head Brewer, 32 North Brewing Company
“Sharks with Lasers was a recipe developed by Shawn Manriquez, HBC’s previous head brewer. Designed to be a super-juicy IPA it has been one of the most popular beers we make. To develop the 32 North collaboration version we took a growler of original Sharks with Lasers and a bunch of commercial saisons and white IPAs to do some experimenting. With a bunch of taster glasses we went through the saisons we liked and then mixed them in varying proportions with Sharks to come up with a basic idea of a flavor profile for a saison-IPA for the collab version. With the basic idea in mind we then built an entirely new recipe from scratch and went straight to the full batch size at 32 North. The brew days were pretty straightforward. It wasn’t until dry-hop day that the real fun started. Nick blasted this beer with 11 pounds of Mosaic LupuLN2 powder, a sticky, soft hop extract that does not pour easily from a bag. He spent over an hour on a ladder hand-scooping this stuff into the fermenter using a screwdriver to drive it through the funnel. Talk about commitment! I personally learned a lot working with Nick, Jeff and Collier up there and am really happy with the end result.”—Jacob Bauch, Head Brewer, Home Brewing Company
Before Ballast Point Brewing was a company capable of commanding decuple figures, before it grew into San Diego County’s largest brewery and one of the biggest beer-producers in the country, before there even was a brewery called Ballast Point, there was Home Brew Mart (HBM). That Linda Vista hobby shop—one of the first to grace America’s Finest City—opened quietly in 1992 and, over the following quarter-century, has ignited a fire for recreational fermentation within a great many ale-and-lager neophytes. That includes individuals who now own breweries and brew professionally. Some of that contingent even worked for HBM in its early days. In celebration of the big two-five, Ballast Point is creating Family Reunion collaboration beers with those ex-employees as well as former BP brewers, an impressive assemblage of well-known, award-winning talent.
Several of the beers have already been released, while others are scheduled to be brewed in time for them to all be on-tap at HBM’s 25th anniversary event on September 24. The following is a breakdown of the collaborators, their creations and their past.
In an effort to increase its current employee base’s knowledge on the history of BP and its eldest venue, vice president Colby Chandler asked each collaborator to speak to present-day brewers about their time with the company, how it was then and how it prepared them to venture out on their own. Many said that making beer at such a fast-growing brewing company provided them wide-ranging experience as well as reference points for overcoming myriad obstacles. According to Chandler, many brewery owners, in particular, felt their time with BP made it much easier once they were working for themselves.
In addition to the HBM anniversary event, BP is also holding a series of beer-pairing dinners incorporating the aforementioned collaboration brews at HBM. The next will take place on August 24 and include five courses served with Swemiceros, Bay to Bay, Scripps Tease and various other BP beers. Chandler, Tweet, Stephens, LeBlanc and Ceniceros will all be in attendance.
There are no official holidays in the month of August. Given that, one might expect it to be a pretty humdrum month from an events standpoint, but local breweries are taking charge of their—and your—destiny, offering a plentitude of good times for all to enjoy. Check out some of these higher-profile affairs, then refer to our events page for even more craft-beer happenings.
August 5 | The Full Pint 10th Anniversary: Sure, you get your local beer news from the pages (both paper and web) of West Coaster, but online beer-news site The Full Pint has been doing this even longer than us, and will celebrate a decade of slinging suds stories with an epic tap-list of rarities from esteemed breweries that includes more than 20 beers brewed just for this party. | Toronado San Diego, 4026 30th Street, North Park, 9 p.m. (general admission session)
August 6 | Hop-Picking Picnic: Join the Womens Craft Beer Collective and the folks from Pure Project Brewing at a Fallbrook farm to help pick hops that the latter entity will use to brew a beer. It’s a free-form event where you can come and go as you please (a brewery visit will follow for those who last to the end). All you have to do is bring a picnic item (and perhaps some beer) to share. | San Diego Golden Hop Farm, 467 Solana Real, Fallbrook, 9 a.m.
August 12 | Anniversary IPA Fest: To celebrate their first year of business, the staff at North Park Beer Company are taking advantage of their ability to pour guest beers, and stocking their taps with more than 30 IPAs of varying strengths, styles and hop bills, including their own impressive stock of hoppy delights. It doesn’t get much more San Diego than that. | North Park Beer Company, 3038 University Avenue, North Park, 11 a.m.
August 18 & 19 | Stone 21st Anniversary Celebration: Stone Brewing continues to show beer fans how to take a festival to the next level, inviting breweries from all over the country to help take over a college campus over a two-day span that includes a Friday night VIP session replete with brewer meet-and-greet possibilities. Join them at this charity event as they celebrate finally being of legal age to drink. | California State University, 333 South Twin Oaks Valley Road, San Marcos, Times Vary
August 27 | Treasure Chest Beer & Food Fest: Green Flash Brewing Company is holding the seventh edition of its charity festival benefiting Susan G. Komen, and everyone will get lucky at this luau featuring 20-plus rare and exotic beers (including brews from Alpine Beer Company) plus food from beer-centric eateries including Urge Gastropub, Carnitas’ Snack Shack and Nomad Donuts. | Green Flash Cellar 3, 12260 Crosthwaite Circle, Poway, 12 p.m.