September is stocked with a plethora of craft-beer events celebrating just about every type of beer out there. From ales infused with farm-fresh hops to tart tantalizers and, of course, Oktoberfest and other Germanic lagers, there’s something for nearly any taste. Take a gander at these featured events then peruse many more on our events page.
September 2-4 | Second Anniversary: It’s three phases of two years at Second Chance Beer Company, starting with releases of multiple high-profile collaboration beers, brewery tours and a thematically appropriate flea market on Saturday, a Sunday beer brunch and an industry day on Monday featuring a corn-hole tournament that’s open to the public. | Second Chance Beer Company, 15378 Avenue of Science, #222, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Times Vary
September 16-18 | San Diego Wet Hop Beer Weekend: Before most San Diegans had ever heard the term “wet hops”, O’Brien’s Pub was devoting a weekend-long festival to once-a-year harvest-time beers given huge aromatic character from freshly picked, whole-cone hops. This is a prime opportunity to taste what the county’s brewers can do with these green gems. | O’Brien’s Pub, 4646 Convoy Street, Kearny mesa, Times Vary
September 16 | Peter Reeves Memorial Sour Fest: Each year, Churchill’s Pub & Grille pays its respects to a lost friend and fan by gathering special, rare and outstanding beers running the gamut of sour styles from kettled creations on up to aged, blended gueuzes. An acidic, funky feast for the senses, it never fails to deliver. Stock up on antacids and make a day of it. | Churchill’s Pub & Grille, 887 West San Marcos Boulevard, San Marcos, 11 a.m.
September 22 | San Diego Brewers Guild Golf Tournament: Whether you can drive the ball like Tiger Woods (before his recent travails) or just like puttering around, a day on the greens is always an enjoyable one when you spend it with local brewers enjoying sunshine, competition and the liquid fruits of their labor, all while supporting the good work they do. | Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo; Check In: 10 a.m., Shotgun Start: 12 p.m.
September 23 | Oktoberfest: Numerous local breweries celebrate Germany’s annual and epic folk festival, but for no other is it more natural than Karl Strauss Brewing Company. Recipes of a master brewer from Germany form their bedrock. Those brews plus venerable fall seasonal Oktoberfest and small-batch, specially brewed, German-style beers will flow like wasser. | Karl Strauss Brewing Company, 5985 Santa Fe Street, Pacific Beach, 2 p.m.
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.
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.
If you miss the good old days, when classic C hops ruled the day, pale ales registered mid-range on the SRM meter and beer menus went from blonde to stout, Brett Stampf can relate. A veteran brewer who worked at Stone Brewing and Green Flash Brewing, he can appreciate the IBU-rich beers that played a big part in those operations’ successes. He says he left each as said success led to each growing into larger entities, stating that just wasn’t for him. He prefers a smaller stage and the freedom that provides, and has spent the past two years constructing his own passion project with partners John Bull and Josh Gilko. That spot, Alta Brewing Company (1983 Julian Avenue, Barrio Logan) is on track to open in early August (ABC willing).
When San Diegans last tasted Stampf’s beers, he was the opening brewmaster at La Jolla Brewing. While there is little he cared to bring with him from that venture, his current beer list includes a number of offerings from his time there. When the doors open, he will have a quintet of ales available. The first is a golden ale with a surprisingly biting finish that will be served on CO2 and nitrogen. Ditto the house IPA, which is hopped with big-money hops, Citra and Simcoe, and comes in at 7% alcohol-by-volume. A 6% ABV pale ale is a throwback that comes across like a tamer version of Sierra Nevada’s copper-colored flagship, with a bitter finish that resembles that of Stampf’s Chinook- and Centennial-stoked brown ale. A dry Irish-style stout rounds things out. Belgian-style ales and an IPA hopped exclusively with Azacca are in the works.
Those beers will be available solely in Alta’s tasting room, which was pounded into shape by the company’s founders—all of which have contracting backgrounds—in a 2,000-square-foot space at the base of the Bread and Salt building. That 40,000-square-foot facility is being reborn and reconfigured with an eye toward art and artisan manufacturing. Alta’s corner of it includes an indoor bar nicely appointed with a large bull-head mural by local artist Gloria Muriel featuring beer’s four main ingredients, plus a lacquered wood-topped bar with rebar forged into a playful design based on the letters A, L and T. Rail bars line two walls, giving way to views of Barrio Logan and an outdoor patio that will someday border a beer garden.
Alta’s brewery comprises a five-barrel brewhouse feeding into 10-barrel fermentation tanks. Stampf says he will aim to produce around 500 barrels in year one, but has the ability to max out annual production at 1,100 barrels. Stampf says the name Alta translates to over and above, and describes the way he is looking to brew; remaining true to tradition, but keeping up quality while infusing a bit of himself and his personal preferences. The skeletal bull-head logo is a nod to his business partner of the same name and is affectionately named “Juan Toro”. A “recovering contractor”, Bull has worked on numerous local restaurant projects, including Tribute Pizza, Union Kitchen and Tap, One Door North, PB Shore Club and Pacific Beach AleHouse. Once Alta is up and running, the team will identify sites for one or two satellite tasting rooms. So far they have evaluated two, Chula Vista and Ocean Beach.
Summer’s in full swing and so is San Diego’s beer-drinking public. Rather than beat the heat, get right out in it and combat it with local ales and lagers at any of the featured events below. Still thirsty? No problem. Check out even more beery happenings on our events page.
July 11 | Beer Dinner No. 2: North Park Beer’s first beer dinner was impressive, enough that one attendee, O’Brien’s Pub’s Tyson Blake, signed up him and his boss, Nickel Beer Co. brewmaster Tom Nickel, to participate in this month’s feast, which will feature house, guest and collab beers plus fare from on-site Mastiff Sausage that goes beyond its everyday meaty fare. | North Park Beer Company, 3038 University Avenue, North Park, 7 p.m.
July 19 | Hop-Con 5.0: Stone Brewing will celebrate a half-decade of boozy, (partially) barrel-aged beer that salutes and speaks to nerds of all walks of life when it taps five consecutive vintages of Drew Curtis / Wil Wheaton / Greg Koch Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout and an immense list of specialty brews, serves up gourmet food and plugs in its vintage #HopCade. | Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station, 2816 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma, 7 p.m.
July 21-23 | Craft Beer Block Party: The tenants of the North Park Brewery Igniter campus—Eppig Brewing, Pariah Brewing and San Diego Brewing—are teaming up for the first time to present a fun weekend that will feature a Friday-night progressing beer-pairing dinner featuring three courses from Biersal Food Truck, and a two-day “local maker’s market”. | CRAFT by Brewery Igniter, 3052 El Cajon Boulevard; North Park, Times Vary by Day
July 29 | Arts & Amps: Ales and art in multiple forms will be celebrated at Karl Strauss Brewing’s PB tasting room and beer garden. There’ll be live mural art by Cohort Collective, a gallery show from Creative Souls on the West, live music by The Schizophonics and Creature Canyon, and food from Tasting Room Del Mar. An event like this could be pricey, but admission is free! | Karl Strauss Brewing Company, 5985 Santa Fe Street, Pacific Beach, 4:30 p.m.
July 29 | HESSFEST 7: Mike Hess Brewing has been getting by with a little help from their friends for a whopping seven years. Breweries from here to Arizona come out to bolster this festival, which benefits Next Step Service Dogs and the YMCA, and will feature nine collaboration beers with the likes of Council Brewing, Eppig Brewing, and Second Chance Beer Company. | Mike Hess Brewing, 3812 Grim Avenue, North Park, 12 p.m.