When former Green Flash Brewing Company brewmaster Chuck Silva first told me he was resigning so he and his wife could leave San Diego to build their own brewery, I was crestfallen. Silva was a respected, positive force within the local brewing scene; a veteran of more than a decade who helped usher in the age of the mainstream, ultra-hoppy, San Diego-style IPA. Definitely not the type of craftsman you want to see exit stage right, but when he informed me he was heading to Paso Robles to install his passion-project it lessened the sting considerably. My wife and I visit Paso several times a year, meaning I’d be able to stay in touch with Silva and his liquid wares.
The Silvas opened their eponymous venture, Silva Brewing (525 Pine Street, Suite B, Paso Robles), last December. On Day One, they had just one beer—Paso Pale Ale—but that didn’t stop droves of curious imbibers from crowding into Silva’s tiny (a mere 333 square feet), brewery-abutting tasting room to sate their thirst and curiosity. By the time I got there a couple of months ago, there were five beers on—an IPA named for the business’ address (525 Pine), a recently debuted walnut milk stout called Nut Farm, and a German-style amber (Suite B) and blonde. The latter goes by the name First Gold, indicating its status as Silva’s first blue-ribbon garnering recipe.
After hours on the road, those inaugural offerings were welcomed with open taste-buds. As I tasted my way through them, I found myself rather surprised. These ales tasted nothing like what I’d come to know from Silva during his days at Green Flash where hops rule the day, to the point where one imperial selection proclaims in name and theory to wreck palates. The Silva Brewing portfolio instead revolved around drinkability, balance and finesse. Yeast and malt character were at the forefront with the German ales, and though there were nice piney, citrus-like aroma and flavor notes in the pale and IPA, they were subdued. Instead of hop-bombs, they are the types of crisp, clean beers just about anybody can enjoy and put away. It’s a real departure from how he made his name in San Diego, and figures to be a hit in Silva’s old new digs (he actually grew up in San Luis Obispo County, and that was the impetus for his return), where nearby Firestone Walker Brewing Company and its balanced, to-style brews are the local measuring stick for beer-drinkers.
Silva has since released a double IPA, saison and various other beers. He has a portfolio of 20 recipes to rotate on and off of the 10-tap setup at his tasting room. That space is accessible via a front and back entrance, both of which are a bit tricky to find if you don’t know the setup. One can enter through an off-street, back-alley door or venture through the entry to craft-beer bar The Pour House and head to a small back-hall. Turning left takes you to shared restrooms, while a right turn leads straight to Silva’s tasting room, featuring a stainless bar, and dark-wood shelving holding all manner of black-and-orange, logo-emblazoned merchandise and a crowler machine. It’s a small but effective setup and one worth seeking out. It will be fun to see how Silva Brewing progresses, especially given its surprising start.
And if you can’t make it to Paso right now, you’re in luck. Silva personally delivered kegs to several San Diego accounts over the weekend. Drop-off spots included Fathom Bistro, Hamilton’s Tavern, Small Bar and Ballast Point Brewing‘s Little Italy brewpub. One of the beers he brought to the latter is a collaboration smoked porter called S-Shot that he brewed with BP’s Colby Chandler, which will be on-tap during a tap-takeover with Chandler and Silva tonight. Prior to this, the only San Diego establishment to carry Silva Brewing beer was the Round Table Pizza in Mission Valley. That business is owned by Izak and Teresa Ondre, who were instrumental in helping the Silvas get their brewery off the ground.
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.
There are local brewers whose names are synonymous with the companies they work for. You hear Tomme Arthur and you think The Lost Abbey. You hear Yuseff Cherney and you think Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits. You hear Chuck Silva and you think of Green Flash Brewing Co.’s spiky, fluorescent green half-sun logo. Time to ditch that last correlation, because today Silva resigned from Green Flash after 11 years of guiding the company, and the design and manufacture of its decidedly West Coast-style, hop-driven beers.
Green Flash owners Mike and Lisa Hinkley brought Silva on in 2004 when the company was struggling to make an impact with the craft crowd. The difference following Silva’s arrival was night and day. Free to brew the hop-heavy recipes his personal tastes gravitated toward, he scored home runs with beers like his West Coast IPA and Hop Head Red before taking on a variety of Belgian-inspired ales, barrel-aged and Brettanomyces-stoked beers. Consumer demand grew, translating to sales, a move to a larger brewery in San Diego’s Mira Mesa community, the opening of a satellite brewing and barrel-aging facility called Cellar 3 in Poway, and construction of an East Coast brewery slated to open in Virginia Beach, Va. next year. As of the close of 2014, Green Flash had grown to become the 48th largest brewery (by production) in the United States.
Given Green Flash’s astronomical growth and Silva’s achievements while there—including plenty of medals from the World Beer Cup, Great American Beer Festival (including a gold medal for his Belgo-American Le Freak collected at Saturday’s GABF) and other prestigious brewing competitions—one has to wonder what would motivate him to make this move, especially at such a key period of growth for Green Flash. While it seems out of the blue, this is actually something Silva has contemplated for a long time, ever since falling in love with the idea of establishing his own brewing company. Effective immediately, that is what he’ll be devoting 100% of his time and energy to.
Adding to the passion behind the future Silva Brewing Company is the fact he will be working on the project with his wife, Mary Jo, and building it in California’s Central Coast region from which he hails. He’s targeted San Luis Obispo County, where many of his family and friends reside.
“It’s been so fulfilling to play such a major role in the accomplishment of so many goals at Green Flash. Together, we’ve come further and grown larger than I could have ever foreseen. I couldn’t have done it alone and I thank every member of the craft community that helped me along the way,” said Silva. “But it’s always been my dream and personal long-term goal to brew on my own terms. Now is the time to go for it.”
Update: Green Flash has promoted Head Brewer Erik Jensen to the position of Brewmaster
In San Diego, there are more than 100 operating brewhouses putting out hundreds of award-winning beers, and each month features a plethora of quality beer fests. Given this, what would make San Diego craft enthusiasts sit at their computers, hitting refresh like heroine-charged rats at a feeder bar, trying feverishly to get tickets to a beer festival roughly 350 miles away? Why go to so much trouble with so much beery goodness here at home on a daily basis? All it takes is one visit to the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival (FWIBF) to figure it out.
Last weekend marked the fourth annual edition of this event, which always sells out mere minutes after tickets become available. Hosted by Firestone Walker Brewing Company at the Paso Robles Event Center, a short drive from its brewery headquarters, this was the first year I was able to attend. It required going through the narcotic-fueled vermin scenario, but it was worth it for a number of reasons—first and foremost, the beer. The 53 breweries that participated in this year’s FWIBF didn’t just bring their A-game, they scored A-pluses with college credit; the stuff 5.0s are made of.
Upon entering the event area, the first booth I encountered belonged to beer geek heroes 3 Floyds Brewing Company, an interest that doesn’t distribute its wares to Southern California, making the chance to try the various versions of its vaunted Dark Lord barrel-aged imperial stout, Zombie Dust pale ale and a Flemish sour playfully dubbed Big Tiddy Assassin, all the more exciting. Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker echoed that when stating a big motivation of the FWIBF—a mammoth undertaking that causes a great deal of thrash for the company’s employees—is attracting the breweries and beers he and his colleagues want to have around.
Among the far-off producers on-hand in Paso Robles this go-round were Vermont’s Alchemist, North Carolina’s Wicked Weed Brewing, Florida’s Cigar City Brewing, Colorado’s Funkwerks, Texas’ Jester King Brewery, New Mexico’s Marble Brewery, Missouri’s Side Project Brewing, Indiana’s Sun King Brewing, Germany’s Braufactum, Australia’s Bridge Road Brewers, Italian outfits Birrificio Del Ducato and Birrificio Italiano, and New Zealand’s 8 Wired Brewing Company and Garage Project. They joined the likes of darlings both enduring—Russian River Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery—and youthful—The Rare Barrel, FiftyFifty Brewing Company, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. It was all killer no filler, and that extended to the beers.
Whereas most festivals are a chance for companies to acquaint themselves with potential customers, many of which may be new to craft beer, this event is for nth-level ale and lager fans looking for rarer, more out-there offerings. As such, there were sours galore, a wide variety of barrel-aged beers, vintage library selections, one-offs and prototype brews. This extended to the San Diego breweries at the FWIBF. Green Flash Brewing Company busted out the barrel-aged ales of its newly debuted Cellar 3 facility, The Lost Abbey uncorked bottles of its Track 8 barrel-aged “oatmeal cookie” quadrupel, Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits poured an apricot and raspberry stoked version of Sour Wench, and Stone Brewing Co. treated attendees to archived cult fave collab Chris Banker/Stone/Insurgente Xocoveza Mocha Stout.
What makes these breweries go all out? Aside from being a part of something extraordinary and helping raise funds for Paso Robles Pioneer Day and the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, Firestone Walker makes it well worth their while. Brewers are granted accommodations that include meals and fun events including a brewers-only barbecue and a morning-after “wine down” at a local winery, complete with food, drink and games (competitive team-structured corn-hole, anyone?). It’s an event that’s every bit, if not more fun for the brewers as it is the people who come from far and wide to sample their suds. The latter receive unlimited beer samples and food from an assortment of Central Coast restaurants plus live music. Because the event isn’t oversold, there is enough room to move about the fairgrounds, and though there are some very long lines (the Alchemist line went more than 60 people deep most of the day), it’s never tough to get not only a beer, but a very good beer.
Even for someone living in the beer wonderland that is San Diego County, the FWIBF provides unique flavors and prized offerings in a multitude no local beer festival can match. It’s difficult to get in on, but most truly special things require a little extra work. Rest assured, effort expended on this endeavor will not be in vain.