Earlier this year, Bear Roots Brewing owner Terry Little enthusiastically shared his plans to graduate from the nano-brewing ranks by installing a six-barrel system at his Vista combo brewery and homebrew shop in order to increase production and begin self-distributing beers around San Diego County. He also filled me in on his other job as chief operating officer and head brewer for Oceanside’s Black Plague Brewing Company. When reconnecting with Little last week, he shared that he had stepped down from his second job and since decided to keep Bear Roots small, investing would-be expansion dollars on different aspects of his business. When asked about his change of heart, he cited the state of the industry and where it appears to be going.
What made you decide to stay small?
Looking at the business model we have and lessons learned over the last 12 months, I thought instead of working on exterior market expansion it was smarter to focus resources internally and put capital into leaner, more efficient systems to maximize production with lower overhead on the same slightly-upgraded equipment, with a few major cellar upgrades. We are still looking at expanding our cold storage and dry storage with heavy future focus on specialty small batch, while maintaining our core line-up of 16 beers. Personally, we have always focused our brewery on giving back to the local community and relied on a heavy tasting-room model for gross sales. That being said, even being small with minimum overhead and, in essence, two business models with our homebrew store, we have had modest revenue and seen slower growth. This is a new industry to me, personally, and I got into the business because of my passion and perseverance. It was never easy and yet always rewarding. We have just worked too hard to get where we are today. I felt it too risky with the number of breweries opening—at a rate of 2.25-per-month since we opened our doors in December 2015—with a plan similar to the one we had for expansion last summer. Maybe I’m preparing for a storm that won’t hit, but we have decided to hunker down for the next 12 months and keep investing in our current model, continuing to run our business on a givers gain philosophy.
What improvements did you re-appropriate funds toward?
We were able to upgrade our branding and define our marketing strategy, which I’m very happy with. We designed and built the Bear Roots van with an A-Team vibe, again with a lean concept for easy break-down and set-up, with the ability to pour right out the side of the van. I think the best upgrade was focusing on our tasting room layout and maximizing the space, by learning what we didn’t need and implementing new things. We have added multiple TVs, a pool table, and have focused events on what the community would like. Two major improvements are the taco truck we have contracted with for service seven-days-a-week, and the new patio space, which will be open to the public this fall.
What happened to your involvement with Black Plague?
I stepped down in July. It was a great opportunity to be part of an exciting team and be involved with a complete build-out of the 20-barrel brewery from the ground up. It was also nice to put my capital-expansion hat on again and help facilitate the opening. Opportunities like that don’t happen often and I’m glad I was able to take advantage of it. I have a strong belief in what craft beer is and what it can do for a community, and I feel Bear Roots is the best way forward for me to stay focused on my core and why I originally got into craft. I was taxed for time and Black Plague is just starting up. That requires a lot of work. It’s nice to focus my energy with my family and Roots. Fortunately, Black Plague has a great leadership team and (ex-AleSmith Brewing Company and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer) Bill Batten is brewing for them. I wish them huge success and am still here for them when needed as a partner.
Where do you see the industry going and what businesses are best insulated from obstacles?
The industry is still growing at a remarkable rate and I’m not sure the market share can sustain. I feel any organic-growth business model is always a little protected, but with that said, uncertainty is in the air. I think focusing on quality and camaraderie is a good business practice for quarter four and moving forward into next year. From my personal experience, no business is ever protected from failure, but perseverance, good leadership and a strong staff who believes in the company is key.
What are some exciting things on the horizon for Bear Roots?
We are excited to keep adding to our barrel-aging program, and we’ll be releasing a barrel-aged double IPA called Deeply Rooted during San Diego Beer Week. We will start bottling in October and plan to have our chocolate peanut butter stout Bear Cookie be our first — available exclusively in our tasting room. We also have our monthly charity event the first Friday of every month. The next one will focus on Operation Hope, a women and family homeless shelter that is doing great work here in North County.
One of the reasons San Diego brewers enjoy the camaraderie and success they do is the 1997 establishment of the San Diego Brewers Guild (SDBG). Back then, there were far fewer brewing companies in San Diego County, but visionaries from some of those veteran operations realized that strength in numbers would be key for development and promotion of the local industry. This year, the SDBG will celebrate its 20th year of collective success. In doing so, it will gather its longest-tenured while drawing off the innovation of all of its 100-plus members.
Later this month, Coronado Brewing Company will host a collaboration brew day during which brewers from SDBG member breweries will be invited to participate in the brewing of a special beer to commemorate the big two-zero. The recipe for that beer, a fittingly San Diego-style India pale ale (IPA), was developed by brewers at Coronado, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Pizza Port, Stone Brewing, San Diego Brewing Company, AleSmith Brewing Company and San Marcos Brewery and Grill.
The beer will come in around 7% alcohol-by-volume and be double-dry-hopped with Idaho 7, Motueka and Vic Secret hops. Additional hops will be donated by Fallbrook’s Star B Ranch and Hop Farm. Yeast was donated by Miramar-based White Labs while remaining ingredients were provided by BSG CraftBrewing. Additionally, El Cajon’s Taylor Guitars is partnering to provide old ebony fret boards from its African mill. That reclaimed wood will be fashioned into tap handles branded with the SDBG logo for this celebratory IPA.
Kegs from the 60-barrel batch will debut during San Diego Beer Week, which will take place from November 3 to 12. Coronado will also take the lead getting the beer out via its distribution partner, Crest Beverage. The beer will be available at retail accounts throughout the county, and make its official debut on November 3 during Guild Fest’s VIP Brewer Takeover at the Port Pavilion on downtown’s Broadway Pier. Proceeds from the beer will be donated to the Guild by Coronado once the beer sells through.
While Coronado is the hub this time around, the SDBG hopes to create collaboration beers on an annual basis and rotate the brewery at which they are produced each time. To get everyone involved during this inaugural brew, SDBG members were asked to submit suggested names for the beer, a short-list of which will be voted on by the membership this month.
Judging brewing competitions can be a reassuring exercise on many levels. If one devotes themselves to the process and takes it seriously, they often gain validation of their powers of evaluation through their panelist peers. And when everyone gives it their all, taking time to thoroughly analyze each entrant and debate top contenders’ rankings, it often leads to a truly high-quality beer taking top honors. This was what played out for me last Saturday when judging homebrew entries in Green Flash Brewing Company’s Genius Lab competition.
Held in conjunction with the company’s annual Treasure Chest Fest, a beer-and-food festival raising funds for the local chapter of Susan G. Komen, this battle of recreational brewers drew 31 entries. Contestants were permitted to brew any style of India pale ale they chose be it session, fruited, imperial, Belgian, black or hazy. Even with that much guideline leniency, a popular fact was easily proven true. IPAs are the toughest style of beer to brew at home; especially to standards that merit reproducing a beer in a professional setting. That was the first-place award for this competition.
Originally, our panel, which consisted of organizer Brian Beagle of local podcast San Diego BeerTalk Radio and Green Flash representatives including brewmaster Erik Jensen, had hoped to advance 15 beers from the first round to the second. It was about a third of the way through that it became apparent that this would not be possible. From aroma to flavor, the flaws were many. Some beers reeked of butyric acid (reviled for possessing a scent evocative of vomit), while others were as vegetal as a plate of Brussels sprouts. One even tasted like—I kid you not—Cinnamon Toast Crunch. In the end, we squeezed out 12 second-rounders by allowing in some “maybes”, but it really came down to four beers that had a chance at the top spot.
My comments above may make it seem like beer judges’ senses lead to instant consensus in most cases, but that hasn’t been my experience. Often, second- and third-round judging involves a great deal of discussion and debate. It’s a key part of the process, as it was in this instance. In the end, we selected an IPA called Searching For Clarity that, post-judging, we learned was entered by Nick Corona. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he won Homebrewer of the Year honors at last year’s Homebrew Con, the country’s largest recreational brewing competition, held annually by the American Homebrewers Association. A member of local club QUAFF, Corona is also the reigning homebrewer of the year for his winning entries at the 2017 edition of the San Diego County Fair‘s annual homebrew competition.
Corona’s win was announced the following day at Treasure Chest Fest, along with the second-place winner, a Northeast-style IPA from Solomon Cantwell, and the second-runner-up, Summer of Hops from Caden Houson (who is Corona’s co-brewer). Look for the winning beer to debut at Green Flash’s Mira Mesa tasting room as part of its small-batch Genius Lab program during San Diego Beer Week in early November.
San Diego Beer Week (henceforth known as SDBW because I’m not getting paid by the word) is upon us and I have already passed my first hurdle – the annual Guild Fest at Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier. Year over year it proves to be one of my favorite festivals, so I constantly jockey to cover it for “journalism”. Normally I’d regale you with the sights and sounds of this flagship event, but internet style guidelines demand that my experience be somehow enumerated to hold your attention. So here are The Eleven Best Beers I Managed To Drink At Guild Fest 2016 In No Particular Order Which Are Not Necessarily The Absolute Best Since I Couldn’t Possibly Drink Through All The Offerings And I Don’t Wish To Marginalize Any Overlooked Breweries. NUMBER SIX WILL SHOCK YOU!
Little Miss Brewing – Hoperation Overlord Imperial Oatmeal IPA
You know a beer is good when it essentially creates a style category and simultaneously establishes an absurdly high standard for it.
In truth I’ve likely had a IPAs with oatmeal in them before, but none of them left an impression on me like this one. The indulgent floral and orange rind aromatics perfectly complemented the chewy pine notes of the beer. It was potent, dank, highly memorable, and easily the strongest beer to come out of the relatively young brewery to date. I liked Little Miss Brewing before, but now I’m excited about them.
AleSmith Brewing Company – Barrel Aged Vietnamese Speedway Stout
This beer smells like happiness soaked in bourbon. That may be a little redundant, but whatever.
The Vietnamese Speedway Stout is a tough one to improve on, but this does just that. It hits you with a quick boozy snap up front that initially diminishes its rich earthiness, but slowly gives way to dark chocolate and berry sweetness. It’s a masterstroke in making the barrel sing.
Pure Project – Keep Amurka Dank
I know a lot of folks are riding the Northeast-style hazy IPA hype train these days, but this was a top notch take on it. The haze offered a little supplementary heft without feeling like it was dosed with flour to thicken it like a gravy.
Its substantial fruity orange character aromatics were capably backed by a familiar blend of citrus and pine. It was a great example of simple flavors executed with incredible finesse.
Abnormal Brewing Company – All of the Lights
When faced with a description “Coffee Nutella Imperial Milk Porter”, you can be virtually assured one of the adjectives you’ll trot out to describe it won’t be “subtle”. Sure enough, the nose hovered somewhere between Nestle Quik and Cocoa Pebbles with an unmistakable roasted hazelnut tone to it. The beer had touches of earth and maduro cigar to it, but was primarily a nutty, chocolate-y juggernaut.
Seeing the word “coconut” in a beer name often gives me pause. When applied with some restraint it can add a beautiful texture to a brew, but otherwise it cruelly devolves the brew into a fizzy piña colada. Both of these managed to march right up to the edge of that cliff without tumbling over.
The coconut in Darkness Refined was true to its moniker, delivering a restrained, silky stout with a rich milk chocolate character. I could sip on this all evening without worries of suntan lotion-flavored belches. The Vacation IPA used it even more capably, maintaining an IPA-forward experience throughout. The nose was dominated by grass clippings, leaving a subtle coconut creaminess to bolster the floral and tropical fruit flavors.
Intergalactic Brewing Company – Planet Invader (with coffee) Russian Imperial Stout
The body on this imperial stout was lighter bodied compared to those in its cohort at the festival, but then maple syrup would be considered thirst quenching compared to some of the monsters this festival has had to offer. Still, its 11.6% ABV was masked to the point of being perilous.
The coffee burst out of the mix and had a delightful resonance on the palate. Planet Invader delivered the RIS embodiment of a stellar coffee liqueur without oppressive sweetness.
Lost Abbey Brewing Company – Track 8
This one is a bit of a cheat as I am all too familiar with this barrel-aged ale, but it still managed to stand out among its peers. It reminds of oatmeal raisin cookies soaked in bourbon, just like mom used to make.
Aztec Brewing Company – Bruja Rubia
This may well have been the sleeper hit of the festival. Unlike the innumerable, massive imperial stouts it was flanked with, this unique wheat beer seduced with subtlety. The combination of aging in white wine barrels with blue agave and apricots produced a restrained citric bite with loads of dried fruits and lemonade sweetness.
Groundswell Brewing Co. – Oathbreaker
I appreciated Groundswell Brewing’s approach to the massive signage for this beer. Compared to the standard notebook paper-sized most everyone favored, it was as imposing at the 13% ABV stout itself. It left little doubt that it meant business.
The nose was redolent with coffee, vanilla, and milk chocolate, but favored a palate of anise, dark chocolate, and coffee ground earthiness. It was surprisingly nuanced for something that could have easily been a booze-bomb.
Second Chance Beer Co. – Festa Imperiale
Yes, it’s yet another bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout. No, I won’t apologize for picking so many of them.
Festa Imperiale featured the coffee notes you’d expect, but emerged from its peers with its boisterous roastiness and light brandy sweetness. It also summoned notes of toffee and chocolate turtles without becoming cloying or oppressive on the palate. It had a depth of character often clobbered by the booziness of the barrel, which was remarkable.
Former San Diego Brewers Guild president Mike Sardina (formerly of Kearny Mesa’s Societe Brewing Company) is headed to Vermont to take a job at cult-fave brewery Hill Farmstead Brewery. This left a sudden and significant vacancy to be expeditiously filled by the Guild. Fortunately, an able-bodied and passionate industry professional known for her seemingly unlimited energy and outgoing compatriotism in and beyond San Diego County has stepped up. Meet Jill Davidson, the western regional sales manager for Pizza Port and new president of the San Diego Brewers Guild.
How did you get into the industry and what led you to where you are today?
When I was 18, I walked into Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant in Newark, Delaware, and got a hostess job. I worked there all four years of college, became a server and went through their beer education. When I moved to San Diego in fall of 2006, there weren’t a whole lot of beer jobs around, so I did bartending and restaurant management. When Pizza Port Ocean Beach opened in 2010, I started there as bartender, and when the Bressi Ranch production brewery was built in 2013, I realized I wanted to get more serious about my position and recognize the growth potential. It was exciting to be part of the expansion of an old-school pioneer of San Diego craft-beer. I became a sales and brand ambassador and ran a brewery-tour program, which pretty much entailed me calling on accounts and being their only point-of-contact. It was pretty overwhelming but now we have a great sales team and I’m the regional manager.
What inspired you to get in line for the Guild presidency?
Mike called me and said there was a vice-president officer seat opening up on the Guild Board. He thought I would be great in that role and that we could do a lot of great things for the San Diego beer community.
How does the president role fit in with the rest of the components of the Guild?
The Board is really the Guild’s governing body and it is spearheaded by executive director Paige McWey Acers. She is a permanent fixture that keeps the fish afloat and steering in the right direction. The Board is then divided into committees that cover lots of different issues—planning, San Diego Beer Week, membership, bylaws. The work of the Guild is divided amongst members of the Board who in turn incorporate members at-large to be part of these committees. Officers change regularly, every year you get different personalities and different breweries represented—everybody has something different to bring to the table. As president, I’m more the face and voice of the Guild and its members. It’s definitely a team effort. We have a strong Board and it’s amazing to be surrounded with people who have so much experience and insight into what’s important.
What are some initiatives you are excited to introduce and work on?
Technically I’m in an interim position [until next year when I will start the term I would have served if Mike had stayed], so I’m mostly following up on his initiatives—development of committees so the Guild can be more efficient with time and energy in getting things accomplished. Also, our relationship with the San Diego Tourism and Marketing District, San Diego Tourism Authority, and San Diego Hotel and Motel Association; getting our seat at the table as an important part of local economy. Those are things that are very important to me, as well as establishing an Outreach Committee to be in contact with new breweries as they are developed. A lot of what the Guild does is legislative, so making sure those breweries-in-progress are in tune with ABC laws and being a resource for questions will be helpful.
What are some opportunities for success for local brewers that the Guild can help with?
Networking and resources are such a huge thing that [brewery business-owners and brewers] don’t realize they have. If they have a question about a beer-recipe, they can phone-a-friend. If they don’t have contact info, we’ll put people in touch. We’ll guide through what they need with legislative questions, and the stronger the Guild’s relationship gets with the aforementioned associations, the more our members will benefit. And of course there’s our maps [showing where every member-brewery is located throughout San Diego County]. There are 90,000 of those in circulation throughout the year. Then there’s San Diego Beer Week, which provides an international platform now. “San Diego-style” beer is a real thing now and, as San Diego beer grows, our members will grow with it.
What are some of the biggest problems currently plaguing San Diego brewers?
Quality is always a concern, especially with breweries growing and having different processes than when they were smaller operations. As we develop the “San Diego Beer” brand as a whole, quality is more important than ever. Each sip represents all of San Diego beer, not just the individual breweries. Luckily, there are a lot of resources to connect people in order to elevate the quality of everyone’s beer.