Typically, I try to wait a while before visiting a new brewery so the brewing team has time to work out any early kinks, but recently I was so inspired by pre-open samples of beers at Wild Barrel Brewing (692 Rancheros Drive, San Marcos) that I deviated from my SOP. Also, I didn’t want to be the last beer fan in the county to make it to this early success from Stone Brewing expats Bill Sysak and Bill Sobieski (editor’s note: Hernández himself is a Stone expat). The former is known as “Dr.” Bill in beer-connoisseur circles, as he was a medic in the military, and he absolutely knows good beer, but many wondered if he’d be able to brew good beer, too. My answer: probably not…but that’s what the other Bill (the one with fermentation experience at Stone as well as Anaheim’s Hoperazzi) brings to the table.
Although he’s not milling, graining in and dry-hopping, Sysak does have a major impact on brewing decisions at Wild Barrel. In his roles as beverage supervisor and beer ambassador for Stone, he always kept his finger on the pulse of beer fans, so he is familiar with current trends and has used that knowledge to develop a sound portfolio that features numerous India pale ales (IPAs) and fruited kettle sours, a coffee milk stout, and a single style for entry-level visitors, White Rabbit Belgian-style witbier. The latter is brewed with coriander and two forms of citrus, traditional curacao orange peel, and fresh Valencia orange zest. It is light in body, lively on the palate and good enough to serve as the only non-hoppy, non-sour, decaf option.
Of late, many new breweries have had to contend with shortages of popular hops such as Citra, Mosaic, and Nelson Sauvin, but this operation is well stocked, making for a family of IPAs that feel current and almost familiar. The flagship, Indie IPA, has a medium body and savory notes of garlic and onion, while the murky Shape Shifter’s combo of Nelson, Mosaic and Idaho 7 makes for a harmonious mix of tropical fruit flavors. By far the most layered (and downright badass) of the bunch is Prince of Dankness, an 8.4% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) double IPA dry-hopped with 28 pounds of Nelson and six pounds of Motueka. The result is a beer with big pine-cone and toasted popcorn kernel overtones, plus a downright sappy finish.
As lovely and varied as the IPAs were, my favorite beer of the visit may have been Hipster Latte, a 5.5% ABV milk stout made with a blend of coffee made exclusively for Wild Barrel by Rancho Bernardo-based roaster Mostra. It is bold in its roastiness—you’re abundantly aware there is coffee in there—but it is extremely balanced and especially dry for a stout with lactose. It’s particularly impressive that Sobieski put out a beer this perfect his first time producing it and makes me look forward to trying that proprietary blend at the coffee counter that will be constructed next to the tasting room’s main entrance.
Of Wild Barrel’s early beers, I found the San Diego Vice fruited Berliner weisse series — the name illustrates how to pronounce the German word “weisse” — tasted over-fruited for my palate, with the black currant iteration coming across as a tad too sweet. Still, this is a subjective knock, and a beer having too much quality local fruit, some of which is from Sobieski’s back yard, is a first-world problem entirely. Of the three Vices, a Montmorency cherry version was my favorite. The nose is rosé all day, and it tastes of cherry and strawberry preserves.
As the business’ name implies, barrel-aged sours, stouts and strong ales will be part of Wild Barrel’s makeup, but not until its oaken stock has time to mature. Even without wood- and booze-tinged product, there is plenty of high-quality beer to draw imbibers to this North County newcomer.
Twice a year, I assess the work-in-progress brewing-company-owned projects throughout San Diego County and offer my thoughts on those that appear to have the most promise. This is the first post in a series of four, broken down by geography. This time around we’ll start with the southern part of the county, which for the first time since I began this bi-annual practice, is home to the most interesting trio of under-development venues anywhere.
TapRoom Beer Company | 2000 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park: The brothers behind Pacific Beach craft-beer-bar stalwart SD TapRoom will go from procuring and slinging ales and lagers to manufacturing them once their two-story North Park brewpub is constructed. That structure will have a fully visible brewhouse as well as a wealth of outdoor seating, but what gives it its best shot at instant success is the fact Bill Batten, a veteran of AleSmith Brewing Company and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, will be in charge of beermaking operations.
Coronado Brewing Company | 535 Florence Street, Imperial Beach: As if acquiring Monkey Paw Brewing, helping its ex-head brewer launch SouthNorte Brewing and installing a kitchen at its Bay Park headquarters weren’t enough irons to have in the proverbial fire, CBC is constructing a brewpub within its half of IB’s Bikeway Village development. Proven brewing prowess and a prime location that will turn the heads of local and tourist pedestrians and bike-riders are big positives this veteran brewery operation should be able to build on.
Kairoa Brewing | 4601 Park Boulevard, University Heights: The team of New Zealanders behind Red House Pizza has taken over a neighboring building on the corner of Park and Madison Avenue and is in the process of converting it to a two-story brewpub that will serve a wide range of beer styles alongside cuisine with Kiwi appeal (think meat pies and sausage rolls) plus vegetarian and vegan fare. Though home to numerous watering holes, this will be University Heights’ first source for beer made within the neighborhood.
Winners from the 2017 edition of the Great American Beer Festival were announced earlier this morning. Held annually by brewing-industry trade organization, the Brewers Association, in Denver, Colorado, this year’s GABF saw nearly 8,000 beers entered by more than 2,000 breweries in 98 style categories. 293 were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals after being evaluated by 276 judges. GABF is the country’s largest and most prestigious professional brewing competition. San Diego County breweries have historically fared incredibly well. This year saw another strong showing with the region’s brewers racking up double-digit awards.
Eleven local brewing companies brought home 14 medals this time around, including five golds in the Robust Porter (Second Chance Beer Co.) Honey Beer (Karl Strauss Brewing Company‘s Carlsbad brewpub), Imperial India Pale Ale (Ballast Point Brewing) Other Specialty Belgian Ale (Stone Brewing World Brewing & Gardens – Liberty Station) and Session Beer (Pizza Port‘s Ocean Beach brewpub) categories. That went along with six silver medals and three bronzes.
Notable is the fact only one individual brewing facility in the county won more than one medal, Carmel Mountain Ranch’s Second Chance with a gold and a silver. Newly launched SouthNorte Brewing Company garnered a bronze medal in the Specialty Beer category for a beer called AgaveMente that hasn’t even been released to the public yet. And Monkey Paw Brewing, which Coronado acquired earlier this year, earned a silver medal in the English-style Summer Ale category. Also, Vista-based Mother Earth Brew Co. medaled in the Fresh or Wet Hop Ale category for Fresh As It Gets, a beer brewed at its Nampa, Idaho production facility.
Adding to the unofficial medal count was Belching Beaver Brewery, which for the second time in its history won top honors at the Alpha King Competition. Held in conjunction with GABF each year, this friendly competition crowns the brewing company that submits the hoppiest offering amid a stacked field of IPAs. Belching Beaver previously won Alpha King in 2014. On top of that, Chula Vista Brewery owners Timothy and Dalia Parker received the Samuel Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship, following in the footsteps of Ramona-based ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, who earned the same opportunity in 2014.
The following is a complete list of the winners from brewing facilities located within San Diego County…
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.
With 28 years under their belt, the folks at Karl Strauss Brewing Company have done a great deal: opening San Diego proper’s first post-Prohibition Era brewery, building the county’s largest network of brewpubs, contract brewing out-of-state and later bringing fermentation operations back to America’s Finest City, building venues in Orange County and Los Angeles. They could have rested on their laurels or become stagnant at any point, but founders Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner continue to look for ways to innovate and identify new revenue streams. The latest example of that is Karl Strauss’ recent establishment of its own distribution arm.
The company has been laying the framework for a distributorship for several years, but recently launched delivery of beers from its first two distributed brands, new Oceanside-based business Black Plague Brewing Company and Grantville’s four-year-old Benchmark Brewing Company. The latter’s Orange County launch took place last week, though Karl Strauss had been in talks with Benchmark for well over a year.
“We’re expanding on our on-premise, self-distribution network in San Diego and Orange County to now include a select group of local, independent breweries,” says Mark Weslar, Karl Strauss’ vice president of marketing. “Delivering our own beers on-premise has helped us develop an expertise selling to and servicing local bars and restaurants. We look forward to helping some brewery friends build their business.”
The first San Diego County brewery to go from brewing to manufacturing and distributing not only its own beers but those of fellow local brands was Stone Brewing. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner often cite that as a key moment in the company’s history, and a business move that kept Stone from going out of business. After having many doors slammed in their face by distributors unwilling to take a chance on their new, small operation, they decided to do it themselves. In opening Stone Distributing Co. in the late-nineties, they brought aboard brands such as AleSmith Brewing and Coronado Brewing, later adding brands from across the country as well as numerous international brewing companies. Today, that entity is responsible for distribution of 44 brands—that like Karl Strauss’ portfolio are all independent—throughout Southern California.
Karl Strauss has no immediate plans to bring on additional brands, but plans to be selective when they do, focusing on local and independent interests representing a partnership that would make sense for all parties involved. Says Weslar, “It’s an exciting new venture, but it’s also business as usual here at Karl Strauss with all of us maintaining our focus on making, selling and distributing great beer.”