It’s the type of moniker that inspires more question marks than exclamation points: Black Plague Brewing (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside). The first time I heard about it was nearly two years ago when I first interviewed the owners of the now-open business. And over that span, the odd resonance of that name hasn’t diminished in the least. Part of it may be the fact the words are typically presented along with a spooky logo featuring an ancient, crook-beaked plague doctor, but mostly it’s the reference to the historic bubonic plague (AKA “the black death”), which wiped out between 75 and 200 million Europeans (30-60% of the continent’s entire population) from 1346 to 1353. But there’s more to a business than its handle and motif. I was sure to remind myself of that as I entered Black Plague’s tasting room for the purpose of sampling its beer and atmosphere as part of a recent brewery touring session.
Walking through the door, I bid adieu to a perfectly sunny day and took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the space. Though outfitted with skylights and a lobby bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls are painted jet black. Furniture hues range from brown to ebony and the only relief from the dim color palate is a beer board decorated with colorful, artful names and descriptions, plus rudimentary thin, white-line sketches of the plague doctor and such. It was around Halloween when I visited, but it’s clear the creep factor had little to do with that macabre holiday. And while it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, I had to hand it to the folks who handled the interior design. They took a thematic, embraced it and delivered. It’s complete and makes good on a promise set forth by the brand and its back story, even adding a touch of whimsy here and there in the process.
Fortunately, the service element does not fall in line with what one might find in the midst of a continental pandemic. The bar staff is rather friendly. My only knock was a seeming lack of knowledge or interest in the finer points of beer and brewing, but not everyone can be a nerd. They knew Black Plague’s beers enough to be helpful, and made a point to note something very cool (literally): a glycol-chilled copper strip running down the center of the bar. That amenity keeps beers cool should you be consuming a style that you’re not looking to warm for increased sensory effect. The customers, too, were in a jovial mood as they drank their beers and watched football on a screen mounted left of the beer menu. As I received my taster flight, I looked forward to falling into their frame of mind.
Prior to coming to Black Plague’s tasting room, I had sampled only one of the company’s beers, 1347 IPA. Named, as they say, for “the year of the plague,” it was hazy and juicy. Now, however, it’s no longer Northeastern in body and has far less of a fruit-juice character. If anything, it’s much drier and exhibits a grapefruit pithiness more evocative of a San Diego-style IPA. For those looking for fruit, however, there are multiple versions of this beer available, all of which have been infused with a different fruit (mango, pineapple, blood orange, grapefruit, blueberries) as well as habanero peppers. Plenty happy with the base beer, I chose the purist route, moving on to a Kölsch called Remedium that was crisp and balanced, and Nelson Pandemia, an IPA hopped with “an outbreak of Nelson hops,” that had a sharp, bitter finish that left a sticky, peppercorn-like spice in its wake.
From here it was on to more avant-garde beers, starting with ChaI.P.A. Fans of chai (which I am) are likely used to encountering this exotic-tasting adjunct in beer, but typically styles on the darker end of the spectrum. I was skeptic of how it would come across in a lighter-bodied, hoppy beer, but it was a winner. All chai in the nose and only slightly bitter, allowing the added spices to come through, it was my favorite of Black Plague’s beers. Second place went to Samoa Stout, a beer brewed with chocolate, roasted coconut, maple syrup and graham crackers to emulate the Girl Scout Cookie of the same name. Dessert-like, but not overly sweet, it comes across as dark chocolate with a supportive caramel backdrop.
While my inner-marketing professional shudders when presented with this brewery’s branding, I would happily reach for one of its beers. Though its owners lack beverage-industry experience, they have been wise enough to consult with professionals who possess just that. Their brewhouse is currently benefiting from the services of ex-AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego fermentationist Bill Batten, who specialized in traditional beer styles for more than a decade before shifting to more experimental brews at his most recent gig. He seems a perfect fit for his current digs while he waits for his next post, North Park’s TapRoom Beer Co., to be constructed. From what I tasted, he’ll leave some big boots to fill.
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.
Last month, Joe Lisica resigned from his post heading fermentation operations for Miramar-based Little Miss Brewing. He cited an amicable parting of ways with owners Greg and Jade Malkin, who brought him on as the company’s first-ever brewmaster and a partner (though goals that would have triggered part-ownership were not reached prior to Lisica leaving). The Malkins wanted to go one direction with the beers they produced, while Lisica favored an altogether different creative trajectory.
Lisica departed without a plan for his next step. He said he was actually looking forward to enjoying a little down-time after spending the past year-plus planning, hammering together and running a brand-new brewery. A life of rest and refueling must not have agreed with him, because he went back to work yesterday after being hired by Mikkeller Brewing San Diego to serve as its head brewer. Lisica worked at Green Flash Brewing Company in Mira Mesa before moving on to move up with Little Miss. Here, he will be responsible for the manufacture of many more styles than he tackled at his last place of employ, filling a beer-board 19 strong and crafting weekly new releases.
This will be the Miramar-based brewery’s second head brewer. Initially, the company—the brick-and-mortar overseas interest of Copenhagen, Denmark-based entrepreneur Mikkel Borg Bjergso—brought veteran brewer Bill Batten over from sister-company AleSmith Brewing Company to lead brewery operations. Batten resigned in March and has gone on to consult for several San Diego County brewing companies while waiting to take the reins at his eventual home, TapRoom Beer Company, which is currently being birthed in North Park by the owners of Pacific Beach bar SD TapRoom.
Back at Mikkeller San Diego, the company maintains a cult following, but appears to be struggling with the inherent difficulties of having an owner that spends the majority of his time away from the business while guiding brewery decisions from afar. In other Mikkeller San Diego news, the company has removed the anvil that was formerly a component of its logo meant to communicate its partnership with AleSmith. AleSmith owner Peter Zien says that, although he sold stocks in 2016 to give control of Mikkeller San Diego to Bjergso, he remains a partner from an artistic and financial perspective until Mikkeller San Diego’s lease expiration, at which time Zien will transition to a point where he is no longer a financial principal.
Author’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect facts presented following its initial posting.
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.
This is the last of a four-part series of posts noting some of the most promising future brewing projects currently under construction in San Diego County. So far, we’ve tackled the eastern, western and northern communities. Today, we’ll delve into the southerly portions of the county, where a great deal is going on of late.
TapRoom Beer Co., University Heights: Earlier this month, news broke that former AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer Bill Batten had signed on to help the owners of SD TapRoom bring a two-story brewpub concept to life on El Cajon Boulevard. Brewing and restaurant experience plus a shared devotion to local beer make this a project to watch. Batten plans to brew a mix of traditional and avant-garde beers.
Click here to read more about this project
Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Co., Chula Vista: This business started out borrowing beer space from Finest Made Ales before securing a three-story building in the heart of the downtown Village area. A rock-themed tasting room will have stainless steel vessels jutting up from the basement and serve beers that, leading up to this point, have been well received by local craft-beer enthusiasts, all with a view of cross-street neighbors Chula Vista Brewery.
Click here to read more about this project
Coronado Brewing Co., Imperial Beach: CBC opened Imperial Beach’s first brewery-owned venue in 2014, but it’s about to upgrade after securing one of two twin buildings at the upcoming Bikeway Village. In addition to installing a brewpub with a 10-barrel brewhouse, distilling is also in the plans. While the project is under construction, CBC will setup a temporary outdoor tasting room accessible by a rotating fleet of mobile food vendors.
Click here to read more about this project