In 2010, an entrepreneur from north of San Diego County delivered a brewpub concept to downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter. Dubbed The Beer Co., it was a spin-off operation that failed to generate much of a reputation among San Diego’s craft-beer enthusiasts. Not even a gold medal from the 2012 Great American Beer Festival for its barrel-aged strong ale, The Manhattan Project, measured so much as a ripple in local waters. Still, it soldiered on for more than half-a-decade before closing down. Now, the space that housed it is ready to birth a second brewery-restaurant brought to San Diego by nearby out-of-towners, The Bell Marker (602 East Broadway, Downtown).
That business will debut on January 22, complete with a veteran, native San Diegan brewer at the helm. That individual, Noah Regnery hails from vaunted locally-based business, Pizza Port, where he worked at the chain’s San Clemente brewpub from 2007 to 2011 and contributed to its award-winning reputation before departing to become head brewer at Hollister Brewing in Goleta, California, a post he held until 2014 when he departed the industry altogether. His return should be highly anticipated, but as with so many developments in the suddenly complicated local suds scene, it comes with some drama. The Bell Marker is the first location south of Los Angeles for LA-based Artisanal Brewers Collective, a company established by Golden Road Brewing co-founder Tony Yanow. That in itself is not all that significant, but the fact Yanow and Golden Road partner Meg Gill sold the business to macrobeer conglomerate AB InBev in September of 2015 muddies things a bit for fans of independent craft brewers as well as members of the local industry.
Since Golden Road’s sale, Yanow (a bar owner before and throughout his tenure with Golden Road) and his ABC partners have been busy gobbling up hospitality venues throughout LA. The Bell Marker is the first to possess a brewing component and Yanow’s original venues—Mohawk Bend and Tony’s Darts Away—were craft-centric venues which were ahead of their time. Figuratively, this is not unfamiliar territory for this seemingly insatiable entrepreneur, even if it is from a geographic standpoint. How it will be received from a local population which vehemently eschewed last year’s arrival of AB InBev’s 10 Barrel Brewing brewpub in the East Village remains to be seen.
The Bell Marker houses a copper-clad, 15-barrel brewhouse that will be utilized to produce American, English, German, and Belgian beers. The opening-day line-up will include a cream ale, hefeweizen, brown ale, pale ale and IPA augmented by guest beers selected to fill in any stylistic gaps. There will also be a full cocktail program to appeal to non-beer fans. The 8,000-square-foot venue can seat 212 at a time and will be open seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Shortly before the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, a Vista-based brewery announced it was closing its doors forever. Earlier in the day, SpecHops Brewing Company (an operation reviewed by West Coaster just three weeks ago) announced via social media that December 31 would be its last day in business. That post cited the company had been active since 2010, however, it wasn’t until last spring that it opened its location at 1280 Activity Drive. Though the operation aimed to pay homage to military veterans as well as public-service professionals, the web-based platform it set up for that purpose is inactive. SpecHops opened with an impressive brewhouse that will surely be coveted by current and aspiring brewery owners.
SpecHops’ departure came less than a week after another North County fermentation interest announced its farewell. Charles Perkins posted a Facebook message communicating his decision to close his Kuracali Beer & Sake Brewery. Based in San Marcos, that business opened roughly three years ago and was San Diego County’s first-ever sake producer.
Perkins started building Kuracali in 2012. It took him two years to complete the dual brewing components and he opened his doors in 2014. He says it was an enjoyable and rewarding experience serving people and turning them on to sake, but in the end, his location was off the beaten path. This led to insufficient patronage and lack of required revenue to stay in the black. When his lease expired last month and it was time to resign or vacate, he chose the latter. Perkins says he hopes to reopen at a more strategically situated location sometime in the future, but that it will require investment from an outside party. Interested parties can reach Perkins here.
SpecHops and Kuracali both closing the final week of 2017 punctuate something of a new normal. For a decade, new breweries have opened in San Diego County in increasingly large droves, but few closed. A total of eight local breweries closed last year. While most had been open for years, such as Offbeat Brewing, On The Tracks Brewery, La Jolla Brewing, The Beer Co. (which indicated it will reopen) and Magnetic Brewing, one, Wiseguy Brewing, has something in common with SpecHops. It was open less than a year before shuttering. Additionally, several are for sale, most notably Helm’s Brewing, Intergalactic Brewing and Finest Made Ales.
The traditional three-tier system of beer was born out of The Prohibition Era in these United States. The law was set up, in theory, to provide a system of checks and balances, not unlike the idea behind the three branches of government. In terms of beer, from production to consumption, the beer starts with the brewer – who sells to a wholesaler – who distributes the beer to a retailer. You, the craft beer drinking consumer, can then buy from the retailer. In California we do, however, have the designation of being a self-distribution state and, therefore, we are an exception where brewers can distribute and sell their own beer directly to retailers and consumers. Though there are opportunities for brewers to sell there wares and distribute them directly, distributors already have the relationships with retailers such as liquor stores, bottle shops, bars, and restaurants, as well as a workforce of sales reps who can make or break a brewery’s business.
It’s not as ominous as it sounds. There is a finite number of bars, with a finite number of tap handles. There is a finite number of markets, liquor stores, and bottle shops with a finite amount of shelf space. There is a finite number of consumers. However, what seems to be infinite is their selection on that finite number of taps and shelves. The infinite selection, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. In San Diego, with more than 70 operational breweries, there are few locations that have a tap system that could pour even one beer from each locale.
So then how do brands find themselves in a retail space? Of course, the quality of the beer is key. Also, if there are existing relationships among people in the industry, that too can be advantageous. If there is buzz for a new brand and people clamoring for it, that will help. Yet there exists something nefarious, a potential cancer in any beer market, which is the dreaded quid pro quo – “this for that” in Latin. In the business of beer this back-and-forth, barter, commutation, swap, trade, whatever you want to call it, can mean the beginning of the end.
According to a ChicagoBusiness.com article titled “Graft Beer” by James Ylisela and colleagues, the authors divulge that their fair city – which for our purposes can serve as a cautionary tale – has faced pay-to-play in their craft beer industry. “Independent (Craft Beer) brewers say the brand-name distributors, with deep pockets and abundant supply, often resort to pay-to-play business practices,” the report reads. “Offering cash, new tap systems, free beer and other incentives to tavern owners and retailers in exchange for taps or shelf space. Federal and state laws prevent producers and distributors from offering money, loans or anything else of value to retailers to freeze out the competition, with such exceptions as signs or ad materials under certain dollar limits. It’s also unlawful for bars to accept these gifts. For fledgling, cash-strapped brewers, the practice can force a difficult choice: dig deep into their pockets and play along by giving distributors discount beer or freebies that can be passed along to bar owners—or effectively be shut out of the taps and shelf space of the businesses that serve alcohol.” In talking to local business managers and owners, these incentives, though offered, do not outweigh reputation and are indicative of a day gone by. How has that come to be; what makes San Diego special?
I spoke to Sonny Jensen, former general manager of The Beer Co. in Downtown San Diego and current operating partner of Stumbling Steer Brewing Co. in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Pay-to-play is bad for the craft beer business. It turns craft beer into a commodity. People care about quality, local beer, and supporting local brewers. It’s crucial not to play these games.” When asked about “these games” Jensen specified: “free kegs, free shirts, and other free tchotchkes, that’s not what San Diego is about. We are about good local craft beer. Larger distributors in San Diego know not to play this game in here, at least at craft beer bars. They are, however, likely still playing those games at chain restaurants and the like. I was given pitches by these large distributors for free beer, et cetera, and I let them know that, for me, it is all about variety and new, local beers. The major concern of local craft beer bar owners, operators, and staff isn’t to get free stuff, it is to support local breweries so that they can keep making good beer. I love to buy a shirt, and wear it proudly, knowing I am supporting a local brewery.”
Nate Soroko, of Toronado San Diego, went on the record to talk about what new trends he has seen in the realm of pay-to-play. “I guess you would say there’s a sort of pay-to-play in the craft side too.” How so? “Well in a subtle way craft beer bars play. It’s a unspoken rule that you can’t get a company’s specialty keg without selling their core line of beers.” I asked Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Company, to comment on this matter. From his perspective, it is less pay-to-play, and more about good business sense. “When you have a limited beer with a limited amount of kegs, you want those kegs to go to places that have shown loyalty. This is not a shocking concept,” he said. “We have no official policy, we do things that make good business sense. You have 10 kegs, but 50 places that want them. You’re going to be smart about where you place them.”
The most important factor in San Diego for a brand to find shelf space, however, is the brand’s reputation and integrity. Reputation can mean a variety of things: quality, flavor, personality, sense of community, a name that is synonymous with beer. Integrity means having respect for San Diego’s craft beer culture and community. In San Diego one such company whose reputation is synonymous with beer is Stone Brewing Company. I asked Greg Koch if he felt that pay-to-play culture exists in San Diego. “You will always find people on both sides of the aisle when it comes to this issue. That culture still exists in spots and pockets in San Diego, but it is not pervasive.” Not pervasive? “In 1996, when we started, the culture was much more pervasive. Lots of places would lay out their desires: free shirts for staff, free glasses, and even free beer. We refused to do it. Always have. Never will,” Koch continued. Why not I wondered? If pay-to-play can get you handles and shelf space, why not play?
“This is a slippery slope. In the short term, it might get you somewhere, but it’s a lazy sales person’s sales technique. There were places in San Diego where, when Stone began, that would shake me down. One day I asked a bar owner Why? To which he responded incredulously ‘It’s you (breweries) that taught me to do this, to expect this.’ The industry practice of buying their way in, there was an influx (in 1996). If consumers think that this will result in cheap drinks and free swag, there is no such thing. Their choices become limited if decisions are made for them ahead of time. ‘Selling out’ means ‘sold out’ and ‘selling out’ rarely leads to a better situation; that’s the nature of being a ‘sell out’ in this industry.”
I asked Koch who is responsible for pay-to-play antics? Is it the producer, the distributor, the retailer, or is it even the consumer? “Everyone.” Koch replied. “Everyone is responsible. The consumer can be responsible as to what beers they buy and where they spend their money. Brewers need to be smart about who they do business with. Distributors and retailers are responsible for not engaging in, or perpetuating this.” In his video Craft Beer Profitability (www.sellingcraftbeer.com) Koch shares his thoughts on why the beer itself should be the most important factor. Koch asserts that “Beer selection makes a big impression.” Retailers should be using their “real estate” to provide consumer with actual choice of quality. Koch also touches upon why pay-to-play is bad for business when he states that “free kegs lowers profits.” How so? Essentially a retailer has said that the cost of real estate is worth $0, and that their customer only deserves, in all likelihood, access to a mediocre beer. However, craft beer drinkers are looking for quality beers, will have loyalty to establishments that serve quality beers, and will, in the end, be the people who keep the lights on, not the entity that gave a free keg.
In researching this story I found people at all tiers that said pay-to-play either does not exist, or exists only “in pockets” of San Diego. That, to me, means it is not eradicated, and therefore, could see a reemergence, especially with the industry’s growing popularity locally, nationally, and worldwide. How can this be prevented? First we can establish a formal dialogue. The San Diego Brewers Guild can put out a formal statement on the matter, for example. Moreover, they, as a unified industry voice, can engage the San Diego hospitality industry and other industries within the county to educate them on the detriments of pay-to-play.
Managing the reputation of our craft beer community is everyone’s responsibility because our craft beer reputation is, in a real way, the reputation of our city and county. Even with an exponential increase in beer production, beer quality, beer education, and beer tourism, the craft beer movement in San Diego, though a quarter century old, is still not very well known. We have our future to think about, and that future is worth a lot more than a free t-shirt, glass or keg.
Happy San Diego Beer Week eve! As of this posting, there’s 363 events on SDBW.org. I’ve picked just one event for each day – which was pretty difficult. Please note that this list is VERY SUBJECTIVE and you should choose your own adventure for SDBW 2012. However, if you were curious as what/where I’d be drinking – here you go.
Friday, November 2
Grand Unveiling of Amplified Ale Works @ California Kebab PB
Cali-Kebab’s menu is solid with fresh Mediterranean-esque food, a fine tap list and a beer garden that overlooks the ocean. After some hiccups, the in-house brewery Amplified Ale Works officially launches this day with two house drafts and a cask. Mayor Sanders will tap the cask at 6PM.
Link to this event
Saturday, November 3
San Diego Brewers Guild Festival @ The Port Pavilion, Broadway Pier
Much effort has been spent in rectifying the problems from this festival in 2011. A new and larger venue has been secured and emphasis on crowd control was made a priority after last year’s beer lines stretched far. In addition, the San Diego Brewers Guild hired paid staff to organize this year’s festival (previously, this was a volunteer-organized event). All the pieces are in place and I’m betting this is going to be the best Guild Fest yet.
Link to this event
Sunday, November 4
Firestone Walker 16th Anniversary Release Party @ Stone Brewing Co.
Into the Brew columnist and Firestone Walker brewer Sam Tierney will be at Stone’s bistro outside bar serving ~12 Firestone specialties. If you have ever dreamed of getting into professional brewing, you should talk to Sam.
Link to this event
Monday, November 5
The Five Chef Societe @ The Handlery Hotel
I’m a big fan of every event the team at Handlery puts out. For this event, five local chefs pair five Societe Brewing Co. beers with five courses. Much thought has been put into this beer pairing dinner; while the ticket price is high at $80, this won’t be a light meal in portion nor flavor.
Link to this event
Tuesday, November 6
Lost Abbey Beer Pairing Dinner w/ Tomme Arthur @ Chuchill’s Pub
I’ve got high hopes for this one because Churchill’s and Lost Abbey are bringing their A-game. Five course meal with two food and beer pairings per course.
Link to this event
Wednesday, November 7
4th Fling Frisbee Golf Tournament
3rd Fling was my favorite event of SDBW 2011. Breakfast at Morley Field’s disk golf course and followed by a shotgun tournament. Afterwards, you visit Hamilton’s where there’s nonstop food and beer. I’m not going to say any more because it’s sold out, but if you are reading this and want to go – mark your calendar for next year.
Link to this event
Honorable mention (because the above event is sold out): Big Wednesday @ Toronado
Thursday, November 8
Dogfish Head Tap Takeover @ Neighborhood
There’s going to be a few DFH beers that I really enjoy on draft, such as Midas Touch and 120 Minute. In addition, it’s been a while since I’ve been to Neighborhood. I’m looking for this day to be a “relaxed” beer day.
Link to this event
Friday, November 9
Phil’s BBQ & Beer Fest w/ Monkey Paw, Manzanita & Societe
We teamed up with Phil’s BBQ for this one. For $25, there’s 6 five ounce beer samples and 6 BBQ tasters. This is being held in Phil’s Event Center (across the parking lot of their Point Loma location). We designed this event to promote San Diego beer to newbies, and with Phil’s seating ~3,000 daily we figured we might win a few converts. Keep the taster glass and win some raffle prizes while enjoying beer from some of SD’s best new breweries.
Link to this event
Saturday, November 10
Best Damn Sour Fest 2 @ The Beer Co.
If you love sour beer, look no further. Best Damn Beer Shop and Bine and Vine Bottleshop have raided their respective reserves and assembled a mighty list of beers to be poured. Cost is $55 for ten 3-4oz pours (tickets here).
Link to this event
Sunday, November 11
The Beer Garden @ The Lodge at Torrey Pines
The official closing event of SDBW. Unlimited beer and food from San Diego’s finest chefs and brewers paired together overlooking Torrey Pines Golf Course. If you are on the fence, take a look at the lineup, below.
Link to this event
San Diego Beer Week is also very special for us at West Coaster. Our very first issue was published for SDBW 2010. I wanted to give a big THANK YOU to all of our readers, supporters and friends for helping us get here. If you haven’t already, check out our November 2012 issue.
Brewers from San Diego county won 15 medals at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. In total, 7 gold, 2 silver and 6 bronze medals were awarded. Over 4,000 entries were submitted to this year’s GABF from 666 breweries. Congratulations brewers!
Category 12 (Session Beer)
Gold: Twerp, Pizza Port Carlsbad, Carlsbad
Category 14 (Experimental Beer)
Bronze: Track 8, The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co., San Marcos
Category 16 (Indigenous Beer)
Bronze: Hot Rocks Lager, The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co., San Marcos
Category 18 (American-Belgo-Style Ale)
Gold: Le Freak, Green Flash Brewing Co., Mira Mesa
Category 19 (American-Style Sour Ale)
Silver: Red Poppy, The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co., San Marcos
Category 22 (Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer)
Gold: Manhattan Project, The Beer Co., San Diego
Category 23 (Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout)
Silver: Silva Stout, Green Flash Brewing Co., Mira Mesa
Category 52 (American-Style India Pale Ale)
Bronze: Duet, Alpine Beer Co., Alpine
Category 55 (Imperial Red Ale)
Bronze: 547 Haight, Pizza Port Carlsbad, Carlsbad
Category 70 (Belgian and French-Style Ale)
Gold: Saint’s Devotion, The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co., San Marcos
Category 72 (Belgian-Style Abbey Ale)
Gold: Tripel, Green Flash Brewing Co., Mira Mesa
Category 73 (Belgian-Style Strong Specialty Ale)
Bronze: Grand Cru, AleSmith Brewing Co., Miramar
Category 76 (Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout)
Gold: Seaside Stout, Pizza Port Solana Beach, Solana Beach
Category 78 (American-Style Stout)*
Gold: Order In The Port, Pizza Port San Clemente, San Clemente
Category 80 (Oatmeal Stout)
Gold: Oats, Pizza Port Solana Beach, Solana Beach
Category 82 ( Scotch Ale)*
Gold: Way Heavy, Pizza Port San Clemente, San Clemente
Category 83 (Old Ale or Strong Ale)
Bronze: Decadence ’10, AleSmith Brewing Co., Miramar
Best Decorated Booth (Endcap)
Stone Brewing Co.
*Not included into the total count of medals (outside of San Diego county).