Photos by the author
Satellite tasting facilities are a trend on the rise throughout San Diego County. For the most part, brewing companies located in less central communities such as North County, East County and South Bay have gone this route to expose potential customers in the City of San Diego to their wares. But that’s not always the situation. Case in point: The Confessional, a taproom recently installed by three-tiered, San Marcos-based business, Port Brewing Company/The Lost Abbey/The Hop Concept.
Sequestered within a popular Cardiff strip mall that also houses Seaside Market, Zenbu Sushi and Rimel’s Rotisserie, rather than reach out to residents of San Diego’s urban core, The Confessional will mostly serve coastal denizens, tourists and, during the summer, visitors to the San Diego County Fair seeking pre- or post-event refreshments. When they arrive, they will find a sampling space that, despite being just over 1,100 square feet in area, sports as much, if not more, of the business’ artful, abbey-inspired character than its original North County tasting room.
A large, distressed steel sign sporting the tasting room’s name hangs above more than two-dozen taps dispensing beers from this three-headed operation. Those can be savored inside, under moodily dim lighting that matches earth-toned interiors punched up by various bottle art prints from local artist Sean Dominguez. Those include paintings for Judgment Day, Deliverance and the so-racy-they-had-to-make-alterations Framboise de Amarosa (see accompanying image), the latter of which is hung above one of a handful of banquettes with wooden, pew-like seating. The main bar and barrels-turned-belly bars provide additional imbibing options, as does a small outdoor area looking out onto a courtyard lined with a green patch of eco-friendly turf while offering a distant view of the Pacific Ocean.
Merchandise and growlers also help convey the company’s brand, leaning heavily toward its Belgian-inspired component. Even some bare faux tree trunks leftover from the venue’s previous life look good and relatively on-theme. (Though they will look even better once they are lined with snaking hop bines.) Much of the reason the design is so cohesive just a week into the tasting room’s lifespan is because the company had much more time than originally planned to work on it while it cleared hurdles for permitting through the City of Encinitas’ Planning Commission and other agencies.
Originally slated to debut in August, the project faced hurdles at every turn and took well over a year to complete. However, upon opening its doors on April 20, it was immediately flooded with patrons who had eagerly awaited its arrival, so despite delays, it’s off to a healthy start.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
San Diegan brewers earned fourteen medals at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival; 5 gold medals, 3 silver medals and 6 bronze medals overall.
For this year’s competition, there were 5507 beers entered that were rated by 222 judges from 10 countries.
Category: 14 Session Beer – 94 Entries
Gold: Oatmeal Stout, Benchmark Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
Silver: Guillaume, Pizza Port Ocean Beach, Ocean Beach, CA
Bronze: Mosaic Session Ale, Karl Strauss Brewing Co. – La Jolla, La Jolla, CA
Category: 21 American-Belgo-Style Ale – 69 Entries
Bronze: Le Freak, Green Flash Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
Category: 51 International-Style Pale Ale – 88 Entries
Bronze: The Pupil, Societe Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
Category: 52 American-Style Pale Ale – 145 Entries
Gold: Grunion, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits – Scripps Ranch, San Diego, CA
Category: 55 Imperial India Pale Ale – 135 Entries
Silver: Hop 15, Port Brewing Co., San Marcos, CA
Category: 57 Imperial Red Ale – 62 Entries
Bronze: Shark Attack, Port Brewing Co., San Marcos, CA
Category: 62 Irish-Style Red Ale – 60 Entries
Silver: Piper Down, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits – Scripps Ranch, San Diego, CA
Category: 71 Belgian-Style Witbier – 65 Entries
Gold: White Ale, Saint Archer Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
Category: 76 Belgian-Style Tripel – 58 Entries
Bronze: La Flama Dorada, Pizza Port Ocean Beach, Ocean Beach, CA
Category: 78 Other Belgian-Style Ale – 26 Entries
Gold: Witty Moron, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station, San Diego, CA
Category: 81 Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout – 26 Entries
Bronze: Asphalt Jungle, Bagby Beer Co., Oceanside, CA
Category: 89 Barley Wine-Style Ale – 51 Entries
Gold: AleSmith Old Numbskull, AleSmith Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
San Diegan brewers earned fourteen medals at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival; 5 gold medals, 3 silver medals and 6 bronze medals overall.
Category 12 (Session Beer)
Gold: Beer Hunter, Pizza Port Ocean Beach, San Diego
Category 19 (American Style Sour ale)
Bronze: Red Poppy, The Lost Abbey, San Marcos
Category 51 (American-Style Strong Pale Ale)
Gold: Bonobos, Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery, San Diego
Bronze: Kung Fu Elvis, Pizza Port Ocean Beach, San Diego
Category 55 (Imperial Red Ale)
Silver: Rhino Chaser, Pizza Port Ocean Beach, San Diego
Category 60 (Irish-Style Red Ale)
Gold: Red Trolley, Karl Strauss Brewing Co., San Diego
Bronze: Ragtop Red, Rock Bottom La Jolla
Category 61 (English-Style Brown Ale)
Bronze: Longboard Brown, Rock Bottom La Jolla, La Jolla
Category 63 (American-Style Black Ale)
Silver: Black Sails, Coronado Brewing Co., Coronado
Bronze: Oxymoron, Oceanside Ale Works, Oceanside
Category 72 (Belgian-Style Abbey Ale)
Silver: Decadence 2012 Quadrupel, AleSmith Brewing Co., Miramar
Category 75 (Robust Porter)
Gold: Moonlight Porter, Rock Bottom La Jolla, La Jolla
Category 80 (Oatmeal Stout)
Bronze: Oats., Pizza Port Solana Beach, Solana Beach
Category 84 (Barley Wine-Style Ale)
Gold: Old Numbskull, AleSmith Brewing Co., Miramar
AS NUMBER OF BREWERIES EXPANDS, DISTRIBUTORS TRY TO MATCH PACE
Prohibitively expensive San Diego real estate has not deterred emerging breweries from opening, and San Diego County is on pace to break the 90-brewery mark by the end of 2013, from just north of 30 breweries five years prior. Even affluent neighborhoods can find great beer within walking distance; from Thorn St. Brewery within reach of Golden Hill, or Culture Brewing Co. in tony Solana Beach. And while breweries quickly fill the surplus of “real property” in San Diego, tap space isn’t keeping up.
“It used to be tap space in search of beer,” said Craig Broderick, proprietor of Brody’s Burgers and Beer in Jamul. “Now, it’s beer in search of tap space.”
Though 18 miles from the heart of downtown, rural Jamul has a neighborhood brewery in Cold Bore Brewing Co., who self-distributes and is a regular feature on Brody’s 23 taps. According to Broderick, Brody’s came online at the right time.
“Had I started my biz earlier, I would have been in dire need of beer,” Broderick remarked in regard to his geographical disadvantage, “but from last year to this year, it’s night and day in terms of beer availability.”
Broderick continued, noting that smaller breweries had issues getting carried by a large distributor, such as Crest Beverage or Budweiser/Anheuser-Busch, but that changed when Stone Brewing opened the distribution side of the company and started carrying smaller-batch breweries who couldn’t meet larger distributors’ quotas.
While providing a much-needed relief valve to the mega-distributor bottleneck, Chad Heath, Southern California sales director for Stone Distributing. still feels pressure to keep up with the onslaught of new local breweries.
“This amazing explosion of selection has challenged distribution a bit in keeping up with the sheer amount of products we are now able to sell,” Heath said. “There will come a point when breweries aren’t able to find distributors to distribute their beer because they are ‘full’. To date we aren’t there yet, but I feel that is inevitable and, for some of the startup brands, it would become more and more difficult to secure distribution deals.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope for emerging breweries, Heath continued. “Good beer will win out and there will always be room in a quality distributor’s portfolio for breweries producing exceptional product.”
THE GIVE AND TAKE
In a business that’s all about relationships — as distributors are prohibited from negotiating with vendors based on price — Heath maintains that the biggest challenge in those relationships is providing access to limited-release, rare beers.
“Almost all craft breweries these days are making small batch, exclusive beers,” said Heath. “They put a good demand on the wholesaler to make sure these beers get to the right accounts, on time and with the correct quantity… Stone has refined this process to a ‘T’.”
Frank Green, brand ambassador and sales manager for Port Brewing Co./The Lost Abbey, said that there is great opportunity for breweries who have in-house representatives and also partner with a larger distributor, such as Stone.
“Having (Stone) working in concert with me allows for more visits and touches on my accounts,” Green said.
“All our distributors know that our goals are to have specialty kegs for specialty events, which drive our sales and are a lot of fun to put on,” Tondro noted. “(Distributor) goals are to hit their depletion quotas. As a result, we often have conversations that revolve around ‘I’ll take a Fat Tire now if I can be guaranteed a La Folie later’ topics.
While Tondro uses New Belgium Brewing for an example, he said there are similar pushes being made by self-distributing breweries and their representatives.
“Of course, we wouldn’t take a keg of absolute crap just to secure a specialty keg, but we feel that it is reasonable to help them hit their depletions as long as they help us put on great events,” said Tondro.
One brewery that Tondro mentioned as being notably persistent and a regular feature on Urge’s tap list is Firestone Walker Brewing Co., a sentiment echoed by Broderick at Brody’s.
“Firestone is at a size where, although distributed by Crest Beverage, they’re actively pursuing full-time space,” said Broderick. “And they have reps out in Jamul who are willing to work on those relationships.”
Broderick added that, in addition to self-distributing breweries, the recent arrival of Craft Beer Guild Distributing of California gives even greater access to smaller breweries and their limited releases, which prompts the question: with distribution options increasing, who drives vendor-distributor negotiations?
“Nobody is indispensable,” said Darren Renna, general manager of the Coaster Saloon in Mission Beach. “For example, Ballast Point and Green Flash are distributed by Crest Beverage — by far the biggest player — but if you want first access to Palate Wrecker, Dorado or a new specialty product, then you are better off dealing directly with the brewery than the distributor.”
Green at The Lost Abbey sees growing popularity for distribution reps among smaller breweries, but many times that means that one person is wearing multiple hats.
“A lot of these new breweries are working without a sales rep. I know of one brewery where the brewer is literally doing everything himself,” which includes bartending, brewing, and distribution rep work. So while the distribution representative position has become more popular, sometimes this means one person wearing multiple hats; not necessarily a new hire.
According to Green, relationships work at their optimal level when vendors work with breweries and distributors in tandem. This results in win-win-win for brewery, distributor, and vendor.
“I currently work with six Stone sales reps, along with their sales manager and several others in the sales department,” Green said. “The more beer I sell for them, they benefit and, in turn, sell more beer for me and I benefit.”
As a vendor, Renna added that he gets the benefit of increased responsiveness by working with the breweries and distributors.
“The salesmen do not want to see (flagship beers pulled off tap). Five years ago, such a threat would not have gone very high up the ladder, but today I would have a regional manager calling me within hours.”
A NEW CHALLENGER
Tondro noted that the number of distributors and reps with whom he works has increased by nearly 50 percent within the last year, and much of the increase is due to new breweries that self-distribute.
Green countered that, by working exclusively with a brewery representative — and not partnering with a distribution company — the portfolio of beers available is more limited.
Despite such reservations about working with breweries exclusively, dealing directly with smaller and newer breweries becomes an increasingly viable alternative for vendors. In fact, for at least one local brewery, working directly with the brewery is the only way to get their highly sought-after beer.
“Societe is selling all the beer they can make,” said Broderick, referring to Societe Brewing Co. who, by design, only self-distributes its beer.
“It’s a privilege for me to be able to get it, as opposed to a bigger brewer who is just battling for tap space and only now realizing how valuable it is.”
For Broderick, the privilege is such that he drives to Societe to pick up the kegs himself.
“They said they’d love to sell us beer, but they couldn’t drive out to Jamul to get it to us. I said, ‘No problem, I’ll pick it up,’” and even then, Broderick is only able to pick up what beers Societe has available, but even expending this much time and effort can outweigh the indignity of dealing with hard-driving sales representatives.
“It’s such valuable space and there is so much beer to fill that space, how are you going to put on a mediocre beer by a brewery just for the chance, the lottery, or opportunity to get a select beer later?” Broderick mused.
“It’s an unrealistic goal for me to get (Russian River Brewing’s) Pliny the Elder. It’s been made clear to me by their distributor. But now it’s not an issue because there are more beers that can match Pliny. No disrespect to Pliny; it used to be the lead dog, but the rest of the pack has come up.”