In past years, West Coaster ran a feature covering who we thought would be the movers and shakers of the upcoming year. Now, for 2014, we’ve opened up the feature to our readers by way of an online poll that isn’t about predictions; it’s about results. The 14 in ‘14 highlights 14 different categories across San Diego Beer and our readers chose their favorites in each. The result? A snapshot of the past year in this beer-soaked county.
BEST BREWERY OF 2014
Societe Brewing Co.
Born over pints at O’Brien’s, Travis Smith and Douglas Constantiner came from very different backgrounds to create Societe Brewing Co. Smith began his professional brewing career in 2004 with an apprenticeship at Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, which developed into a full-time brewing position in 2005. In addition, he tended to the joint hopyard of Russian River & Moonlight Brewing Co. In 2009, Smith moved to The Bruery in Orange County to take on the Lead Brewer position, where he met friend and current business partner, Douglas Constantiner.
After realizing the breakneck pace of investment finance wasn’t for him, Douglas Constantiner attended the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and promptly moved to San Diego after graduation. Starting out at Pizza Port Carlsbad, he also interned at Oggi’s and worked on the bottling line at Green Flash. Later, he moved on to The Bruery, washing kegs and bottling at first, eventually taking control of the cellar and packaging operations before starting as a brewer. In that position, he befriended Travis Smith and learned how to brew professionally.
BEST BREWER OF 2014
Travis Smith, Societe Brewing Co.
In 2010, Smith moved down to pursue a head brewer position at the now-closed La Jolla Brew House, but the two friends kept in touch by meeting up at O’Brien’s. When it became known that the Brew House was not meant to be, the friendly meetups turned into business planning sessions. Societe Brewing Co. opened in 2012 with a 16,000 square foot facility and a 20 barrel brewhouse. Their offerings include West Coast, Belgian and barrel-aged. If you haven’t already, plan a trip to the well-appointed tasting room and try the Harlot, Pupil, Butcher and any specialty they have on tap to understand why readers chose Societe & Travis as the best Brewery and Brewer of 2014.
BEST HOMEBREW SHOP OF 2014
Home Brew Mart
The store that launched a thousand beers. The eldest location in the rapidly-expanding Ballast Point empire, Home Brew Mart started as a humble brewing supply outpost in 1992. Jack White, an avid homebrewer recently graduated from college, started the shop as a hobby. At the time, only one other supply store existed in the county in El Cajon, so Home Brew Mart successfully catered to San Diego’s centrally-located homebrewers. White eventually needed some help, so he put out a newspaper ad seeking employees. Yuseff Cherney stopped in responding to the ad, and was the store’s first hire (he’s now the Chief Operating Officer & Head Brewer/Distiller). Early customers include Lee Chase (Blind Lady Ale House/Automatic Brewing Co., Panama 66, Tiger!Tiger!) and Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River).
Perhaps the store’s greatest contribution to San Diego beer was the partnership forged between Chris White and Yuseff Cherney. White was a post-graduate student at University of California, San Diego and took a homebrewing class that Cherney was teaching. The two started homebrewing together, and noticed a need for fresh, pitchable yeast to replace the inconsistent dry packaged yeast that was the norm at the time. White eventually started selling vials of California Ale Yeast to Home Brew Mart. This marks the beginning of White Labs, which is now an international supplier of brewing yeast based out of San Diego. Yeast is a highly perishable and super critical ingredient in the brewing process, and by selling fresh yeast over the counter, Home Brew Mart became pivotal in the formation of San Diego beer as we know it. A 15 barrel brewhouse was added to Home Brew Mart in 1996, thus creating Ballast Point Brewing Co.
Home Brew Mart completed a 2,200 square foot expansion in 2014, adding bar and table seating along with a new 40-tap draft system. Although much more polished than its original incarnation, the store continues to foster the San Diego home brewing community, which in turn drives the growth of the professional brewing industry.
BEST BEER OF 2014
Alpine Beer Company – Nelson IPA
The greatest beer of 2014 comes from the unincorporated mountain community of Alpine on the Eastern edge of San Diego county. During a 2003 vacation in New Zealand, Pat and Val McIlhenney discovered the Nelson hop growing region. After returning home, he had the hops ordered, put together a recipe involving rye and the Nelson Sauvin hop (among others), and developed the first incarnation of Nelson.
The 7% ABV Nelson gives a citrus, floral aroma that leads to a slightly creamy taste that focuses on the tropical, resiny character of the hops. A dry finish leaves you ready for the next sip. Nelson enjoys a rare 100 out of 100 rating on RateBeer.com and an equally-rare 100% rating on BeerAdvocate.com.
Up until very recently, Nelson was only available outside of the brewery at select draft accounts and through limited bottle release. In 2014, Alpine and Green Flash Brewing Co. partnered to create a 3,000-barrel release of three Alpine beers brewed at Green Flash, with Nelson being one of them. This led to the acquisition of Alpine Beer Co. by Green Flash in November 2014; expect to see much more of this fantastic beer in 2015 and beyond.
BEST BEER NEIGHBORHOOD OF 2014
Starting out as a lemon grove in 1893, the current incarnation of North Park is the product of gentrification that began in the 1990s. Then, North Park was in a state of blight, with numerous storefronts mothballed. Residents of the area, interested in the rich heritage of their historical craftsman homes and improving the neighborhood, began working together. North Park Main Street was organized to help draw businesses to the area, and to keep them there. A small newspaper, North Park News, was launched to help residents informed about local happenings.
The result is the world class pedestrian neighborhood that is North Park in 2014. Home to craft beer-heavy bars such as Toronado and Seven Grand, the neighborhood also has four breweries: Thorn Street, Mike Hess Brewing, Poor House Brewing Co., Fall Brewing Co., and two brewery tasting rooms: Belching Beaver and Modern Times. The Homebrewer serves 92104 with brewing supplies, and restaurants such as Tiger!Tiger!, Ritual Tavern, Underbelly, Waypoint Public, and URBN serve quality food with strong draft selections to boot. Each month, the DrinkAbout bus follows a route along 30th Street, ferrying beer drinkers to and from select beer spots. For the lover of beer and food, North Park has both in quantities unparalleled in the county. Its sheer variety along with its walkability were no doubt in our readers’ minds when choosing the Best Beer Neighborhood of 2014.
Fun fact: West Coaster was founded in 2010 on 28th Street, in the same bungalow that spawned North Park News in 1992.
BEST BEERTENDER OF 2014
Nate “Islander” Soroko
A chef by trade, Nate Soroko came into the local beer scene by chance. Looking for a second job after moving to San Diego, he answered a Craigslist ad calling for help at a burger joint called the Liar’s Club in 2004. The beer scene was a much different place ten years ago; there were only a handful of places where craft beer was served, including Downtown Johnny Brown’s, Churchill’s, and Liar’s Club.
“Alpine beer was always on sale. Nobody would drink it because it was from East County, and Pliny the Younger would be on tap for weeks,” Nate recalls. He got to know the regulars at the bar, which included Lee Chase (Blind Lady Ale House/Automatic), Dennis Borlek (Fathom Bistro), Scot Blair (Hamilton’s/Small Bar/Monkey Paw), Ian Black (Toronado) and Greg Koch (Stone). Nate also took up gigs cooking at Pizza Port Carlsbad and Lost Abbey festivals; at the time, food trucks in San Diego were virtually non-existent. After working at Liar’s club for a spell, he’d go out for drinks around town, meeting people and hearing, “Oh yeah, you’re the Islander from Liar’s Club,” and his nickname was born.
After Liar’s Club closed in 2007, Nate continued cooking for various beer festivals, but took on a full-time job with the Gaslamp Marriott. In 2010, he picked up more shifts at Toronado while moonlighting at Lost Abbey and Alpine. The founders of Modern Times began meeting in Toronado to discuss their then-new brewery venture, and Nate learned quickly that it would be something he wanted to be a part of. Currently, you can find him behind the bar at Modern Times or Toronado, depending on the day.
When asked about the state of beer then versus now, he responds, “I wish people weren’t so jaded, but at the same time I’m happy to see so many beers like Sculpin on tap that were so hard to find. It’s a yin-and-yang situation that comes with the growth.” Nate continues: “The diversity has also opened up a lot. Before, it was just 40 year old white dudes and now you’re seeing all different kinds of people drinking better beer. I think it’s reflective of an industry that’s really open and accepting.”
Pizza Port Brewing Co.
Pizza Port is a collection of brewpubs that span the coastline of Southern California from San Clemente to Ocean Beach. Gina Marsaglia purchased the original Pizza Port in Solana Beach in 1987. Her brother, Vince, came out to sling pizza and surf, eventually opting to stay in Southern California working at Pizza Port instead of returning to college to pursue electrical engineering. Gina moonlighted at the original Karl Strauss location in downtown to better understand the brewpub model, and Vince started speaking with homebrewers that were regulars at Solana Beach. In 1992, after receiving an expansion loan, a brewhouse was built, and the first beer, Shark Bite Red, was created under the auspice of Solana Beach Brewing Co.
Solana Beach led way to the opening of the Carlsbad Pizza Port in 1997, and then a location in San Clemente shortly after. A bottleshop was added next to the Carlsbad location in 2008. Pizza Port Ocean Beach opened in 2010, and finally, a large, more production-oriented brewpub opened in Bressi Ranch in 2012 complete with a massive canning line. All Pizza Ports are family friendly brewery restaurants, complete with on-site brewed beer as well as beer from other ‘Ports, plus guest taps from around the world.
Their brewing team has earned prestige many times over at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. Former brewers such as Tomme Arthur (The Lost Abbey), Jeff Bagby (Bagby Beer Co.) and Yiga Miyashiro (Saint Archer) have moved on from Pizza Port to other successful ventures, and current head brewers Nacho Cervantes (Carlsbad), Devon Randall (Solana Beach), Sean Farrell (Bressi Ranch), Trevor Walls (San Clemente) and Mike Aubuchon (Carlsbad) presently lead brewing operations at their respective locations.
Each Pizza Port location is worthy of the Best Brewpub title on their own, and are considered by many to be the gold standard for a no-nonsense brewery restaurant. Combined they create a formidable family of flavor that serves San Diego-style craft to thirsty folks countywide (and beyond). Bressi Ranch produces competitively-priced six-packs of 16-ounce cans, effectively bringing Pizza Port into the hands of even more beer drinkers.
BEST TASTING ROOM
Bursting out of the mind of Jacob McKean, formerly charged with navigating Stone Brewing Company’s marketing arm, came an idea for a brewery named after a utopian colony in Long Island in 1850. After a wildly successful KickStarter campaign featuring slick branding with off-the-wall quirks, the first batch of beer was brewed mid-2013 and the world was introduced to beers such as Fortunate Islands and Lomaland in cans and on draft.
Indeed, it is Modern Times’ personality that won over our readers when selecting the Best Tasting Room of 2014. The tasting room at the “Lomaland Fermatorium” is an experience in itself; a wall of comic books stands across from a post-it note mural of late performer Michael Jackson and his pet monkey, Bubbles. Modern Times was among the first to allow for blank, non-branded growler fills, also.
In 2014, a North Park satellite tasting room (or Flavordome, in MT’s parlance) was opened on 30th Street in North Park, and created another space that was equally as whimsical (without being campy) and unique (without trying too hard). Floppy disks serve as coasters and create a mural of Yoda, while lamp shades and VHS tapes adorn the ceiling and bar, respectively.
We’ve never seen anything like Modern Times. Unique, bold, and pleasantly strange, a visit to either location is a full sensory experience that’s dripping in creative soul. The beers match the ambiance, bending and blending styles to create something special for San Diego beer drinkers.
BEST BEER RESTAURANT
Having opened a little over a year ago, beer-heavy restaurant Waypoint Public occupies a prominent location on 30th Street. Executive Chef, homebrewer, and former Top Chef contestant Amanda Baumgarten (pictured) brings a blend of classical culinary experience and a homebrewer’s eye for creativity to the kitchen. In our March 2014 issue of West Coaster, Brandon Hernández sat down with Amanda: “I’ve always brewed in restaurant kitchens. I find the close proximity to an industrial ice machine a great help,” says Baumgarten. “I love that beer is a blank canvas. The possibilities are endless when it comes to developing nuances in flavor and texture.”
Offering dishes such as cassoulet, veal osso bucco and fried green tomatoes, the menu is meant to represent the eclectic nature of California, borrowing freely from different cultures. When teamed up with partner Brian Jensen, who curates the draft and bottle selection at Waypoint (and who also owns both Bottlecraft locations), eaters are treated to world-class food and drink in the heart of North Park.
BEST BEER FESTIVAL
SD Brewers Guild Fest
The two day festival that officially launches the ten day San Diego Beer Week festivities is one of only a few official events thrown by the San Diego Brewers Guild. Taking place at the Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier, the location serves for overflow cruise ship parking when the other two piers are being used, and is open to host public events when not.
The Guild Fest is broken up into a VIP Brewer Takeover on the first Friday evening of Beer Week, and a larger San Diego Brewers Guild Festival on the following Saturday. This year, the Friday session hosted 50 breweries, while the Saturday session featured 55. Each festival allows for unlimited tasters of beers from only San Diego County. The VIP Takeover hosts various restaurants that provide unlimited small plates of food, and the Guild Festival has food available for purchase on the large outdoor space at the western end of the pier. Prices for 2014 were $75 and $35 respectively, with an option to buy a 2 day pass for $100.
Proceeds from the two-day event directly benefit the San Diego Brewers Guild, and beer drinkers from all over the world attend. In the land of seemingly perpetual beer festivals, this one stands out above the rest because of its organization, SD-only focus, and unique atmosphere.
BEST BEER BAR
Not surprisingly, this was one of our most contested categories that saw the most variety of votes. Out of all the beer bars in the “Capital of Craft,” Hamilton’s earned the most votes and here’s why: this bar has it all. An outstanding, well curated and maintained draft lineup that spans the gamut of styles alongside solid pub fare and bolstered by an insane schedule of regular & special events in a non-pretentious atmosphere. Whether you’re showing up after work for chicken wings and a pint, or talking loudly with a group of friends over a shuffleboard game on Saturday night, Hamilton’s delivers.
And this is not by mistake. Scot Blair and his wife Karen have poured their collective souls into creating this masterpiece of beer culture on what was once a quiet corner on the southern end of 30th Street. Tap lines are meticulously maintained, cleaned or replaced following the rotation of craft beers from all over. Weekly and monthly events include Firkin Friday, a weekly guest cask beer special, and Second Saturday, a monthly special showcasing established as well as up-and-coming breweries complete with complimentary food. Special events like a Padre’s excursion on a double deckered bus or Disk Golf Tournament (The Fling) are guaranteed to be a blast, as well.
From the minds behind Hamilton’s came Small Bar, then Eleven, then Monkey Paw, and soon, South Park Brewing Company. Each bar has a distinct personality and is worthy of the title, but Hammie’s was where it all started, named in honor of Herman Hamilton, a Montford Point Marine who lived next door to the bar. Although he didn’t drink, he was a frequent patron of the bar and a three decade-plus resident of South Park until his death at the age of 84 in April of 2011. A photo of Herman rests inside, above the entrance.
“I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, black, white, hipster, biker, whatever — you are welcome at our bars. Leave your social group at the door and come be a human being.” — Scot Blair, West Coaster February 2011
BEST TAP ROTATION
With 56 tap handles and more than 35-40 kegs rotating per week, it’s a full time job keeping Toronado’s beer offerings tasting fresh. “If we have a keg and it’s replacing the same style that just blew, we’ll clean the line. If there’s a new style coming on, we’ll replace the line,” says Toronado’s Eric Shelley. Both Eric and owner Ian Black are responsible for tending to the nearly 150 kegs Toronado has in both cold boxes at any given time.
They wouldn’t have it any other way. “It makes a world of difference,” says Ian. “I’d rather be in the cold box than at the bar.” Toronado uses a direct draw draft system, meaning the giant refrigerated room, known as a cold box or walk in, is located only a few feet from the tap handles. “Our lines are anywhere from two to eight feet long,” Eric states. The short draw of beer from keg to tap is important because tap lines are susceptible to contamination. Dirty lines can become gardens for bacteria, yeast and even mold. The longer the line, the greater the chance of contamination and harder the chore of cleaning or replacing. Good beer bars regularly clean their lines, while superior beer bars replace draft lines frequently.
While they are not the only beer bar in town adamant about clean, fresh beer, Toronado makes sure the selection served is appropriate. “Not all beer should be on keg. I’d prefer to have a Belgian style in a bottle than on tap,” says Ian. Toronado’s tap lineup is frequently hop-heavy, as hop aromas and flavors are the most perishable. Similar to having fresh vegetables in your fridge, hoppy beer is best enjoyed quickly and on tap. Between draft and bottle offerings, any beer enjoyed beer at Toro tastes as the brewer intended.
Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Ken Schmidt’s first batch of homebrew was in 1966 using a can of malt extract to create a Pale Ale. “Blue Ribbon Malt Extract with hop flavor was the only ingredient you could get at a grocery store,” Ken recalls. At the time, homebrewing was illegal and would remain so for another 12 years; there were no books, homebrew supply stores, or groups. “It turned out to be such a terrible beer. I didn’t try again for several years.”
An avid fisher and diver, Ken came to San Diego in 1970 to pursue a career in marine biology. “I love liquid and bubbles, so homebrewing makes sense.” Combine that with a passion for the Hawaiian Islands, and the Aloha Plenty series was born. Beers include Pele’s Breath, a spicy German wheat, and Aloha Plenty, which was the winner of Stone’s annual homebrewing competition in 2009. Winners of the competition get to team up with a professional brewer of their choice to brew along with Stone’s Mitch Steele and crew. The resulting beer is entered in the ProAm competition at the Great American Beer Festival. For Aloha Plenty, Ken chose Garrett Marrero of Maui Brewing Co. and the trio completed the Kona coffee and macadamia nut porter.
Ken won Stone’s competition again in 2012 with his Pillow Mint at the Ritz Chocolate Imperial Stout. This time, he chose Brandon Sieminski of Vista’s Iron Fist Brewing Co. as the guest professional brewer. “The Iron Fist family does a great job of getting fine beers out,” he said. Fast forward to 2014, and Ken collaborated with Brandon again, recreating Aloha Plenty and Pillow Mint at Iron Fist. Those two beers, along with a few others from his series, saw a limited bottle and draft release at a Hawaiian-themed party at Iron Fist in late September.
Bottlecraft Little Italy
Since 2010, Bottlecraft has been operating as an embassy of craft beer in Little Italy. A selection that’s 700+ beers strong is impressive, but what makes Bottlecraft stand apart is its unique liquor license which allows beers to be consumed on-site. Combine that with the clean, no-nonsense aesthetics that permeate the brand and store philosophy, and you have a space that sponsors the best elements of beer drinking.
“The best part is seeing strangers become friends over a bottle of beer. Random people will sit next to each other with their own bottles and then spark up conversations,” says Brian Jensen, the French Culinary Institute & Point Loma Nazarene graduate and owner of Bottlecraft. The hybrid tasting room / beer shop creates the perfect environment for impromptu bottle shares. Taster flights are offered daily and organized by various themes (Belgians, IPAs, East Coast vs. West Coast, etc.), and homebrew tasting and brewery-specific tastings led by members of the beer community are frequent.
In early December 2014, Bottlecraft moved from its original location to a new one, a block North. “A new landlord took over our old building and I wanted to make sure we could operate here in Little Italy indefinitely,” Jensen tells West Coaster. “This neighborhood keeps getting better,” he says, eyeing Ballast Point’s Little Italy brewpub, located catty-corner. Better indeed, as the new Bottlecraft now has a patio and 24-tap draft system to accompany the bottle sales and merchandise. “What we have now is a more custom fit space for Bottlecraft.” The Best Bottleshop of 2014 just got better.
This was our first ever reader poll feature. How’d we do? Let us know in the comments!
Meet Travis Smith, the man who rose through the ranks at Russian River, led the charge at The Bruery, and is now breathing life back into La Jolla Brew House. He’s come to rescue this well-known San Diego spot from craft beer obscurity, and West Coaster was on hand to celebrate the change in the air that was as palpable as a nose full of hops. It just keeps getting better and better for craft beer lovers in San Diego.
Greeted immediately by the man himself in the hallway, we got down to taster flight-business. We were accompanied by his wife/marketing team, Lorah, who proclaimed, “I promote him because I love him. I promote his beer because it’s amazing.” She wasn’t just saying that, either – as a blind taster in a homebrewing club years back, she unknowingly helped choose her husband’s brew as the one that would go to the competition.