This is the third in a series of four posts taking a look at some of the most promising brewing venues currently in the works around San Diego County. The first two examined spots in the eastern and western communities. Today, we switch our attention to North County and the Hops Highway.
Wild Barrel Brewing Co., San Marcos: Two ex-Stone Brewing employees are teaming up to produce a wide variety of beers steps from Stone’s original brewery (now home to Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey). Renowned beer-expect Bill Sysak is leading the charge while Bill Sobieski (formerly of Anaheim’s Hoparazzi) will do the brewing using a brewhouse procured from El Cajon’s since-closed URBN St. Brewing Co.
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Horus Aged Ales, Oceanside: Creating a portfolio made up exclusively of barrel-aged beers is no easy feat, but it’s one Kyle Harrop is eager to attempt. And he’ll do it with a little help from his friends, namely brewers from all over the country, including local interests such as Abnormal Beer Co., Rip Current Brewing and fellow North County work-in-progress White Fence Brewing. This is a boutique brewery if there’s ever been one.
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Ebullition Brew Works, Vista: While information on the beers that this long-time work-in-progress will debut are hard to come by, details uncovered about the environment they’ll be consumed within are promising. A stylish tasting room with plenty of bar space and a special beer-delivery system in which glasses are placed onto pop-up taps and filled from the bottom up will provide a pretty cool differentiator that doesn’t exist in any brewery in the county.
Last year, Groundswell Brewing Company took large, highly visible steps toward increasing the size and scope of its operations by purchasing the 12,000-square-foot brewing and distilling facility vacated by defunct Santee business, Twisted Manzanita Ales and Spirits. This move came shortly after Groundswell brought on veteran brewer Callaway Ryan (Surly Brewing, Stone Brewing, URBN St. Brewing) to shore up its fermentation operations. With him on-board, ownership felt comfortable taking this step forward. After months of work transforming its new environs, Groundswell is ready to debut its Santee tasting room to the public at a grand-opening event taking place Sunday, February 12.
A few pieces of décor remain to be placed in the facility’s public-area, but on the brewing-side, company president Kevin Rhodes says his team is hitting their stride, brewing roughly every other day after cleaning out and modernizing the space to fit their needs. Ryan has overseen the transition from the company’s original, much smaller location in Grantville. Groundswell has also brought on additional talent in the form of ex-Toolbox Brewing Company brewer Brent Donovan, who will be charged with implementing programs for sour and barrel-aged beers.
Groundswell plans to hold on to its Grantville venue, converting the brewery into storage space while reconfiguring the tasting room so that it includes additional seating. Tickets to the opening event for the Santee tasting room will go on sale online, tomorrow at 6 a.m.. That venue is located at 10151 Prospect Avenue and the event will take place from 12 to 8:30 p.m. That tasting room’s regular hours are 1 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.
For years, I’ve named the most promising work-in-progress brewing companies on a bi-annual basis. The scene is always changing and new projects are always coming onboard, requiring a twice-per-year check-in. Earlier this month, I examined the most intriguing new breweries being chiseled into reality in the north and south regions of San Diego County. In this third of a three-part series, I’m taking a look at new venues being opened by existing local brewing operations.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Santee: Karl Strauss is San Diego’s longest-running post-Prohibition brewing interest and the reigning Champion Medium-Sized Brewing Company after big wins at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. Those wins came courtesy this 27-year-old stalwart exhibiting greater innovation than at any time in its history, extending to the magnificent design of its recently opened Anaheim brewpub. It figures this train of high-quality will keep chugging along when Karl’s crew comes to Santee to build its biggest project to-date, an expansive facility at Town Center Parkway and Cuyamaca Street that will serve as its new headquarters. Like many East County brewery-owned projects, it’s faced more than its fair share of governmental and public scrutiny, but is still high on Karl Strauss’ project list if not a bit far off, time-wise.
Mason Ale Works, San Marcos: The Urge Gastropub chain will add another link next year when Urge Common House opens as one of the anchor businesses of San Marcos’ upcoming North City development. Designed to appeal to nearly every demographic with a full-scale restaurant, multiple bars, bowling lanes and bocce ball courts, it will also include a second brewery for the business’ brewing arm, Mason Ale Works. That brand has done well since debuting its beers early this year, creating the need for increased brewing capacity to support distribution demand.
San Diego Brewing Company, North Park: It only took this business 23 years to grow out of its Grantville brewpub. The vehicle for them to do so is H.G. Fenton‘s Brewery Igniter model, wherein business owners takeover ready-to-brew combo breweries and tasting rooms, installing their own concept. It will be interesting to see what the SDBC team does with increased production from an independent 10-barrel system and extra cellar capacity and how their beers fare on the open market, now that they will be distributed versus exclusively available at the original location.
Groundswell Brewing Company, Santee: Due to the small size of the brewing system and cellar at its Grantville brewery, Groundswell explored contract-brewing options, having some of its beers brewed for them by Twisted Manzanita Ales. The latter business folded in March, putting its combo brewery, distillery and tasting room up for sale. Bolstered by increased beer-quality from a new brewmaster, Groundswell’s going all-in, snatching up that East County real-estate for its own use…and even making plans to begin distilling in the not-too-distant future.
Thorn St. Brewery, Barrio Logan: Many have touted the rebirth of Barrio Logan for years, and it has far more to offer than it did when it was less hospitable and, in many peoples’ eyes, a dangerous place to found one’s self after dark. With each new business that takes a chance on the neighborhood, the better it gets. Two breweries (Border X Brewing and Iron Fist Brewing) have done that, but Thorn St. will be the first to bring in brewing equipment with a small system that will service its tasting room and retail operation.
Other Exciting Projects
Barrel Harbor Brewing Company, Miramar: The owner of this Vista-based brewery is teaming with a Miramar gaming spot to open the first-ever brewery tasting room with table-top/role-playing amenities.
Bear Roots Brewing Company, TBA: It remains to be seen how this breakaway hit nano-brewery will expand, but with quality beers and two viable plans, it will be a storyline worth following.
Kilowatt Beer Co., Ocean Beach: OB has two brewpubs and four tasting-rooms, but there’s room for this Kearny Mesa’s western satellite, which will be black-lit, artistic and wholly original.
Entrepreneurs looking to get some only-slightly-used brewery equipment are advised to contact the URBN Restaurant Group. The company has ceased brewing operations at its El Cajon brewpub, URBN St. Brewing Co., with no intentions to resume. That means everything from its 15-barrel brewhouse to its fermentation vessels and other appurtenant apparatuses are up for sale.
The decision to shut down was not made based on beer quality. Brewmaster Callaway Ryan and assistant brewer Ben Accord made good beer—URBN St. Saison was exceptional enough to earn a medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. It was an inevitable business decision following a lack of proper calculation when URBN decided to get into the brewing business by taking over the former site of the El Cajon Brewing Company back in 2014.
According to URBN Restaurant Group representatives, a primary investor was not aware how capital-intensive it would be to open a brewery. Because of this, the brewery opened lacking adequate funding. Selling beer became problematic because the beer could not be sold at a price that would sustain the operation. Eventually the decision was made to cut losses and stop funding the part of the operation that was losing money.
I am as guilty as anybody who truly loves to write. Being fans of language and constantly in search of the most interesting way to communicate something (regardless of how verbose…sorry faithful reader), I’ve been known to go on and on about the aesthetics of a venue, subjecting those who consume my prose to paragraph upon paragraph of adjectives, quips and word-play that, in my case, usually comes in the form of puns and alliteration. All of this eventually leads to the all-important question: But how does it taste? It’s true, I can talk about how a brewery or restaurant looks and feels until I’m blue in the tips of my keyboard-striking fingers, but what you’re mostly here for is to find out how good (or otherwise) the beer and food being served at these places is. The last time I was at recently opened The Brew Project (3683 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest), all I talked about was the suped-up house structure the business occupies. This time around, we’ll focus on the bar-and-restaurant’s food, drink and promise to provide “a San Diego brewery tour under one roof.”
Let’s tackle that last one first. In all my time writing about San Diego beer, something that means far more to me than it probably should (it’s a legitimate obsession), I doubt I’ve come across anyone who is not in the beer industry but cares as much about every brewery in our county as much as Beau Schmitt. Two years ago, Schmitt founded The SD Beer Project, a bar offering 31 taps, all outfitted with beers from different San Diego breweries. And we’re not talking the ubiquitous Sculpin, Arrogant Bastard, Speedway Stout and West Coast IPA. Far from it. Schmitt reveled in showcasing one-offs, rare styles and hybrids from the tiniest of nanobreweries and furthest flung of the no-namers. He was such a champion for these operations that he would often email me to tell me when a brewery I’d panned in my reviews seemed to have improve so I could come check them out at his place or pay that business another visit. Now that’s devotion unlike any I’ve seen from anyone trying to make money in the bar business.
That business has since closed, but Schmitt has moved on to create the beer program for the Gaslamp Quarter’s Quad Ale House and, now, this full-on eatery version of his previous concept, where he is once again spotlighting as many local breweries as possible. But is drinking there really like taking a tour of the county’s ale- and lager-makers? That’s a tall order. The answer is yes. I showed up on a random night and there were beers from all four corners of the county—Kali Kush sagebrush pale ale from Oceanside’s Breakwater Brewing, Archives 1933 Milk Stout (nitro) from ChuckAlek Independent Brewers in Ramona, a pair of lagers from Coronado Brewing Company and a coffee-studded version of East Coast brewpub URBN St. Brewing’s Mazagran Triple Brown. Plenty of other breweries, most small- and medium-sized interests, provided infill covering San Marcos, Vista, Poway, Scripps Ranch, Miramar, Kearny Mesa, Grantville, North Park and more. What was missing were beers from Stone Brewing Co., Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits and Saint Archer Brewery that one can order nearly anywhere. The Brew Project sums up what a brewery tour in San Diego is really all about these days—finding something new to love, not going back to the same old thing (though there’s nothing wrong with that).
And it would seem that Schmitt’s brewery-touring adventures end much like mine do…with food that is decadent, filling and leans toward the realms of slow-cooked meat and SoCal-style Mexican influence. Read: carne asada fries. I’m more of a nachos-with-everything guy, but crispy potatoes are more than fine. The Brew Project’s iteration of this classic, sinful San Diego dish is gussied up visually, but my favorite part about it was the quickly browning guacamole. That seems an odd compliment, but I knew that creamy and delicious condiment was real and free of preservatives, something you can’t always count on, especially when you opt to get your guac’ outside of a taco shop. TBP’s carne asada is cut small but potent in its saltiness and a salsa made from grilled tomatoes adds nice zest. Mac’ and cheese, a staple of any hip resto these days, is not only nice, but thanks to a four-dollar addition of chorizo and roasted pasilla chilies, different from the versions being served all over town. My only knock was that it could use some salt. And if you’re looking for the imperial stout version of a sandwich, look no further than the Havana, which is packed with tender, shredded, slow-roasted pork, Applewood-smoked bacon and Swiss. This take on a Cuban sandwich trades in the classic pickled cucumbers for pickled zucchini. I was skeptic, but they are tangy and more substantial than cukes. I think I might even prefer them.
So, plenty of local beer—better yet, local beers that are more obscure—an abundance of food that is of good quality and plentitude, and a cozy, domesticated spot to enjoy them both. This project is a success in this writer’s book.