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 May, 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.
From the Beer Writer: Some see beer as an artistic medium, while others view it as a platform for experimentation. Not surprisingly, the scientific minds at Miramar’s White Labs, the foremost manufacturer of yeast for beverage fermentation in the world, fall into the latter category. Last year, their on-site brewing team created something previously (and since) unheard of: a beer fermented using a whopping 96 different yeast strains. What could have come out tasting like a cacophony of competing characteristics tasted very nice fresh, with Belgian yeast varieties coming to the forefront with their bold, fruity, botanical attributes. Yesterday, White Labs released a version of the beer given even more complexity from extended aging in bourbon whiskey barrels. The result is Barrel-Aged Frankenstout, which features a downright lovely aroma reminiscent of dark chocolate truffles and rose petals. The chocolate carries through on the palate and is accompanied by vanilla and chicory, followed by an herbal feel in the finish. In the world of beer-based science projects, it doesn’t get much more exotic than this.
From the Scientist: “The team at White Labs was working on sequencing 96 of our yeast strains for a collaborative research project with Illumina, Synthetic Genomics and a team of scientists based in San Diego and Belgium. The goal was to understand the genetic diversity between strains (i.e., what makes WLP001 California Ale Yeast have such different flavor characteristics compared to WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast), and some of these findings were later published via the scientific journal Cell in September 2016. Since these strains needed to be propped up in order to do a full sequencing run and fill 96 spots in a multi-well plate, we used the propped-up yeast to do a fun ‘experiment’ and look at what would happen if they were all used to ferment only one beer. Our team tried a few different prototypes before landing on the final recipe for Frankenstout, as they found that the malty backbone played really well with the complex and various flavors created by 96 different strains!”—Karen Fortmann, Senior Research Scientist, White Labs
From the Brewer: “Barrel-Aged Frankenstout rested for more than one year in second-use, bourbon oak barrels. During that time, the brewing team monitored the barrels on a regular basis until we finally landed on the perfect amount of oak and bourbon traits combined with Frankenstout. We found the flavors in Frankenstout really changed over time, and it also picked up a higher alcohol-by-volume (10.1%) from the time spent in barrels. Barrel-Aged Frankenstout carries vanilla, oak qualities and mild notes of bourbon, which pair well with the more subtle phenolics of the matured base beer.”—Joe Kurowski, Brewing Manager, White Labs
Last month I visited Cameron Pryor, one of the founders of California Wild Ales. We met at the under-development all-wild brewery’s Sorrento Valley facility where I took photos of the nearly completed tasting room. At the time, it was scheduled to open in early August. When I checked back with Pryor last week, he informed me that his team had since decided to hold off on opening a tasting room until they find a new location. The new plan is to stay focused on production and reduce public access to their space to bottle pick-ups.
This is another way in which this operation—perhaps the most against-the-grain of San Diego County’s breweries currently in planning—defies convention. Other unconventional factors include the fact none of its founders have experience in the brewing industry, all of their beers will utilize wild yeast and microorganisms. Throw in no tasting room and you have a full-on anomaly for the local suds scene.
But with these oddities come some positives. Without a reliance on hops, one of the most expensive ingredients in beer-making, they don’t need to focus on securing contracts and save money. Being in Sorrento Valley, the rent is lower than other higher-profile communities. And not having employees, something that can be maintained now that there won’t be a tasting room, cuts down on overhead considerably. All of this, Pryor says, will allow him and his partners to keep prices for their beers moderate. This is important to them, as they are not fans of the expensive, $30 and $40-plus bottles of wild ales in the market.
California Wild Ales’ facility currently houses a growing stock of wine barrels as well as plastic totes filled with fruit (pineapple and guava when I visited) that gets punched down a la grapes in a winery setting. According to Pryor, this step increases fruit-to-beer infusion. He has also taken lessons from tours of Old World lambic breweries in Europe, and utilizes gravity in his production methods whenever possible.
Pryor and company utilize two 4.5% alcohol-by-volume base beers—one brewed with caramel malt, the other with a touch of rye malt—as the foundation for all of their beers. Early offerings include a dark sour with black raspberries and blueberries called Black Sour, and Salty Loquats, a gose brewed with English sea salt and its tart namesake fruit but devoid of traditional coriander. Pryor, a former chef, is experimenting with a variety of exotic salts and says they change both flavor and mouthfeel of his finished products.
California Wild Ales operates a members-only club called The Funky Bunch that provides priority access to beers in exchange for an annual fee. The company will also keg some of their beers with plans to sell them to local accounts before the end of the month.
With San Diego now home to more than a dozen hop farms, local brewers are seizing the opportunity to use freshly-picked hops in their beers for an added dose of aroma and flavor.
This year’s hop harvest started towards the end of July, with breweries Amplified, Burning Beard, and Nickel among the first to pick hops from the bine, meaning the county’s first wet hop beers of 2017 already graced taps in early August.
Leading the charge per usual is Tom Nickel, a 22-year veteran of the San Diego brewing scene. By the time September rolls around, the seven-barrel brewery he runs in Julian, Nickel Beer Co, will have churned out close to a dozen wet hop beers.
“We added a new fermenter, so we are brewing 2 wet hop beers a week for 5 straight weeks across 6 different beer styles, using 3 different yeast strains,” Nickel says. “I am pretty certain that only Sierra Nevada might have ever brewed more than 10 wet hop beers in a single harvest.”
The bar he owns in Kearny Mesa, O’Brien’s Pub, recently tapped a few wet hop beers from Nickel Beer Co and other breweries, but the real party is scheduled for September 14th-17th, when the pub hosts “San Diego Wet Hop Weekend.” The night of Thursday the 14th will likely kick off with a wet hop cask and a collection of Nickel beers, before wet hop beers from all over Southern California take over the taps for the weekend.
Below is a list of wet hop beers we are aware of. We’ll update this post when we learn of more.
– Toad the Wet Hop-it brewed with Chinook and Cascade from SD Golden Hop Farm. Tapped August 4 at the Miramar location.
– “Iron Fire Family Reunion Collaboration. Brewed in the afternoon of August 21 and 22 after picking 250# of Nugget and Crystal at Star B Buffalo Ranch and Hop Farm in west Ramona in the morning both days. 500# total picked over both days. Hopefully be driving the fresh picked hops straight to Long Beach location, in a refrigerated truck, to put straight into the beer. Wet Hop IPA’ish style fermented with 100% Brett to be brewed at Long Beach.
– “Fall Brewing Family Reunion Collaboration. Brewed in the afternoon of August 23 after picking 200# of Nugget and Crystal at Star B Buffalo Ranch and Hop Farm in west Ramona in the morning. Hopefully be driving the fresh picked hops straight to Trade Street location, in a refrigerated truck, to put straight into the beer. 5% ABV Saison with a mixed yeast (brett and saison 565), grains of paradise, local sage and local wet hops. Brother Levonian grain bill.” – Colby Chandler
– “We [Ballast Point Little Italy] brewed a Wet Hop IPA, we will name ‘Splash Zone’. It was brewed with a 50/50 split of Chinook and Cascade wet hops from Golden Hop Farm. ABV: 6.4% It will be released in all our tasting rooms on August 31st.” – Julia Cain
– Circle of Wet Hops (wet-hopped version of year-round SD Pale Ale the Circle of Hops). Star B Ranch hops. Tapped August 4.
– Fresh Hopportunity IPA with Cascade from a former brewer’s dad (5 pounds in the mash), plus Nugget and Crystal from Fallbrook’s SD Golden Hop Farm in Fallbrook (whirlpool). 6% ABV and 35-45 IBUs. On tap around the week of August 21.
– 7 lbs of Cascade in a keg of Pale Ale for the Encinitas tasting room grand opening August 12.
– Hops from SD Golden Hop Farm will be used to dry hop the brewery’s hoppy pale, Other Spaces, as well as a few casks.
– Wet hop Crystal Mess with Star B Ranch Crystal hops. Brewing week of August 14.
Golden Coast Mead:
– Star B Ranch’s Crystal hops used in a session clover mead (honey wine). On tap for Farm to Fork Week festivities (September 9-17).
– Wet-hopped New England-style IPA featuring Star B hops. Canning September 5; Release September 6.
– 5.6% ABV Pale Ale called Fresh Hop. Star B Ranch hops. Cascade and Chinook in the whirlpool; Cascade, Nugget, Crystal in the dry hop. 22 oz bottle run coming soon!
– Same Day XPA
– Lab Monkey
– Buffalo Paw Brown Ale
– Fresh Mountain Crystal IPA
– Green Truck IIPA
– My Way IPA
– Standing the Eagle IPA
– Star B Pale Ale
– Golden Nugget wet hop IPA
– Wet Hop Table Beer with Benchmark and Monkey Paw
– Hook In Mouth (wet hop Star B Chinook IPA)
– “An unnamed and uncertain Wet Hop Red Ale with hops from the new front hop yard at Star B. Eric has a lot of new varieties out there and they are looking good. Not sure exactly what we are going to brew because that will somewhat depend on what hops we end up using.
– “And we will be doing a Star B – Nickel – Burning Beard collab brew at Burning Beard in the second half of the month. Again we are waiting on the new hop yard at Star B to nail down exactly what we are doing.” – Tom Nickel
North Park Beer Co:
– “We made an IPA with 72# of Chinook and 8# of Columbus wet hops [Nopalito Farm]. We used the mash tun as a giant hopback and allowed the hot wort to steep with the wet hops at the end of boil. The beer is still fermenting [8/14] but if all goes as planned it’ll be 7.0% ABV.” – Kelsey McNair
– Plant to Pint strong pale ale with fresh Mosaic
– Raceway IPA with fresh Citra
– Wet Lamborghini IPA with fresh Mosaic
– Don Simcoeleone IPA with fresh Simcoe
– Contender pale ale with fresh Mosaic
– Riptide IPA with fresh Citra
– 135 IPA with fresh Citra
– Sea Dog Session IPA with fresh Mosaic
– Merica IPA with fresh Simcoe
– Name is yet to be decided, but this will be a collaboration with @womenscraftbeercollective. SD Golden Hop Farm hops. Likely tapped week of August 20.
– Anti-Matter IPA w/ SD Golden Hop Farm Cascade. Likely tapped week of August 21.
– Baby Buck XPA with Star B
– Starpalito IPA with Star B and Nopalito