The State of San Diego Beer
The story of beer in San Diego is much like that of many other cities throughout the United States. A relatively rich and thriving pre-prohibition brewing culture was crushed under the homogenization and commoditization that took place during Prohibition, during the Great Depression, and during WWII, as beer drinkers were driven towards the bland sameness that is macro-American adjunct lager. By 1953, all of the local San Diego brewers were officially closed. The beer drinkers in San Diego who were looking for something other than a Bud, a Miller, or a Coors had nowhere to turn to except the imported beers from Mexico such as Tecate, Dos Equis, Corona, Negro Modelo, and Pacifico.
Then, riding on the crest of the true craft brewing pioneers—Fritz Maytag and the Anchor Brewing Company, Jack McAuliffe and New Albion Brewery, and Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company—a vibrant brewing culture reemerged in San Diego in the early 1990s. Karl Strauss Brewing Company opened the doors of its brewpub in 1989. This was a key moment for San Diego beer. Karl Strauss offered crisp, flavorful German-style beers that were not overly aggressive, but were the perfect introductory beers for beer drinkers who were dissatisfied with the domestic and imported adjunct lagers. Callahan’s Pub and Brewery, opening in 1990, only served to increase the average San Diego beer drinker’s interest in craft beer.
By the time that Pizza Port Brewing Company opened its first location in Solana Beach in 1992, locals were primed for—and receptive to—the brewpub concept. San Diego was ready to appreciate and embrace the flavor-forward, hop-driven, complex and interesting beers that Pizza Port would produce. And then, Stone Brewing Company and Coronado Brewing Company both came onto the scene in 1996. Coronado fit nicely into the brewpub model, whereas Stone aggressively and assertively went in the opposite direction. Stone’s beers, including the infamous “Arrogant Bastard Ale” would establish a challenge to San Diego as to whether or not the County was “worthy” of beers with so much flavor.
Fast forward to today, and rate of growth and the proliferation of craft beer in San Diego is astounding, almost preposterous. In the time that it takes you to read this article, another brewery has probably opened up in San Diego. At some counts, there are 93 operating breweries in the county, with 42 more breweries in planning. It is not just the sheer number of breweries in San Diego that makes it a world-class beer city and a destination for craft beer, it is also the recognition that the breweries and the brewers here have earned. Not only do San Diego breweries routinely take home multiple awards each year at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, but among the most hardcore craft beer enthusiasts, San Diego is at the forefront of the collective mindset.
It is truly an unprecedented time to be a beer drinker in San Diego. It is certainly arguable, but not absolutely proven and true, that San Diego is the best beer city in the United States (calm down Portland, Asheville, and Grand Rapids). Take a look at the current state of San Diego beer: what makes the here and the now in San Diego such a special time and place for craft beer?
A Diverse Set of Brewers and Breweries
When it comes to beer and brewing, San Diego seemingly has got it all. From the large, regional breweries (Stone Brewing Company) to the mid-size breweries (think Alesmith Brewing Company) to the tiny (Toolbox Brewing Company, a brand new, 3 barrel operation in Vista), San Diego has a dizzying range of brewing operations.
There are so many stories to tell—too many in this article alone, but behind each of the ninety-plus breweries in San Diego there is a different narrative, a different way of brewing, and a different philosophy when it comes to beer. There are so many different voices making noise in the brewing scene: Matt Akin at Benchmark Brewing Company focuses on brewing low ABV, but incredibly flavorful session beers. Benchmark’s Table Beer and their “life-changing” Oatmeal Stout are two exemplary beers that depart from the hoppy session trend, yet remain drinkable and delicious. Then, the brewers at New English Brewing Company are brewing English-style ales, standing totally apart from anything else that other breweries in San Diego are focusing on. Green Flash Brewing Company is pushing the limits when it comes to hops with their Hops Odyssey series of beers, and Stone Brewing Company is pushing the limits when it comes to just about everything else.
In addition to the breweries, you have the brewpub brewers that are taking absolute ownership of every beer that they brew, and it shows in the level of diverse, quality beer. Devon Randall, brewer at the Solana Beach Pizza Port location, won Bronze at the World Beer Cup in 2014 in the Other Strong Beer category for her Imperial Porter, “May the Port Be With You.” Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes, the head brewer at the Ocean Beach Pizza Port location, earned recognition for the world-class beers that he is producing, taking home two Gold and a Silver medal at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival. Then, Cosimo Sorrentino at Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery won Gold last year at the Great American Beer Festival for his American Style Strong Ale, “Bonobos.” Jeff Bagby’s new brewpub project, Bagby Beer Company, is scheduled to open later this month, so naturally, Oceanside is slated to become the destination for seeking out the beers from this award winning brewer.
A Supportive Brewing Community
Brewing is a unique industry, where would-be competitor professional brewers support each other avidly. There is a notable sense of support and camaraderie when it comes to beer in San Diego. Whether a brewer is looking to borrow time, resources, ingredients, or advice from another brewer, the support is always there. The supportive San Diego brewing community is entwined with a healthy competitive atmosphere, where collectively every brewery is pushing everyone else to brew the best beer possible. When Coronado Brewing Company won recognition as World Champion Brewery and Brewmaster in the Mid-Size Brewing Company Category at the 2014 World Beer Cup, Shawn DeWitt and Ryan Brooks were some of the first to acknowledge how that award was reflective of all the breweries in San Diego.
The community finds support in the San Diego Brewers Guild. The Guild meets regularly on a quarterly basis, where Guild members share beers and share knowledge and keep everyone updated on current happenings and calls-to-action. One of the biggest Guilds nationally, the SDBG organizes events like San Diego Beer Week to promote the breweries and the beer in San Diego. With over 500 events last year, Beer Week continues to evolve and develop into one of the premier events for beer within the United States. It is a ten-day showcase for some phenomenal beer and some world-class brewers.
Not only do the professional brewers support each other, but San Diego has one of the most active and supportive homebrew communities in the country. Clubs like QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity) and the Society of Barley Engineers have been around for decades, and these clubs have served as the foundation for numerous breweries and brewing careers in San Diego. Spanning the spectrum from vulnerable breweries like Alesmith Brewing Company (Skip Virgilio and then Peter Zein) to the young and successful Rip Current Brewing (Paul Sangstar) to an upstart brewing operation like Council Brewing Company (Liz and Curtis Chism), it was the San Diego homebrew community that propeled these projects.
Then, look at the series of collaborative beers that have come out of Stone Brewing Company’s support of the homebrew community here—San Diego Session Ale with Kelsey McNair (a four time medalist for his beer, “Hop Fu!” at the National Homebrewers Conference in IPA); Mint Chocolate Imperial Stout with Ken Schmidt; and R&R Coconut IPA with Ryan Reschan and Robert Masterson. Few other cities can boast such a prolific homebrew and commercial brewing crossover.
A Receptive Beer Drinking Population
Hell, maybe it’s the weather, but folks in San Diego drink a lot of beer. There is no off-season in San Diego, so unlike cities in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and the Northeast, there are no winter months where craft beer sales slow and where people stay inside their homes. People in San Diego enjoy going out, and more and more they are going out to places that serve San Diego beer.
The restaurants in San Diego are catching on too. There are the fine establishments like Alchemy that serve some world-class food, but they back that up with an impressive list of mostly San Diego beer. Then there are spots like Waypoint Public, where the beer buyer Brian Jensen (also behind two of the best beer bottle shops in the city, Bottlecraft Beer Shop) has teamed up with former Top-Chef contestant Amanda Baumgartner to create the ideal place to enjoy a meal and a beer brewed in San Diego. Chef Amanda has even teamed up with Stone Brewing Company to brew an Apricot & Arbol Saison in part of Stone’s chef collaboration series of beers.
Beer tourism is big thing in San Diego too. Sure, there is Legoland and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, but Stone Brewing Company is Escondido was the third largest visitor destination in North County San Diego in 2013. Stone is like the Disneyland for craft beer. People are flocking to San Diego for more than just Stone, however, and across the ten largest beer events in San Diego the estimated attendance tops nearly 100,000 attendees. San Diego Beer Week alone brings more than 20,000 participants to the County for ten days of incredible beer-centric events. People plan their vacations to come to San Diego for the beer. It’s that plain and simple.
A Brand for Craft Beer
San Diego, California is becoming synonymous with craft beer. More and more, people are beginning to equate San Diego with craft beer brewing, and the breweries are both driving this association and taking advantage of it. Take a look at a few examples of how breweries self-identify. “Stone Brewing Company, North County San Diego.” “Council Brewing Company, Brewed in America’s Finest City.” “New English Brewing Company, San Diego, California.” “Mike Hess Brewing Company of San Diego.” Behind almost every beer that is produced in San Diego, there are three brands: the brewery, the beer name, and San Diego, California.
The brewers in San Diego are proud of what they have established in their city, and there is a developing connection that people are starting to make with the beer that they enjoy as being brewed in San Diego. It only makes sense that San Diego is becoming a designator of great craft beer. “Our distributor asked us to make ‘Of San Diego’ more prominent on the artwork for our cans,” says Mike Hess of Hess Brewing. “It’s that big of a deal.”
Then there is The Brew Project that takes things even further, trumpeting the use of the hashtag “#SDBeer,” and emphatically pronouncing San Diego as “America’s Craft Beer Capital.” From erecting billboards in the City, to serving virtually all San Diego brewed beer at their bar, it’s the people behind endeavors like The Brew Project that are helping to brand San Diego as the ultimate city for beer in the United States.
A Few, Very Real Concerns
Not all is perfect in San Diego. The state of San Diego beer is facing some very real concerns. First and foremost, not every brewery in San Diego is making good beer. Some should honestly not be operating. Bad beer is bad for San Diego, and bad beer is bad for craft beer overall. There as many factors—psychological, local, economic, maybe even political—for why bad breweries can remain open and operating, but as more and more breweries come onto the scene, this likely will not be the case. Something will have to give. Brewers that focus on the “quality” of their beer will make it, those that do not, will not last.
Then there is the IPA. Sure, IPAs are an insanely popular style right now, and San Diego has perhaps some of the best examples in the world (see e.g., Alpine Beer Company). The IPAs being brewed here in San Diego, now, are unlike any other beer in the world—ultra clean, super dry, and extremely hoppy: aromatic and flavorful, not bitter. My concern is with the potential over-proliferation of the style. It is nice to visit a bar that has two or three great IPAs available to choose from, but to have fifteen of the twenty taps at a bar devoted to the style is troubling as a craft beer lover. There is more to beer than IPA. San Diego brewers are brewing some world-class examples of every beer style, and limiting oneself to IPA alone stunts the growth, development, maturation, and evolution of a craft beer drinker.
Finally, there is what might be labeled as the “beer snob syndrome.” More and more, with the increasing general acceptance of craft beer in San Diego, there is little room for the “beer snob.” It is important to not simply judge a beer by its name alone. It is vital to not exclude others because of what they enjoy. It is not appropriate to substitute or equate “rare” for being “good” when it comes to beer. Luckily, the beer drinking community in San Diego is generally savvy enough to avoid beer snobbish habits that can be seen in certain other beer communities. Hopefully, this remains the case.
There you have it, the state of San Diego Beer as I sit here and see it today. It should be clear to you that I love San Diego Craft Beer—the breweries, the brewers, the tasting rooms, and the craft beer bars in this city are very special to me. In the next few weeks, months, (years?), I will hopefully have the opportunity to expound on this initial article. For now, let’s just leave things where they stand. The general state of San Diego Beer is awesome, and it is only going to be better tomorrow. Cheers to amazing beer, and if it happens to be brewed in San Diego, all the better.