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Have a Beer with San Diego Brewers Guild President Jill Davidson

Why she loves San Diego, the beer business, and spreading the word about craft beer


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Jill Davidson, president of the San Diego Brewers Guid. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

It seems to be the fate of every San Diego Brewers Guild president: No matter who you take the reins from, you’ve got a much bigger (and a much tougher) job to do than the person who came before you.

The basic mission of the Guild is to educate others and increase awareness of San Diego’s great craft beer scene. As part of that mission, the Guild sponsors major beer events throughout the year, works with other businesses and tourism-related agencies to promote our breweries, and also provides guidance and support (legal, logistical, and moral) for all its members.

Jill Davidson has been around San Diego's craft beer for some time now, but—even though she’s been well aware of the county’s phenomenal brewery growth—the responsibilities of heading up the Brewers Guild came a little sooner than she had originally expected. When the previous president, Mike Sardina, moved out of state, Jill (who was V.P.) was called to step up. And step up she did.

I sat down with Jill at Pizza Port Bressi Ranch—her home base—and, in between sips of juicy Muchefe Session IPA and some rich and creamy Lil’ Pick Me Up Imperial Stout with Coffee, I asked her about her craft beer education, how she’s handling the enormous task of helming the third-largest brewers guild in the country, and what she hopes to accomplish during her tenure.

How did you first get into craft beer?

I grew up in upstate New York and started working in restaurants when I was fifteen. I decided I wanted to go to the University of Delaware for Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management, which is what I did. While I was there, the first restaurant I walked into to get a job was a brewpub called Iron Hill Brewing & Restaurant. It was on campus at University of Delaware and it had a brew system and a full bar. So, from the time I was eighteen, I was trained to know everything about their beer. It was great! It was such an intoxicating (no pun intended!) experience. There was this awesome product, and it was made right there by my friends, and people came in and got to drink it and have a little piece of us.

When did you come out west?

I worked at Iron Hill for four years and then moved to San Diego, where—ten years ago— there weren’t all that many beer jobs. The first place I actually applied to work was Karl Strauss downtown—I applied to be a waitress—and they didn’t call me for a year. I think they wanted me to get some local experience first. I still bust on Matt Rattner and Chris Cramer to no end about it!

And so where did you wind up?

I worked in various restaurants and bars—I worked at an Irish bar in Ocean Beach that was one of the original Alpine accounts, so I was definitely in touch with craft beer during the first few years I was out here, despite not having a job directly for a brewery. And then Pizza Port announced that they were opening up in Ocean Beach. I was like, “Ahhhhh!!!”

So you started working at Pizza Port OB?

I started bartending. And it was great. I loved being able to sell all the awesome local beer. Pizza Port has always been such a pivotal part of the local scene, so it was exciting. And we were continually getting guest beer from all the other breweries as they were popping up and that was just so exciting as well.

So it was Jeff Bagby that hired you?

He was the director of brewery operations at the time. He was responsible for staffing all the bars and overseeing all the bar managers. It was a great place to work. Coming from the beer world back East, it felt like coming home. And it’s incredible to think about how much has changed for Pizza Port just in the last seven years.

And now you’re Pizza Port’s Western regional sales manager.

Yeah. Historically, the only way to get our beer was to get in touch with one of our brewers who would then either keg the beer off or would have an assistant do it, deliver it, and then draft an invoice on a paper plate or something. That was kind of how it happened. When we finally got into distribution, it was clear that someone had to take care of the accounts. Starting out, it was just me, and now I have three people working with me. And I just posted for a fourth.

So things are growing?

Things are growing! Bressi opened in 2013, our first batch of beer was in September that year. We’ll do about 33,000 barrels this year, and plan to have the capacity to do about 50,000 barrels next year, which just shows you how exponential the growth in this business has been.   

Speaking of growth, let’s talk about your role as president of the Brewers Guild. What got you interested in taking on this job in the first place?

Well, Gina [Marsaglia, Pizza Port co-founder] had been on the board, and we had always been active and participated in all the Guild events. Mike Sardina reached out to me a little over a year ago and explained that there were a bunch of director seats opening up on the board and he thought it would be a great fit for me. He said together he believed we could do some really great things and we could help San Diego beer achieve great things. My initial response was, “That’s so scary! And intimidating! And amazing!” For me, looking at something that has grown as fast as San Diego beer has—twenty breweries a year is the rate we’re at right now—I felt it was important that one of the founding breweries should stay represented on the board. Especially because of all the work that Vince [Marsaglia, Pizza Port co-founder] and Gina had put into the Guild to develop the community that we have now. So I wanted to continue that and I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to help elevate San Diego beer as a whole.

Initially you signed on as vice president.

Right. The idea is that you’re elected into the vice presidency, which—after a year—then transitions into president for the following year.

It’s a much bigger job now than it was five or six years ago.

Yeah! There’s a lot going on. The San Diego Brewers Guild is the third-largest guild in the country. At last count we have 103 brewer members, with membership at large at 351. So it’s huge, and our ability to educate is so widespread now, which is exciting.

“We’re back up to almost 4,200 breweries in the country, which is where we were pre-Prohibition. That’s the largest total number of breweries in our history.”

Have you thought about what your top three priorities are? The things you most want to accomplish as president?

The San Diego Brewers Guild is turning twenty next year, and our original mission was to create awareness through education and events, so I would say—to that— “Mission Accomplished!” I think people are aware! And people are more excited than ever to drink local—even hyper-local, which is becoming a movement. So, for me, the number-one thing is to re-evaluate our mission statement, which still holds true but the same words almost have a different meaning now than they did twenty years ago. I’d also like to work on increasing education opportunities for our members, figuring out a way to remind them why the Brewers Guild is important and why it’s so critical that the whole San Diego beer community work together, collectively. A third priority is to continue developing our relationships with the Tourism Authority, the Tourism & Marketing District, as well as the Hotels/Motels Association and Cal Lodging Association. It’s awesome to be recognized as a community whose economic importance to San Diego is at an all-time high, and to have our members be recognized for that on a national and international scale is also pretty amazing.

Back when there were only 30 or 40 breweries in town, there was a very tangible sense of comradery. The brewers felt like a very tight-knit group. Do you think with all the growth that the dynamic of the brewing community has changed?

I think it’s going through a phase that everything in life goes through. I’ve reflected a lot on this in the last few months, with all the changes that have taken place in San Diego and in beer at large. I mean, beer is an ancient craft that has always been at the center of community, and that’s so important to keep alive. And I think that’s a huge responsibility of the Guild, to remind everybody of why we’re here and why we do what we do. Now, the challenge—just like any time there’s explosive growth with anything—is the sustainability of it, and that comes from support. And it comes from reminding everybody why it’s important.

So, here’s the question you probably get all the time, but it has to be asked: How many breweries is too many? Are we getting close to saturation?

This is also something I’ve thought a lot about over the year (and I’d like to go back and listen to my answers from nine months ago!) but I think it’s all based on the scale of your dreams. I mean, are you trying to come into this as a new brewer and you want to become a national brand? What’s happening in San Diego is happening in a lot of other cities across the country. We’re back up to almost 4,200 breweries in the country, which is where we were pre-Prohibition. That’s the largest total number of breweries in our history—we’re about to hit that number—and there are still 1,000 major cities that don’t have a single brewery within their city limits, which is crazy to me. So, if you are concentrating on being small and selling all of your beer over your bar, and you’re doing everything else right that a neighborhood brewery should be doing, you’re going to be fine. It’s the room for error that’s shrinking right now. Where you used to have room to make one or two or three maybe not-so-great decisions, that doesn’t exist anymore. Today, one bad decision could mean the end. That’s the challenging part. Just remember, it’s okay to stay small!

That being said, what do you say to folks who still dream of opening a new brewery here?

Well, you need to remain humble and ask for help when you need it, and seek feedback from the right people about the right things, and you’ll be successful. San Diego is a great place because there is so much opportunity for the new brewers, and the general population is so accepting and encouraging of the craft beer industry here. That’s just a special and magical thing.

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