Have a Beer with Thorn St Co-Founder Dan Carrico
The North Park brewery is going big with a public market and a cannabis-flavored beer
Dan Carrico (left) and Eric O'Connor, two of the three co-founders of Thorn St. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
Thorn St. Brewery, like so many successful business ventures, began with an initial collaboration between three friends who all shared a similar passion. In this case—you guessed it—the passion was beer, but not only beer. Co-founders Dennis O’Connor, Dan Carrico, and Eric O’Connor were also passionate about creating a business that could be a valued member of their neighborhood.
Lots of breweries talk about striving to “become part of the community,” and—to some extent—many create communities of their own. But most breweries are housed in light industrial parks where few people actually live and even fewer neighborhood-type businesses provide synergistic services. Thorn St., however, is different. From the moment it opened at Thorn and 31st in North Park, it was part of the fabric of a real residential neighborhood. This seemingly idyllic setting, however, did not come without challenges.
Sipping from a selection of tasters that included a delicious Oktoberfest Bavarian Strong Amber, and a selection of IPAs that included their Tropic Daze and Relay, I sat down with co-founder Dan Carrico to talk about what it was like in the early days, how the ambitious plans for expansion in Barrio Logan are progressing, and how they are working to get one very special and unique beer recipe approved for distribution.
First, give me the quick background on the founding of the company. It’s you and two other guys, right?
Yes. Me and Dennis O’Connor and Eric O’Connor—who are not brothers! We’ve always had a lot of people with the same name here for some reason. Right now we’ve got a lot of Scotts. Before that there were a lot of Erics.
How did the three of you get together?
Eric O’Connor has been a friend of mine since I was a kid. We lived two blocks from each other, we went to college together [UC Santa Barbara] and started homebrewing together. Eventually I expressed interest in starting a brewery, maybe adding it on to a friend’s restaurant or something, so I was looking at how to start a brewery. I came in to this location when it was Homebrews & Gardens. That was Dennis’s business, but he was going to close it down. So I just asked him what he was going to do with the place. He said he was going to get a Type 23 license and turn it into a brewery. And I said, “Gosh! Do you need a brewer? Do you need money?” And he said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So it went from Homebrews & Gardens to a brewpub in a matter of about a year. I brought Eric in to help brew and we opened on December 2 of 2012. The first day was the SoNo Festival here. We had about 8,000 people through the doors on our first day! And, because of our conditions, we could only serve 2-ounce tasters!
Did you have a particular concept in mind for the kinds of beers you wanted to do when you opened?
We wanted to stay true to our homebrewing roots. So we wanted to try everything and not be limited to certain styles. If you look at our system, it’s basically just a big homebrew system [7-barrel], with an open kettle and fermenters that actually don’t hold pressure, so we can’t carbonate in them.
You found out after you bought them that the tanks didn’t hold pressure?
Yeah. They showed up with the doors on the outside! We got a great deal on the system, but the system didn’t work very well! But we said, hey, we’ll make it work!
Sidling up to the Thorn St bar: Head Brewer Eric Shelley (right), Bartender Mary Simpson, and Brewer Scott Smith. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
Well, here you are four years later and things are obviously going well. You have a big expansion underway down in Barrio Logan, right?
That’s right. We started looking two, maybe three years ago for a spot. We wanted to be in Barrio Logan because it’s close to downtown and the rents are actually pretty reasonable. So many places down there weren’t suitable for what we needed, but we finally found a place. Dennis, who’s also got a business as the San Diego Tax Man, put together four of the biggest investors from the brewery plus one other guy and together they bought four parcels of land in Barrio. Part of it is the space that used to be the San Diego Public Market. We came up with the overall concept during our first trip to GABF, when we went to Crooked Stave, which is a great brewery. They had a brewery and tasting room, but in the same area they also had a cheese shop and a flower shop and a coffee shop and a bakery. We thought that was awesome. It’s kind of like Liberty Station's Public Market, except it’s attached to a brewery. So half of our big warehouse will house our brewery and the other half will house a public market. We’re very excited about it.
How big a tasting room are you planning down there?
749 square feet. Any more than that and it’s a change of use [different permit and zoning issues].
How far along is the project?
We are just about to get our building permit.
So, realistically, what would you say is your ETA?
I would say we should be brewing by February.
Cool. That’s very soon. How big a system are you putting in?
It’ll be a 30-barrel system with three 120-barrel fermenters and two 60-barrel fermenters. That’s going to start us off.
Sounds like you’re planning to get into packaging as well.
We’re going to have our own canning line. Overall, cans are a better package. We’re not going to do bottles.
So the plan is to be distributed into all the major retail outlets?
Yes. We were contemplating self-distribution but in the end we decided to go with a distributor. We’re working the details out right now.
Is the plan to do pretty much the same sort of lineup that you’re currently doing?
We’re definitely going to have to have more of a focus on the core beers, but that’s the beauty of having this place. We’re going to be able to brew small-batch stuff here and fill out the tasting room lineup down there.
The Terpene Beer. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
And then you have this really unique beer that you’re going to try to do more of in the future, right?
We refer to it as the Terpene Beer. It was a session IPA, 4.2% ABV, that has terpenes from cannabis in it. A company called Jetty Extracts approached us with a cannabis terpene—a terpene is basically the fingerprint for the flavor and aroma of a given plant. Limes have terpenes. Hops have terpenes. It’s kind of like what’s in the essential oil of a plant, except, with this, there’s absolutely zero THC. So we thought, okay, this could be kind of cool and different—something to play with; another spice in the spice rack, so to speak. So we tried it in different styles and it turned out that we felt the flavors worked best in a hoppy beer, which makes sense, because cannabis and hops are from the same family. And what’s really interesting is that terpenes from different strains of cannabis had very different flavors as well. It’s kind of like having a whole other family of hops to go to. We loved this beer. And we want to make more of it soon and get it out to the public. We’re hoping we can get it—or a slightly different version of it—approved by the TTB and the ABC. So, we’re working on it.
The finished product, the terpene beer that people were loving, it smells like cannabis and has the flavors as well?
It smells like cannabis, it tastes like cannabis, and those elements meld really nicely with the hops and other aspects of the beer.
Looking back over your last four years here on Thorn St., what would you say you are most proud of?
Well, we’ve really become part of the community here in North Park (it’s really south North Park!). We were the first neighborhood brewery, pretty much in all of San Diego, and part of being a community brewery is helping the community. We have fundraisers all the time here—for all the different schools in the neighborhood, for the fire department, and for the police, among others. Politicians and community leaders have mentioned us an example, saying, “Why can’t we do this in every neighborhood? They did it on Thorn St. and it’s working and nobody’s up in arms about them being there.” Being part of this community has really become a fundamental piece of our identity, and I think that has a lot to do with why we’ve been so successful.