100 Weeks of Beer: Thoughts on the San Diego Brewery World
Bruce Glassman looks back on 100 blog posts about San Diego beer and the people who make it
San Diego beer | Photos by Bruce Glassman
As of last week, I’ve posted 100 pieces about San Diego beer right here on this site. That’s a lot of stories. Despite the volume, every profile or interview I do somehow manages to be unique in its own way. Looking back over this time—two years—I also realize that, despite the uniqueness, there’s an awful lot of commonality binding these stories together. After all, 100 posts (and nearly 10 years of covering San Diego beer in print) does give one some perspective. Here’s some of what I see from here:
Brewing in San Diego is a dream. By that, I mean most brewers I meet—especially the new ones—have sacrificed a great deal to make their pro brewing dreams come true. I’d say the majority of these dreamers are family teams; they’re husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters who have decided to go all in—to mortgage a house or liquidate retirement savings—in order to make their brewery happen. Their level of sacrifice and commitment is palpable as soon you enter their tasting rooms and it’s always inspiring. No matter how many breweries I cover, I’m always in awe of the hard work and passion that goes into opening a new brewery.
Brewing in San Diego is also a dream because it’s truly like being in the Super Bowl of beer. The game in this town is played at the highest levels, and the demands for quality, consistency, and innovation are constant and unyielding. Every new brewer who opens his or her doors is keenly aware of the level of competition they will face. One upside of that pressure for quality is that our breweries thrive in an environment where many beer drinkers have developed sophisticated and experienced palates and are highly knowledgeable consumers. They keep the brewers on their game. These beer fans are also—by and large—well behaved, respectful, and thoughtful. They support innovation—heck, they require it—and they appreciate the “out of the box” recipes and combinations that brewers try as they search for the next great idea.
Brewing in San Diego is also a dream because it’s truly like being in the Super Bowl of beer.
San Diego is a great support network. Brewers are, by nature, a collaborative bunch. Go to any tasting room in the county and you’ll likely find at least one beer that was a collaboration between that brewery and another from San Diego, or California, or even another country. That spirit of collaboration also extends to the day-to-day functioning of the brewing community. Back in the day, when there were 30 or 40 or even 60 breweries in town, the common trope was about how the brewers were so supportive of each other, how the back-biting competition of most other industries seemed to not affect them, and how all brewers realized that a win for one San Diego brewery is a win for all San Diego breweries.
Today, with more than 140 breweries, I can’t say the feeling of camaraderie is exactly the same, but it is certainly still visible. The sheer size and number of breweries make it impossible for the entire community to be as tight-knit as they once were, but each region of the county has seemed to organize itself into a smaller, more close-knit group. I’ve noticed that the brewers in Vista are especially tight with each other. So are a lot of the brewers in Miramar.
The feeling of support also goes beyond a sense of camaraderie, it extends to actual operating challenges. The great number of breweries in San Diego (in addition to the presence of one of the world’s largest yeast companies) means that there’s virtually no problem that doesn’t have a solution fairly nearby. Out of hops? Call one of your neighbors and borrow some. Not sure why your yeast did what it did? Stop by White Labs. Need more barrels for an upcoming project? Chances are somebody’s got a few you can have. These are benefits that only come from being part of a dynamic and energized community; you can’t enjoy this type of support if you’re homebrewing in your garage in Riverside.
Brewers are in the happiness business. Sure, running your own place is a lot of pressure, but most brewers seem to appreciate that they produce products that make people happy. Beer is, by its very nature, a festive and social thing. It brings people together, it fosters conversation and fun, and it tastes great to boot! No matter where you go, you’ll find that the single greatest pleasure a brewer takes is in sharing his or her batch with an appreciative public. Most will tell you that seeing people enjoy their creations makes all the cleaning and lifting and sweating worthwhile.
Since this column began, I’ve seen about 50 new breweries open. Since I started covering San Diego beer, I’ve seen more than 100 breweries open. Every new brewery is unique—each has its own personal approach to brewing, to marketing, to design—but nearly all start with the same anxious trepidation and uncertainty. It’s as if each new brewer coming onto the scene is plagued by the question, “Will my brewery be the one that doesn’t make it?” “Is my brewery going to be the one that finally pushes San Diego to saturation?” So far, that hasn’t happened. Yes, there have been closings, but most of those were well-established businesses that struggled for a wide variety of reasons.
Meanwhile, it’s been tremendously exciting to see brewers from places like Mother Earth, Mission, Societe, Council, Bitter Brothers, Second Chance, Benchmark, and Culture (among many others)—all of who initially had that frightened look in their eyes and who now bask in the limelight as established and beloved brands. I don’t take any personal credit for their success, but I do feel a personal sense of pride and satisfaction in seeing them succeed. It’s kind of like watching your best friend’s kids grow up and go to college: They’re not your kids, but you still cry at their graduation ceremonies.
More than anything else, these past 100 weeks have filled me with a sense of gratitude for being able to chronicle the evolution and growth of an industry that rivals any city in the world. It's a privilege to watch our brewers launch, brew, and succeed—and even though not all will thrive forever— it’s a privilege to witness the uniquely creative, productive, and multi-faceted world of San Diego brewing.