Have a Beer with Ballast Point V.P. / Specialty Brewer Colby Chandler
Does the R&D team in Little Italy have the most fun brewing job in San Diego?
Colby Chandler | Photo by Bruce Glassman
I hadn’t been at the Ballast Point Little Italy location more than thirty-five seconds before Colby came up to greet me with an 8-ounce pour in hand.
“Here,” he offered, holding out the glass.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s beer,” he replied. This is Colby’s standard retort to such a question. I should have remembered that surprising people with cool brews is one of Colby’s pleasures—and half the fun of seeing him at the brewery is knowing I’ll be met with some kind of new, delicious, intriguing form of fermented beverage to try.
I put the glass to my nose and breathed deep. Hmmm. Cucumber? Really? I had never smelled that smell in a beer before….
And then, the taste; Light, crisp, refreshing, with just the right fresh, green cucumber flavor. I took my shot:
“Cucumber lager?” I asked.
“Yup. Cucumber Longfin,” he said.
And so began my sit-down with one of San Diego’s best (and most successful) beer-and-flavor innovators.
Do you have the best brewing job in all of San Diego?
Well, technically, any brewing job in San Diego is the best brewing job!
But you and your team, you get to play. That’s the basic mission here, doing research & development and so on, right?
Yes, absolutely. It all goes back to our roots at Home Brew Mart, which provided creative inspiration not only for Ballast Point, but for lots of brewers in town. That’s where a lot of brewers got their first home brew equipment or found ingredients they couldn’t find anywhere else. (That was before the whole online shopping thing was available.) And then, when we opened the Scripps Ranch production location, it freed up Home Brew Mart to do what we wanted to do, which was play a little bit.
And that was really back to one of the core values of home brewing, right? Pushing boundaries, being creative…
Yeah. A big reason people got into home brewing two decades ago was because they couldn’t find beers that were creative enough.
So, when you opened this location, Little Italy, you wanted this system to be devoted to R&D, being creative, and coming up with new flavor combinations.
The initial reason to have an R&D brewery here was to take the place of Home Brew Mart. Home Brew Mart has now transitioned more into “production draft” and not necessarily an R&D facility or a creative lab, which it had been for many years. That’s where our team came up with some pretty groundbreaking beers, from Sculpin to Even Keel to Fathom IPL. It was fun. It goes directly back to Jack (White), the owner. He was the one who gave us the creative freedom there. He allowed us to play around and to put out some beers that weren’t necessarily “product and placement” oriented. We were allowed to brew what we liked and wanted to buy instead of thinking about marketing those beers in the future.
Even the new, fun, funky beers…are they all done with an eye toward possibly developing the next huge new thing? The next Sculpin?
One of the most challenging things for us here is that we’ve done so many different styles of beers that it’s hard for us to pick which ones to brew again. So, we’ve been doing “R&D Days” where the public can vote. We’ll do employee voting, so all our employees can vote on our “Roots to Boots” (employee-brewed) beers. Sometimes it comes down to a panel. Sometimes our panel enters a beer in a contest and if it wins a medal, that puts it on a fast track. I often joke that, with the more than 200 unique recipes we’ve done since we opened, we already have enough recipes to run eight or nine breweries, just off the beers we’ve created here in Little Italy! We’re on our 82nd Roots to Boots beer, which is a program that’s open to all our employees—about 440 people at this point. I’d say at least 85% of those employees have come in and brewed on this system. That’s folks from accounting to dishwashers to regular shift brewers.
You’re obviously very proud of this program.
Yes, I think it’s not only super cool, it also shows the direction of the whole team and where we’re going. How we keep to our home brewing roots. And I think, as we grow as a company, we benefit from not only having consistent quality brews that we sell year round, but also from staying relevant enough because we’re creating new brews all the time. We put two-to-three brand new beers on every week. I mean, we’re overly relevant that way! And, like I said, we’ve done over 200 recipes and we’ve sold every drop. That says a lot about the creativity and skill of our team, and it says a lot about our ability to formulate and build recipes that work.
Are there any ingredients that stand out in your mind from the 200+ batches you’ve brewed? Ones that you were surprised by or didn’t think were going to work?
We’ve done a bunch of brews with Breiss malts, where they’ve come up with a new kind of malt and they’ve let us use it. So we’ve had the opportunity to do a little R&D with some brand-new malts that had never been used before (like a smoked malt with Mesquite). That was pretty exciting. It's cool to have those kinds of relationships. Other ingredients…well, there are so many. We’re just all over the place. We’ve been doing some fun beet beers lately. Early on, we did a smoked IPA with maple and jalapeños, which was pretty interesting. We’ve done a bunch of Saisons inspired by different cuisines, like Thai. It all comes back to the team and the brewers and the fact that we’re not afraid to try any ingredient or any beer style.
Your employees must be very stoked to be able to take part in the “Roots to Boots” program.
Having the ability to say “yes” to all our employees, making it possible for everyone to be a brewer, is great. If we ever stop growing, it would be nice to say that 100% of our employees are brewers, or have brewed professionally at one time or another. It’s cool for our employees to come in and have a concept, and brew a beer from scratch and then see everybody enjoy it at the bar. That’s a luxury you don’t get at work very often.
So you think your employees agree that Ballast Point is one of the most fun places to work and brew in San Diego?
You know, Ballast Point is making more beer, and making it better, than ever before. Our culture and our teamwork is better than ever as well, too. And all that shows through in the beer itself. Having that team behind us, having so many talented and very happy people, it’s made all the difference.