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San Diego Wins Big at Del Mar’s International Beer Festival

Local breweries take home an impressive number of medals


The floor of the San Diego International Beer Festival. | Photo by Bruce Glassman

I like to crow a lot about the greatness of San Diego craft beer, so it's especially nice when well-respected beer authorities from around the world concur that San Diego beer is awesome. The unbiased affirmations from judges at competitions both national and international prove over and over again just how good we are. And all that praise and recognition means that I can legitimately crow (which is much better than eating crow).

This week, I’m crowing over our impressive showing at the San Diego International Beer Festival, which takes place during the Del Mar Fair each year. Now in its tenth year, the festival invites breweries from all over the world to enter their beers and be judged in more than 144 categories. For the 2016 competition, 254 breweries competed, representing 28 states and 15 countries.

Local craft beer cheerleader Tom Nickel has been organizing the festival since its inception and now shares most of the major duties with Tyson Blake. Tom and Tyson have worked together for many years at O’Brien’s Pub (which Tom owns and Tyson manages) and both have been integral and influential members of the beer community for a long while.

Festival organizers Tyson Blake (left) and Tom Nickel. | Photo by Bruce Glassman

Tom recalls that, during its first year, the festival had roughly 200 entries, which he considered to be a major victory. Using the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) guidelines, Tom and his group of experts judged about 20 different categories in 2006. “This year,” Tom says, “we judged just over 1,350 beers in 48 beer categories, and 6 mead-and-cider categories. So we’ve had huge growth. We’re up 35% just over last year.”

Through the years, there have been a couple of what Tom calls “cataclysmic jumps” in the festival’s growth and attendance. One jump was a couple of years ago, when brewery numbers skyrocketed in San Diego. Total entries jumped from about 500 beers to about 800. A few years of slower steady growth followed, but then this year total entries jumped from just under 1,000 (last year) to 1,350.

Even as the festival has expanded—and even as the number of categories has increased and the number of medals being awarded has grown—San Diego has consistently taken a large percentage of the medals being awarded. “To me that’s super impressive,” Tom says, “as we’ve moved from 500 entries to nearly 1,500, San Diego brewers are still taking about the same percentage of medals. The fact that it hasn’t declined at all is amazing.”

Tom and Tyson also see San Diego beers taking medals in categories that would traditionally be dominated by European breweries. In the German category, for example, roughly 25% percent of the entries are from Germany, and in the Belgian category often 40% are Belgian breweries. “To win a medal in one of those categories is beyond impressive,” says Tom.  In the Belgian Sour Ale category, for example, San Diego’s Toolbox won gold with their Bramble on Rose and Societe won bronze with The Thief, relegating the Belgians to only one medal (Omer Vander Ghinste won the silver).

This year, San Diego breweries took 56 beer medals, which represented roughly a third of all medals awarded.

Even more impressive is the fact that San Diego has consistently represented about a quarter to a third of all medals won in the competition. This year, San Diego breweries took 56 beer medals, which represented roughly a third of all medals awarded. “It wasn’t just the traditional powerhouses cleaning up on medals,” Tom says. “You always think of places like Stone, Ballast Point, and Green Flash winning awards, but out of all the medals won this year, it was a collection of 31 different breweries, including some of the smaller ones and some that had just entered for the first time.”

Here’s the list of San Diego breweries that won medals for beer: AleSmith, Ballast Point, Pizza Port, Nickel Beer, Breakwater, Rip Current, Lost Abbey, Monkey Paw, New English, Benchmark, Toolbox, Societe, Division 23, Mike Hess Brewing, Port Brewing, Barrel Harbor, Saint Archer, San Diego Brewing, Mother Earth, Karl Strauss, Abnormal, Amplified Ale Works, Bagby Beer, O’Sullivan Brothers, Aztec, Intergalactic, Green Flash, Duck Foot, Alpine, Dos Desperados, and Belching Beaver. For the complete list, including the categories and beers with which each brewery won, click here.

The festival’s top brewing honor was also claimed by a San Diego brewery at the 2016 competition. For the second year in a row, AleSmith won Champion Brewery, which means they received the highest total combined points overall.

Abnormal Beer Co. brewed Steampunk Ale for the fair. | Photo by Bruce Glassman

To celebrate this year’s 10th anniversary, Abnormal Brewing Co. created a special beer just for the festival. Called Steampunk Ale, it was a hoppy California Common that was poured at the Steampunk Pavilion on the floor of the event. Also available at the pavilion were various rare beer tappings that changed for each session.

Tom and Tyson agree that they are increasingly impressed by the strength and caliber of the SDIBF entries and judging every year. They were particularly excited to see that a number of beers that had won big at this competition also won big at World Beer Cup in Philadelphia this year. Tom says, “Claritas from Mike Hess, for example, won gold at our festival and then went on to win a gold at World Beer Cup. And that’s nice, when you have something as prestigious as the World Beer Cup awarding the same medal to the same beer, it goes to show you not only the quality of beers that are being entered in the SDIBF, but also the quality of the people that are judging them.”

Thinking back on the competition, Tyson was especially happy to see medals go to local breweries both young and old. “Abnormal took bronze in the double IPA category,” Tyson says, “they’re one of the newest breweries in San Diego. And San Diego Brewing Company took gold in the IPA category, and they’re one of the oldest breweries in San Diego. Two very competitive categories, and it was kind of neat to see ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ come together and rock it out.”

The SDIBF usually runs for five four-hour sessions over three days (usually Friday through Sunday) during the Del Mar Fair. Find information about next year’s events and schedule here.

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