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The Year in Beer

The biggest San Diego beer milestones from 2016, plus a few predictions for 2017


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Photo: Bruce Glassman

Some years are more exciting than others. 2015, for example, was the year of the billion-dollar sale of Ballast Point and the $87 million sale of Saint Archer. Those sales heralded the impending entry of other “big beer” companies into our little corner of the world. It was a year that created worldwide buzz as well as local anxiety and consternation, but it was also a year that marked a major shift in the evolution of San Diego beer.

2016, by comparison, was a bit less dramatic, but it had its milestones nonetheless. For one thing, last year saw more new breweries open than any year previous—a total of 23 by my count. The most interesting (and heartening) aspect of all these new endeavors was the overall quality of the beer being produced right from the get-go. If I had to characterize the bulk of the new breweries that opened in 2014 and 2015, I’d probably say—on the whole—that too many were mediocre and unremarkable. The past twelve months, however, have been characterized by many surprisingly good new breweries—businesses that have talented brewers with real chops at their helms.

In the past, we’ve seen the new guys open their doors with an initial lineup of fairly safe, crowd-pleasing brews, designed to appeal to the widest audience possible. Our newest breweries, however, seem more confident in their skins and more willing to open with offbeat styles and beers that highlight interesting ingredients (in addition to the requisite IPA, saison, and wheat beer, of course). This development is encouraging and good for the San Diego beer community as a whole. It proves that we can maintain an aggressive pace for growth without sacrificing quality or creativity.

For those of you who like the official roster, here is the new-brewery freshman class of 2016 (in alpha order): Amplified Miramar, Bear Roots, Belching Beaver Oceanside, Bitter Brothers, Burgeon, Burning Beard, Culver, Eppig, Kensington (tasting room), Knotty, Little Miss, Longship, Mason Ale Works, Midnight Jack, Mikkeller, North Park Brewing Co., OB Brewery, Oceanside Brewing, Prodigy, Pure Project, Resident, SR76, and Thunderhawk Alements.

2016, in comparison to 2015, was a bit less dramatic, but it had its milestones nonetheless. For one thing, last year saw more new breweries open than any year previous.

Before 2016, the growth of San Diego’s brewery scene seemed boundless. In 2015, we sailed past the 100-brewery milestone and saw no end in sight. Last year, however, provided us with a little bit of sobering (a decidedly good thing in the beer business). In the midst of all our new brewery openings, we also saw more closures and cutbacks than ever before: We lost URBN St. in El Cajon, Twisted Manzanita in Santee, Pacific Brewing in Miramar, and Valley Center Brewing in Valley Center. And then the real shocker hit: Stone announced the lay-offs of 75 of its staff (about 5% of its total workforce). Lay-offs? How could this be? Stone has been the fastest-growing beer company in the fastest-growing market for as long as we can remember. Well, it turns out that growth—no matter how impressive and sustained—never lasts forever, and it took Stone to remind us that even San Diego beer is susceptible to the harsh requirements of a bottom line. The craft beer business is, after all, a business. (We’ve since learned that Poway’s Lightning Brewery is up for sale due, in large part, to problems with distribution.)

Luckily, the good beer news of 2016 outweighed the gloomy beer news. For the first time since Prohibition, America had more than 4,200 breweries (more than any time in our history) and there is plenty of room for growth; today, hundreds of major cities are still without local breweries of their own. Some of the largest San Diego brewers expanded into new regions in 2016 by extending their reach to other locations around the country: Mother Earth opened a large production facility in Nampa, Idaho; Green Flash opened its Virginia Beach brewery, and Stone opened a new brewery in Richmond, Virginia, as well as a landmark brewery and bistro in Berlin, Germany. As we head into the new year, we await further news and developments from Thorn St, Groundswell, and Karl Strauss—all of whom are planning expansions in San Diego—and also from Stone, which is planning a tap room and pilot brewery in Napa.

Other positive highlights from last year include San Diego’s impressive showings at both the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. In Philadelphia, San Diego brewers won a total of 14 World Beer Cup medals, with many of the honors going to some of our newest and smallest breweries. Our small guy gold winners included Fall Brewing (Strong Beer); Amplified Ales (Whammy Bar Wheat); Breakwater Brewing (Rye Dawn); and Monkey Paw (Ashes From the Grave Smoked Beer). A silver medal went to Thorn St. (Imperial Red Ale) and bronzes went to Legacy (That Guava Beer), Toolbox (Bramble on Rose, Barrel Aged Sour Beer); and NOVO Brazil (Corvo Negro, British Style Imperial Stout).

At GABF in Denver, the San Diego haul was even larger, with a medal total of 18 and major honors going to Karl Strauss Brewing Company, which was crowned 2016 Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewer of the Year. Karl Strauss won 4 medals (2 gold and 2 bronze) and other medals were won by some notably new and small breweries, including Second Chance (Tabula Rasa Toasted Porter); BNS (Prospector Red & Gatling Gun Imperial Stout); Duck Foot (The Contender Chili Beer); and Pure Project (Roes Red Belgian Style Lambic).

So, what will we see as we sip our way through 2017? No one knows for sure, of course, but here’s what I predict:

More hazy beers: this trend (also called “turbid” beers) really took hold in 2016 and my guess is it will continue and expand well into 2017.

More kinds of barrels for aging: bourbon, whiskey, wine, and tequila barrels have now become staples, so it’s time for new vessels and woods to enter the scene in a bigger way. Sherry? Port? Cider? Eucalyptus?

More fruited beers: Now that we’ve moved somewhat away from the turbo-hopped triple IPA craze, I think we’ll continue to move toward more interesting fruited beers, both soured and non-soured.

More commons, milds, pale ales, and nontraditional styles: Session IPAs never really took off the way many brewers thought they would, but there is still a great desire on the part of many drinkers to get flavorful beers in lower-alcohol packages. These lesser-done styles will offer brewers new ways to surprise and delight their fans with highly satisfying brews that are approachable and drinkable without knocking you out in the first round.

No matter what 2017 has in store for San Diego craft beer, I’m surely not going out on too much of a limb to predict that our brewers will continue to make some of the best beer on the planet and that craft beer fans from far and wide will gather in San Diego tasting rooms and pubs to appreciate the great work that our brewers do. Drink well in the new year.

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