Have a Beer with Matt Zirpolo, New President of the San Diego Brewers Guild
Burgeon’s co-founder takes the helm
Matt Zirpolo, co-founder of Burgeon Beer Co., became president of the San Diego Brewers Guild on January 1 | Photo: Bruce Glassman
The San Diego Brewers Guild is the most important and influential craft beer organization in town. Founded in 1997, the Guild boasts 302 members, 119 of which are member breweries. That impressive membership base makes SDBG the largest and most active regional guild in America.
The Guild’s mission is multifaceted; its core focus is to promote San Diego breweries and to provide a forum in which brewers, businesspeople, and other beer-related professionals can support each other and share ideas. In recent years, it has also developed regular programs and seminars designed to broaden the skill sets of brewers and others whose work intersects with the beer industry.
The job of Guild president is also multifaceted; it has, by necessity, grown in scope as the number of breweries in San Diego has multiplied and their needs have become ever more diverse. Maintaining an organization that simultaneously fills the needs of a 400,000-barrel brewery and a 400-barrel brewery is not easy, but it is one of the main objectives that any Guild president must pursue.
I sat down with SDBG president Matt Zirpolo, who was inaugurated on January 1, to talk about the Guild’s core mission as he sees it and to find out what the main challenges will be in the year to come.
First, let’s go over, in your words, what the main functions of the Brewers Guild are.
Matt: It serves as a resource and a focus point for all of San Diego craft beer. The Guild supports all its member brewers, helps to get brewers out to consumers through marketing and events, and we work really hard to promote and educate craft brewers in San Diego so we can continue raising the bar as a whole.
There’s also a mission to provide a forum where brewers can share knowledge and enjoy some camaraderie, as well, right?
Matt: Oh, definitely. Almost every brewery in San Diego is part of the Guild and sharing knowledge is a big part of it. In fact, we have the “Tap Into Knowledge” series where everyone gets together and shares ideas; at each event we focus on a specific topic where brewers can hear from the top experts on that topic in San Diego. That way all the brewers who participate improve their own craft.
The breweries that do adapt to the culture of working together are going to be more successful than the ones that don’t.
Do you have specific instances where you’ve gotten shared knowledge or best practices advice from someone in the Guild that’s been really helpful to Burgeon?
Matt: Oh, yeah. Just going to the member meetings, I’ve met some of my idols in craft beer, especially here in San Diego. And you just have a chance to talk to them.
Five to ten years ago, everybody spoke about the “friendly competition” and the camaraderie among all the brewers in town. But that was when there were 40, 50, maybe 70 breweries. Now there are nearly 160. Do you feel that camaraderie and sense of community are just as strong now? Or is competition putting a strain on that?
Matt: I think it’s natural that competition would have an effect, but I also think it’s more important now than ever before that we do stick together. As more breweries pop up, there’s going to be even more competition. And, as breweries go out, people aren’t going to be happy about losing their businesses. So we’re kind of in a time of flux right now—there’s breweries coming in and there’s breweries going out—and we seem to have hit a certain point where we’re not adding breweries at the rate we should. Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s always room for great beer in San Diego and for new breweries to come up. But, that being said, if we all work together and keep the united front that’s been the foundation this industry was founded upon, we can continue to grow as a whole and we’ll be better for it. The breweries that do adapt to the culture of working together are going to be more successful than the ones that don’t.
The old mantra in the community was always that everyone should help each other out wherever possible, because it’s in everyone’s best interest to have the quality of San Diego beer always remain high.
Matt: Completely. And that’s the position of the Guild as well. If we all have better beer, it will elevate us even more in the world of craft beer. We’ve done a great job of that so far, and I think that goes back to the community and culture that we’ve built here.
You said you think there’s still room in San Diego for more good breweries and good beer.
Matt: Yes. There used to be room for more beer. Now there’s only room for good beer.
Obviously, last year, we had some surprise closings—companies that disproved one of the other old mantras, which was, “If you just make great beer, everything else will fall into place.” I guess we learned that’s not always true. So where do you think the space is for the new guys?
Matt: It’s really been unfortunate to see the breweries that have gone out. There are a few from this past year alone that I thought made fantastic beer. And from the Guild’s standpoint, it’s tough to see that. We want provide everyone with the resources they need to be successful, and I think we’re doing a good job of that. But there are things that happen out of our control and out of a brewery’s control. I think for new breweries coming in, you really have to be on your game. You need to come in with great beer from the very beginning. And you need to not just have great beer. You need great marketing and someone who really knows how to run the business. Without all those things all done very well, it’s going to be a tough road.
The organization has gone through incredible growth phase in recent years, and managing that growth, I know, has been a major challenge. How are you guys handling that?
Matt: There are so many breweries in San Diego, and so many new ones popping up, that it’s definitely a challenge to make sure we remain a great resource for all of them. It kind of all goes back to making sure they adopt the culture that is San Diego craft beer; all working together and helping each other out. As a contrast, take Silicon Valley, for example. Can you imagine what the quality of technology would be if Apple, Amazon, Google, and Tesla all worked together and shared ideas? We’d be flying cars right now! So, I think if we work together here—we have so many great minds and great brewers—I mean, we have the Apple of breweries here! We have the Tesla of breweries here! If we can get all of those people to share knowledge, it’s going to raise the bar for all of San Diego beer.
What are some of your personal goals for heading up the Guild this year?
Matt: We’ve been working really hard to make sure that we’re staying relevant with all of our events. There is such a thing as “festival fatigue.” There are so many going on all the time. So we’ve focused a lot on staying relevant. You saw that last year with Guild Fest. We switched locations and we invited out of town guilds for the first time, which allowed people to try beers they wouldn’t normally get to try here. We want to make the Brewers Guild festivals stand out. We want to come up with cool, exciting ideas to make sure those events are engaging and we want to help to create new customers for our breweries.
Can you imagine what the quality of technology would be if Apple, Amazon, Google, and Tesla all worked together and shared ideas? We’d be flying cars right now!
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge faced by the Brewers Guild?
Matt: I think it’s true that saturation is becoming an issue. And I think that’s the biggest challenge. Along with making sure that all the events we’re putting on are also relevant and exciting and getting good attendance. Fortunately, all the changes we’ve made have really positively impacted our events. Attendance at Guild Fest, for example, was 25% higher last time than it was the year previous. And this year Rhythm & Brews has already sold more tickets than it did last year, the VIP is almost sold out, and tickets just went on sale recently. Saturation is a big thing, and we need to make sure we’re out there helping the breweries the best that we can and dealing with those issues as a whole. Like I said before, if we all work together it’s going to really minimize the number of breweries we see closing down.