Beer in the Boonies
Valley Center Brewing is on a mission to bring San Diego’s craft beer revolution to the rural folk.
Bob and Alex Marek of Valley Center Brewing | Photo by Bruce Glassman
Once you venture significantly north or east in San Diego county, things get noticeably more pastoral. Towns such as Alpine, Ramona, Julian, and Warner Springs boast a distinctly “frontier” vibe—independent and rough-hewn, but with an appealing charm. They may be rural and “off the beaten path,” but these pickup-laden enclaves haven’t escaped the reach of the burgeoning San Diego craft beer movement.
Longtime Valley Center resident Bob Marek is the craft beer ambassador that has brought the good word about good beer to his sleepy little North County burg. For a little more than a year now, Bob and his son Alex have been brewing a varied lineup of small-batch, hand-crafted beers for residents of his town (population 9,277 according to the last census) and the surrounding areas.
From its inception, Valley Center Brewing was a distinctly homespun venture that used simple small-scale equipment and offered a comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere for locals to enjoy (yes, they have horse tie-ups in the parking lot). Bob and Alex originally began homebrewing (and then pro brewing) in their barn, where temperatures reached 120º or 130º on some brew days. Needless to say, that location soon lost its allure. So the Mareks moved their operation into a former restaurant space, which had, in the 1980s, been the site of California’s largest turkey processing plant.
Starting a family business had been a longtime dream of Bob’s, so he was thrilled to join forces with Alex in order to launch Valley Center Brewing. Alex, who does most of the brewing, is a former chef, which means he brings a chef’s sensibilities to the recipes he creates for VCB beers. “Alex understands the melding of flavors,” Bob explains. “He doesn’t add a whole bunch of something just to shock people. He looks at flavors more like seasonings.” The Sage Brush Trail Smoked Black IPA is a good example of Alex’s style. It combines smoky malts with Mexican sage that he picked from his own backyard, and the final product is a beer with nice balance and restraint all around.
For such a small brewery, VCB offers an impressive variety of beers and styles. On average, the tasting room will have more than 25 beers on tap, with offerings that include light lagers, wheat beers, IPAs, reds, malty browns, and even sours. Because he brews about 3 barrels at a time (6 kegs), Alex is able to create lots of variety, which keeps both the locals and the out-of-towners happy. “We decided to offer a broad spectrum, and not just focus on one style,” Bob says. “That works particularly well out here in Valley Center where the traffic won’t support a specialized brewery.”
Valley Center’s rural setting has posed some unique challenges for the business. For one thing, the simple lack of traffic makes it hard to sustain a walk-in-reliant location. On the weekends, about 30-40% of the brewery’s visitors come in from other towns, many on their way to or from Bates Nut Farm or Harrah’s casino. During the week, most of the patrons are locals. With those visitors, the big challenge is often cajoling skeptical customers to try a craft beer. “Most of Valley Canter is a Bud Lite town,” Bob says. “We have people walking in all the time asking for a Bud, or a Coors, or a Miller, so we have a beer we developed especially for those folks. It’s called our Well Water Ale, and it’s a Kolsch-style ale. Alex designed this beer specifically to get those Bud fans to take the first step toward drinking real beer.” The strategy seems to be working. Bob says that a bunch of his “regulars” made the initial switch to Well Water Ale and then got the itch to move on to Belgian styles and IPAs. Bob admits that he takes satisfaction in educating his fellow country folks about craft beer. As part of that goal, he regularly brings his beers to nearby farmer’s markets, where many locals get their first-ever opportunity to sip hand-crafted ales and lagers.
Bob’s expansion goals for the near future are relatively modest. This year, he estimates that VCB will produce about 300 barrels, but he’ll still be focusing on spreading the word about his brewery. His list of draft accounts, though currently small, continues to grow (VCB is available at Oggi’s in Carmel Mountain Ranch and in a few other select locations in North County) and 22-ounce bottles have recently become available at a few locations (Bob does all the bottling by hand). Like many breweries in San Diego, Bob and Alex have considered the idea of opening an off-site tasting room somewhere, but not in North Park or Hillcrest. “We’re kind of rural,” Bob says. “If we were going to expand, we’d probably put a tasting room in Bonsall. There’s actually a good spot in Rainbow. We’ve even considered going to Temecula. No matter what we do, we want to try to keep it rural.”