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Checking in with Paul Sangster and the San Diego Brewers Guild

Rip Current’s co-founder is the new president of SDBG


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Rip Current Co-Founder Paul Sangster (shown here with his old homebrew system) is the acting president of the San Diego Brewers Guild. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

To the general beer-loving public, the San Diego Brewers Guild is basically invisible. Most San Diegans are not aware of its existence, but the SDBG is actually one of the most influential and consequential organizations in our local craft beer community.

The basic mission of the Guild is to look out for the many interests of its members, the majority of which are local and independent breweries. Other members (allied retail members and affiliates and the like) include businesses that supply breweries with products and ingredients, brewpubs and bars that support craft beer, and other beer-focused businesses that work in one way or another to promote and support the San Diego brewing industry.

Some of what the Guild focuses on is legislative, legal, and regulatory; the Guild provides a singular voice to represent the interests and viewpoints of independent breweries in Sacramento as well as locally. Providing a forum in which brewers can gather to share best practices and make personal connections is another major focus of the Guild. And then there’s the public relations focus: Each year the Guild organizes and hosts numerous large beer events that highlight and celebrate the wealth of great beer being made in this town. The VIP Brewers Takeover, Guild Fest, and the Beer Garden at The Lodge at Torrey Pines are three of the year’s largest such events (held during Beer Week each November), but other events, such as Rhythm & Brews (May in Vista) and an annual golf tournament (September in Rancho Bernardo) also draw considerable crowds each year.

The leadership of the San Diego Brewers Guild changes annually. At the top of the org chart, the vice president assumes the role of president and the outgoing president becomes president emeritus (now Jill Davidson of Pizza Port).

With the brewing scene constantly expanding and the membership burgeoning (San Diego’s Brewers Guild is among the largest—if not the largest—in the country), the challenge for any incoming leadership is to maintain the organization’s focus while expanding into new and necessary areas. I sat down with Paul Sangster, acting president, to discuss some of the goals, new initiatives, and challenges that are part of the Guild’s strategy for the future.

 

Let’s start with a little bit of your background. You were a longtime homebrewer before becoming a pro brewer about five-and-a-half years ago when you co-founded Rip Current. You’ve been a member of the Guild since Rip Current—were you familiar with the Guild before that?

Before I moved to San Diego, I used to come here a lot for business—I was an engineer—and I always tried to go to Guild Fest back when it was over in Balboa Park. That was always one of my favorite events of the year and that’s where I kind of learned about the Guild. I wasn’t even homebrewing much in those days, but from coming here I knew about the Guild and all the great breweries and I knew I wanted to be involved in that any way I could. So when we opened Rip Current, we joined immediately. I’ve been on the Board a long time. I think I did a two-year term, and then I was vice-president for a year-and-a-half, and now I’m doing one year as president. [The previous president, Jill Davidson, served an extra-long term because she stepped in when the president before her moved out of state before his term was complete.]

 

When did you officially take over in your new capacity as president?

January 1.

 

What do you see as the main mission or missions of the Guild?

Well, it’s a lot of different things. It's a guild that’s set up to include all the brewers in town—and we have most of them—I think we have 85 percent of all the small, independent breweries. We may be the largest in the world—I know for a while we were bigger than a lot of the state guilds, but they’re all exploding in size right now, so I’m not exactly sure. I’m not aware of any guild that’s bigger than we are, including some of the country ones. We have close to 110 brewery members.

 

And then there are affiliate members and allied retail members, too, right?

Exactly. So, for your readers, those memberships may include places like bars where people go to drink craft beer; that’s one membership level. And then we have suppliers to brewers, that’s another tier. And then we have an individual level, which we just created last year. And we did that because some great brewers work for breweries that are either not eligible or don’t want to be members and we don’t want to exclude them from joining as individuals. For example, we added Skip Virgilio, who’s kind of a legend in San Diego [he founded AleSmith]. He’s an individual member because his new project is not on line yet. The other cool thing about that is you can join as an individual and move between breweries and it doesn’t affect your membership status at all. Or you could work for one of the big, non-independent breweries, that’s fine, too.

 

Is Skip the first and only individual membership so far?

So far, but we’re trying to market it and get the word out about it because we’ve never had this kind of membership available before.

 

The SDBG recently launched its official beer/brewery app, which provides maps, information on upcoming events, and which beers are on tap at the breweries. 

What are some of the other new things that are going on right now with the Guild? I know there’s a new app that you just released, right?

Yeah, that one’s super cool. You can use it year round to find breweries, you can look up which beers are at which Guild events, and lots of other stuff. I know it got a lot of use during Rhythm & Brews.

 

Tell me about some of the other things the Guild does.

We work with local city governments on issues that affect a lot of our members, but more often we work with the CCBA (California Craft Brewers Association), which is kind of the Guild for California. We work with them on California-wide issues, and there are constantly Big-Beer-sponsored bills that go to Sacramento trying to change the rights of craft breweries. Some of them could be very detrimental. So CCBA is sort of the frontline for that and we work with them.

 

Do you have an example of something recent that Big Beer has tried to push through that the Guild has fought against?

There’s a whole bunch of different ones. I guess the one that’s the most recent is also ongoing, so it’s very current. Big Beer sponsored a bill to be able to give free branded glassware to bars and restaurants. Right now breweries are limited on what they’re allowed to give to ABC retailers, like bars and restaurants, and that’s to dissuade large breweries from using their influence and their money to buy accounts. There’s a long history surrounding those issues, but most recently it’s about giving out glassware. And we’re talking about such large amounts of glassware that a small brewery like mine could never dream of giving away that much to even one account, much less a lot of accounts. So the CCBA worked with legislators to kind of dial that back and find a good compromise. It’s still in progress and it’s not signed yet by the governor, so we’ll see where it goes. As a consumer, though, you may start to see more logo glassware in your favorite beer places.

 

It’s all about trying to level the playing field as much as possible, I guess.

And also about a lot of laws that were put in place when Prohibition was repealed that were designed to prevent the abuses that led to Prohibition. So, if you hear about some of the weird restrictions on breweries, it’s usually because of things that were abused before Prohibition. For example, there used to be breweries that would sponsor events where you’d go to a local bar and it was all-you-could-eat food all day long as long as you drank at least a couple pints of beer. And that may sound pretty cool for the consumer, but this incented people to stay and drink a lot of beer, which then led to the Temperance Movement. So now we have laws in place to prevent the manufacturing tier—the beer makers— from incenting people through the retail tier. That’s why we have a three-tier system [with distributors in the middle].

 

And even to this day, brewers can’t do things like “two-for-one” beers deals or anything like that, right?

Right. Nothing can be free.  

 

Talk a little bit about the social and networking aspects of the Guild.

About a year ago, we wanted to make the networking and social benefits of the Guild a main priority so we worked together to create something called “Tap Into Knowledge,” which is a seminar series that we do every month for our members on an interesting topic.

 

And Guild members get to ask questions of veteran brewers about techniques and best practices and so on?

Exactly. Our goal is to share all of our knowledge, because we really want all brewers to make the best beer they can. That’s the best thing for the customer and it’s the best thing for San Diego as a whole. So that’s been a big priority.  

 

What are some of the unique challenges that the Guild is facing today that it wasn’t, say, five years ago? Obviously there’s been incredible growth in sheer numbers, which must be a challenge.

Yeah. When Rip Current opened, we were number 70 in terms of breweries and now the number has doubled in a little over five years. More than half the members in the Guild have probably only been around for less than two years and their needs are different from the breweries that have been around for a long time. So we’re always trying to talk to people and figure out how the Guild can serve those members better.

The other things we’re working on are the things we just talked about, particularly education and trying to get everyone’s quality up to the same levels. We’ll work together very closely and collaborate with breweries in a neighborhood; downtown breweries got together and made a beer together, and we’re constantly talking about doing town-level collaborations. So we’re doing more things to bring people together, because the bigger the community you have, the more colleagues you have that have never met each other. That’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about being on the Board. I’ve gotten to meet brewers from all over town and I might not have had that opportunity if it hadn’t been through the Guild. And the other thing that I think is cool is that some of the great brewers I’ve always idolized in town, they get more exposure to some of the newbies who maybe don’t know who they are or think they’d never get the chance to talk to someone like Tomme Arthur [Lost Abbey/Port]. But, through the Guild, members can go to a meeting and hear him talk about a topic of interest.

One other challenge that we didn’t have, say, five years ago: Now we have a bunch of big (non-independent) brewers in town and our Guild represents the small and independent guys in town. Our mission is to support our members and part of that is to educate the end consumer when they’re making their buying decisions. Some of the big guys are owned by multi-national conglomerates, whereas some of the smaller guys might be owned by a family that may live down the street from you. Not everyone cares about that. Some people just ask, “What’s the price and what’s the quality? That’s all I want to know about.” But some people like to know where their dollars go. So we had a campaign called Follow Your Dollar, which was to educate people on which breweries are small and independent. So when you go around town, you may see a Brewers Guild emblem on certain windows, which is an effort to help with that education.

 

As someone with a true overview of the whole brewery scene in San Diego, what’s your advice to someone who’s thinking today about opening a new brewery?

It’s funny, because when we first opened, people didn’t really emphasize how we needed to be different from everyone else. The guys I talked to said, “Just make sure you make good beer.” Now it’s more about how you’re going to distinguish yourself—why would someone choose your brewery over the guy across the street or the ones that are a couple of miles away. The people that come to me for advice are generally homebrewers and I know their reputation as homebrewers. Some of them are really good, so I know the quality part will be there after they learn how to scale up and work on different equipment and with different chemicals, but those are the details. The business plan side is what I tell them to look at closely.

 

What do you see as the greatest opportunity for new brewers in town these days?

Underserved neighborhoods, for sure.

 

More of a hyper-local approach?

Exactly. If you find an area where a lot of people live and they’re the right target demographic, and maybe there’s even one brewery, that’s probably a great spot. Also, there’s a lot of opportunity for family-friendly and dog-friendly tasting rooms. So you can do little things like that, which can make you different from everyone else; it doesn’t just have to be the beer.


Follow Bruce on Instagram: @sdbrewdude 

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