Have a Beer with SouthNorte Brewer Ryan Brooks
Brooks is San Diego’s “brewing ambassador” to Baja
SouthNorte's Ryan Brooks has been one of the most influential figures in the recent San Diego-Baja collaboration boom. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
I recently wrote about the trip I took down to Tijuana and Ensenada to check out the burgeoning craft beer scene that’s taken hold in Baja. A number of things struck me as I traveled around and tasted the many fine brews being created down south, but more than anything I was struck by the fact that—almost no matter who I spoke to—the name of one man kept coming up in conversation. That man was brewer Ryan Brooks.
Ryan has been brewing in San Diego for a number of years now—he headed up Coronado Brewing Company’s main production program for about four years after starting there in 2011—but it’s only been somewhat recently that he decided to more actively promote and leverage his longtime ties to Baja and its brewers. He has become a key figure in helping to spotlight the Baja brewing scene in San Diego and has also focused more attention on how Mexico has influenced our local brewing trends.
I sat down with Ryan to chat about the origins and mission of his new beer brand—SouthNorte Beer Co.—and to find out more about where he feels the Baja craft scene is heading.
What was your brewing history before coming to Coronado?
I was at Blackmarket Brewery in Temecula for two years before I moved to Sydney, Australia for six months on a holiday work visa. I found a really good brewing job and that taught me how to production brew. It was a big, automated 50-barrel brewhouse in Sydney.
And what was the impetus for going all the way to Sydney, Australia?
That usually explains about 99% of those kinds of moves!
She said, “Come check it out!” So I went to check it out! It was fun, but I was ready to come home. When I returned, I went back to Blackmarket and was the head brewer there for a year.
Is there any specifically Australian influence in what you do as a brewer?
No. Not really.
So then you came here to Coronado and started as a–?
I started as an assistant brewer, working at the old Mission Brewery plaza (on Hancock St.) when Coronado owned that. I was there for about five or six months working with Troy [Smith] who’s now at Belching Beaver. I was washing kegs and helping him brew. At that point, this brewery [Knoxville] was nothing but cement. They had the raised level for the brewery equipment, but they just had all the tanks lined up against the wall. So I knew this big brewery was in the works and it was one of the reasons I wanted to work for Coronado. I knew they were getting ready to take a big step and I wanted to be a part of that.
Then you started working here in Knoxville and soon became the head brewer. When did the whole SouthNorte concept get formulated?
It got started a couple of different ways. The biggest way was, for the longest time—since my first few weeks brewing at Coronado—I was commuting from my parents’ house in Fallbrook every day. I finally decided that was nuts. So I called up my now-wife’s brother and asked him if he had a room he could rent me in TJ. He said no problem. $100 a month! He probably only charged me once or twice. The rest of the time I would just bring beer home and that was payment! So I was living in TJ and coming across the border every day to work here. I did that for a year and half.
Didn’t all that waiting in line drive you crazy?
I had a Sentri Pass, so it was really easy. And I’d be here by five in the morning—I’d be crossing the border at four in the morning, so the guys at the border would just wave me through most of the time.
Were you bringing them beer, too?!
No, they were real strict about that! But that was my first year and a half here, like 2011-13. And I was hanging out every day after work down in Tijuana, bringing beer and hanging out in this one beer bar. And at this bar (which doesn’t exist any more), all these other brewers would be hanging out also. The young homebrew club guys, the pro brewers—we’d all just hang out there every day. It was like Cheers.
Was that just downtown TJ?
Yeah, it was pretty close to where Baja Craft Brewers is. It was a place called The Beer Box.
So you were hanging out with a bunch of guys that were mostly—what?—Mexican homebrewers?
Some were. And some of the guys were from Insurgente and Aguamala; they all kind of hung out there. They were still small, but they were commercial brewers.
How did that conversation or experience evolve into doing a Baja-inspired brewery here?
Those interactions were part of it, but the other thing that happened was that I was constantly asked to go judge down in Mexico City, which I started doing every year. After that, I started playing around with the Modelo yeast strain at our pub on the island. We wanted to do a whole Mexican series. So we got the Modelo yeast strain and we made a light standard lager with a corn adjunct. Then we made a Vienna lager with an adjunct, then a stronger lager with agave, then a Mexican porter and added Mexican chocolate. They were all really well-received, both here in Knoxville and down at the pub. So we had to re-brew them a couple of times and that started the idea. It was kind of like, “Look at Ryan: He’s living down there, he’s helping brewers out down there, he likes making these styles of beer, and there’s a ton of different beers we could make with really cool ingredients from Mexico.” Add to that all the collaborations we could do with all the friends I used to hang out with, and—maybe over a year of talking—it all kind of came together as a plan to create SouthNorte.
When I was down in Ensenada, every brewer I talked to mentioned your name. People refer to you as the “Mayor of Baja Beer” at this point. I asked the brewers what they felt was driving the beer boom in Baja and many said was it was the collaborations and conversations between San Diego brewers and Baja brewers. You’ve been a large part of that. Were you essentially the first guy to start all of it?
One of them, yeah. Larry who used to work at Home Brew Mart and now does sales for Fall, he was helping so many of those young guys out in Baja when he was at Home Brew Mart, giving brewers feedback on their recipes and being a big help, too. As for me, I spent so much time down there and I wanted to drink awesome beer, so if I could help them make their beer better, then—shoot, why not!
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced, right in the beginning?
Yeast pitching rates. Fermentation temperature. Oxidation. Small things that are easy to fix. And they’re things you have to explain in person, they’re not things they can get right just from reading a book.
Are they working on pretty much the same systems that folks are working on up here?
Yeah. There’s a couple of 30-barrel Premier systems floating around in Baja and Ensenada; just as big as Coronado is. Insurgente and Aguamala, for example. But there are also guys brewing on 1-barrel homebrew set-ups and they’re also a legitimate company.
Did you find Mexican brewers were just looking for guidance on process or did they want guidance on styles?
Maybe just the whole hoppy West Coast style things. How much hops to put in, when to put it in, what are the processes for dry-hopping; that sort of stuff. It was fun.
Sounds like you enjoyed being a part of their scene.
They were a lot of fun to hang out with. They weren’t pretentious, like some of the brewers I looked up to in San Diego when I first came here. They were just super excited and wanted to make their beer better.
A lot of people say that the Baja scene is maybe seven or eight years behind where San Diego is today. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, maybe less. They accomplished what it took San Diegans ten years to do and they smashed it into about three years.
Are they a cohesive community like we have here in San Diego?
Absolutely. Just like it was fifteen years ago here, when everyone knew everybody else and they were all friends who all kind of grew up in the same timeframe.
And they’re all trying to figure out how to deal with the crazy government regulations that are placed on them, right?
Right. They’re trying to figure out how to make a living.
There’s—what?—like a 40% tax they have to pay to sell their beer?
Something like that, yes. But there are people who are working to change some of those laws. People in a kind of brewers guild who are working with the government. It used to be that places like Corona or Modelo had the licenses and if you wanted to make beer, you had to go to them to get a license.
I imagine that, with all the time you spend down in Mexico, some of the inspiration flows from there to here as well. The idea of using other ingredients and brewing other styles…
Yeah, the guys in Baja focus mostly on doing traditional Baja styles, but the guys in central Mexico are especially interested in using ingredients like chocolate, coffee, and fruits that are more native to that region of the country. When I go to Mexico City to judge I get to see a lot of crazy ingredients that I don’t get to see in other places.
Are there any of those ideas or ingredients that you’ve brought back here?
A little bit, yes. Those will be in beers that we’re doing in the future.
Like what kind of ingredients?
I’m really interested in doing a lot of different chocolate beers. I met a guy who does all kinds of raw forms of cacao, and I’m trying to get a bunch of that. Also coffees and honeys.
I hear SouthNorte will launch a third beer in cans pretty soon.
Yeah. It’s called Agavemente. It’s the beer that won a bronze medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. It’s a stronger lager, because of the agave addition, and it’s aged on hibiscus, so it’s got a nice big bold pink color to it. It’s beautiful and it drinks like a nice lager.
And the next big thing for SouthNorte will be growing into a production facility of its own, right?
Yup. We’ve been getting quotes for different brewhouses and tanks, and we’re waiting to find the exact spot and to finalize money.
So what do you think is the next big thing for the Baja brewing scene?
Growth. Probably cans. They’re so poised to grow more, and they’re putting in bigger packaging lines. Another thing is better distribution here and better access for them to get fresh malt and better hops. Stuff from England and stuff from Belgium that was hard for them to get before is now getting easier.
Let’s wrap up with a quick list of your favorite Baja breweries. Who’s doing the coolest stuff down there, do you think?
There’s a lot! I’ll list them from east to west: Fauna in Mexicali, Legion in Mexicali, Amante in Mexicali, Insurgente in TJ, Norte Brewing Company in TJ, Mamut in TJ (young guy doing some amazing hoppy beers!), and Lúdica/Teorema; then Wendlandt, and Aguamala in Ensenada. There’s a lot!
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of having these relationships with the brewers in Baja?
Going to judge the festivals and not knowing the beers ahead of time, tasting them and thinking they are amazing, and then finding out that it’s your friend that you’ve been hanging out with for years who made it. Some are friends I watched brewing in a pot on their mom’s stove and now he or she is on a 30-barrel brewhouse or a 10-barrel brewhouse and they’re just killing it!