The Year in Beer
There’s no question that 2015 was a monumental year for San Diego beer.
Photo by Bruce Glassman
It was that moment in September, when I first heard of the planned acquisition of St. Archer by industry giant MillerCoors, that it hit me: San Diego beer has turned a major corner.
The impending purchase (which closed in October for $87 million) brought so many things into sharper focus at once. First and foremost, it made me realize the true value of the “craft beer brand” to the mega-corps in the mass-market beer trade, and it also brought home how valuable the “San Diego brand” is within that context. Second, it reminded me that—as much as we love the notion that our favorite beers are brewed by independent, cool, rebellious people who do it solely for their passionate love of beer—the reality is that pro brewing is a business. For some hardcore fans, the terms “business” and “craft beer” do not sit well together, and that’s understandable. The ingrained narrative of the craft beer movement is a rebellion against insipid, mass-produced, “corporate beer” that exists for the sake of profit and profit only. The St. Archer acquisition—whether you like it or not—forced a debate within the San Diego beer community about what our expectations are (and should be) for the breweries we patronize. It forced many of us to finally ask ourselves, “What am I really drinking? Is it the beer, or is it the story behind the beer?”
And then the even bigger bombshell hit. Just after the close of Beer Week in November, Ballast Point sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion. With this development, all the questions first raised by the St. Archer deal became magnified 1,000 times. All of a sudden, a San Diego brewery (one that wielded enormous “craft cred”) was fetching the largest purchase price in the history of craft beer. And the players at one of the largest beverage groups in the world were convinced that getting a piece of the “San Diego cachet” was worth a billion dollars! If the St. Archer acquisition was the first to put San Diego beer in a larger national focus, the Ballast Point acquisition meant San Diego was poised to play a much bigger role on the global stage. And, just as the St. Archer buyout caused many to question their allegiance, the Ballast Point deal rocked many fans to their core. After all, the St. Archer guys had only been around for a few years, and it was clear from the beginning that the company was founded primarily as a marketing venture (the key players also didn’t have deep-rooted ties to San Diego—many, in fact, were based in L.A). Ballast Point, in stark contrast, has been a central part of the San Diego brewing scene for more than 20 years. Started as a homebrew supply store, the guys at the core of this company were tried-and-true home brewers who not only came up as San Diego started to receive worldwide attention, they were, in large part, responsible for that attention. If you’re a true hardcore craft fan, Ballast’s undeniable “street cred” complicates the already complex issues of allegiance.
And so, moving into 2016 and beyond, San Diego beer fans are going to be forced to reconsider what it is they really hold most dear; is it the story or the beer? Can you really still love a beer produced by a huge company worth billions?
As it has so many times in the past, Stone Brewing Co. also propelled San Diego beer into a whole new arena this year. On December 15, the first Berlin-brewed Stone beers were tapped in Europe (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the U.K.) heralding a new age for San Diego-style beer outside America. Stone’s unprecedented popularity throughout the world made it possible (even unavoidable) for the company to open up operations in Europe. This expansion marks the first time an American craft brewer has set up shop overseas, expressly to cater to the European market. The European market, by the way, is now highly receptive to the bold, innovative flavors of San Diego-style beer, in large part due to the groundbreaking efforts of Stone. Just as the St. Archer and Ballast Point deals will throw an even larger spotlight on San Diego, so will Stone’s presence in Berlin. For the past ten or fifteen years, when asked what they know of San Diego beer, most people outside the craft beer bubble have answered, “Well, I’ve heard of Stone.” Now, when folks throughout Europe are asked that same question, the answer, too, will be the same.
Let’s not forget that, while Stone, Ballast, and St. Archer made the biggest headlines this year, there are a lot of other breweries in town working hard to bring honor and distinction to San Diego. At the 2015 Great American Beer Festival (America’s largest and most prestigious brewing competition), San Diego brewers snagged a total of 20 medals (6 gold, 2 silver, and 11 bronze). And, lest you are unaware, 20 medals is a lot: It’s a third of all the medals won by California, and it’s more medals than were won by the entire state of Oregon. These accolades, and the high quality of beer these brewers are producing, continue to enrich the “San Diego brand” by keeping our skill and talent at the forefront of the national and international stages.
So, who will be San Diego’s next billion-dollar acquisition? We don’t know, but we do know that there is a constant stream of new and exciting beer being brewed in San Diego every day. In 2015, we averaged more than 1.5 new breweries per month, with a total of 20 new breweries for the year. The new guys (in no particular order) are: Fall (North Park); Second Chance (Carmel Mountain); South Park (South Park); Bay City (Point Loma); Abnormal (Rancho Bernardo); Duck Foot (Miramar); Barn Brewery (North Park); Bay Bridge Brewing Co. (Chula Vista); Citizen Brewers (Mission Valley); Division 23 Brewing Co. (Miramar); Half Door Brewing Co. (East Village); Helix Brewing Co. (La Mesa); Home Brewing Co. (North Park); Kilowatt Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa); Kuracali Saké & Beer Brewery (San Marcos); Magnetic Brewing (Kearny Mesa); Novo Brazil Brewing Co. (Chula Vista); Pacific Islander Beer Co. (Santee); Prodigy Brewing Co. (Grantville); Reckless Brewing Co. (Miramar).
These new guys bring the official operational brewery count to 116, with about 20 additional tasting room locations. Like the dozens before them, these breweries have joined a vibrant and exciting community that produces beers envied and loved by people all over the world. And, with any luck, one or some of them will enjoy the kind of worldwide acceptance that is now being won by brewing pioneers like our very own Ballast Point and Stone.