Meet the Beer Pioneer
On the Mt. Rushmore of San Diego craft beer, Scot Blair’s face is chiseled in stone.
It’s 8 a.m., but Scot Blair has been up for hours.
“My day doesn’t begin without doing this,” he says, referring to a screen full of unread emails. Among them are “swap lists” from his four bars—nightly accounts of which kegs were tapped and what beers are on schedule to replace them. Micro-managing the rotation of taps while personally selecting the beer is how Scot Blair does business. This hands-on approach to owning Hamilton’s Tavern, Small Bar, Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery, and the newly opened South Park Brewing Company (adjacent to Hamilton’s) requires supreme energy, focus, passion, and a little bit of crazy obsession.
A Midwestern kid and former Marine, Blair operated humanitarian relief efforts in Somalia, Bangladesh, and the first Gulf War. He’s a surfer who has been in San Diego for 20 years, driving his old truck up and down the coast in search of perfect waves and good beer. A lifetime ago, he was the senior network engineer at a major telecommunications company. He’s the proud owner of five dogs and has been living in the same house for the last 10 years, same old blue truck still parked outside. So why craft beer? Where did it all start?
Having just arrived back from a tour abroad, Blair walked into Karl Strauss Brewing Company’s downtown brewery and restaurant—the place he first noticed that heavy, yeasty scent of beer being made. He could almost taste it. “That’s when beer became personal to me,” he says of the moment that led him down the rabbit hole. He had to give it a shot. Frequent visits to Ballast Point’s Homebrew Mart turned into serviceable homebrews and a desire to get his hands on as much quality beer as possible. Blair credits San Diego Brewing Company, the now defunct Liar’s Club, and craft beer stalwart O’Brien’s Pub for supplementing his insatiable thirst. Outside of these places, the craft beer landscape lay mostly barren.
Former mayor Jerry Sanders remembers, “There weren’t many other tap rooms carrying all sorts of different local beers, but now it’s standard.”
Hamilton’s Tavern helped establish that standard. Originally, it was supposed to be “Blair’s Rock-n-Roll Bar.” When the lease for Sparky’s went up, Blair (a regular) jumped on the opportunity to incorporate his love of Old-World style bars with carefully selected craft beer. The name didn’t stick, but the rock ’n’ roll ethos remained.
“I never cared if the bar failed,” he says. “If you want to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, go somewhere else.”
Not so rock ’n’ roll is Blair’s approach to managing his bar foursome; that’s more militant, more engineer-like. Little happens without passing through his hands.
In one day, he’ll visit each bar for what most owners would consider trivial duties. Blair stops into Monkey Paw to quality-control a new batch of beers at the boutique East Village brewery. Then a quick jaunt to Hamilton’s to taste a couple burgers and decide which will represent the bar during a citywide “burger week” competition. He then jumps next door to South Park Brewing Company to speak with a journalist about the bar’s impending opening and deliver a resounding all-staff speech like a general on the eve of battle. Then it’s back to Hamilton’s to personally choose kegs for a special event with Stone Brewing Company. His only respite is a stop at the dog park before sunset.
Blair thrives on this tireless approach to ownership; it’s part of what makes him tick. Since opening Hamilton’s in 2006, he’s been working at a breakneck pace to make microbrew the “it” beer. Since then, he has raised the bar on the standards of craft beer.
“I wanted to make craft beer more accessible to the common man. I didn’t say ‘It’s a me-only club and you can’t come in.’ I championed it,” Blair says of his place in San Diego’s craft beer scene. “I wanted to turn people onto craft beer who weren’t craft beer drinkers.”
But all that time, energy, and dedication comes with a price. Blair made it very clear that South Park Brewing Company will be his last big venture for the foreseeable future. “Eight years in this industry has felt like 16,” he says. “If this was a money-making scheme, I would just hire people to do my job for me. But because of the way I do business, it’s unreasonable to think I can spread myself so thin.”
For Blair, it’s never been about the money. It’s always been about the beer.
His “call-it-as-I-see-it” attitude is refreshing in a city where craft beer is now big business. The number of breweries and brewpubs jumped 165 percent from 2011 to 2014. Vince Vasquez, senior policy analyst at National University, reported that in 2014, local beer contributed $100 million more to San Diego County’s economy than Super Bowl XLIX bolstered the state of Arizona’s economy. With so much to gain from the business of beer, wannabes are looking to cash in on a trendy and infinitely expanding industry. But for Blair, craft beer isn’t a trend. It’s a lifestyle.
Chris Cramer, CEO and co-founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company, thinks, “No one in San Diego is more passionate and knowledgeable about beer than Scot Blair. He is a pioneer of the 30th Street phenomenon [in North Park and South Park] and a major reason San Diego has become an internationally recognized mecca for craft beer.”
Aside from opening beloved beer bars, Blair has been a torchbearer of craft beer education since the beginning. He sits on the San Diego State University Business of Craft Beer Advisory Board. He was a certified cicerone before people knew what cicerone meant. Since its inception, Hamilton’s has appeared on DRAFT Magazine’s list of “America’s 100 Best Beer Bars.” Monkey Paw has received numerous awards across national beer competitions and earned high praise from a New York Times travel reporter visiting the area. Most would consider being named national “Beer Person of the Year” in 2012 by Imbibe Magazine to be his highest honor. But Scot Blair isn’t like most people. By creating a place in which he would want to hang out, showcasing the beer he most enjoys, Blair found success. Turns out, San Diegans share his interests.
“People tell me how much they enjoy spending time in my bars—that’s the best part,” Blair says. “Those are the biggest awards.”