Dan Selis’s hunch paid off. For a long while, he suspected that Mission was losing out on a chunk of business because the brewery only offered beer to its patrons. Dan wondered, if he were able to offer visitors non-beer options, would he significantly increase Mission’s following?
"Being next to the Padres stadium, I felt like were missing some of the crowd," Dan says. "I felt like people who weren’t really beer drinkers were either getting dragged along to Mission—there weren’t cocktails or wine here—or, even worse, if a husband and wife were going out and she’s a craft beer drinker and he’s a cocktail guy, he’d say ‘let’s not go to Mission, let’s go somewhere where we can both have what we want.’"
Mission’s license, like most beer production licenses in town, only allows the brewery to sell what they make. And, as a brewery, they are required to have malt, hops, yeast, and water in everything they produce. So far, Mission has created seven different non-beer beverages that fall into this category, including a Mission Mule, a carbonated blueberry drink called a Paloma, and frozen margarita-type drinks, including a piña colada, frozen tropical punch, and a tequila lemonade. "All of these drinks are on the sweeter side," Dan says, "and they don’t taste anything like beer, which is what we were going for."
The frozen concoctions and fruity drinks are all extremely popular with the downtown crowd, but Mission’s hard root beer has been the hands-down favorite in the tasting room from the very start. Dan and his team decided to ramp up production of this particular recipe for one simple reason: "We just kept running out of everything we were making. It became so popular that we had no choice." Distributors began asking for it in kegs. Then other distributors asked for bottles and six-packs.
When Dan first went to his management team with the idea of doing non-beer beverages—specifically the hard root beer—they were not enthusiastic. In fact, as Dan recalls, the reaction was, "You’re crazy! Selis, you have lost your mind."
In addition to persuading his team, Dan felt he also had to overcome what he saw as an industry-wide taboo on breweries doing non-beer products, specifically sweetened and flavored malt beverages. According to Dan, malt beverages are big sellers on the East Coast, but they are not as popular on the West Coast, partly because, he believes, brewers look down on the very idea.
Despite all the skepticism he faced, Dan persisted. He assembled samples of every kind of flavored malt beverage on the market and held taste tests to assess what, if anything, he could learn from the stuff already on the market. After tasting scores of drinks, Dan came to an important realization: "Everything was totally gross. Really foul. They were all too sweet, too chemically, just really gross." But the experience paid off. By the time the Mission team was done tasting and spitting, Dan knew they saw the potential that he saw. "I said, we’re a craft brewery. We can make a much better beverage than this. We can make things that are delicious." In fact, Dan appreciates the synergy between being a craft brewery and being a craft malt beverage producer. Both product lines are hand crafted, made with high-quality ingredients, and are intended to provide flavor experiences not available through mass-produced options. "The way we make our alcohol, we use our brewing equipment in very much the same way as when we make beer. We boil it, it has hops in it, it has malt in it, yeast, and water." Making the alcohol, Dan says, is the hardest part. "It’s a very proprietary method that took a good amount of training. It was not easy. We had a bunch of batches kind of go sideways on us."
By now, Dan and the team have the recipe and the production process dialed in, and they’re making a very tasty beverage. From the moment you pop the cap, rich aromas of wintergreen and vanilla waft from the bottle (remember that root beer barrel candy you had as a kid?). Light carbonation gives the beer a denser, creamier mouth feel, and the taste is a wonderful mix of sarsaparilla and a bite of wintergreen, all tied together with real cane sweetness. Because this is so much like a premium hand-crafted soda, it’s dangerously easy to forget that it’s also 7.5% alcohol.
The creation of the root beer, as Dan puts it, was borne of sheer necessity. And, even though many people advised him against doing it, his unwavering confidence in the idea won the day. Now, looking around his tasting room, Dan is gratified to see a whole slew of visitors drinking Mission’s beer and non-beer offerings side by side. "It’s working!" he says with a smile.