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3 of 10 highest-rated brews (among 28,123) are from San Diego
February 1, 2004

Sandy Huffaker Jr. photo
O'Brien's Pub in Kearny Mesa offers a variety of San Diego beers. At least five locally based microbreweries brew and bottle beer and three of the 10 highest-rated are from San Diego.

To the list of people who have discovered San Diego, you can add beer nerds.

Local breweries including AleSmith Brewing Co., Ballast Point Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing Co. have won national and international beer awards in each of the last few years, and they routinely top surveys of beer enthusiasts. Of the 10 highest-rated beers on, which has ratings for 28,123 beers, three are from San Diego, including the top spot.

A local home brewing club, the Quality Ale Fermentation Fraternity, or QUAFF, has been named "Home Brew Club of the Year" by the American Homebrewers Association three years in a row.

And at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival, Pizza Port Solana Beach was named "Small Brewpub of the Year."

Even in the snootiest beer circles, San Diego is becoming known for its inventive beer culture, with local breweries battling to outdo each other by making bold and bitter beers that are loaded with alcohol.

So for local breweries, it would seem there is only one remaining hurdle: getting drinkers with less-discerning tastes to appreciate them.

"I don't think that many people outside of the brewing industry would name San Diego as a great brewing city," said Tom Nickel, head brewer for Oggi's Pizza & Brewing Co. chain and the owner of O'Brien's pub in San Diego. "As much interesting beer as there is in San Diego, by and large we're still kind of a 'Coor's Light' town."

Slowly but surely, though, local brewers are winning converts in people like David Brockway, a 50-year-old teacher who is known as "Alpine Dave" to his friends at O'Brien's.

"When I first came here, I didn't know nothing,"screamed Alpine Dave over the background noise at O'Brien's recently. "Now I'm a total beer geek!"

There are at least five locally based microbreweries that brew and bottle beer, plus a number of notable brew pubs such as Oggi's, Pizza Port and Karl Strauss that brew their own beer.

While the term "microbrewery" does not have a legal definition, the brewing industry generally classifies microbreweries as those that produce fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer annually.

Whether it's coincidence or not, a number of major beer events are coming to town this year, which many local brewers see as a long-overdue acknowledgment of San Diego's budding beer scene.

In April, San Diego will simultaneously host the Craft Brewers Conference and the World Beer Cup, which is considered by some to be the most prestigious beer award. Then in July comes the World Brewing Congress, which meets every four years.

"The local brewers (in San Diego) are doing a whole lot more in the way of experimentation than we see in other areas," said Paul Gatza, director of the Association of Brewers. fast

The biggest local brewery, by far, is Stone Brewing Co., which was founded in 1996 in a San Marcos industrial park and has since grown to 65 employees and $8.3 million in revenue last year.

Stone brewed 25,000 barrels of beer in 2003, and has thus been reclassified as a "regional specialty brewery."

Other local notables include Ballast Point Brewing Co., which brews about 6,000 barrels, and AleSmith Brewing Co., with about 1,000 barrels a year.

The success of companies like Stone, which is credited with forcing open the market for better beers, has made way for a number of new players.

Among them are Green Flash Brewing Co. in Vista, which started making beer last year, and Alpine Beer Co., which was founded in 1999 but didn't brew its own beer until 2002.

"Breweries like Stone and Ballast Point and AleSmith have done such a great job over the years that people are starting to become receptive to new products," said Mike Hinkley, president of Green Flash Brewing Co. "So we launched this baby."

But even as they penetrate local bars and liquor stores, San Diego's microbreweries face the same competitive challenges as every other microbrewery: They are going head to head with beer giants, who spend several hundred million dollars advertising the top few brands each year.

"Even after I watch a football game, I end up asking myself: Why do I want a Bud?" said Peter Zien, owner of AleSmith Brewing Co. in San Diego.

To get their names known, many microbreweries here and around the country have developed their own marketing tricks.

Take Stone, which is known as much for its cocky image as it is for its big and bold beers.

"It is quite doubtful that you have the taste and sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth," reads the label on Stone's best-known beer, "Arrogant Bastard Ale."

Stephen Beaumont, an author of five beer books, said that microbreweries can live or die based on the success of their image, which is often crafted with as much care as a batch of good beer.

"They've become very inventive at getting publicity for themselves," he said. "And that's the way to do it, because they certainly don't have the budget to compete" with bigger breweries.

Veterans of the local microbrew scene – "veterans" being brewers who have been operating for seven or more years – remember the dark days of local brewing.

Back then it was nearly impossible to get their beer into local bars, and supermarkets seemed like a pipe dream. They also whisper about bars engaging in the unseemly – and illegal – practice of making new breweries ante up free kegs to get put on the tap.

"It was very hard. The local breweries all sprung up around the same time and had no following, so they had to create demand where there was none," Nickel said. "So to get into some of the high-volume accounts, you were getting into a situation where you're competing against massive money, and it's a power structure that local brewers can't break into."

Even today, local brewers have trouble penetrating some of the more popular watering holes, such as those in Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.
Tight knit

Local brewers, much like others around the country, are a clubby group that share information and work together even though they are, technically speaking, competitors.

There is no clear career path leading to brewing: many started off as home brewers, some have owned bars, whereas others just happened to sense a business opportunity.

Here's just one example: after graduating from Yale, Nickel, of O'Brien's and Oggi's, started working at a retail store called Home Brew Mart, where he sold AleSmith owner Zien his first home brewing kit.

Home Brew Mart founder Jack White later opened up Ballast Point Brewing Co. as an extension of the store.

Nickel left Home Brew Mart to become an assistant to Tomme Arthur, the head brewer at Pizza Port in Solana Beach, then left for his job at Oggi's. He later bought O'Brien's pub from Jim O'Brien, a local restaurateur who was the first account for a number of local breweries.

There is no perfect formula for creating a local beer scene, though industry watchers have for years tried to figure out why consumers in Portland and Denver, for instance, have long embraced their local breweries, whereas Los Angeles remains weak.

"Why is it that hoppy beers are preferred from Palo Alto to the Canadian border, yet north of the Canadian border hoppy beers cease to exist?" author Beaumont said. "Everyone has tried to figure out how this dynamic operates."
Conor Dougherty: (760) 476-8245;

A look at local breweries

Name\Established\Headquarters\Barrells per year\Signature brands\Distribution

Stone Brewing Co.\1996\San Marcos\25,000\Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Pale Ale,\18 states

\\\\Stone Ruination India Pale Ale\

Ballast Point Brewing Co.\1996\San Diego\6,000\Yellowtail Pale Ale, Calico Amber Ale,\Southern

\\\\Big Eye India Pale Ale\California\

Green Flash Brewing Co.\2002\Vista\2,000\Extra Pale Ale, Ruby Red Ale,\Southern

\\\\Nut Brown Ale\ California

AleSmith Brewing Co.\1995\San Diego\1,000\Horny Devil, Speedway Stout,\Southern California

\\\\Old Numbskull Barley Wine\and Arizona

Alpine Beer Co.\1999\Alpine\650\Alpine Ale, Mandarin Nectar,\San Diego County

\\\\Pure Hoppiness\

Source: Association of Brewers; Union-Tribune