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Cooper Davisson, Fall 2014

Craft beer industry bubbles in San Diego

Photo by Cooper Davisson

Photo by Cooper Davisson

America’s Finest City might be tapped out as San Diego’s nickname. Because of a growing craft beer industry, ‘Capital of Craft’ may now be brewing to be a city favorite.

San Diego is home to numerous annual craft beer events including San Diego Beer Week, San Diego Festival of Beer, San Diego International Beer Festival and San Diego Winter Brew Fest for locals and tourists alike.

San Diego’s new slogan appears in Pacific Beach on Garnet Avenue above Latin Chef restaurant. This is one of two billboards in the city; the other advertisement is located in North Park. Photo by Cooper Davisson

Also, outside the city, national media are increasingly recognizing the city for its growing beer industry, which dates back to the 1800s and now brings an estimated $300 million to the city’s economy:

  • CNN ranks San Diego one of its “8 Best Beer Towns in the USA”.
  • Travel + Leisure Magazine ranks San Diego in the top ten of America’s Best Beer Cities.
  • BeerAdvocate Magazine named San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company the “the most popular and highest rated brewery ever”.

San Diego’s craft beer history, university-level beer education, industry-generated jobs and bar and restaurant influence have primed the city for brewing success.

Beer brewing history

Beer making in San Diego can be traced back to 1868, when brewing was first documented. Matthew Schiff, the San Diego History Center marketing director, said the first record of beer brewing in San Diego was from an Austrian immigrant-brewer, Conrad Doblier. In the 1850s, Doblier traveled to the Chollas Valley where he discovered a natural spring to brew his beer.

The techniques he learned inspired Doblier to establish San Diego’s first brewery.

MULTIMEDIA: San Diego History Center has collected photos from the city’s beer brewing past. The Center’s Matthew Schiff taps into San Diego beer history from the first record in the city to the Prohibition era.

Crafting a beer culture

After Prohibition ended in 1933, San Diegans returned to brewing beer in their home city. San Diego had only three breweries at the time: Aztec Brewing Company, San Diego Brewing Company and Balboa Brewing Company all located downtown. In 1935, San Diego Brewing Company and Aztec Brewing Company were producing 25 percent of California’s beer.

However, through the 1940s and 1950s commercialized-domestic beer and imported beer became popular, edging out the locally-produced beer industry. San Diego county did not commercially produce beer from 1953-1987. However, in the 1970s a new beer culture emerged in San Diego.

Schiff said as more San Diegans traveled to other countries and tasted beer abroad, they learned how to better brew beer back home.

“In the 70s there was a huge group of homebrewers,” Schiff said. “People who had been to Europe and tasted beers that they’d never tasted here, so they started homebrew clubs. They would really focus on recipes, making sure they were of good quality and making sure they were very open about sharing.”

Through the various homebrewing clubs, most notably Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity, known as QUAFF, brewers decided to commercialize their own beers.

“QUAFF is the most decorated homebrew club in the United States, hands down,” Schiff said. ”Their beers started hitting the market and the rest is history.”

Craft through collaboration

This collaborative homebrewing in San Diego gave rise tomany well-known breweries today. Homebrewer Jack White established Home Brew Mart in the early 1990s which later turned into to Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits with fellow homebrewer Yuseff Cherney. Chuck Silva started homebrewing and became the head brewmaster at Green Flash Brewing Company. Alpine Brewing Company’s owner and brewmaster Pat Mcilhenney started as a homebrewer in San Diego. Tomme Arthur, co-founder and director of brewery operations at The Lost Abbey, a beer brand of Port Brewing Company, started homebrewing after his return from college.

Schiff said the ingrained collaboration between homebrewers spawned the San Diego Brewers Guild. This gave members a forum where they could get together and analyze beer, maintaining a quality control that is held today.

The established culture blossomed into a region with now more than 90 different breweries and an industry that has a significant impact on San Diego’s economy and workforce.

MAP: San Diego Tourism Authority map displays locations of all current breweries in San Diego county.


The craft impact

The National University System Institute for Policy Research estimated that the craft breweries and brewpubs in San Diego county generated an generated an economic impact  of $299.5 million in 2011.

WIth the craft beer culture established, beer was brewed to boom in the city.

“With the great pull of homebrewers across the nation, and specifically in San Diego county … there was always going to be the ability for us to expand and explode as a business model,” said Stone Brewing Company’s Craft Beer Ambassador Bill Sysak.

From 2011 to 2013:

  • there was a 40 percent increase in the number of craft brewing jobs in San Diego county from 1,630 to 2,279,
  • total annual sales have grown from over $680 million in 2011 to over $781 million in 2013 and
  • regional brewery wages are among the highest in the US, higher than beer cities such as Portland, Denver and Asheville.


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San Diego has the highest annual average wage of brewery workers among big brewing counties in the US. Topping out at $38, 598, this figure reflects differences in cost of living in the city. Orange county, which has a higher median income and cost of living than San Diego county, pays brewery workers less, $33,262, than San Diego county. Graphic by National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Glass half-full

However, brewery and brewpub workers make less than average wages in San Diego county. The average master-brewer salary in the county is over $36,000 compared to the average county worker salary of over $51,000 annually.

A 2014 study conducted by the Institute found that craft brewing in San Diego’s North County, an area with nearly 40 breweries and brewpubs, had a $272 million economic impact on the region in 2013. The study accounted for wages, capital expenses and contracts in the region. The research included brewers, brewpubs, homebrew shops, hop farms and one brewing system designer. Combined, these businesses generated $185 million in total annual sales.

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Business records for all brewers, brewpubs, hop farms, homebrew supply stores and brewery system designers determined the economic impact in the area. The 2014 Comic-Con had an economic impact of $177.8 million. Graphic by the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Understanding the craft

San Diego’s beer education programs have also contributed to industry success. Both San Diego State University and University of California San Diego, offer certification programs that include instruction on brewing craft beer as well as the business behind the industry.

Courses such as beer styles at SDSU focus on characteristics of rare beer styles and explore off flavors within each style of beer. Students are tested by blindly sampling beers to determine the particular style or off flavor. SDSU also offers business classes surrounding the craft beer industry, like brewery start-up and marketing craft beer.

One student, 23-year-old Alex Montelbano, said he noticed a big difference between drinking a beer and actually tasting and understanding it.

“In class, they have cups on each table that have different aromas that help you discover aromas in the beer. These cups contain items such as clove, white pepper, graham cracker pieces and various grains and hops.”

UCSD offers seven courses focused on understanding the science and technology of brewing. Certain classes structure their curriculum around the chemistry of beer.

Courses include:

  • raw materials and malting,
  • wort production and recipe formulation and
  • yeast and fermentation processes.

Sysak said that as craft beer consumers become more educated, there will be job opportunities for certified beer-experts through the Cicerone program, especially as breweries attach restaurants.

Cooper Davisson - Text Story

The three-tier Cicerone Certification Program tests students on their beer knowledge. According to the Cicerone registration, there are over 1,000 people with Cicerone certifications in San Diego county. Graphic made by Cooper Davisson.


“You can see where there’s a lot of potential for growth and there are a lot of layers involved where there’s need for people, ” Sysak said.

Sparking innovation

Not only has the industry affected the job market in San Diego, it has also attracted tourists and locals to sample the craft bar scene in San Diego.

Barrel Republic is the only self-serve craft brew bar in San Diego. Located in the heart of Pacific Beach, this neighborhood bar has 44 beer taps with a variety of local, national and international beers from which to choose.

MULTIMEDIA: Barrel Republic allows beer-goers to self-serve their own beer

 Barrel Republic is set to open two other locations in Carlsbad and Oceanside in the near future.

Crafting the future

According to the San Diego craft beer magazine West Coaster, more than 30 breweries are scheduled to open by 2015 within the county. Some local breweries have become so well known that they are expanding to other parts of the country and overseas.

Green Flash Brewing Company hosts events across the nation to showcase their San Diego beer. Stone Brewing Company is expecting to open a brewery and restaurant in both Richmond, Virginia and Berlin in late 2015 or early 2016. With the opening in Berlin, Stone will become the first American craft brewer to independently own and operate a brewery in Europe.


About Cooper Davisson

I am a San Diego State University alumni seeking a career in producing informative, entertaining and engaging content. I am an avid sports fan who loves to travel.


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