By Denise Chang
The way Marc Truex describes it, brewing beer is a delicate balance between passion, art and science.
Head Brewer Troy Smith “kind of throws it together, like a mad scientist in the kitchen, grabbing things and throwing it around,” eventually producing great beer, said Truex, director of sales at Belching Beaver Brewery.
The brewery established its first satellite tasting room in North Park three years ago when there were only three other breweries or tasting rooms in the area. Today, there are almost 10 breweries in the San Diego neighborhood, with more on the way, Truex said.
“We were one of the first breweries to get down there and open a tasting room,” Truex said. “In the three years we’ve been in that location, you now see Mike Hess Brewing, Fall Brewing, Barn Brewery, Rip Current, Modern Times.”
Since then, Belching Beaver Brewery has expanded to five brick and mortar locations including a larger capacity brewery in Oceanside, a brewpub in Vista and a tasting room in Ocean Beach. Their rapid expansion parallels the overall growth of the craft beer industry in San Diego County.
The industry has supported the establishment of over 120 local craft breweries in the county, bringing in more revenue than the annual San Diego Comic Con and opening up over 2,800 jobs in the past five years, according to a National University System Institute report.
Jill Davidson, vice president for the San Diego Brewer’s Guild attributes the growth to a willingness to experiment within a close-knit community of local craft brewers along with the accessibility to local resources.
The San Diego Brewer’s Guild began their work in 1997 to create awareness of San Diego breweries and an open line of communication between brewers. And it worked.
“Every bar you walk into, no matter what part of the county you’re in, you’re going to find more craft than domestic [beer],” Davidson said. “That’s largely due to the last 30 years and the hard work of a lot of our pioneer breweries and the San Diego Brewer’s Guild.”
Local craft brewers have found a community within themselves, and “borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor” isn’t uncommon, Davidson said.
“It’s the ability to work of each other, to use local ingredients, to be able to have that ‘phone a friend’ and ask for them for assistance or ask them for a bag of grain,” she said.
Truex said that it is especially important in an area where there’s so much competition.
“The craft community – since we all rely on each other, its one big family. We get help and support from other breweries,” he said. “They guys from Coronado [Brewing Company] – they’re like a sister company to us, will help us with one leg up or with talking to their accounts, like yeah, Belching Beaver makes good things.”
The craft community has also flourished on a word-of-mouth, where tasting room hopping is a social exercise now, Truex said.
“Your business is just growing because you’re attracting like-minded clientele,” Truex said. “That’s how the craft consumer is. They want to visit multiple spots. They want to try different interpretations of different beers, and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”
People are always excited to try something new and support someone new, Davidson said. “Every time I go to the bar, 90 percent of the time the first beer I’ll have is something I’ve never had before. It’s exciting, you know. It keeps everybody together.”
Perhaps it’s the warm weather, but San Diego is synonymous with having very hoppy beer, said Davidson. Hops are what give beer its bitterness, with a lot of Pacific Northwest and Australian hops being used often.
“We’re known for having a very casual, mellow, light bodied, light flavored grain build,” Davidson said. “There isn’t dominant sweetness [from the malt] but the hops are going to be very bright, very vibrant.”
Belching Beaver Brewery is a prime example of meeting the demands for flavorful and quality beer.
Davidson attributes their success to making clean, consistent beer and putting the right resources in the right place. “It’s pretty neat to see the exponential growth,” she said.
Truex with Belching Beaver said that the company aims to make beers that are approachable and innovative and that craft beer lovers are not just set on one type of beer.
“We’ll make everything across the board from your introductory beer, Me So Honey, that’s really light and crisp but has just enough to keep heavy craft beer drinkers coming back for more,” he said.
“Everyone’s palate is looking to have it all, so you’re getting people that are crawling from tasting room to tasting room,” he added. “We don’t just go to one brewery, we’re gonna go to four, we’re gonna go to five.”
The beer brewing culture in San Diego has roots in the Prohibition era. At the time, there were only three breweries in San Diego: Aztec Brewing Company, San Diego Brewing Company and Balboa Brewing Company. In between, commercialized domestic beer and imported beer were most popular in the United States. However, more homebrewers began creating quality beer in the 1970s, and a new beer culture emerged in San Diego.
The economic impact of the craft beer industry is undeniable. Total annual sales went from $734.7 million in 2014 to $851 million in 2015, according to a recent National University System Institute for Policy Research report. Since 2011, over 2,880 industry jobs were made available, according to the report.
The San Diego Brewer’s Guild continues its work in cultivating the craft beer community, hosting multiple events a year including a job fair, San Diego Beer Week and Rhythm and Blues in Vista.
“Making solid, consistent, clean beer and having the mindset that we’re all in this together will take you really far in San Diego,” Davidson said.
“That’s what it’s about. We want people to come to San Diego, we want them to try beer they’ve never had before and we want them to love it. Whatever we can do to support each other and make that be everyone’s experience when they come into the city, that’s our main goal.”