San Diego’s craft beer scene has come full circle before Arsalun Tafazoli’s eyes.
When Tafazoli opened Neighborhood Ale House in 2006, he didn’t want it to be another bar in Downtown where shiny-shirts came to get hammered. Instead, the 25-year-old San Diego native wanted a place where beer would be appreciated for having substance.
“When we were starting out, young brewers would come in and tell stories about how they mortgaged their houses—put everything on the line to get their product out there,” says Tafazoli. “There was so much passion behind it. It was incredible to me that it didn’t have the same credibility as wine.”
Tafazoli made moves. His staff of mostly women were pros on the ins and outs of beer styles and food pairings. He regularly hosted meet-the-brewer nights―with out of towners like the venerable Dogfish Head and Allagash. Lee Chase (Blind Lady Ale House, Automatic Brewing Co., Tiger! Tiger!) was hired as Neighborhood’s first beverage manager.
“If Lee’s behind the bar pouring you a beer—to this day—he’ll get you behind it. It’s amazing to watch,” says Tafazoli of Chase, a mad beer scientist of sorts who worked as head brewer at Stone for nearly 10 years until 2006. “That got really hip; people would come in to taste more stuff. We’d get letters saying ‘I didn’t know what good beer was before.’ We really built a community one person at a time.”
Around the time of the housing market crash, there was a boom of creativity among brewers, says Tafazoli. And newly-broke winos took note. This is when Neighborhood took off, and gave rise to a new order of local establishments.
“San Diego is littered with gastro pubs now,” Tafazoli says. “Nowadays, the word “craft,” the term “farm to table”—it’s all been commodified. It’s a trend that people exploit. You see these banners hanging in front of places everywhere say “craft beer.” It’s more than getting a tap system installed; that’s just one component in the context of this bigger picture. You have to make sure the whole story makes sense or else it doesn’t work.”
Having grown from 33 breweries in 2007 to 88 at time of print, some of the craft beer scene’s original players are wary of its sustainability.
“It used to be that there was this young guy starting a brewery, and you’d want to support it. And now every day it’s someone else. It’s great for the proliferation of the culture, but I think some people are getting into the business for the wrong reasons.”
Tafazoli’s approach to success has launched what is today one of San Diego’s most ambitious and talked about hospitality brands, Consortium Holdings (CH). In 2008 he joined forces with Nate Stanton (El Dorado), when both of their businesses were gaining momentum in the up and coming East Village. Since, the two have undeniably elevated drinking and dining culture in San Diego with eight successful concepts and counting.
It doesn’t hurt to have a dream team behind their backs, with two-star Michelin Chef, Jason McLeod, helming kitchen operations for all the projects, and highly reputed bartenders like Erick Castro (Polite Provisions) and Anthony Schmidt (formerly of Noble Experiment, now headed to new project Rare Form). Then there’s local designer Paul Basile, whose past projects include Bankers Hill Restaurant + Bar and Acme Southern Kitchen.
Just last year, CH won national praise for two of its projects. The speakeasy Noble Experiment (designed by Mauricio Couturier) made Esquire Magazine’s top 100 bars list and Polite Provisions won Imbibe Magazine’s Cocktail Bar of the Year. The James Beard Foundation also loved Erick Castro’s Mayan Concubine cocktail at Polite, naming it one of their favorites of 2013, from a spot that opened the same year, no less.
“We want our spaces to promote our core values. It’s why we don’t do vodka or shit beer, and think about every aspect of a space—because it’s a reflection of who we are and what we want to perpetuate to our community,” says Tafazoli. “It was the Greg Kochs [Stone CEO] and the Lee Chases who reaffirmed what I thought. At first, people were coming in to Neighborhood and not getting it, and sticking to our identity and not watering it down—back when everything was on the line—that’s what made us.”
CH’s first all-out culinary endeavor, Ironside Oyster, has been packed since opening in early May. In the works are North Park’s Underbelly, an East Village juice bar, and Rare Form, a Jewish Deli that will share space with a Stone tasting room in the historic Simon Levi building next to Petco Park.
Tafazoli says of the perceived “seasonal” neighborhood, “The stadium has shaped the cultural geography of East Village, and not in a good way. Too many businesses cater to the stadium crowd. It’s not about walk-by traffic for us, it’s about the great community of people who live there,” he says. “We’ll create a synergy there with the two different businesses. The idea is that our core values are very much alike. Stone knows who they are, they stuck to it, and it’s been effective. They paved the way for a lot of people. You have to respect it.”
No one could have predicted the force that craft beer would play in the trajectory of Tafazoli’s businesses, let alone its tremendous impact on the local economy. Tafazoli points out that the proof lies in a craft beer newspaper like West Coaster—something most people wouldn’t have looked twice at a decade ago.
Still, Tafazoli remains cautiously optimistic about San Diego’s brewing future.
“A lot of brewing companies have popped up without understanding the soul and economics of the business. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of these guys will be able to sustain,” he says. “In the end, I want everyone in the community to be successful, but unfortunately capitalism is harsh. I think there is a lot of local talent sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how things play out. I see them stepping up as other people phase out. Then, we’re going to experience a stronger renaissance.”