I work for a San Diego brewery. There aren’t enough words or page-space on the planet to adequately convey how much that means to me and others in San Diego County’s craft-brewing community. Membership means so much: pouring one’s heart and soul into a collective movement; being engaged, thoughtful, upright stewards of a region’s hard-earned reputation; helping out would-be competitors by lending them time, ingredients, machinery, cold-box space, advice and even manpower; standing shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and colleagues in the name of lifting a rising tide. And it means doing all of this in one of the most competitive environments for beer in the world. Many are the brewers crafting world-class India pale ales that aren’t even in most peoples’ top 50 IPAs. Those beers would kill most anywhere else, but being a part of this scene is so special, brewers are willing to trade fame elsewhere for the challenge of securing their own piece of the San Diego brewing dream—one that was realized through the sweat, elbow-grease and determination of artisans who’ve fought for years, armed with little more than quality ales and lagers, to garner recognition that’s hard to come by in a culture dominated by the likes of Budweiser, Coors and Miller. So you can understand why many of us are more than a little angry to see Big Beer hijack our hometown’s name on a technicality in an attempt to fool locals and visitors alike into thinking one of their brands is one of us when they most certainly are not.
Last January, news broke that a 10 Barrel Brewing brewpub was coming to downtown San Diego’s East Village area. Many beer fans are familiar with 10 Barrel as the Bend, Oregon-based craft brewery that sold out to AB InBev in 2014, then immediately expanded its brewing capacity and beer distribution after major investments from its new owners. It is one of the numerous craft interests to sell part or all of itself to giant macro-beer conglomerates in the past half-decade as Big Beer behemoths struggle with decreasing market-share, thanks in significant part to the rise of the craft-beer movement and the country’s shift to buying local products and supporting local businesses. Seeing the steady increase of craft’s market-share, Big Beer went with the if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em model, gobbling up regional brands as quietly as possible and winning back shelf- and tap-space nationwide. And now, with people shifting to the support-your-local-everything model, AB InBev is constructing “local” 10 Barrel brewpubs in cities with notable craft-beer cultures and sales, including Portland, Boise, Denver and our very own San Diego.
Perhaps you’ve heard about this project. If you haven’t, it definitely isn’t for lack of trying on AB InBev’s part. With the San Diego pub scheduled to open next week, in typical Big Beer fashion, they are making a full-scale marketing push with media tours and advertisements (one as flashy as a full back-page and partial front-page wrap in a popular gratis San Diego publication printed over consecutive weeks) proclaiming their shiny new property as a “San Diego pub and brewery”. Yes, it’s a pub. Yes, it’s a brewery. Yes, it’s in San Diego. But this would be like seeing a Waffle House or White Castle come to town and bill itself as “a San Diego eatery and place to detox after the bars close.” Yes, it’s an eatery. Yes it’s a place to detox after the bars close. But it’s in no way “San Diego” just because of geography. These are chains that have no history here. They belong to other communities, communities that it would be a lot more respectful to name versus omit, but to do that would undermine AB InBev’s entire mission: to blend into the fabric of one of the country’s most revered brewing regions to snag a piece of the pie for themselves and, in the process, destabilize a vital craft-centric area. The 10 Barrel brewpubs are to small, local breweries what Wal-Mart is to Main Street USA mom-and-pops and hometown interests, built to replace in the name of growth and prosperity at the expense of all others.
America’s drink-local shift is one of the best things to ever happen to regional breweries…but it’s the bane of the big boys, whose only playing pieces in the micro-regional game are the pawns they’ve shelled out millions for in hopes the public won’t be able to tell the difference and will patronize thinking they are supporting actual, authentic craft-beer companies or, in this case, local craft breweries. Siting their two-story, roof-deck adorned, aesthetically pleasing, bell-and-whistle rich brewpub in downtown San Diego was no accident. The number of visitors who stay, play and attend events at the nearby San Diego Convention Center is immense. The vast majority of them won’t know the 10 Barrel brewpub is different from downtown’s legitimate local brewing operations (Half Door Brewing, Karl Strauss Brewing, Mission Brewery, Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery, Resident Brewing and Knotty Brewing, for those looking to make an informed decision), and will likely flock there as it will certainly have robust advertising geared directly to out-of-towners. A percentage of these misinformed individuals will go on to tell others about drinking “San Diego craft beer” at this place called 10 Barrel, the lie will be perpetuated and—like the notion that Budweiser is some all-American (it’s not) king of beers (as much as the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s team” simply because their owner says so)—AB InBev will chalk up another small victory against the thousands of craft breweries that know they’ll never win, but simply wish to compete on a level playing field they will never have. Big Beer simply won’t allow it, because if those corporations had to rely solely on the merit of their products, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
San Diego is already home to satellite links in national brewpub chains, namely Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom, neither of which make such attempts to proclaim themselves as San Diegan…even though they’ve paid plenty of dues and, in turn, have every right to count themselves as real and respected members of our community. The head brewer for the former is San Diego’s most respected lager expert. In addition to offering advice to the many dozens of local brewers who’ve sought it, he also holds numerous industry mixers to help foster the camaraderie of our county’s fermentation specialists, and has helped countless local charities. And the brewer who helmed Rock Bottom’s San Diego brewpub for nearly a decade-and-a-half served as the president of the San Diego Brewers Guild during a time when that volunteer position’s luster was at an all-time low. These brewpubs deserve the description AB InBev is self-proclaiming…but they are far from the only ones who’ve paid their dues.
Last weekend, Pizza Port’s Solana Beach brewpub celebrated its 30th year in business. In three decades, Pizza Port has grown into an empire of five coastal brewpubs that has earned scores of national and international medals for beers spanning styles the world over, and brought up more talented young brewers than I have time to list here. Its tiny but mighty Solana Beach spot opened nearly a decade before the likes of San Diego County breweries that would go on to become giants, seeing the beauty in brewing house beers before it was a proven business model rife with modern-day pomp and prestige. Pizza Port blazed trails and helped a great many along the way, all the while staying true to its local roots. Now there’s a business that should have ads plastered all over the local rags with the proud proclamation SAN DIEGO PUB AND BREWERY.
Big Beer looks at an institution like Pizza Port, Karl Strauss’ quintet of local brewpubs (including San Diego’s longest continually operating post-Prohibition brewery downtown), the 20-year-old San Diego Brewing Company and other authentically local operations, and they think to themselves: How can we make consumers think we’re every bit as local as them?
Make no mistake. AB InBev isn’t interested in being a member of San Diego’s brewing community. The purpose of installing a 10 Barrel brewpub in the heart of San Diego is to chip away at the local brewing community, siphoning off precious market-share from other San Diego craft breweries through its latest attempt at consumer deception. And to do it with a purchased craft-brand hailing from another city that even 10 Barrel barely belongs to at this point is about as convoluted as it gets. Which is a great thing for AB InBev. In a few years, how many people will remember this progression? Right now, even with the subject of acquisitions and locality at the forefront in the brewing industry, only the most engaged beer enthusiasts know which brands are truly craft and which are now Big Beer concerns or faux-craft brands created by macro-beer conglomerates to look like legitimate craft interests. It’s only going to get more difficult.
When meeting with 10 Barrel co-founding partner, Garrett Wales, earlier this week at his downtown property, he said he feels good about his company’s “partnership” with AB InBev in light of acquisitions that have taken place after he and his partners’ decision to sell, pointing to Ballast Point Brewing, Lagunitas Brewing and Stone Brewing, which he says sold a big portion of the company to a private investors and was subsequently “gutted.” (When reached for comment on this subject, Stone co-founder Greg Koch, commented that he and co-founder Steve Wagner “remain the majority owners, maintain full board control, are 100% within the Brewers Association’s definition of a ‘craft brewer,’ and pull their own strings and write their own checks, thank you very much.”) Wales says 10 Barrel is 100% responsible for all of its brewpub expansion initiatives and that AB InBev merely signs off on ideas and subsequently signs checks. He says that the San Diego pub is not being billed as a part of the Bend-based business and instead as a “San Diego pub and brewery” because it will operate as an “independent arm of 10 Barrel” that will be “completely localized” and have its own regional feel.
When asked about the elephant in the room—namely, the bitter reception from San Diego brewers and devout fans of local craft beer—Wales contested, saying the reception has been “extremely good”. He mentioned a great deal of positivity on social media and said his team has visited many of San Diego’s breweries, interacted with their personnel and said they are as psyched 10 Barrel is coming. However, in communications conducted yesterday on the condition of anonymity, 80% of local brewery owners questioned stated they feel 10 Barrel’s arrival is a bad thing, with most of them expressing anger over deceptive advertising tactics as well as perceived underhanded and destructive motivations on AB InBev’s part..
Wales is aware that there are those who are against his project, but dubs them “a vocal minority.” Overall, he is bullish on the brewpub’s chances for success and urges locals to take 10 Barrel at face-value and give the business a chance. San Diego brewers are used to being in the minority; it’s a craft brewer’s lot in life, thanks mostly to Big Beer’s efforts to keep smaller competitors down. Please just give us a chance is the war cry of the entire craft-brewing industry. Like labeling an out-of-town Big Beer venue as “San Diego”, it sounds silly for a corporate wolf in local sheep’s clothing to lift that mantra from small businesses that actually need attention from a populace that so heavily consumes macro-beer over craft-beer—even at the height of the latter’s popularity—that Big Beer boasted well over 75% market share by volume nationwide in 2016, according to brewing industry trade group, the Brewers Association.
San Diego’s beer culture and reputation didn’t happen overnight. Our people—your people, San Diegans—worked unbelievably hard to build this magical confluence of flavor, quality and cachet in our own backyard. We will continue to protect and preserve it and hope San Diegans will do the same. Supporting local businesses is a noble notion and an even nobler practice. To each their own, of course, but if you agree, be sure your money is going where you think it is and not to a multi-national conglomerate Trojan horse.