The Sacramento-based California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) throws the annual California Craft Beer Summit each year as “two full days of education, networking and trade shows for brewers, retailers, distributors, craft beer lovers, and homebrewers.” It’s basically a homegrown mini-Great American Beer Festival, where industry professionals can rub elbows with other Golden State big boys like Sierra Nevada and Firestone Walker. It concludes with the West Coast’s largest beer festival, featuring more than 160 California-based craft breweries.
The CCBA has been around since 1989 — yes, it shares a birthday with Taylor Swift — and their primary function is “to monitor legislative activity at the state Capitol and provide a single and coherent political voice representing the interests of all of California’s craft breweries.” (Thus, the home base in our state capital; it’s easier to make a fuss when you’re literally standing outside lawmakers’ doors.)
Walking into the Convention Center on day one of the Summit was basically a homecoming. I was barely inside before the Pizza Port gang strolled by, followed by a gaggle of Karl Straussians and a delegation from Second Chance. But San Diegans weren’t just in attendance; several smartypants from down south led talks and participated in panels throughout the Summit, including Mark Weslar (Chief Marketing Officer at Karl Strauss), Travis Smith (co-founder/brewmaster at Societe Brewing Company), Greg Koch (co-founder of Stone Brewing), and Chris Sarette (Chief Financial Officer at Modern Times Beer).
“I think, with not just a false sense of pride, we can look at San Diego and go ‘we have a pretty superior craft brewing scene,’” commented Koch to me when we sat down before his keynote address. “There’s no question about it — you can see the influence of San Diego all over the world.” Weslar agrees. “We offer other markets a glimpse of how developed craft can get when the consumer wants it and there is a local industry quenching that thirst.”
Areas of San Diego-led expertise ranged from sour beer program maintenance (Smith) to balancing controlled brewery growth with revenue over time (Sarette), but additional topics from fellow speakers included how to safely — and legally — introduce cannabis into a brewing program, the history of ancient Nordic beer styles, and how to expand a sensory program as part of a brewery’s quality assurance team. (Pro tip: you should probably not put weed in your beer quite yet.)
Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, laid out the facts of the state of California beer in the opening session. Turns out, as a state we’re pretty neck-and-neck with national craft beer trends, with San Diego and other saturated areas like the Bay Area edging ahead when it comes to breweries per capita. “There’s still, insanely, room for growth,” he explained.
That statistical opportunity comes with a caveat. Across the nation — and San Diego is no exception — local is dominating over regional and national growth. Not necessarily local beer, just local. “You’re not in the beer business. You’re in the beverage alcohol business,” Watson pointed out. Beer is forever battling wine and spirits, but has historically had a competitive edge by emphasizing hyperlocality in a way that wine and spirits haven’t in the past. That’s poised to change.
Take North Park for example. It’s one of the most craft beer saturated destinations in San Diego, but it’s also home to one distillery (619 Spirits), a cider house (Bivouac Ciderworks), and an urban winery (Négociant Winery), likely with more on the way. This “beverage creep” promises to put a squeeze on breweries.
Watson’s suggestion spells bad news for hazebros. “Don’t think about what the trend is. Think about what you’re going to do well with and how you can stand out. Chasing these style trends is going to be a losing battle for all but a few breweries.”
In a way, Karl Strauss is one of those few breweries. During Weslar’s presentation, he revealed that two beers that didn’t exist two years ago — Aurora Hoppyalis IPA and Follow the Sun Pilsner — now make up 40% of their sales. Of course, these aren’t wildly niche styles, but to launch such successful interruptions into the current hop mob isn’t an easy feat.
Modern Times’ approach is a little different. They emphasize a multifaceted approach to remain both “trendy” as well as approachable to a variety of beer drinkers at different price points. Sarette explained to me their focus on chains and grocery stores (a major space long dominated by macro beers) came late in the game, but “we’re now seeing huge dividends.”
This is followed by concentrating on retail via multiple strategically located outlets (Point Loma, Portland, Los Angeles, and soon Encinitas, Anaheim, and Santa Barbara) as well as a “smaller but still meaningful” aspect: The League of Partygoers and Elegant People, Modern Times’ membership program with exclusive access to certain beers and merchandise.
“At the end of the day, it’s a relationship business,” Sarette remarked. Focusing on personnel, placing skilled people in the right markets, and nurturing distributor relationships has given them an edge, but “we haven’t done anything extraordinary.” When I ask him what they’re doing right, he boils it down to one major factor. “First and foremost, the answer has to be beer quality.”
By the end of the Summit, I realized that Watson’s prediction of “more competition, more chaos” is likely to be true. But I think there’s sufficient evidence to hope that San Diego will remain on the cutting edge of beer innovation. And if there’s anyone with a ten thousand foot view of the industry and where it’s headed, it’s Koch. I asked him how to stay true to oneself while remaining flexible in an ever-evolving industry. His thoughts? Remain open to inspiration from any source available.
“After I was the business ten years, I was pretty certain I knew what was going on — that I knew what could be done and couldn’t be done, that I had tried pretty much everything. Now, at 22 years into the business, I’m quite certain that I have no idea what’s going on, that I haven’t tried anywhere near what’s possible, and that I will never conceive of or fully understand the possibilities. And that is a wonderful point of discovery and opportunity for participation.”