The last few months have been filled with ups and downs for Groundswell Brewing. The Santee-based operation parted ways with former head brewer Chris Gillogli, bringing in a pair of brewers after his departure, one of which mashed in and backed out in a matter of days. The awkwardness of that occurrence was soon extinguished when Groundswell became the only San Diego brewery to earn multiple medals at September’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF). With its status as the most important annual beer competition in the world, winning there is a big deal and can provide a real charge to a brewery and its staff. That is certainly true for Groundswell’s owners Christianne Penunuri and Kevin Rhodes, who are applying an analytical eye to their business, which has grown to include tasting rooms in Grantville and Chula Vista in addition to its Santee brewery, which produces 1,600 barrels a year (400 barrels of which is beer contract-brewed for other Southern California brewing companies). They have a new plan in place as they near the half-decade mark, so we sat down with Penunuri to find out where the company is and where it’s going.
What has kept you going during Groundswell’s recent flux?
No one ever said it would be easy. At the same time, I think if it were easy, it wouldn’t be the adventure that it’s been. We’re coming up on our five-year anniversary in November and in reviewing our business plan, we are ahead of schedule. But this year has been bittersweet. We won medals at the San Diego International Beer Festival—bronze for Your Mama’s Boy and gold for Piloncillo—and the GABF—silver for Piloncillo and bronze for Know Ego—but we’ve had brewer challenges and Kevin has had health problems. There have been many conversations about walking away, but the industry always brings us back. We’re lucky to have a group of colleagues in the industry that step in to help out when the going has been tough. There’s nothing like the San Diego brew community.
Who is heading brewing for you currently?
Antonio Sanchez—formerly of Packinghouse Brewery, Mike Hess Brewing and Mission Brewery—is on our brew team. He has experience on a 30-barrel system and brewed with the 2017 GABF silver-winning team at Packinghouse. We’ve learned a lot this year about staying true to our brand. Antonio has culinary and brewing background. He’s jumped in and brewed some of our core beers. His first exploratory brew, an unfiltered juicy IPA, is in tanks now.
Your beer portfolio has been a bit of a moving target. Where does that stand?
We spent some time over the summer experimenting with new recipes and styles—a Belgian blonde, saison, cream ale, pale ale, hazy IPAs, brut IPA and Mexican lager. Now that it’s fall, we’re returning to the core beers Undulation white IPA, Hubba Hubba DIPA, Quattro IPA, First Date blonde, Trop Hefe hefeweizen, fruited Berliner weisse, and Piloncillo brown ale. We kept Piloncillo on tap after it won gold at SDBIF, and now with a GABF medal I think its space on the board is secure year round. Kevin’s culinary background informs flavor profiles, thus we always aim for beers that are balanced, which often means lower ABV (alcohol by volume). We’ve never seen ourselves as a brewery that brews with lots of hops or seeks high ABV. We don’t aspire to that space; there are lots of breweries in San Diego already doing that and doing it well. We also see ourselves as the brewery with lots of “entry style” beers. Our cream ale, blonde, Tropical Hefe, and Berliner weisse provide variety for those entering craft beer. We may have gone too far afield of our brand by dropping the core all summer, and customers told us as much. We learned and won’t do that again. Our business model focuses on the tasting rooms, so our primary customers are those sitting on barstools in Grantville, Santee, or Chula Vista.
How has Chula Vista worked out as a tasting room locale?
We’re biased because it’s our hometown, but Third Avenue is THE place to be. The breweries and tasting rooms are totally walkable and they each offer a totally different vibe/energy; there is something for everyone in Chula Vista. There is something so cool about the community…and that each place on Third Ave – Bar Sin Nombre, 3Punks, CV Brew, Third Ave Alehouse, us – is owned by Chula Vista residents. It gives the street the feeling of a small town. If you haven’t been to Chula Vista, you need to come down. It’s not as far as you think; it’s a $20 Lyft from North Park.
What’s next on the agenda for Groundswell?
Mostly, back to basics. Back to the tasting rooms and the customers, checking in on what they are drinking and working on some new recipes. We’re noticing a trend and finding hyper-local style preferences. We want to augment that, creating and building tasting rooms that meet the specific needs of each community. We’re talking to distributors. We’ve self-distributed for a long time and it’s not what we do best nor the reason we got into the industry. We’ll continue to do some fun and interesting collaborations and we’ll continue to support the communities in which we work. I’m really excited about some of the partnerships we are building for San Diego Beer Week. And yes, we’ll continue to look at additional tasting rooms. We explored new markets earlier this year and are quickly reminded that once you leave San Diego, the audience and demand changes dramatically.