Laid off in 2016 after eight years as Stone’s “beer ambassador,” former Army medic Bill Sysak reinvented himself as co-owner of his own brewery. PACIFIC caught up with Sysak (affectionately known as Dr. Bill) at his new operation, San Marcos’ Wild Barrel Brewing.
PACIFIC: There are now 151 breweries in San Diego County. Is there a limit to the number of breweries we can support and, if so, where is it?
BILL SYSAK: There is still plenty of room for new breweries in San Diego. What you won’t see are many new breweries becoming regional players (producing 15,000 barrels annually). Breweries that make quality beer and have a realistic business plan with the mindset of growing organically with the majority of their annual production being served through their tasting room(s) will continue to pop up and thrive.
At the same time, breweries that are not well thought out, that become stagnant and don’t make great beer will continue to close as the market matures.
There are 12,000 wineries in the U.S., with over 5,000 in California alone. In comparison, there are over 6,000 U.S. independent craft breweries, 750 in California.
Both you and your business partner, brewer Bill Sobieski, are well-known in California beer circles. Still, did you have any concerns about opening a brewery last year?
No, we didn’t. I have been a consultant for breweries and craft beer bars for decades, well before I started my tenure at Stone, and, as you said, (Sobieski) has been around the San Diego beer scene for a very long time. Our third partner, Chris White (not the founder of White Labs, the purveyor of beer yeast), has worked for a large corporation in management and has been a successful entrepreneur for years. We knew we had the right team going in.
How do you stand out in our ever-more-crowded beer landscape?
You need to be hyper-focused on quality and making the beer styles that the craft beer drinking public is looking for. Ten years ago, you could start a brewery, brew any beer styles you wanted and people would come and drink your beer. Not any longer. I’m not saying breweries shouldn’t continue to be innovative and just follow trends, but you must produce the right volumes of beer in the styles that will move.
Which breweries from the class of 2017 are you most excited by?
I think Pariah is making a number of fun beers with unique ingredients. Kyle (Harrop) at Horus Aged Ales in Oceanside is only making barrel-aged beers, which is exciting. Battle Mage is one of my sleepers. I know Burgeon technically opened on Dec. 4, 2016, but their grand opening was in 2017. As I’ve told Anthony (Tallman), Derek (Van Leeuwen) and Matt (Zirpolo) many times, they were my favorite new brewery of 2017 — until we opened!
Which vintage breweries — 10 years old or older — are still killing it?
Stone. It’s hard to argue that a brewery is not thriving when it has successfully opened a production brewery in Europe and has a cold chain delivery system to multiple places in China.
AleSmith and Lost Abbey /Port Brewing are the other two breweries that come to mind. The quality of their beers is never suspect, and they continue to innovate.
Which are getting stale?
I’m going to say Ballast Point. I know many people will think this is a knee-jerk reaction because they are no longer an independent craft brewery, but it’s not. When BP was purchased by Constellation, they started following what I call the “Natty Ice” marketing plan. Historically, macro breweries would produce multiple variations of a beer, both in packaging and style, to control more space on the supermarket shelf, depriving their competition of visibility.
Constellation did this with BP, taking recognized beers like Sculpin, Dorado and Even Keel, then adding single adjunct or additive variations, as opposed to creating new and unique beers.
When you visit a new brewery, what are some signs that tell you that this place is destined for success?
Quality beer, a willingness to be innovative, a well thought-out guest experience, proper glassware and friendly, well-trained staff will get you far, even in a highly competitive, mature market like San Diego.
Quality, quality, quality! It’s simple. Don’t put a beer on tap if it doesn’t come out right. Dump it. Don’t call it something else to fool people into thinking it is OK. Dump it. Don’t throw it in a barrel and pray. Dump it.
You only have one opportunity to make a great first impression. Don’t throw that away because you are unwilling to make the tough decision. Unfortunately, there are many breweries, not just in San Diego, that don’t make the right decision when it comes to this.
692 Rancheros Dr., San Marcos, 760.593.4785, wildbarrelbrewing.com