By Brandon Hernández
Gone but certainly not forgotten, Karl Strauss was one of the key craftsmen who helped initiate San Diego's craft-brewing renaissance.
A German brewmaster whose career at Pabst Brewing spanned 44 years, Strauss was born in 1912 at a brewery run by his father in Minden, Germany. In the late-'80s, he was lured to San Diego by nephew Chris Cramer to put his experience to work for an ambitious start-up: the city's first post-prohibition brewery.
Nowadays, joining the microbrewery ranks seems a savvy business move, but back then, it was uncharted territory in America's Finest. Family ties inspired "Uncle Karl" to jump in the ring, but it wasn't his first rodeo.
"The bulk of his experience was at Pabst, but by the time he came to San Diego, he had already consulted for other microbreweries," says Cramer, CEO and co-founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company. "He believed microbreweries would be the way of the future."
As evidenced by San Diego's 50-plus brewhouses and the fact that the U.S. is home to more than 2,000 breweries, Strauss was right. But had he failed, it would have set a negative precedent that may well have kept our region from blossoming into the thriving hotbed of brewing activity it's become.
"Karl represents expertise, experience and quality. As a brewer, he had the highest standards. Ingredients, temperature, yeast, cleanliness - he wanted it all perfect," Cramer says. "He helped us set up quality control practices that were ahead of our time, and quality standards that continue to be a key focus for us."
With that commitment to perfection, Karl Strauss has grown into the 44th largest craft brewing company in the country, one that includes a full-scale production brewery and seven brewery-restaurants throughout Southern California. It's fitting that the empire Strauss helped build from the ground up, literally, bears his name - even if he doubted the logic behind that move.
"When we asked him if we could use his name, I remember him laughing and saying he wasn't sure it would help us sell beer," Cramer says with a chuckle.
On this one point, Strauss was wrong. The name and image of the sage brewmaster lent authenticity to the brand and resonated with early craft beer drinkers. Karl Strauss was embraced by San Diegans from the moment it debuted in 1989 and, as the company grew, so too did Strauss' popularity.
Strauss most memorable moments on the town included announcing bands at Street Scene and quaffing a big stein of beer with Gulls Girls on the ice at a local hockey game amid roars of an enthusiastic crowd. Then there were those radio commercials with the trademark phrase delivered in that heavy German accent: "If this isn't the best beer you've ever tasted, then my name isn't Karl Strauss."
Strauss most enjoyed such aping from patrons sharing beers with him at the bar, a ritual he indulged in often.
"He was known as a warm, generous, funny person, and people liked to be around him. He had good energy, loved sharing the beer firsthand with customers and hearing their feedback...good or bad."
On October 5 of this year, Uncle Karl would have turned 100 years old. To celebrate that milestone, Cramer and company have redesigned the packaging for their flagship Karl Strauss Amber lager to include an image of the brewmaster in his youth.
"We wanted to honor the impact he made on us and the brewing industry. Karl Strauss Amber was his favorite recipe and his favorite beer," says Cramer. "One of my favorite memories is all of us sitting around, drinking beers to determine the flavor profiles we wanted in our own beers. He was so excited about the amber, because it reminded him of the beers he would drink when he went to his local pub in Munich."
What would Strauss be most proud of if were he to see what the company he launched has become. "Our pioneering spirit," says Cramer, 'the fact we are still evolving, growing and pushing the boundaries; the quality and consistency of our beer; and the fact we are not content to sit on our laurels."