With more than 20 breweries debuting across San Diego County this year, it’s no wonder beer fans chase the latest while seeking the greatest. But let’s not forget it was a cooler-ful of classics that transformed a local cottage industry into an international juggernaut.
San Diego County, where Karl Strauss launched the modern beer industry in 1989, is now home to more than 130 breweries. Four locals - Stone, Ballast Point, Green Flash and Strauss - rank among the nation’s 50 largest craft breweries.
In October, county brewers came home from Denver’s annual Great American Beer Festival with 18 medals, as many as all the breweries from Missouri, New York, New Jersey and Texas combined.
While most of our breweries are modest in scale, San Diego beer is big business. In 2015, it generated more than $850 million in sales and employed 4,512 people.
Literally thousands of unique beers are made here. Choosing the “best” is an impossible task. But spotlighting five that altered how beer is marketed, sold and appreciated?
Sure, we can do that. Here are five that put San Diego on the international beer map.
(5.8 percent ABV)
Brewery: Karl Strauss Brewing Co.
Back story: After decades as a solid local performer, Red Trolley enjoyed a late-in-life renaissance that helped broaden San Diego beer’s reputation.
Introduced as a Christmas ale during Karl Strauss’ first year, it was an immediate hit - locally. Thanks to limited distribution and the brewery’s ban on entering competitions, it was relatively unknown outside San Diego County.
When the brewery dropped its ban, though, Red Trolley’s reputation soared. Re-branded as an Irish red ale, it swept that category at the 2010 World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival.
More gold medals followed at the 2012 World Beer Cup and ’13 Great American Beer Festival.
Impact: By the time Red Trolley rolled into competition, San Diego was already known for brewing excellence - primarily due to hoppy India Pale Ales and robust stouts.
Red Trolley expanded this palate while affirming the brewery’s decision to compete. (That decision paid off this year, when Karl Strauss was named best American mid-sized brewery at the Great American Beer Festival.)
While not taking a medal this year, Red Trolley is the brewery’s best-selling beer. Despite the ale’s new identity and several updated labels, the recipe remains the same as it was in 1989.
“I have gone to great lengths to ensure that it stays the same,” said Paul Segura, Karl Strauss' brewmaster. “I would get in great trouble if it changed. I would lose my job.”
Arrogant Bastard Ale
(7.2 percent ABV)
Brewery: Stone Brewing
Back story: Although Stone co-founder Steve Wagner made this beer before the brewery opened in July 1996, it was not released until November 1997.
The Bastard’s parents figured it was too extreme for public consumption.
“There was no indication in the brewing industry, even on the fringes of craft brewing, that such an intense beer would have any place,” said Wagner’s business partner, Greg Koch.
Yet Arrogant Bastard was a hit, paving the way for more strong ales (and more beers with racy names, such as Raging Bitch Ale from Maryland’s Flying Dog).
Impact: Arrogant Bastard cemented Stone’s irreverent, rebellious reputation. Clearly, this wasn’t your parents’ PBR or Miller Lite.
Instead, this brew was pugnacious - and tough. Stone defeated attempts to ban Arrogant Bastard in Indiana and Ohio, where state officials argued the name was obscene.
The label is also provocative. The text opens with a challenge: "This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it.” And it closes with an insult: “Perhaps you think multi-million dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Perhaps you’re mouthing your words as you read this.”
Ignoring Madison Avenue, Arrogant Bastard’s snarky gospel was spread by word of mouth. In 2015, Stone established Arrogant Brewing to promote the original Bastard and its offspring, including Double Bastard and Wussie, a pilsner.
(12 percent alcohol by volume)
Brewery: AleSmith Brewing Co.
Back story: In 1998, a fan asked brewer Skip Virgilio to make a coffee-laced stout. Virgilio, then AleSmith’s owner, complied with modest batches in December ’98 and March ’99.
While potent - the second version came in at 8.5 percent - those beers were no match for the Russian Imperial Stouts the brewer savored during the 2001 strong ale festival at Pizza Port Carlsbad.
In December 2001, Virgilio produced a massive Russian Imperial Stout: Speedway. Roasted malts, dark Ryan Bros. coffee, silky texture, a 12 percent alcohol wallop - this was a stout on steroids, unlike anything seen before.
“I give Skip credit for creating a true masterpiece,” said Peter Zien, who bought AleSmith from Virgilio in July 2002. “We’ve been doing Speedway ever since.”
A portion of Speedway is still aged in bourbon barrels, just as Virgilio did 14 years ago when this was a rare practice.
“I sort of give him credit for starting that whole barrel-aged craze,” Zien said.
Impact: Once heralded as the world’s best beer by ratebeer.com, Speedway has won numerous awards, including a silver medal at the 2008 Great American Beer Festival.
It’s a steady seller with surprisingly broad appeal.
“Year after year, Speedway is either No. 1 or No. 2,” Zien said. “And there’s no typical Speedway drinker. Young ladies will come in and say, ‘Give me a Speedway.’”
(7 percent ABV)
Brewery: Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits
Back story: In an August 2015 document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Ballast Point listed its strengths and weaknesses.
Landing in both categories: Sculpin.
Along with its grapefruit variant, that beer accounted for more than half of the brewery’s $48.9 million sales in 2014. It’s a huge asset for Ballast Point, unless ...
“There can be no assurance that we will maintain or increase market demand for these products,” the company noted in its SEC filing, “or that any decrease will be sufficiently offset by growth in our other products.”
Ballast Point needn’t have worried. The enduring appeal of Sculpin, one of the first India Pale Ales with fresh tropical notes, was a key factor behind Constellation Brand’s decision to pay $1 billion for this San Diego brewery.
Sculpin is a moneymaker and a peacemaker, helping broker a truce in the IBU wars. In the 1990s, breweries around the world vied for the bitterest India Pale Ales, making beers with 90, 100, 110 or more International Bittering Units.
“Whereas Sculpin is the new generation with a lighter body,” said Colby Chandler, a Ballast Point vice president.
“It’s 70 IBUs and 7 percent alcohol, but it drinks like a pale ale.”
Impact: Based on recipes by Doug Duffield and George Cautalin, then employees at Ballast Point’s Home Brew Mart, Sculpin debuted in six-packs at the unheard-of price of $15.
Nonetheless, the beer sold, in bottles, cans and on draft, across the country.
“When it rolled out into New York City,” said Joshua Bernstein, a Brooklyn-based beer writer, “everyone went for it. That lush, tropical, stinging profile was unique - it increased the possibilities of what brewers could do with the IPA.”
At the Great American Beer Festival, it won gold (2007) and silver (2009) medals. Another gold was awarded Sculpin at the 2010 World Beer Cup, where Ballast Point was named small brewery of the year.
“That was the real tipping point for us,” Chandler said, “when you start to see our numbers taking off.”
(9.2 percent ABV)
Brewery: Green Flash Brewing Co.
How it changed the world: Credit the Belgians. San Diego’s Louis Mello told friends at Green Flash about Houblon Chouffe, a Belgian tripel that used hops from the Pacific Northwest.
Chuck Silva, then head brewer for the Flash, sampled the import.
“Well,” he told himself, “if they can do this, then I can do it my way!”
The result was Le Freak, a groundbreaking cross between an American Imperial IPA and a Belgian-style tripel.
“We think it’s the first Belgian IPA made in America,” said Mike Hinkley, Green Flash’s co-owner.
The first, but not the last. Le Freak inspired so many competitors that the Great American Beer Festival competition instituted a new category, the American-Belgo-Style Ale. Le Freak twice took gold in that category - in 2012 and ’15 - plus a silver in 2014.
Impact: In 2012, Le Freak also won a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup and a gold at the Brussels Beer Challenge.
Despite that win in the Belgian capital, overseas attitudes toward Le Freak are complicated even though Green Flash maintains a business alliance with Belgium’s St.-Feuillien.
“Dominque Friart, the leader of St.-Feuillien, came to our brewery in 2009,” Hinkley remembers. “She drank our saison and tripel and loved them.
“And she hated Le Freak.”
Perhaps it was the exuberant American execution that troubled Friart, not the hybrid style. Later, she invited Silva to cross the Atlantic and brew a collaboration beer: Belgian Coast IPA.