San Diego has rich history in brewing

Prohibition all but decimated independent breweries launched in the 19th century.


Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories looking at the recreation and entertainment attractions that make San Diego a unique destination as the city celebrates its 250th anniversary.

With around 200 breweries now operating in San Diego County, it’s easy to get lost in the latest and greatest openings, special releases and the chase of tasty award-winners. And, while the local craft brew scene may seem fresh and new in the past few decades, there’s actually a long and rich history of brewing in San Diego. A history, which, like many areas of the country, was all but decimated for years due to the ravages of Prohibition.

However, the San Diego craft spirit was not to be suppressed, and brewing would rise again, in full force, resulting in today’s bursting scene. PACIFIC teamed up with professor Andy Strathman, PhD, co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History and lecturer at California State University, San Marcos to uncover the sudsy history of local brewing.

PACIFIC: When does brewing date to in San Diego?

ANDY STATHMAN: If we go back to the 19th century, there were local breweries, and they were independent into the early 20th century. The big development, of course, was prohibition, and it killed local brewing. Some of the brewers survived by shifting to nonalcoholic beverages.

What happened after Prohibition?

By the end, in 1933, it had almost destroyed brewing locally, with the exception of three San Diego brewers who did survive through the Prohibition period. The big producers stepped in, and there was a long period from the 1930s to the 1980s when little local brewing was being done. The last San Diego brewery closed in 1953, mainly because of consolidation in the industry and the dominance of national breweries.

But, a revival of brewing took place, and the state of California legalized homebrewing in 1978. This led to experimenting, and that created an underground culture here and in other parts of California. In the early 1980s, the state passed a law which allowed brewpubs to operate. By the late 1980s it becomes a larger phenomenon, and people are more interested in moving away from mass produced beer.

When does local brewing finally hit San Diego?

The big event in San Diego is the opening of Karl Strauss in 1989, and that is the beginning point to the development of the local brewing scene. It spawned other breweries, with Karl Strauss employees starting their own breweries, like Pizza Port. The Homebrew Mart, which opened in 1992 in Linda Vista would spawn Ballast Point. By the 1990s, a number of craft brewers were opening operations, like AleSmith, Stone, and Coronado.

What was the significance of White Labs opening?

White Labs (a yeast production company) opened in the mid-1990s, and this is important because homebrewers had previously been using dried yeast. They were now producing liquid yeast which provided a wider range of yeast strains. The result was higher quality and a much wider spectrum of styles.

When did the word “craft” become a term locally?

The use of “craft” is part of a larger phenomenon. It’s about the moving away from mass production and focus on care and high quality ingredients. For a long time, the word microbrewery was commonly used, but by 2006 and 2007 the term craft was being used here.

What is craft brewing like now in San Diego?

With the explosion of craft brewing as a movement, a lot of it has to do with a cooperative culture. There is cross-fertilization and collaboration, and the transition of personnel, like brewers getting their start in established breweries and then beginning their own breweries.