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One last toast: A refreshing farewell to 25 years on the San Diego beer beat

Columnist Peter Rowe shown at Ballast Point in this 2006 photo.
(Courtesy of Meg Rowe)

As retirement looms, here’s my pick for the biggest stories in local beer

The credit — or blame, if you prefer — belongs to my brother-in-law, Pete Evans.

In 1995, Pete marked my 40th birthday with a much-appreciated gift: 40 beers. I proceeded to drink one a night, taking notes on each.

Those notes became a story, and the story eventually led to a column, Brewery Rowe. Originally a monthly feature in the Food section, later a weekly page in the Night & Day entertainment guide, that column ends now with my retirement from The San Diego Union-Tribune.

This has always been a sideline, as editors have kept me busy on news features, profiles, obituaries and religion. But no beat has given me greater pleasure, as I’ve followed the local craft beer scene in more than 1,000 columns and stories.

Join me, please, for one last look at the biggest stories off this beat.

Bold beginnings, 1989-2000

Local beer’s modern era began when Karl Strauss opened its Old Columbia brewpub in February 1989. A handful soon followed — Pizza Port Solana Beach in 1992, San Diego Brewing Co. in ’93, AleSmith in ’95. White Labs, a Miramar company that is now one of the nation’s largest suppliers of brewers’ yeast, also was founded in ’95.

But our annus mirabiles, or miraculous beer year, was 1996. That year, Ballast Point, Coronado and Stone debuted, while the first bottles rolled out of Karl Strauss’ new production brewery in Rose Canyon.

Two years later, Charles “Skip” Virgilio put San Diego on the national beer map when his AleSmith Belgian Strong Ale won a silver medal at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. This was a harbinger of things to come: local breweries were shut out at the ’99 GABF, but have won multiple medals in this notable competition for 20 years straight.

The ‘90s also saw festivals become important tools to showcase local beer. The San Diego Festival of Beer was first (1994). Stone’s annual anniversary fest (2001) would become one of our largest and best.

Right from the start, local brewers won a reputation for bold flavors and boundary-busting beers. Stone’s massively hopped IPA and Arrogant Bastard Ale both appeared in 1997. Three years later, GABF awards went to Stone’s complex Old Guardian Barleywine; Tomme Arthur’s tart Cuvee de Tomme, made for Pizza Port Solana Beach; and AleSmith’s Stumblin’ Monk, a Belgian-style pale ale.

Glory days, 2001-2014

Two larger-than-life figures held sway over San Diego’s nascent beer culture, representing two distinct philosophies and generations.

Karl Strauss was a genial German immigrant and celebrated Milwaukee brewer. Born in 1912, he was retired from Pabst when he allowed a relative, Chris Cramer, use his name, image and recipes for a San Diego brewery. Strauss insisted on balanced, meticulously crafted beers, and preferred smooth lagers to lively ales.

Greg Koch was a brash Californian a generation or two younger than Strauss. With Steve Wagner, Koch founded Stone, a brewery that favored attention-grabbing ales, full of hop bitterness and bursting with citrus and pine notes.

Strauss was a charming storyteller, steeped in the romance of beer’s European heritage. If he looked like a kindly grandfather, Koch could resemble a rock n’ roll roadie, given to dying his hair in electric shades of green and growing a beard of Biblical proportions. (One German publication dubbed him “der bier Jesus.”)

Both Strauss, who died in 2006, and Koch had lasting influence on San Diego beer. Full-flavored, hop-forward beers like those championed by the latter are now common at local breweries, while the best adopted the former’s insistence on clean, consistent beers.

And their two breweries trained a generation of brewers, many of whom left to found their own breweries.

Gradually, a gold rush mentality took hold. In 2001 and ’02, just two breweries opened in the county. In 2015-2016, there were 41 newcomers.

This boom opened many doors. Women poured into the field, encouraged by groups like the national Pink Boots Society (founded in 2007). Inspired by San Diego beers, Baja Californians led Mexico’s craft beer revolución via Mexicali’s Cucapá (2002), Ensenada’s Agua Mala (2009) and Tijuana’s Insurgente (2014).

When Mikel Borg Bjergso, a Danish “gypsy brewer” whose iconoclastic beers were brewed on borrowed equipment around the globe, decided to open his own brewery, only one location would do. In 2015, he opened Mikkeller Brewing San Diego.

Age of colonization, 2015-2019

San Diego’s beer scene attracted more than local entrepreneurs, Baja brewers and European vagabonds. In September 2015, MillerCoors bought Miramar’s Saint Archer for a reported $35 million.

Local brewers and craft beer fans protested Big Beer’s incursion, but a bigger shock followed in November. That’s when Constellation Brands bought Ballast Point for $1 billion, still believed to be the most ever paid for a craft brewery.

San Diego’s independent breweries’ sense of being under siege peaked in 2017 when 10 Barrel, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, opened a sleek two-story East Village brewpub.

Yet craft breweries were not above colonizing far-flung locations. In 2016, Mira Mesa-based Green Flash opened a brewery in Virginia Beach, Va. That same year, Stone opened brewery/restaurant complexes in Richmond, Va., and, in a direct challenge to Germany’s hallowed brewing tradition, Berlin.

Stone followed that audacious move in 2018 by opening a tap room in Shanghai. The world was wide open, and San Diego beer was pouring in.

Reversals and retrenchment, 2018-present

Beer, it turns out, cannot defy gravity. Having flown so high for so long, it was overdue for a fall.

The first sign of trouble came in early 2018. Within a few weeks, Green Flash closed Cellar 3, its barrel-aging facility in Poway; sold its Virginia Beach brewery; and sold the entire company at a loss to investors.

A year later, Stone was also in retreat, selling its Berlin campus to Scotland’s BrewDog.

Last year closed with another reversal: Constellation dumped an under-performing Ballast Point, selling to a tiny Illinois brewery, Kings & Convicts. Craft beer purists took heart, as Ballast Point’s fabled Sculpin IPA once more comes from an independent brewery.

San Diego brewers anticipated a tough 2020, with more than 150 local breweries competing for fans, tap handles and shelf space in supermarkets and bottle shops. Papa Marce’s, a Carlsbad brewery, closed in February; Rock Bottom La Jolla in early March, just as Toronado San Diego, a prominent beer bar, announced it would shut down.

Then came the coronavirus.

Stone, citing the pandemic and tariffs, shuttered its Shanghai operation. At home, county breweries lost their draft business, as restaurants and taverns were closed to drinkers and diners. Brewery restaurants and tap rooms, too, were closed to patrons.

Breweries have shifted most of their business to canned and bottled beers that can be enjoyed inside self-quarantined homes, and offer curbside pickup and delivery of their products.

For some, though, the virus may prove to be a fatal blow. This week, 10-year-old Iron Fist closed its Vista brewery and Barrio Logan outpost.

Unfortunately, I am taking my leave during a period of uncertainty and turmoil. Still, I have no doubt that San Diego beer — to steal a line from a prodigious imbiber, William Faulkner — will not only survive but thrive.


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