San Diego beer column: Since 2020, 17 local breweries have closed

Peter Rowe hard at work, checking out new beers. His beer column returns today.
Peter Rowe hard at work, checking out new beers. His beer column returns today.
(Courtesy of Peter Rowe)

Welcome back to Brewery Rowe, which has been on hiatus since spring 2020. (Sara Butler’s Hop Talk admirably filled this gap, but she’s departed for fresh writing opportunities on the East Coast.)

I’ve only been gone two-plus years. Nothing’s changed, right?

“There are many things that have become large items in our world,” remarked Tomme Arthur, co-founder and chief operating officer at San Marcos’ The Lost Abbey and Port Brewing, in a recent email.

“Large items” such as …

  • More expensive grains, hops, cans and bottles
  • Soaring gas prices, boosting the cost of shipments
  • Turmoil among staff, due to the “great resignation” and larger payrolls.

“All told,” he continued, “it’s beyond a dog-eat-dog world out there and I expect many small breweries will be struggling this year more than ever before.”

Goliath Stumbles

The San Diego Brewing Timeline, maintained by historian Judith Downie at Cal State San Marcos, makes grim reading. The most recent entries, 2020 to the present, show 17 breweries closing.

Torpedoed by COVID, inflation and supply chain woes, most of the casualties were neighborhood favorites. Au revoir, Automatic! See ya, South Park!.

Yet something even more remarkable occurred: Big Beer was chased from our market.

10 Barrel, which Anheuser Busch INBEV staked to a spacious two-story East Village brewpub in 2017? Shuttered.

Saint Archer, acquired by MillerCoors in 2015? Closed.

These setbacks followed Constellation Brands’ decision to abandon San Diego’s Ballast Point in 2019. The U.S. distributor of Corona and Modelo, Constellation bought Ballast four years earlier for a cool $1 billion. It sold the brewery to a tiny operation — suburban Chicago’s Kings & Convicts — for an undisclosed sum; informed sources peg the price at less than 10 percent of Constellation’s original investment.

Despite these black eyes for out-of-town corporations, staying local is no guarantee of success. Witness this year’s sale of Green Flash/Alpine Beer, once among the 50 largest craft breweries in the U.S.

Significant challenges loom on the horizon. Modern Times was auctioned off last Friday — more on that in the next Brewery Rowe — while Stone, the area’s largest brewery, owes investors $464 million.

But we are also seeing signs of renewed growth and optimism.

Coronado Brewing, where production fell from 41,704 barrels of beer in 2019 to 40,125 barrels in ’20, rebounded to 43,830 barrels in ’21.

The pandemic forced AleSmith, one of the area’s oldest surviving breweries, to lay off some staff and temporarily cut the pay of others. Recently, though, it rolled out a new IPA, Party Tricks, and replaced its clunky canning line with a $1.6 million model.

“It’s top of the line,” said Peter Zien, AleSmith’s owner and paycut recipient. “We’re doing pretty good.”

A new IPA called A Cold Day in Hell.
(Courtesy of Peter Rowe)

Quick Sips

A taste of notable brews.

  • Beer: A Cold Day in Hell
  • From: Fall and Black Plague
  • Style: Cold IPA
  • Alcohol by volume: 6.8%
  • Drink or Dump: Drink. Cold IPAs are a hot trend, and this is one of the coolest. Cold Day successfully combines an easy-drinking lager sensibility to a bold, hop-forward IPA.
  • Beer: Premium Lager
  • From: Tap Room San Diego
  • Style: Helles
  • ABV: 4.8%
  • Drink or Dump: Drink. Lively yet soft on the palate, Premium Lager has a sweet malt character accented by herbal hops.
  • Beer: Japanese Green Tea IPA
  • From: Stone, Baird Brewing and Toshi Ishii
  • Style: Double IPA
  • ABV: 10.1%
  • Drink or Dump: Drink. This revival from 2011 is strong yet supple. Bitter and refreshing, green tea harmonizes with the bracing hops favored by Stone, former Stone brewer Ishii and Baird, one of Japan’s oldest craft breweries.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Dipping into beers and breweries past.

July 1933: Balboa Brewing Company opened on San Diego’s Imperial Avenue. Bismarck pilsner, “The Champagne of Beer,” fueled ales, and Balboa quickly became California’s second largest brewery.

Balboa, we hardly knew ye: By 1935, it left San Diego for good, resettling in L.A.