For 25+ years, the craft brewing industry has been ingrained in San Diego’s culture + economy — so much so that our city is known as the Capital of Craft. But how did America’s Finest City rise to the top of the independent beer scene?
The San Diego Brewers Guild (SDBG) — a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the production + distribution of small, local craft beer — has been instrumental to the sudsy success. We asked its executive director, Paige McWey Acers, 15 questions about our local brewing scene including the history of the guild, collabs, and which beer is the most San Diego.
Q: Please give us a brief history of the San Diego Brewers Guild. How many breweries did it start with?
A: The San Diego Brewers Guild was founded in 1997. We had 15 breweries back then, but only eight of them are still operating today. Those [founding members who are still with the SDBG] were AleSmith, Ballast Point, Coronado [Brewing Company], Karl Strauss, Pizza Port, San Diego Brewing Company, Stone, and Oggi’s — though back then, Oggi’s was called Stuft Pizza.
From 1997 to 2011, the brewery members and volunteers kind of ran the organization. As the industry was growing — in early 2010-ish — they decided they needed to be more formal, so they set out and created their Board of Directors so they could have more events and programming as the industry was growing across the county. I was hired in 2013 — nine years ago, actually.
Q: Today, how many small, independent brewers are part of the SDBG?
A: [As of June 1, 2022] we have 186 brewing locations that our organization represents. That includes everything from the larger production facilities to their ancillary tasting rooms, to brewpubs and restaurants.
Q: What beer is just so San Diego?
A: I think AleSmith’s .394 is kind of that unofficial official San Diego beer. The history of the beer — the relationship with the Padres + Tony Gwynn, that story is so special to San Diegans. And the beer style in general: Very nice, clean pale ale that is not going to wreck your palate but it’s also not super light — it’s a perfect San Diego beer.
Q: Describe our current craft beer scene in three words.
A: Committed. They’re committed to staying in business and to serving the people who have been so supportive of them throughout the years.
Collaborative. Brewers continue to work together through traditional beer collaborations, but also through the BrewCycle program where breweries are working together to figure out how to reduce their waste, which is really cool.
Innovative. Those sets of challenges we were talking about earlier — I think we’re going to see these small businesses be innovative to try to survive, just like we have these past couple of years.
Q: What beer is in your fridge right now? What are you ordering on tap at a restaurant?
A: Going into summer, I always like the Societe Light Beer — it’s just such a good, easy-drinking beer wherever you’re at in the summer. And when I’m out and about — which is rare because I have two small children, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, so we don’t do a lot — but when we do go out, I try to find something like a lower ABV pale ale, something a little hoppier that easily pairs well with food. No robust flavors, nice and easy to sip.
Q: Where is San Diego County’s highest concentration of small breweries? Vista? Miramar?
A: I’m pretty sure it’s still the City of Vista [in San Diego’s North County]. When the industry started growing, the city definitely took notice of that and created programs and initiatives to make their business park really friendly to the industry. A lot of people moved in and are still operating there.
But we are seeing growth in different neighborhoods, like OB has obviously not as many as Vista but there’s a good concentration of different types of tasting rooms there. We’re also seeing more in South Bay, which is exciting, because there were only a few that were sprinkled in there for a couple of years and now we’re seeing more openings. Even into East County, we’ve got breweries out in El Cajon, Alpine, and even Jamul. We cover a big geographic area.
Q: The San Diego Brewers Guild is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — what’s new for the big milestone? SD Beer Weekend? Any other special events or collaborations coming?
A: It’s huge, but we’re also coming off a pandemic. When our board met in January it was this thing of, ‘This is a really big thing for our association to get to this point and be as successful as we are with membership and exposure for our breweries, beer tourism. How can we celebrate that but also use that as an opportunity to create an initiative to increase foot traffic into the breweries?’ We could’ve planned a big festival or something like that, but we thought it was more important to drive awareness and foot traffic into our member breweries for our 25th anniversary because that goes back to the mission of what the San Diego Brewers Guild is and what we want to do for our member locations.
We created that commemorative [SD Beer Weekend] glassware to celebrate the 25th, plus the specialty beer releases — trying to create opportunities to get people into our member breweries to kick off summer but also in a way, celebrate how we were started.
Q: Is there a specialty beer coming for that — or special releases from individual breweries?
A: We encouraged our breweries to buy a special hop blend — they got samples of different ones and they voted on one they wanted to represent San Diego for 2022 for this blend. We encouraged them to buy the blend and make a beer, and release it for SD Beer Weekend.
We didn’t organize any specific collaborations but, again, we wanted to drive traffic into different breweries with their special releases. We’re still going to do the annual Capital of Craft release for San Diego Beer Week [in November].
Q: Is San Diego Beer Week coming back in the fall? What will that event look like?
A: Yes. We’re trying to make it look like it used to. Some things that we have finalized are that we are bringing the beer garden back to Torrey Pines, so that’s exciting and that’ll be our closing event. We’re doing the Capital of Craft IPA — Stone Brewing is going to be our host brewery. As far as Guild Fest, we are looking at trying to bring that back — but still working on some of those final details.
Q: How is the state of our local craft beer scene as brewers bounce back from the pandemic? What are some of the challenges craft brewers are facing these days?
A: It’s going to continue to be rough for a while for the industry; they were hit really hard over the last couple of years. Now they face a new set of challenges, with the supply chain, the labor market, and inflation.
So, I think there was this sense of recovery and [brewers] were feeling that sense of normalcy as things were opening up and people were buying draft again. Now there’s this new set of challenges that our industry hasn’t had to face all at once, so that’s where we’re headed over the next couple of years. I know that’s not unique to our industry, but it’s going to be hard for any small business to face those challenges in the current state of where we’re at. So, it’s important that our communities and neighborhoods continue to support as many small businesses as possible, knowing that those types of challenges are going to be here for a bit.
During the pandemic, there were a lot of programs to help with relief aid and funding, and a lot of those have dried up or ceased — and there aren’t new programs coming. So, that’s another thing a lot of businesses were able to stay in business because of those types of programs from our state and federal government. As we move away from those types of funding opportunities, I think we’re going to see that it’s going to be hard for some businesses.
It’s just so important that people continue to support the local small businesses that are really important to them, that they cherish.
Q: Do you think some pandemic-era changes are here to stay for local breweries — like the ramp-up in canning production? Or pairing more closely with local food trucks?
A: Even before COVID, more breweries were moving toward canning, and then COVID kind of forced them to package their beer in order to get it out the door. So, I think we’re going to continue seeing a high level of packaging. Aluminum pricing is going to be challenging for the breweries, but they’re also now able to sell more drafts — with accounts being back open — so, hopefully, that kind of evens out.
A lot of times the breweries do what the consumer wants. For the breweries that are not restaurants, consumers are going to expect that hospitality aspect of food being offered, so I think those partnerships and relationships [with food vendors] that were built are going to hopefully be maintained.
I know outdoor dining — having more outdoor spaces — I know the City of San Diego is working on a new permitting process, so that’s something that I think the businesses themselves really enjoy having that extra space available to them and I think customers really enjoyed it — being al fresco.
Q: The local brewing industry is known for being creative + collaborative. What is the brewing collaboration process like? How do local brewers decide on how/when to create these special releases?
A: What makes San Diego special and what really made us grow as an industry back in the early 2000s were the collaborations taking place; the sharing of knowledge. It’s just something that is really ingrained in San Diego beer, having the breweries collaborate so they can share knowledge, share experiences, and challenge each other.
The collaborations are because they’re old friends and they want to make something together again. There are other collaborations where there’s somebody newer down the street that somebody wants to welcome into the neighborhood, into the community. And there’s also collaborations that breweries do with nonprofits to raise awareness for something that’s close to the brewery. And then you also see collaborations — like with Taylor Guitars — that’s a part of the brand a brewery connects with.
The really fun part of the collaboration process (like with Capital of Craft) is writing a new recipe each year, changing the ingredients each year, and sitting down and being a part of the process and the discussion. That artistic process, where they’re sitting down and trying to create something together.
Q: Is there anything about our local beer scene the public should know more about?
A: Something I learned during the pandemic about the local beer scene and the industry in general, is how people view craft breweries in the hospitality realm. That’s really an element of craft beer and production, but they’re manufacturers first and foremost. They have to develop, create, and manufacture a product — but then also sell it.
So they’re both and because people have that experience of going into the tasting room, I think sometimes we forget that manufacturing part and just focus on that hospitality experience. And that’s something I learned and I’ve been trying to talk more about, really seeing these artisans with the craft they’re passionate about, that they’re manufacturing on a daily basis and they have to get it out there for people to enjoy.
Q: Is the Guild still growing quickly — or have things slowed down a bit for the growth of the industry?
A: We saw that big peak, but it hasn’t tapered off. It has more so leveled — it’s really a true indicator of a maturing industry. We’re still seeing more openings than closings, which is a positive thing. The craft beer industry across the country is in a healthy, maturing place.
Q: Is beer tourism making a comeback in San Diego?
A: I think beer tourism is coming back. We’re going to start seeing people more comfortable doing the different brewery tours. I think people are ready to explore again.