There were more new brewery openings than there were months in 2012, and the field is as varied as it is extensive, ranging from veteran brewers looking to challenge the big boys to guys with stock pots going pro while also keeping things homebrew-esque.
In gauging the best of the lot, I judged none of these breweries by the scale of their business or the size of their aspirations, but by the way they utilize their operations to manufacture quality product. The following is my assessment of the 15 brewing companies that opened this past year, as well as some that opened very late in 2011 but were too new to be judged at that point.
8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa
Selecting the king of the mountain for this list hasn’t been easy, but far and away, the finest operation to debut this year — over the past few, for that matter — is Societe Brewing Company (8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard). Kearny Mesa’s first brewery was born from the ashes of a disastrous career choice: brewer Travis Smith had moved to San Diego to head the fermentation sciences at La Jolla Brewhouse, only to find an unworkable situation (as did his predecessor, and multiple brewers since).
Thankfully, Smith, a talented craftsman who trained under craft-brewing royalty (Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa and Patrick Rue of Placentia’s Bruery), stuck around, teaming with business partner and brew bud Doug Constantiner, another vet of the Bruery’s brewhouse, to open Societe. The result is a company with tons of knowledge behind it, and, as a result, faith and financial backing, as well.
Smarts and resources allowed them to put out great beer from day one via two product lines: hoppy beers and Belgian-inspired ales. The former includes India pale ales that go by the names the Dandy, the Apprentice (named after Smith, who was Cilurzo’s understudy), and the Pupil (named after Constantiner, who considers himself Smith’s student). The latter has become a local favorite in a town awash with IPAs, exhibiting crispness and juicy citrus flavor brought on courtesy of Nelson hops.
On the Belgian front, Smith and Constantiner are bringing attention to lesser-seen styles such as the singel (the Harlot) and amber ale (the Debutante), and cramming in a non-Belgo brew, a chocolaty imperial stout dubbed the Butcher that’s as popular as it is strong. Fans of the company are exhibiting brand loyalty, and that should only rise in 2014, when they unleash a third line of sour beers extracted from a stock of over 100 used wine barrels procured from Napa’s Stag's Leap winery.
805 16th Street, East Village
The first runner-up on my list is also making a big name for itself by bringing on seldom-explored beer styles. That operation is the easternmost East Village outpost Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (805 16th Street). Owned by Scot Blair (the emperor of a beery empire that includes Hamilton’s Tavern, Small Bar, and Eleven), it’s a hit for the same reason Societe is — experience. Blair’s no brewer, but he knows how to make craft-beer businesses appealing and, therefore, successful. Case in point: his hiring of Derek Freese as Monkey Paw’s brewer.
A longtime standout in San Diego’s stout homebrewing subculture, Freese was able to make a quick and successful leap to the pro ranks with beers such as Sweet Georgia Brown English-style brown ale and an extra pale ale called Pineapple X-Press. Then there are the delicious oddities: an oatmeal-bolstered pale ale; a smoky rauchbier made spicy with serrano chilies; and a low-alcohol, salted gose called Monkey Gose Bananas, an iteration of which given more flavor by tart cherries also exists.
Further endearing Monkey Paw to the community is the fact that Blair and Freese have teamed up for interesting collaborations with brewers from AleSmith, Stone Brewing Company, Stillwater Artisan Ales, and 8 Wired Brewing Company, and brewed beers to celebrate North Park bar Live Wire’s 20th year in business and the departure of Jerry Sanders from the mayor’s office.
1430 Vantage Court #104, Vista
Taking the bronze in this race is North County newbie Latitude 33° Brewing Company (1430 Vantage Court., suite 104). Latitude took over the brewhouse in Vista constructed by Green Flash Brewing Company when that rapidly growing business moved to Mira Mesa to inhabit a larger facility. It took some time for Latitude 33° to get their doors open, but when they did, the beers produced by brewer Kevin Buckley (formerly of Vista’s Back Street Brewery and East County’s Alpine Beer Company) allowed them to hit the ground running.
They aren’t as well known around the county, mostly due to geography and the difficulty of self-distributing product all over town, but beers such as the Pascha’s Rye rye-infused brown ale and Straw Horse Wheat should not be overlooked. Nor should new additions to the Latitude 33° family such as oatmeal-coffee stout Breakfast with Wilford and a series of special IPAs built off their house staple, Camel Corps IPA — Double Hump IPA and Wet Hump fresh-hop IPA — which are doing a great job of getting the company’s name out in a positive way.
Other promising new additions to the scene include Vista’s Belching Beaver Brewery (thankfully, the company’s beer is much better than its name), Escondido’s Offbeat Brewing Company (which should do well, provided they can make enough beer — something that’s proven a bit of a problem early on), and the brewhouse operating out of the back of Pacific Beach’s California Kebab & Beer Garden, Amplified Ale Works (where Alpine and Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits alum Cy Henley is soaring early). Like Monkey Paw last year, these businesses will need to be monitored, but they have a head start in the race to make 2013’s best new breweries list. ■