3105 Ocean Front Walk, Mission Beach
My friend and I sat at a table decorated with craft beer bottle labels, staring out at the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. The beach was only 30 yards or so away; we could hear the crashing of the waves and feel the salty breeze on our faces. It was a sharp juxtaposition with the modern interiors of the coastal bar and grill, which featured a 31-by-9 foot LED screen, pool tables, shuffleboard and 69-tap beer delivery system. Clearly, no corners had been cut on development of this high-cost, beach-adjacent property. Taking this all in, my drinking buddy took a sip of his IPA, turned to me and said, “Wow, craft beer sure has come a long way.”
Both of us have been into craft beer since the time when finding a place that carried any, much less a venue that focused on it, was a rarity. And if you did find a “craft beer bar,” it was likely low-frills and probably rather divey to boot. Nowadays, beer-centric eateries and watering holes tend to be more luxe than lowbrow, playgrounds of a sort for suds aficionados and newcomers alike. Draft, the spare-no-expense, craft beer resto installed in the space formerly occupied by ‘Canes Bar and Grill at Belmont Park, falls in line with today’s beer venue mentality. But just because it has bells and whistles, plus the money to pay for them, doesn’t mean there isn’t heart at its heart.
Thanks in large part to director of operations Justin Lopez, the staff, which has been at work for just over three weeks, has a working knowledge of craft beer that goes beyond light, dark, and amber. Lopez is certified as a Cicerone, the beer industry equivalent of a sommelier. Before opening, he oversaw the beer education for the first batch of Draft’s new hires, which consisted of sales reps from local brewing companies coming in and teaching them about their products, often using industry jargon and going into details better suited for Advanced Ales and Lagers 301 than Beer 101. Their dismal retention of the day’s teachings confirmed his theory that this wasn’t the best way to train the staff.
When the next batch of new hires came through, Lopez changed things up, taking on the teacher role and conducting a full day of lectures on the basics of beer — its history, ingredients, the brewing process, lingo and flavor descriptors. The next day, he had the reps return and led employees through a tasting, which was followed by a quiz. Gone were the deer-in-headlights looks the previous hires’ exam had produced. The second group of newbies passed, with a number of students acing the test. Lopez has since instituted this method of staff training and it is already paying off for Draft’s customers.
Speaking of the customers, Lopez hopes to raise their knowledge of craft beer as well. That’s not to say he’s forcing it on those who’d just as soon spend the day people-watching swimwear-clad passersby over burgers and brews. Patrons can get into it as much or as little as they like. The main form of education shows up on that gargantuan LED screen, which can actually split into 11 displays (which works well for sports (and will be great for NFL season). In addition to rolling footage of surfing, beach life and the nearby Wavehouse venue, it also runs footage from Coronado Brewing Company, Modern Times Beer, and Saint Archer Brewery, plus infographics on beer history and other assorted facts. Additionally, Lopez hopes to hold educational sessions on beer, conduct brewery pairing dinners, and print up coasters that double as beer info resources and blank canvasses for customers to write their beer tasting notes.
I could go on and on about the extensive list of draft beers and 30-strong bottle list, and how tasty the fried honey chicken oysters, shrimp and grits, and burgers are, but in a day and age when many deep-pocketed players are jumping on the craft beer wagon, it seems more important to point out that this big, shiny new place has some gold under all the glitter. Craft beer has indeed come a long way and, in this case, that’s a good thing.