Today the local brewer who’s taken the name “Mission Brewery” doesn’t have access to this namesake building. But don’t worry: Mission Brewery, the beer-makers, have moved into the old Wonder Bread bakery near the ballpark, after starting out in Chula Vista. Which tells you how crazy it’s getting in this here beer town.
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“That’s the thing about the San Diego brewing scene,” says Tom Nickel, the owner of O’Brien’s pub (also honored as one of the “Top 25 Beer Bars on Planet Earth” by Beer Advocate). “There’s a generosity here among brewers. We figure it’s us against the world, converting the unenlightened to real ale. So, we help each other out. Supplies, ideas, facilities. We compete, but it’s not cutthroat.”
Nickel and I are sitting at one of the patio tables outside O’Brien’s, his Irish-looking “beer pub” on Convoy. I’ve been here a couple of times before. It always seems to be crowded. He and his wife have been running it since 2003. Nickel not only sells craft beers but sometimes brews them himself, with buddies at places like Ballast Brewing. And they’re pretty darned good brews. At the World Beer Cup held in Chicago last year, O’Brien’s IPA won gold for “American-style strong pale ale,” in a field of 59 entries. That was also the year San Diego County breweries won more Best Beer medals than Germany or Belgium or the UK. “You can see how well we were getting rated on beeradvocate.com,” says Nickel. “Stone, Lost Abbey, Pizza Port, Green Flash, Ballast Point have all ranked very highly for a number of years. They’ve consistently ranked as five of the top ten breweries in the country. So, the brewing community caught on, the beer-geek community nationwide caught on, and now I feel like, in the last two or three years, people in San Diego have caught on.”
The story of Tom Nickel is pretty much the story of San Diego beer. “I started in the beer scene at 18, when I went to school back East (at Yale, studying Medieval history). I played football my freshman year. I was a big guy, and I knew if I walked into the local liquor store wearing my freshman football jacket, they were going to sell me beer. Sure enough, they did. And in New Haven there was a local brewery. I was just fascinated by that. A local brewery was like a totally new concept to me. I started trying ales and beers I had never had before. Every week I’d buy a bottle, and after trying 30 or 40 beers, I realized that this is something I really like. Then I came back out here [to California] and I couldn’t buy beer, and a friend was, like, ‘Well you know you can make your own beer.’ I was, like, ‘No you can’t!’ He said, ‘There’s a place down El Cajon Boulevard,’ the old Beer and Wine Crafts. So, we went down there, and we started making beer. And then, after college, I thought I should just do something fun for a bit before making a serious career move, and I got a job at Home Brew Mart. That was 1995.”
He spent a couple of years at Home Brew Mart (which grew into Ballast Point Brewing — they share the premises). “I was trying to sell home-brew ingredients five days a week, teaching home-brew classes, and when things were slow I was just, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to brew a batch of beer.’ It was cool. The customers would walk in, and I’m brewing, and they’re, ‘Oh, what are you making?’ It was a great sales pitch. And I literally got to brew with every ingredient that we had. Every grain, every yeast strain, every hop variety. So, by the time I left there in 1997 I’d used hundreds of ingredients. Home Brew Mart gave me my beer education.”
Nickel went on (with fellow brewer Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port in Solana Beach) to start the Strong Ale Festival in 1997, and the Real Ale Festival (for cask beers) in 1998. And Ballast Point went on to be named best microbrewery in the world last year.
“I worked at Pizza Port from November 1997 to June of 1998, then I went to brew at Stuft Pizza in Del Mar (now Oggi’s). And Tomme and Jeff Bagby, his assistant brewer [now head brewer at Pizza Port Carlsbad], and I would travel a lot together, to the Great Arizona Beer Festival or the Boonville Beer Festival in Northern California. We’d share hotel rooms at the Great American Beer Festival. We were always together. The Three Amigos. We were missionaries, spreading the gospel of San Diego beer.”
But there was resistance. “People would be, like, ‘San Diego? There’s no good beer in San Diego!’... It was when I was working at Oggi’s that I realized this could be my career. But it wasn’t until years later, maybe 2001, 2002, that I got over the jitters. I mean, when you’re starting to meet people who’ve been in the industry for 10, 15 years, like brewers at Sierra Nevada — ohmygod! Such a huge brewery — it takes you awhile to accept that, ‘Okay, we are on the same level.’ The confidence built up over years, but these were still big people who owned big breweries and worked in big plants, and they had science backgrounds, which I don’t have. So, it took me awhile to feel like one of the guys.”
He says one of the biggest milestones was the day he went to a San Diego grocery store and was able to buy a bottle of local beer. “Stone were the pioneers in bottling, in 1997–’98. Karl Strauss had begun earlier, but that beer was made and bottled in Wisconsin. Others have followed. And it didn’t hurt brewpubs. My business at O’Brien’s has tripled since then.”
Now that local beer is cool, are carpetbaggers turning up to cash in?