8101 Commercial Street, La Mesa
Cameron Ball spent nearly three years planning Helix Brewing Co., and the long effort paid off when La Mesa's second brewery and tasting room opened in late August. In fall 2012 the young home brewer and full-time civil engineer learned the La Mesa city council was going to change local zoning laws to allow breweries, and responded by searching for a location in his hometown, a full 18 months before the municipal change actually came to pass.
Staying local was a priority to Ball, who grew up on La Mesa's Mt. Helix. "It was important to me to build a brewery in the area where I'm from," he says, "where my friends are from, where I'd have friends and family support." He then adds, "It's an up and coming place too. Everybody's starting to move east."
He was also particular about the space, estimating he viewed pretty much every building on Helix's block in La Mesa's industrial district for most of those three years, finally locking down a charming brick structure filled with cubicles and a drop ceiling. With the help of his community, he gutted the building and put his engineering degree to use, planning a polished and comfortable indoor-outdoor space. "It was a really cool feeling seeing how they all helped out to help me achieve this dream." He also designed his brewing system to be scalable, configuring plumbing and glycol lines so he can simply add tanks any time he decides to expand production.
Ball's thorough planning extends to his recipes. Most home brewers who begin brewing on a commercial scale must scale their recipes up. Ball inverted the process. "I think in ratios and percentages," he says. "When I built the pilot brewing system, I knew that I wanted to open up a larger brewery." So he developed recipes based on projections for a 10 or 15 barrel system, then scaled them down for the 20 gallon pilot system. The benefit, when he scaled them back up: the ingredients matched whole numbered amounts: 15 sacks of grain, for example, or three pounds of hops per barrel. A small yet efficient advantage.
Those three pounds per barrel of hops has to do with Ball's effort to serve seasonable beers, low in alcohol but still robust in flavor. Helix's Active IPA, for example, named to reflect his lifestyle as a swimmer and trail runner, measures a mere 4% ABV. "The idea is to be able to have two or three beers with your friends and have a good time and good conversation," he says, "to not get too buzzed and not be able to drive home or go to work the next day." Spoken like a man who still works full time outside his brewery.
Of course, on weekends the brewery hosts food trucks and live music to encourage La Mesans to stick around and try each of the eight core beers available since Helix's launch, or seasonal releases from the stash of 25 recipes Ball has planned and ready.