A glass of Mesa Nueva Mexican lager, brewed for the grad students attending Rough Draft's Mesa Nueva tasting room.
Six years ago this month, Rough Draft Brewing opened as something like the 37th craft brewery in San Diego. Today there are over 150. "I didn't know that we would have 100 breweries open up after us," says Rough Draft owner Jeff Silver. But he's taken the rising competition in stride. "I should have known," he adds with a grin, "that if I had an idea, a hundred other people, at least, had the same idea."
3869 Miramar Street, La Jolla, CA
Behind the self-deprecation, Silver has worked hard to adapt his business amid a shifting landscape, followng a course that fairly well encapsulates the way the craft beer market has evolved since 2012.
At that time, Silver opened Rough Draft with sights set on retail distribution. He established a brewery in Miramar, and while he built out a roomy tasting room, his real focus was in buying a bottling line to ship 22-ounce bottles — a.k.a. bombers. Quickly enough, Rough Draft beer found shelf space in local Albertson's and Vons grocery stores. "I was thinking, you can only bring so many people into your own brewery," he says, "so the real way to grow is shipping product to distributors."
However, Miramar became a bona fide beer destination, and tasting room sales yield four or five times the profit margins of wholesale. So, two years ago, Silver added a kitchen to Rough Draft's tasting room, helping it stay competitive in an ever more saturated area that has more than two dozen breweries within a four-mile radius.
In the meantime, bombers have rapidly declined in popularity. So three years ago Rough Draft purchased a second bottling line that could fill 12-ounce bottles, for six-packs. Then it sold both lines to upgrade to a system that can fill both. The investment has paid off: in October, Rough Draft added placement in all local Ralph's supermarkets, the U.S. Small Business Administration named Rough Draft small business exporter of the year in 2017, when it began exporting beer to countries including China, Spain, Canada, and Australia.
Nevertheless, the market has already shifted again, to aluminum cans, so canning equipment moved to the top of Silver's wish list.
Along with cans, a second trend has emerged: opening beer tasting rooms closer to residential populations, reducing their need to visit Miramar. For a brewery Rough Draft's size, producing roughly 3000 barrels per year, it creates a sort of fork in the road. "You've really got to decide, 'Where should I be investing my resources?'" he explains, "Should I open a tasting room, or should I buy a canning machine?"
This time around, he went with the former. In October, Rough Draft began pouring beer at a satellite taproom at UCSD, Silver's alma mater. "Twenty years ago I was getting in trouble for drinking beer here," he jokes, "Now I'm opening a pub!"
It's built within Mesa Nueva, an east-of-the-freeway graduate extension of the campus that is in the middle of a multi-phase housing development. Currently, around 2500 grad students live within a short walk of the Rough Draft pub. Once complete, that number will go up to 8500.
It's a unique demographic Silver figures he never would have reached had he not opened a taproom here. On Thursday nights, he mans the bar himself, connecting with the students and finding out what their needs are. That's already resulted in the bar's most popular weekly event: a highly competitive and well attended trivia night. "The people there are crazy smart," Silver says, "I like to think that someday, they're going to sit at my bar, and drink a Rough Draft, and cure cancer."
As warm weather returns, students will be able take their beers to the swimming pool outside the tasting room, prompting Silver to consider another popular and timely investment: a crowler machine.
That seems a world away from 2012 Miramar, and compared to the hundred new beer businesses that have arisen since, it seems a generation ago. But, from just about any other perspective, Rough Draft's six years in business is a very short an amount of time.
"We're still a baby," Silver insists, "I still consider us a startup."