The view from Alta Brewing, including a flight of its beers
Casual beer fans don’t often see it, but behind the scenes, the people making a brand’s beers may change often, as brewers bounce from one brewery job to another. For larger businesses with established beer recipes, brewer turnover results in little, if any difference to the final product. However, for a newer or smaller business, changing head brewer effectively results in an entirely new business making a different set of beers while wearing the same brand name.
1983 Julian Avenue, San Diego
In few places has this been more evident than Alta Brewing, the Barrio Logan area brewery founded in a back corner of Logan art space Bread & Salt in 2017. Every time I ventured in to try beers during its first year open, I would find brewer and founding partner Brett Stampf around the bar, usually pouring pints for customers.
Change came last summer when, nearing the end of that first year, Stampf reportedly resigned amid disputes with his business partners. Alta closed down for a couple months, but Stampf’s partners carried on without him, and Alta re-opened in September with a new brewer, and a new lineup of beers.
It doesn’t feel all that different walking into Alta today than it did a year ago. Stampf’s wasn’t a gregarious presence, so the space retains its personality. It’s a low-key nano-brewery, hallmarked by a stylish bull’s head mural and open roll up doors overlooking a parking lot and freeway overpasses feeding onto the Coronado bridge. I detected a little less rock and a little more hip hop in the mix of music playing through overhead speakers, and spotted a collection of board games stacked in one corner. Otherwise it felt like the same Alta.
Which means changes to the beer menu really stood out. Gone were the most memorable beers from my first few visits: a dry Irish stout, a dry-hopped brown ale, and a nostalgic pale ale featuring 90s-era hops. However, no individual beer or style had established Alta’s brand identity. It was more that their consistent quality left me with a positive first impression.
I’m sorry to report the new roster of beers has proved consistent and memorable, but for the wrong reasons.
Selected from a total of eight beers on the menu, my entire flight of six disappointed. It was loaded with beers prone to imbalance, off-flavors, and unpleasant aftertastes. Two lagers on the board proved the best of the bunch, despite overbearing bitterness that lingered long after each sip, the way lagers tend to taste when brewed with San Diego water that hasn’t been softened by filtration.
On the other end of the spectrum, a hefeweizen exhibited the customary banana and clove, but the clove was so pronounced, it verged on curry spice. My least favorite was a pale ale redolent of cheese. I could only manage a couple of sips, and considered asking for a replacement. But, of the two available beers I didn’t taste, one was described on the menu as “a happy accident.” Not altogether encouraging.
I don’t know whether Alta's remaining partners re-opened seeking continuity or a change in direction. In my opinion, these beers tasted like a step in the wrong direction. But what’s that they say: it’s never too late to make a third impression?