A palette of cans of The Pupil IPA ready to ship from Societe Brewing Company
Open seven days a week, the Kearny Mesa tasting room of Societe Brewing Company has been a bustling hub of San Diego beer for most of its eight-plus years in business. Bolstered by a reputation for quality brews across the board, Societe has been considered a must-visit brewery by those in the know, with must-drink beers one could only find locally, served exclusively on draft.
8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
Eight months into a global pandemic, it won’t be shocking to anyone to learn that things have changed. What may be surprising, though, is that despite a reduction in crowds, the brewery has only grown. By the end of the year, Societe will employ nearly twice the people it did when 2020 started. Meanwhile, production pace has more than tripled since January, meaning Societe is poised to graduate from microbrewer to regional brewery status in 2021: it will produce at least 15,000 barrels in a year, more likely topping 20. Most of it sold in cans.
Though planned, the change feels drastic. Tasting room sales had declined over several years due to increased brewery competition, and Societe CEO Doug Constantiner notes the brewery held steady in 2019, producing 4,000 barrels, about the same as the year prior. Still, with a blossoming distributor agreement and sophisticated new canning line in place, things were starting to look up in 2020.
“We went into the weekend before the shutdown probably brewing at a pace of six or seven thousand barrels a year, and we were slowly ramping it up,” he says. Then: Covid stopped everything. When the shutdown hit, Societe did what most small breweries did: furloughed its workers and applied for PPP loans to weather the storm. “The rest of March was just dumping kegs that went out of code.”
However, a full pay cycle hadn’t even passed before all the employees were brought back. In part, Constantiner credits the counsel of Societe’s chairman of the board as helping make moves that turned the company’s 2020 trajectory decidedly upward. “Bring them back right now,” Jim Buechler told him. Rather than delay Societe’s transition into a packaging brewery, its management and brew teams accelerated these plans, helping it capitalize on a pandemic shift that favors take-home beers.
Buechler is best known to San Diego beer fans as the CEO of Ballast Point Brewing and its spinoff distillery, Cutwater Spirits, both infamously sold to corporate beer entities under his watch. This recent history prompts Constantiner to emphasize Buechler was not brought onto the board to help position Societe for a similar fate. He insists, “This company’s not for sale.” Rather, Constantiner tapped the Harvard Business grad for the acumen that helped both of those companies grow exponentially.
In part due to those sales, any perceived corporatization of craft beer companies has long been deemed unpalatable within San Diego’s proudly independent beer culture. But in this case, a modest restructuring put Societe in a position to thrive during a topsy turvy 2020, while, importantly, retaining one of the brand’s most relevant values.
Specifically, the quality and freshness of its beers. Societe invested in higher-end canning technology to protect against oxidation while packaging and reached an agreement with its distributor to stock the majority of its product in coolers for no longer term than seven days, to prevent spoilage.
However, behind the scenes, it employed project management and sales forecasting staff to guide its brewing schedule. While Societe has reduced the number of beers it produces at any given time — three core beers and two quarterly seasonals — the net effect is none of its beers sit around long enough to go out of date. “We have fresher beer moving at a faster pace,” says Constantiner.
Even as Societe’s brewing team, under director of brewing operations Teddy Gowan, speeds up its production routine to meet rising demand, a quality assurance lab verifies the same quality product hits the shelves, whether in local bottle shops, or within national retail chains including Trader Joe’s and Costo. Once a San Diego-only brand, Societe is now expanding throughout Southern California and looking to reach into northern California by the end of 2021.
Back in Kearny Mesa, Societe still pours beer starting at 11 each morning for customers who gather around shaded tables spaced out around its parking lot. As the pandemic grinds on, craft beer pilgrims seeking out Pupil IPA may no longer endow the celebrated ale with the same sense of cachet, knowing it will soon be available in Ralph’s supermarkets in Orange County. But without doubt those shoppers in Orange County will experience a fine expression of San Diego beer.
Which jibes, says Constantiner, with the long-held philosophy behind Societe Brewing’s name. “Beer is for everyone in society,” he says, “Beer is not too good for anybody, and nobody is too good for beer.”