Vodka produced from out of code beer by Barrio Logan craft distiller ReBru Spirits.
Have you ever wondered what happened to all the beer that couldn’t be sold when the ‘rona shut down bar life last March? In San Diego, the answer may be found in a new distillery opening its doors in Barrio Logan.
1735 National Avenue, San Diego
Years before the pandemic hit, ReBru Spirits was conceived off the premise that the booze in out-of-code beer can be reclaimed by distilling it into grain-based spirits such as vodka, gin, and whiskey. Founder Dennis O’Connor is a cofounder of Thorn Brewing, which expanded its brewing operations into a 40,000-square-foot former boiler factory on National Avenue. That happened five years ago, but Thorn only took over half the building. The remaining square footage was earmarked for the distillery, and what has become a cluster of hospitality concepts built around it, including a speakeasy bar, woodfire pizza restaurant, and outdoor BBQ space.
O’Connor has put together a team with no fewer than ten partners, primarily vets of San Diego hospitality whom he characterizes as a sort of “bad new bears of booze.” Each partner brings distinct experience to the multifaceted spaces. For example: Christine Cole, former creative director of Modern Times Beer brings design perspective; executive chef Kenzo Inai brings fine dining experience to the pizza restaurant, dubbed HottMess; and pit master David Kendall, of Grand Ole BBQ, brings smoked brisket to Sideyard BBQ.
The outdoor Sideyard will be the only component to open this month, as the pandemic continues to disrupt the project’s indoor components. The team spent the past four months shifting focus to pull together its outdoor venue, including purchase of a trailer to serve as bar, serving cocktails concocted by noted local bartender Gareth Moore, using ReBru vodka and gin.
O’Connor says the whole team has taken part in distilling by now, but leading the effort is another Thorn alum, Neil Lotz, who for years has operated Coachella Valley spirits company, Desert Distilling, with his brother. Lotz recalls taking a batch of Thorn beer out to the desert a few years back, which kicked off the idea behind ReBru.
Because Thorn is next door, the distillery can conceivably have a hand in the creation of the beer it converts into whiskey or vodka. So ReBru’s 18-plate still boasts a massive, 400-gallon pot that can effectively distill an entire 15-barrel tank in a single run. And while Lotz anticipates that may happen eventually for a single malt whiskey or other special release, so far he’s had more than enough expired beer to work with, directly from Thorn as well as other local breweries, which can’t legally dump bad beer due to wastewater treatment concerns. This quirk of the industry means breweries are happy to rid of beer they can’t sell, and ReBru effectively gets the alcohol it distills for free.
“They have to pay to dispose of it,” says Lotz., “so it’s a total win-win.”
However, O’Connor points out their experience working with Thorn’s distributors led them to an even larger source of expired beer. Particularly once the pandemic hit, beer distributors found themselves carrying a lot of excess.
“They are the ones that really had overstock and expiring issues in their warehouses,” he explains, because draft disappeared overnight with the shutdown.”
So, while ReBru had been fine-tuning its processes of stripping old beer into quality craft spirits — which may be different for a lager than, say, a hazy IPA — this spring the team found itself with a massive influx of kegs.
“We’ve been cooking beer about six months or so,” says O’Connor, “We’ve already upcycled over 130000 gallons, which is over a million pints of beer.”
The upcycling concept doesn’t only apply to the distillery, and cycles of sustainability may be spotted throughout the entire Thorn and ReBru complex the team is dubbing the “Acre of Awesome”. When HottMess pizza goes online, for example, its dough will be made using spent grain from the brewery next door. Burnt wood from the pizza over and BBQ smoker gets repurposed as charcoal to filter vodka. And Moore’s cocktail menu will feature a “Kitchen Sink Bloody Mary,” fashioned from some of the restaurant’s food scraps, such as burned brisket ends.
Eventually, some of Moore’s cocktail designs will be canned into ready to drink cocktails. For the moment, ReBru has started bottling vodka and gin, while plenty of whiskey sits in barrels for future release. Along with the usual 750 milliliter bottles, it’s offering more compact, 375 milliliter bottles — just a little bigger than a 12-ounce beer.