Mike Hess Brewing serves customers in North Park on January 13, while a county-wide on premise service ban remains in effect.
Peering in from the sunny sidewalk, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light. Once they did, I found a room half filled with customers, belly up or seated at tables near the bar, most staring warily back at me over their pint glasses. A bartender quickly commented about the camera in my hand, poised to take a picture.
Officially, on premise beer service was still prohibited in San Diego County, but this local taproom continues to serve its public. And it’s far from the only one.
Piecing together rumors, social media feeds, and frank admissions from local brewery owners, I’ve identified no fewer than ten local breweries that have quietly resumed pouring beers to customers during the current shutdown — if they ever stopped at all. The actual number doing so may top two dozen, ranging from the northernmost county to the south, and from far east county to the coast.
The majority do so under the radar. Cryptic social media posts may invite customers to enjoy a pint, or encourage fans to show up for food being served on premises. Others refer to events ranging from car shows to live music to trivia. In some cases, social media feeds that went dark over the summer belie a business that’s consistently served customers all the while.
In the interest of maintaining good relations with businesses who remain on my beverage beat, I’ve decided not to name those I’ve confirmed as being open. One brewery that did re-open publicly early this year has already faced significant news coverage and internet backlash.
4893 Voltaire Street, San Diego
On January 6, Mike Hess Brewing announced via online video and posts, “We are opening to the public and invite our friends and fans to come in and safely enjoy a well-crafted beer and conversation.”
Though celebrated by some customers, the decision was quickly denounced by disapproving beer fans and fellow brewery owners abiding by the purple tier ban — initially slated for a three-week term beginning November 14, but indefinitely in place, two months later. Critics called the decision to re-open “upsetting” and “terrible,” and predicted it would lead to future outbreaks.
“People are calling me selfish, but I know what my motivations are,” says the brewery’s namesake cofounder, Mike Hess. “I have 65 people who over the course of the year have probably made 10 to 20 percent of their average take-home pay. I’m putting my brand at risk so our people can earn a paycheck."
Hess decided to re-open taprooms in North Park, Ocean Beach, and Imperial Beach as part of a “peaceful protest” movement, led by husband and wife Encinitas law firm, Curran & Curran, which has agreed to defend Hess Brewing in the matter, pro bono, along with roughly 400 other breweries, wineries, bars, restaurants, salons, and gyms — which remain open in defiance of the state and county mandates.
“Constitutionally we’re protected because we’re not breaking any laws,” says Hess. “If we were breaking any laws we wouldn't have opened and if we were, they would have shut us, and the 400 other restaurants who are open, down.”
Hess says the taprooms have seen some of their best days since reopening, and adds he is not fazed by internet haters. But he has spoken to other brewers who want to open publicly, yet worry their brands aren’t strong enough to weather the social media backlash the same as Hess, among the most successful of San Diego’s roughly 150 beer businesses.
“I don’t want to be out in front,” says another brewery owner, one of several who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, “We’re not a big brewery.”
Small brewery owners defying the ban tell me they’re mainly serving very small crowds, mostly familiar faces. “Ten to fifteen people at the highest," says another, "The only people who are coming are our die-hard regulars. We look at them as part of the family anyway. We don’t get any new business.”
“We’re upside down every week,” says another. Since federal PPP loans have run out, his business has steadily lost money. Opening on-premise service in recent weeks hasn’t changed that, but has curbed his losses. “I’m not willing to spend the 100K year out of pocket to stay open,” he says, “Who would?” He predicts that, without government intervention, “If things don’t change within 60 to 90 days, a lot of breweries are going to close.”
Most of the breweries I spoke to say they continue to adhere to other covid protocols, including mask requirements, six-foot social distancing, use of hand sanitizers, and even requiring food orders with service.
Technically, one brewery owner tells me, his business never received official notice it could not serve customers in person. “We never got a letter from ABC or [the city] or law enforcement or anybody,” he says. Had he not heard about the shutdown on the news, he’d have had no reason to shut down in the first place.
The County Health Department maintains a running list of businesses it has issued cease and desist orders — including at least five brewery operations. It says those who fail to comply following one of these orders will subsequently be fined, and that further violations will be referred to law enforcement.
But attorney Michael Curran says enforcement hasn’t yet gotten that far for his 400 clients. And brewery owners seem less concerned with law enforcement than they do survival.
“You make the decision, am I just going to hang on 'til I go out of business? Or break the law?” a small brewery owner tells me. “You might have to pay a fine, but at least you’re still in business.”
Another brewer sees the continuing ban as an existential threat in the craft vs. big beer sense, as out-of-work bar and restaurant employees can no longer afford to support their own industries. “People are unemployed, so there’s nobody left to sell craft beer to,” he says. “They’re going back to Bud.”