Topa Topa Brewing Company celebrated three years on June 9th. I spoke with owner and co-founder, Jack Dyer about their rapid growth and success.
EP: So tell me about celebrating three years. What have you done to make it such a success?
JD: It's been a very humbling and fun three years. That’s for sure. I think for us, just turning three and being able to grow with the community and really try and focus on that, supporting the community both with the craft beer community and our local nonprofits. It's just a really fun experience for us. It’s had some ups and downs. But we came to market really knowing who we are and what we, what we'd like to brew, what we like to make at the company, who we want to be. I think that's the difference. It's made us successful to just really, really, focus on making the highest quality product we can, doing things ourselves and at the end, supporting the community.
So we have three core values that we follow, to make every decision and they’re quality, craftsmanship and community spirit. So we try and instill that in everything that we do from the tap room to making beer to the projects and nonprofits that we support. I think that that's what's helped us be successful and grow to the point where now we've outgrown our facility and we're making, we're building a new, larger facility to be able to make some more beer. We have grown our company from three employees to, now we have 35. So it's a blessing. It's super fun.
EP: Go into more of who you are, you are the other founders. As far as beer trends, do you follow those?
JD: There’s three founders. It’s myself and Kyle Thompson and Casey Harris, who's our head brewer, but he also an owner in the company which, which, Kyle and I really think is important. And you know, we want him – Casey - invested financially in the success of the company. The key for us in really the three of us. I can't speak highly enough of my business partners. They truly are like two of the smartest guys I know. And you know, we've built a nice kind of family culture and that’s been really important and really key for us, having the three of them to be able to focus on. Casey handles pretty much the entirety of the beer program.
Kyle handles a lot of the finances and special projects and I'm able to do more sales and marketing. So having the three of us I think has also played into our our ability to grow somewhat quickly because we kind of all take our pieces of puzzle and just do ‘em, do what we do. So as far as beer trends and things, we almost pride ourselves on not being trendy. We make beers that we like to drink and that we think our customers will enjoy and that's always been a focus for us since we started. So it seemed to work so far. So yeah, we really focused on keeping all our beer super, super fresh, as well, which is a very important piece of the puzzle. And I think within the market, the craft market's growing so crazy.
That's probably the most fun aspect of it - is that there's so much great local fresh beer available now. So we just try to capitalize on that. In particular, our Chief Peek IPA, that’s our flagship. Just keep it as fresh as possible. So you pull up to a bar in Santa Barbara County or Ventura County, it’s probably less than three weeks old. That didn’t used to happen in the beer game. So, now that’s the reality.
EP: So what, what do you think your hardcore Topa Topa fans who've been there since the beginning would say about you guys?
JD: Well, I hope that they love us. We really appreciate our customers and we try and take the time and effort to really give them a great experience every time they have one of our beers, whether having one at an account and a retail partner or at one of our tap rooms – we really want them to feel welcomed and at home and give them a space where they can come and converse and talk about beer and really engage with their community.
I like to think that, you know, our hardcore customers, and partners don’t just like us, they love us. We love them right back. I think a lot of our customers that have heard of over the years, they value our consistency that we're consistently putting out a high quality product. We don't run out of our flagship beers, you know. So I think that's a big thing that they really enjoy. We have great customers, regulars, that that's been a fun thing that - quite frankly I didn't really expect to have as many regulars. We know them by name. They’re part of the Topa family as well. So that’s been a fun thing as well, something that I didn't really anticipate when we undertook this starting a brewery thing.
EP: Right. Awesome. What’s been the most surprising thing in the past three years?
JD: Just been the pace at which we've been able to grow. We wrote the business plan based on kind of a set pace that we thought we'd be able to sell beer and grow our tasting room model. But the fact that we're working on our third location and that we're close to 5,000 barrels of production is, is pretty wild. But that was like year seven, eight, nine of our business plan and here we are in year three and we’re already there. So that's the most surprising thing and just the general support that we got from the community and to see the overall growth of Ventura County and Santa Barbara County and craft beer in general. That's the most surprising thing for me for sure. It's wonderful to see.
EP: And when do you guys have going on in July?
JD: Community spirit is always the forefront. We just dropped a collaboration beer with our friends at El Segundo Brewing Company. A group that, always, we just love those guys. We love their beer. They came to us. They really wanted to do something to benefit the Thomas fire. They are down in L.A. and they wanted to do something to help. So, we did a beer, it’s called Hat’s Off. We’ll probably have a few fun events. We already launched the beer down in L.A., but it's now hitting stores in the area, in Ventura and Santa Barbara County. But we're planning some fun event at Fluid State. That’s going to be one of them for sure. We don't have the date locked down yet, but we're working on that right now.
We brewed in down in El Segundo. El Segundo’s committed to a dollar of every beer going to two different nonprofits that help Thomas fire recovery efforts. Jen and Aaron have already committed that they’ll be donating some proceeds from that night…It will be in the next few weeks. Otherwise, we’re working hard, keeping our tasting rooms busy. I'm keeping up with our production. We're currently, we have two construction projects going on at Topa Topa right now. We have a third one and we're building a larger production facility so we're a little busy with that.
EP: Which leads me to my next related question, goals for the next three years?
JD: So we've always loved the taproom model, so are adding a couple more taprooms. That Ojai one should be open by late summer and that'll be a really fun project. We're partnering with a really great food provider in the region as well. So we'll have some fun food to pair with the beer there, we think it will be a nice enhancement. And the production facility is going to enable us to make beer to satisfy our network of draft accounts and also we're finally going to be able to get into the traditional packaging, cans. So that's going to be really exciting to see our beer getting into that format so that people can enjoy it, because currently right now, if you want a Chief Peak, find a draft account in Ventura or Santa Barbara County. So we're excited to do that. That'll be kind of what we focus on here for the next little bit.
We hope to have packaging by sometime before the end of the year. A lot of it has to do with timelines and permits, all the fun stuff that goes with building a new brewery. But yeah, we've already bought a canning line, so it's going to happen. We’re really excited to do it and provide some more beers out in the market as well.
Apparently we really only distribute Chief Peak, so we're excited to get a few more options out there for people. We make a lot of great beers, but a lot of people just know us for Chief Peak.
EP: Speaking of Chief Peak, congratulations on the Casa Pacifica win.
JD: Yeah, that was a fun win. We don't really measure ourselves by medals. But it’s always fun to be voted in by your peers. People tasting our beer. People get consistently surprised that Chief Peak is such a flagship beer, people are actually surprised when they're doing a blind tasting. It’s a really great beer. Casey and our team did a great job with that recipe. It's always so, so freaking fresh. It’s difference maker when you drink it, when you drink a week old IPA, that's pretty nice.
EP: What are your thoughts on the county now and how it's grown and versus three or five years ago.
JD: It's pretty amazing. I was just talking about this last night with Jason, the head brewer here at Allagash, where we're at. Just, the landscape and the diversity and the styles of beer is - in our region - is really fun and to see every business model working, I think that's the most compelling part is that whether you're a nano brewer, big production, distribution from day one. All these models are working.
That's a really fun thing to see. I find myself talking about the guys at Enegren a lot because I love that ]they're focusing on these German, real clean beer styles. You know, [you have] the guys at Casa Agria and their sour program. It's just really cool to see people succeeding and focusing on quality.
So that's the number one thing. I think that no longer is Ventura County a skip over spot when people pass through. You gotta’ stop and try the beers. There’s incredible diversity right here. And all those guys are friends of ours. They're good guys and they make good beer and they’re really committed to making the best product they can. We love it and when we decided to open in Ventura County, it was something we really focused on and really wanted to build a greater sense of community amongst the brewers and even like with our friends, with our retail accounts. Just really focusing on getting things going.
Drive just 50 miles north of Los Angeles, you’ll not only find sprawling farmland, beautiful beaches and gorgeous oak trees, but a county experiencing its craft beer hockey stick moment. Four to five years ago, you wouldn’t find many craft beer breweries in Ventura County. It’s now a full-fledged beer destination.
In May, Joby M. Yobe and the rest of the Barrelhouse 101 team will be celebrating their 6th Anniversary. The “OG” Ventura beer bar and restaurant has been educating Ventura on craft beer through their 107 taps. They rotate twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. When they opened, Surf Brewing, Island Brewing and Anacapa Brewing were the only local breweries.
“Forever, this was known as Corona, Coors Light territory. When we got rid of any Corona, Coors Light macro, people were pissed.”
Jobe even got flack for serving beers in the proper glassware.
“I’m not drinking beer out of a fucking tulip!”
Ojai Beverage Company opened in 2007, back when the available beers were Red Hook, Pyramid and Firestone DBA, to name a few. Jobe and his cousin, Jorge Alem, own OBC and often work together to offer great craft beers. And they typically will host classes or small brewery specific events monthly.
Casa Agria Specialty Ales is a boutique brewery, focusing on mixed fermentation farmhouse style ales, barrel aged wild ales, and Northeast style India pale ales. Their beers uses fruit direct from the local farms and is expressive of the Ventura County culture. Try their outstanding American Wild Ale, Pinot de la Casa, which ages their Saison de la Casa in freshly dumped Pinot Noir wine barrels from Casa Baranca Organic Winery in Ojai, CA.
Concrete Jungle Brewing Project is a brewery and tasting room in Ventura on Market Street. The grand opening was October 14, 2017. Concrete Jungle bought the Surf Brewery facility. Surf Brewery was the first packaging craft microbrewery in Ventura County CA, when opened June 2011. Formerly located in Los Angeles, Concrete Jungle moved into the former Surf Brewery location and have expanded their beer style offerings.
Darryl Levi is a friend of mine that I asked to write an article for me in my blog, www.TheBeerGoddess.com. I sent him to the Orange County Beer Festival in 2010 and he got the bug for craft, which led him to homebrewing, then buying a bar in Camarillo. “Darryl’s Couch” was born.
Darryl’s Couch was the first craft beer pub in the county, having opened in Sept of 2012. Levi offers 11 taps including one nitro, focusing on designated craft as determined by the Brewers Association, which includes breweries like Firestone, Five Threads, Made West and Three Weavers. He’s currently holding an IPA competition every Wednesday with three single IPAs from local Ventura County breweries.
Enegren Brewing is not out to chase beer trends. Since 2011, the Moorpark brewery has been focusing on German style lagers. They were the second packaging brewery in Ventura County by just a month. Chris loves the style because of their versatility and complexity.
“I want to push the boundaries in craft beer and not just offer the same thing everyone else is doing.”
Enegren started homebrewing in 2014, as an engineering major at Loyala Marymont. Enegren took his knowledge about control systems and programming and built his own automated 15-barrel, European style homebrew system. Chris has installed brewing systems at Garage Project in New Zealand, Fremont Brewing in Seattle and Fall Brewing in San Diego, to name just a few. And he’s applied the best of his engineering and brewing knowledge in his own brewery. Their tanks are named after the breweries moms, wives and daughters. And their custom brewing system is named after a Viking shieldmaiden and ruler from what is now Norway. This ”Lagertha” will have produced a Maibock and single hop pilsner by the time this article is published. And all of their beers are brewed with natural carbonation. The smart brewery gets 100% of their carbonation through spunding. Enegren produced 2,000 barrels last year and will be installing a canning machine in mid-April.
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.'s Westlake Village taproom features a rotating list of specialty and cask beers and an artisanal menu featuring fresh gastropub fare. Try their Agua Santa Negra, a 5.1% ABV Mexican-Style Dark Lager, their Deisui Suru, an 8.0% ABV Japanese Imperial Lager or their English style India Pale Ale, a 2017 GABF silver medal winner, Hoppy Poppy IPA.
Did you know that a “thread” is a term sometimes used when blending two or more beers together? Located on Via Colinas in Westlake Village, Five Threads Brewing Company has been brewing since October 2015. You’ll find various styles like Heidi, their Bavarian Hefeweizen, Red, a Nelson Red Rye IPA and High Gear, their Mocha Oatmeal Stout.
Fluid State is already making waves with their awesome selection of craft beer and craft, organic pizzas. Since May of 2017, the restaurant/beer bar has impressed locals and beach town visitors alike with their authentic offerings.
“We feel like there’s something to be said for having a business that’s based on friendships and relationships, not based on what is trendy. A lot of the beer that we have here tends to be – it just so happens to be breweries that are on the cutting edge – but that’s not the main reason we have them on tap. The main reason we have them on tap is because we have relationships with these guys. We’ve known them for years.”
Aaron Duncan and Jen Schwertman want to support those authentic breweries in the industry.
Some of the beers offered are the smaller, independent breweries that don’t yet distribute. Jen has been in the beer and bar world since the fall of 1992, having started at Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. Aaron started homebrewing about 15 years ago in Santa Cruz and then opened a craft centric restaurant in 2007. He then started working for Ninkasi Brewing, helping to launch Ninkasi down the coast from Santa Cruz to north Los Angeles, which eventually brought him to Santa Barbara. Jen and Aaron met at the Great American Beer Festival in 2010, and eventually joined forces to create Fluid State.
The redwood bar, Chicago made steakhouse barstools and the big horseshoe bar help make Fluid State casual, social and meaningful. You won’t find tv’s, but you’ll find a fantastic deck and 24 taps.
14 Cannons is a production brewery and showroom, which opened in October 2017. Located in Westlake Village, the brewery features nine taps with beers like Spice Island Chai Tea Brown Ale and Slippery Deck Imperial IPA.
Institution Ale Company opened in 2014 and is producing excellent, clean beers like their 7.5% ABV West Coast IPA, Institution IPA. Or, try their new Double Dry Hopped Institution IPA, their flagship IPA double dry hopped with Columbus, Mosaic, Simcoe and Centennial hops. Restraint is a 6.0% ABV Maple Brown Ale with notes of nuttiness, chocolate, roasted coffee, maple sweetness and woodsy dryness. Institution recently expanded from 12,800 sq./ft to nearly 29,000 sq. ft. proving the quality of their brews.
Ladyface Alehouse is the first microbrewery in the Conejo Valley and produces award-winning Belgian, French and American style ales, on site. Since late 2009, they’ve been serving beautiful Biere de Garde’s like their 7.5% ABV Dérailleur®.
Try their divine Golden Farmhouse ale, Trébuchet®, which was created with Ladyface’s Chaparral Saison brewed with honey from bees foraging on the local mountain sage scrub habitat and then ages in California Sauvignon Blanc barrels with Lactobacillus for over a year. Their seasonally-inspired European bistro-style menu - featuring its ales in many recipes - is also not to be missed.
Leashless Brewing is an eight month old certified organic brewery located on Thompson Blvd. in a 1930s-era building. Their V-Town IPA shines with navel orange and mangos. Their Tri-Fin Tripel is a classic Trappist with hints of black pepper and fruity yeast giving off notes of citrus and apricot.
MadeWest Brewing Co. is run by Ventura natives, which shows through their community involvement and mindedness. Founded in 2014, in the heart of Ventura, you may find some exceptional beers like their On The Juice, a hazy double IPA loaded with Galaxy, Citra and Ekuanot hops or Prospect, a Vanilla Coffee Porter, dosed with whole Madagascar Vanilla beans and 100 lbs. of single origin coffee beans roasted by Prospect Coffee Roasters, also in Ventura.
Head over to Davy Jones' Locker where Brian Oliver has been serving quality beers since 2014. Poseidon Brewing Company has been serving tasty DIPA’s, Brown and Cascadian dark ales and Imperial Chocolate Oatmeal Stouts since 2014. They quickly lived up to their mantra, “Ales With Depth.”
Smoke Mountain is a boutique farm brewery located on top of Rincon Mountain, bordering Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The hops, barley, produce and herbs are all grown locally, on their farm. While they have no taproom, the beer club is popular among locals – which can be mailed or enjoyed at their “Pick Up Parties.” You may also find some distributed locally, by visiting their social media pages.
Founder & CEO, Ali Zia is bringing is beer background and expertise from Newbury Park’s Bottle & Pint to the future Thousand Oaks brewery, Tarantula Hill Brewery. Bottle & Pint is a craft beer exclusive bottle shop, taproom and retail shop that opened in Newbury Park three years ago.
Tarantula Hill Brewery will be opening likely in two phases, with the brew-side of the building opening first – around October. They will start with festivals and select tastings. Around December, they will start serving not just the beer, but artisan pizzas and small batch ice-cream. Speaking of deliciousness, keep a look out for guest chef beer dinners, beer & ice-cream pairings and artisan coffee, all with the idea of pairing and enjoying together.
John Edney will be managing the restaurant, including the super-premium ice-cream. The first brewery in Thousand Oaks will appropriately be located on Thousand Oaks Blvd., exact location to be announced March 1st. The Thousand Oaks High School, class of ’91 natives want to incorporate the town as much as possible, using local ingredients and naming beers after local landmarks. The brewer – who’s yet to be revealed – has a over a decade of experience at one of the biggest breweries in the country. Ali and the team at Tarantula Hill know what craft beers the locals are gravitating to from serving them at Bottle & Pint, and so you likely see some IPAs, big stouts and some crisp lagers – among other styles.
Twisted Oak Tavern has made some awesome contributions to the VC beer scene since 2015, featuring beer from their in-house brewery, The LAB Brewing Co. Located in Agoura Hills, it was even voted best beer bar in California in 2016 by CraftBeer.com. Brewmaster, Roger Bott has been brewing beer for over 20 years and has taken the gold in two Casa Pacifica Beer Festivals. With a heavier focus on IPAs and Belgian ales, Twisted Oak features 32 taps showcasing around six of their own award-winning beer.
Topa Topa opened in June 2015 and has built their brewery on three core values; quality, craftsmanship and community spirit. They make beer that they like to drink. Jack is CEO & cofounder of Topa Topa, Kyle Thomson is CFO/COO and cofounder and cofounder Casey Harris brews their delicious brews. They typically have about 12-18 beers on tap, where 70% of production is Chief Peak IPA. Look for double IPAs, barrel aged beers and their “Solitude Series,” their single hop series, which is a taproom special that showcases a new hop every two months. And they’re doing so well, they opened their second taproom in Santa Barbara in October 2017. And look out for a third location in Ojai, adding a food element to the mix.
“As new breweries open, I think it’s human nature for people to think, ‘oh man, is that going to hurt your business?’ and we’ve just gotten busier and busier with every single brewery that’s opened. We love it…we think that spirit kinda’ sets us up for success.”
Jack also credits the newer craft beer drinkers in the area and their culinary curiosity.
“People just sort of skipped over Ventura and Santa Barbara area, and I think that’s changed now. We hope to change it with such a diverse, stylistically group of breweries.”
Their goals for 2018 are expanding, to simply make more beer and increase efficiency.
Many of the breweries in the county – including Topa Topa – have recently joined the Central Coast Brewers Guild, where Dyer sits on the board. The guild has expanded to include Ventura County, now with over 50 members. There is a Southcoast Chapter and the Northcoast Chapter.
Ventura Coast Brewing Company is proving that a taproom model with approachable beer, a nice patio in a great downtown location just works. They opened October 2016 and is selling a good number of lagers, hoppy pilsner and increasingly their new sours. Kyle thinks the beer culture has changed and grown even in just the past two-three years.
“I don’t think anyone really directly looks at anybody as a direct competitor. Even in distribution, where handles are getting a little bit tighter, it’s all culture growth at this point…the more the merrier,” said Kyle Thille, founder of VCBC.
Kyle and head brewer, Dan White (former head brewer at Smog City) wants to introduce new styles to the community, on an elevated and balanced level. They’ve started a tiered barrel program, separating those entry level sours and also offering wood-aged beers.
Westlake Brewing Company serves craft beers and live music on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Play on their old-school pinball machines and a regulation shuffle board table.
What’s just as important as making good craft beer? Making sure it’s available to as many people as possible.
The three-tier system was established after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and not much has changed. An organization called Liberation Distribution (LibDib) is offering what it calls the first three-tier compliant web-based platform. LibDib creates an opportunity where makers and buyers can work directly together, thus giving restaurants, bars and retailers access to a larger variety of boutique craft libations.
Launched on March 22, the San Jose based company has over 250 accounts in California so far, and have moved onto New York.
I spoke with Cheryl Murphy, LibDib’s founder and CEO:
What prompted you to start LibDib?
It’s really crazy, just all of the industry consolidation that’s happening across all three, ya know, wine, beer and spirits; on the distributor side, that’s kind of what got me into doing what I’m doing here. I spent 20 years in the wine business; managing wholesalers…could never get their share of mind. And understandably so, they, especially when consolidation happens, they gotta’ pay attention to where their money is coming from and my winery was not big enough to really matter.
So, every year I would make numbers or a distributor of mine would go out of business or they’d get acquired and then we would be at the bottom of the wrung at a giant distributor. It was like pulling teeth and I kind of had a little too much to drink one night when I was with my dad, who was my boss at the time. I was working at our family’s winery.
And I said, ‘ya know, I cannot – you can’t do this based on the industry’s conditions. How can we be successful?’
When you take control of your own destiny, as a sales person, as a brand, is when you can be successful. But the problem is when you have a distributor, in between is beholden to larger companies, you can often, even though go out and get your own places and get your own sales, sometimes the distributor is beholden to other people so it’s not going to be top of mind to keep those placements or take those orders.
My whole goal is how can we facilitate legal three tier sales, I want to make sure that’s really important, we are part of the three tier system…But how can we enable small breweries, wineries, distilleries to do business with other small businesses, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, where there’s thousands and thousands of them, without a giant company in-between.
The way my model works is that we built a two-sided web platform for the maker, what we call our supplier, where they can go in, put all their materials online, sales materials, POS, videos, social media links, everything about their brand…then they can buy right then and there.
As a distributor, we collect the money. We pay the maker. We pay the taxes. We do all the things we have to do as a distributor. We take half the margin. So, that’s anywhere from 15-20% of whatever product you’re talking about. And the maker is responsible for delivery.
It’s been really interesting so far. A couple of the breweries that we have, they were self-distribution. But now we’ve kind of brought them back into the three-tier system because we’re taking care of a lot of the things that they don’t want to do.
They want to go out and sell their brand. They want to make their beer. But they don’t want to collect. And they don’t want to invoice. And they don’t want to do all the things that are just a pain to do. So, we’re trying to make it easier for those guys, and we’re making it easier for the account side, cause the accounts like to carry small production craft products. But they don’t want to write 100 checks every month….
Small craft products don’t necessarily fit with the distribution, the current model of distributors. They’re not going to make enough money on your brand, so why would they care?
In working with us, you can have that direct fulfillment, but then still have the backend of the distributor with one invoice and one check.
So, in essence, they are saving money and able to get into more locations easier without having to do the self-distribution work.
Exactly. A lot of breweries want to fulfill because they want to have that complete control, over the temperature, over everything. But they don’t necessarily want to do all the other stuff that the distributor does.
How many craft breweries are on your system?
Well so far, there’s some compliant stuff, so it takes longer, but so far we have two breweries that are local around here. We have one from Alaska coming on…
What’s your biggest group so far? Would it be restaurants, or bars, or retailers?
So far, it’s bars and bottle shops. We’re working on a couple big deals. There’s a stadium that’s interested in working with us and having us get 15 or 20 taps, just totally unique, small craft beer stuff…
Have distribution companies taken notice yet?
Yes! I was very nervous about the wine and spirits folks, if they not be happy about this. But for the most part, they’ve been pretty accepting. They recognize that with this consolidation, that they need – their bread and butter is their bigger suppliers. And some of these folks, some of these little guys take away their time and effort from where they really make their money, so they like the idea maybe I can be like a incubator model for them…so far so good…the way that I’m starting to see trends happening on the spirits side too, and I think it will come with wine eventually, out of all of these giant companies, that they’re buying craft breweries. They know they need that to keep their market share. It’s going to happen in spirits too…
How do you think you’ll ultimately affect the big beer buyouts?
There’s so many small companies that need help with their distribution. I’m going after what I call the long tail of the industry. The people that couldn’t get distribution, even if they wanted it…if you want to pick up and leave, you can go, pick up and leave.
This is a totally different vertical, but do you consider yourself to be in any way similar to AirBnB?
In terms of posting your things once, and having people from all over the world, and having hundreds of thousands of people be able to see it, yes. It’s definitely like the AirBNB of alcohol distribution. It’s funny, VC’s around here will tell us, don’t tell us you’re the Airbnb of anything. But it gives people an idea. You can go in, you post your product, buyers from our legal market can see it and purchase it legally.
Shotgun cover photo: @thebeerhiker
Craft Beer Buyouts: A Conversation with Former Stone Brewing Brewmaster, Mitch Steele and the Brewers Association's Julia Herz:Written by Erin Peters
During Coachella in mid-April, I tasted some delicious craft beer not only in the ‘Craft Beer Barn’, but also in the ‘Rare Beer Bar,’ headed by Beer Belly’s Jimmy Han. He even stashed away some Wicked Weed Marina, a blonde sour ale aged in wine barrels with over one pound per gallon of peaches and apricots.
This brewery is now one of 20+ craft breweries that are now owned by larger, corporate brewers. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as small, independent and traditional – with less than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft brewer.
I spoke to Mitch Steele, former brewmaster of Stone Brewing and current co-founder, brewmaster, and COO of New Realm Brewing, as well as Julia Herz, Brewers Association craft beer program director, about why it’s important to know what you’re drinking.
I know there are a lot of feelings on both sides as far as craft breweries “selling out.” What are your thoughts in how it affects the craft beer industry?
JH: Big picture, even though it’s not happening in mass, right? 99% of the 5,300 plus breweries - and that’s our 2016 data there – but 99% of those are still independent and small. But as the purchases continue to happen… the slowing down of purchases was where we thought this was headed and Department of Justice issued a consent degree…and over the purchases in 2015 and 2016 – Devil’s Backbone [Brewing Company] being a key one, that was approved with some changes made from the DOJ. That’s the consent degree. Now, when Karbach came along, that was a separate investigation that then still got approved. So, as these are continuing to happen, not in mass, but as these are continuing to happen, independent breweries are absolutely threatened by the chance to already have access to market.
The more that the large global brewers become a one-stop shop, for brands and beer styles, to both distributors and retailers, the harder it is, number one to make the marketplace fair, number two, for beer lovers to really get the choice that many beer lovers desire.
MS: Well, I think it’s really dangerous what’s going on right now, honestly. The problem is, is that the majority of the beer drinking public don’t know or don’t care about the business practices of large brewers and how it impacts small brewers. I think that’s really where the danger is, cuz, ya know, when a brewery is buying tap space, which is technically illegal, and small breweries can’t - number one, most small breweries won’t do it because they don’t want to do something that’s against the law. And they can’t afford to play that game either. They’re not swimming in cash like some of these big brewers are, really puts the small brewers at a disadvantage. I think that the concern is that nobody really knows that except for small brewers. When somebody’s whose kind of a casual craft beer fan walks into a bar, and sees all these beers that are craft, yet they’re all brewed at Anheiser Busch Brewery, most of the time, they’re not going to register it’s not a small, independent brewer. You see this kind of thing with other kinds of businesses as well. It’s hitting where it hurts for craft. When these brewers can potentially come in and sell a keg of beer for 50-60% of what a small craft brewer can afford to sell their keg of beer at, it really is damaging the ability of the craft brewers to sell their beer.
I know Lagunitas isn’t your typical, small craft brewery, because of the size and how long they’ve been around, I would guess that this sell out would affect it even more. Correct?
JH: Yeah. And then you also add Ballast Point in the mix with Constellation purchase. So, if you look at sales data, sales data is not definitive, sales data from IRI more so reflect more popular selling styles of beer, because that’s what is going to go up in those scans at grocery store registers, not brewpubs down the street. Thousands of breweries frankly are not in the scan data. But if you look at scan data, and the trends of the top selling styles, you’re seeing less and less over time, the independent craft brewers brands at retail, in this case in off premise retail being in the top of the mix.
Where you surprised by the Wicked Weed buyout?
JH: Well, based on hearing that we’re almost done with Karbach, yes. But based on knowing that any business is going to make moves and plays to be available and it looks like the efforts to localize their beer presence is on. So, in that respect, I am not surprised. Cause they continue to make regional purchases in key beer markets of the country. Four Peaks, Arizona, Blue Point in New York, Los Angeles for Golden Road. These are very geographically, strategic made procurements and we also have to talk in terms of whatever article you publish, the deal has not gone through. It’s an announcement from AB Inbev that they are moving to make a partnership and bringing Wicked Weed into their brand portfolio, but it is not a closed or done deal. It’s still subject to review.
MS: Well, that surprised me. I’d go so far to say that it shocked me. I didn’t see that one coming. I thought they were in it for the long haul. And I know Luke and Walt pretty well and I’ve brewed with them before and we’ve hung out a lot. I didn’t see this one coming from them. Now, I don’t know their ownership very well, and the people that actually funded that brewery for the most part. I know Luke and Walt are part owners of that, but I don’t know what percentage they own. But, I know that they had some big time investors in that brewery, and they’ve been mostly their decision, but who knows. Ya’ know, nobody really knows. But, yeah, it shocked me. Disappointed me. Some of these are not a big surprise. You hear through the grapevine that some of these newer breweries that are building themselves to sell and want to sell eventually and they’re just trying to get their business to a point to where they’re attractive to a large brewer. There are other breweries that have gone down this road that you never saw it coming. There are people that have said, ‘Wicked Weed was built to sell.’ But I never looked at it that way, knowing the guys and knowing their beers. I thought they were in it for the long haul. Ya’ know, the whole thing is, somebody comes and offers you a ridiculous amount of money, who’s to say you’re wrong for taking that and setting up your family for generations? You can’t really fault it, I just wish it didn’t happen.
Right. The big difference of say Golden Road, Ballast Point and Lagunitas – from what I hear, people are more sympathetic – they don’t see the Ballast Point sell as the same as Golden Road. What are your thoughts?
JH: I don’t know. I feel like there’s been social on Ballast lately. It just depends – it’s an interesting one. The acquisition, no matter who you’re talking about, have struck different nerves at different times, but I think the reasons that you’re getting so much play this week, I think potentially reaching a tipping point to some of the beer lovers that I’m seeing. I’ve even seen one comment – ‘the straw that broke the back.’ It’s getting more than any beer lovers expected.
MS: Yeah, and people didn’t really see that one [Ballast Point] coming. The word on the street was that Ballast Point was going to do something. Stock offering, things like that. But I think the other difference with Ballast Point is the purchase number was released along with the news, and so when people see $1 billion, they’re like, ‘ok, who are we to say they shouldn’t have done that.’
Do you sympathize with any of these craft breweries after they explain on social media? “We had to do this because of distribution.” “The beer will stay the same.” What do you think of their rebuttals and explanations?
JH: Well, bottom line, any brewery, any business - let’s talk about it that way – has the right to be able to make any business moves that they want. But when 99% of the 5,300 breweries are still independent and you’ve got a 180 plus regional craft brewers that are doing it independently and you have breweries on the record saying, “we will never sell, we will always be independent,” then there are examples in the marketplace showing that you can do it without selling out to big beer…Sam Calagione of Dogfish has been very vocal about it. There was a USA Today piece on Oskar Blues.
MS: Yeah. I don’t know if you know this, but I worked with Budweiser for 14 years. This was back in the 1990s. People still looked at Budweiser as the evil empire, but I dealt with the reaction from craft brewers all the time. Negative reaction and people who say, ‘it’s lousy beer, lousy quality beer.’ I’d get on my soap box and say, ‘ya know, you may not like it, but don’t ever talk negative about the quality because the people who brew this beer are as passionate about it and you are about yours.’ But it’s a different company now. I certainly get the backlash, I can relate to it because I dealt with it for a long time myself. I came from craft, and then I went to Budweiser and was there quite a while…it’s tough if you’re a craft brewer and in that position and all of a sudden you become the enemy. I think it’s a very uncomfortable feeling for most of them because the craft brewing business is so built on community and comradery. Now all of sudden you’re not in the club anymore. That’s a hard thing to swallow, especially when you’ve got so many friends in the business…and people that don’t have ownership in the brewery that sell, and have no say in it, and they’re just kind of, there when it happens, those are the people that I feel really bad for, because they had no say.
The whole access to ingredients thing I think is a little bit overplayed. I think if you’re a growing craft brewer, there are enough suppliers out there, if you work it hard enough you can get what you need, with a few exceptions. For example, Galaxy hops. Nobody can get Galaxy hops right now. Can a big brewer go in and get Galaxy hops? I don’t know if they can. I don’t know if they’re available to them. I think that’s overplayed, just a little bit. I think really the big advantage for a small brewer joining forces with a big brewer is the access to the resources, the technical resources, so they can understand what’s happening in the brewing process - be it really complex lab equipment or whatever. And then the distribution access is huge, that’s really, the financial end of it, expansion and that kind of thing. Those are the things that really matter.
Does distribution and those laws have anything to do with this and why they are selling?
JH: Yes, as soon as you sell, you get instant access to things that those 99% of the 5,300 breweries don’t have. You get into a system in the network for better economies of scale, for purchasing raw materials and ingredients and you get instant distribution that cannot be matched and is unparalleled and frankly, is not necessarily <pauses>
JH: It’s leading towards not thinking it’s fair…the number of distributors over time continues to wane. Even though we have 5,300 plus breweries, today, there are only 1,000 plus active distributors. Five hundred plus of those are controlled by AB Inbev. Miller Coors has several hundred as well. Distributors are amazing partners to beer, but it’s a matter of priority. How do they decide what they’re going to sell? And when you’re an AB house – that’s a common term for distributors – their first priority is likely those AB brands.
MS: The whole South African hop thing I think is way overblown. That’s not what people should be getting angry about Anheuser-Busch about, because Anheuser-Busch owns hop farms in several areas and they don’t sell those to any craft brewers. I don’t think this is a move on their part to really limit the accessibility of hops to craft brewers like people are making it out. I think it’s just they have a use for those hops, and they don’t have a surplus. They don’t have a surplus anymore. That’s coming from people I know that work at AB, that I trust. I just don’t think it was politically motivated. I think it was just part of their business. There are so many other things that they’re doing. Going in and buying tap handles in bars, cleaning out all the independent brewers and filling the bars with some of these brewery’s beers that they’ve purchased. They’re opening taprooms and brewpubs all over the country with that are branded with Goose or 10 Barrel or Goldenroad, or whatever. I think those are the kind of things, and they pass those off as craft. I think that’s where the real problem is and the real danger is...be honest about what you’re brewery is and what it isn’t. If you’re passing yourself off to somebody who’s a small, independent blogger, or beer writer, or brewery, or whatever, and you’re completely backed by Anheuser-Busch, you gotta’ have fully discloser there.
Just when you thought the beer offerings at the annual music festival couldn’t get any more awesome, this year proved to be the most refreshing and abundant yet.
I recently rented out my room through AirBNB to a Smog City Brewery employee. Located in Torrance, the five-year-old brewery quickly developed a cult following for its quality crafted and flavorful beers.
This wasn’t coincidental and I was giddy when he brought a dozen of their delicious stouts, IPAs and sours. That same weekend, I stayed in La Quinta at Jim Lefebvre’s house. Yep, I sipped on some Hoptonic IPA with a baseball legend.
Rhythm, Wine & Brews Experience returns for 2016 with an amazing line up of bands, wine and brews.
Live music, California craft beer and wine will create a backdrop in Indio at the scenic Empire Polo Club. This year, 311, Matisyahu, Dream Club, Insecure Alex, The Bellrays, and Long Duk Dong are joining 21 wineries and 48 breweries in Indio for the 5th annual Rhythm Wine & Brews Festival.
Kevin Olsen runs Adam’s Bottle Boutique in Redondo Beach and is the RWB beer curator.
“This year, we have more unique selection of breweries, some a little less mainstream, so some smaller breweries – more artisanal and craft driven. Last year, we definitely took a step in that direction.
Belching Beaver came out this year. Strand Brewing, Ritual Brewing which is a little closer - a local Inland Empire brewery. Those are new additions this year…Bells is coming out to the California distribution scene.”
And lucky for us, Alpine is getting their toes wet in Riverside County for the first time.
Find out more about the breweries that will be rockin’ this year’s Rhythm Wine & Brews.
- 10 Barrel Brewing: Darling favorite in Oregon and multiple Great American Beer Festival Winner medal winner. They have brewpubs in Boise, Portland and Bend. 10 Barrel’s main working brewery is also located in Bend.
- Anchor Brewing Company: This brewery is dripping with history. Anchor began during the California Gold Rush. Anchor Brewing were the first to produce steam beer, effervescent beer now labeled California common beer. Anchor is the only steam brewing company still in operation.
- Ace Cider: Did you know cider is fantastic to cook with? Use Ace cider in place of champagne to lighten up your dishes. Try Ace Apple with your next pork dish!
- Ballast Point: This San Diego brewery is a homebrewers fairytale come true. Founder Jack White opened Home Brew Mart in 1992, after wanting more quality and unique brewing ingredients as a homebrewer. Ballast Point opened their “back room” brewery behind the shop in 1996. They are now brewers of the deliciously famous Grapefruit Sculpin. And in November, the UCLA students, turned brewery owners sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion.
- Sierra Nevada: Ken Grossman, the Godfather of craft, opened a homebrew supply store in Chico in 1976. He purchased whole cone hops from Yakima hop brokers directly and began brewing his now infamous hop-forward beers. He launched Sierra Nevada Brewing three years later.
- Green Flash Brewing: Green Flash opened Cellar 3 last year, a new tasting room and specialty brewing facility in Poway. The facility focuses on innovation through barrel-aging and wild yeast experimentation. When not sipping something sour, try their Soul Style American IPA. Citra, Simcoe and Cascade hops are layered, giving it tropical and sherbert flavors. It’s a perfect warm weather beer.
- Breckenridge Brewery: Colorado’s third craft brewery began at the hands of a ski bum homebrewer in 1990. Today, you can find their beers in 32 states. And in true outdoorsy form, the brewery put nitro in cans late last year. What’s better than craft in a can and a nitro tap? Yep, Breckenridge’s new line of nitrogen-carbonated canned beer. Their Nitro Series in four-packs started with Nitro Vanilla Porter and Nitro Lucky U IPA.
- Three Weavers Brewing Company: The female-run brewery is Los Angeles’ second successfully funded brewery Kickstarter campaign. Brewmaster, Alexandra Nowell was the former lead brewer at Drakes and won two GABF bronze medals for her Session beer and German-Style Kolsch while brewmaster at Kinetic Brewing Company in Lancaster.
- Goose Island Brewing: Goose Island's brands are sold in 24 states and parts of Europe thanks to the Anheuser-Busch InBev deal in 2011. While craft beer geeks across the country cried in their beers over the deal, their Bourbon County Stout has remained world class.
- Coachella Valley Brewing Company: CVB, as we locals like to call them, answers the call for a bigger selection of sophisticated and modern beers here in the valley. Head brewmaster and part owner, Chris Anderson, is also a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage Culinary program. Using unique fruits and spices, Anderson brews using local ingredients. CVB started a sour program in 2015 and their Profligate Society features sours like the Cabernet barrel aged Epineux Poire prickly pear wild ale.
- New Belgium Brewing: This is one of the coolest breweries on the planet. The New Belgium folks not only advocate for beer, they advocate for the planet. They are so sustainable; they became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. Tour de Fat is New Belgium’s traveling party of all thinks bicycle. In every Tour de Fat city, one awesome role model will step on stage to trade in his or her car keys and pledge to live car free for one year. Oh, and the brewery is now 100% employee owned.
- Black Market Brewing: Black Market launched the craft movement in Temecula’s wine country. They recently brewed a Rum Matured Deception with Pineapple on cask. The “normal” Deception is a coconut lime blonde ale. Black Market releases a new beer on Cask Night every Monday.
- Founders Brewery: If you haven’t fallen in love with Founders, you don’t have a heart. This brewery is ranked in the top breweries in the world by Ratebeer.com for the last five years. If you haven’t tried their Breakfast Stout, you haven’t lived.
- Speakeasy Ales and Lager: Speakeasy hales from San Francisco. Last year, a new 60 barrel brewhouse, malt handling system, fermenters, centrifuge and canning line were installed. Production capacity increased to 90,000 barrels per year.
- Bootleggers Brewery: Orange County craft beer darlings, Bootleggers was established in 2008 by husband and wife Aaron and Patricia Barkenhagen. They brew the popular Mint Chocolate Porter, perfect to sip during the holidays.
- Firestone Walker Brewing Co.: I can’t say enough good things about Firestone. And neither could GABF last year. Firestone took a silver for their Feral One in the Belgian-Style Lambic or Sour Ale category. They also brought home two bronzes for their Hammersmith IPA in the English-Style India Pale Ale category and their Sour Opal in the Wood and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer categories. Then, Firestone was awarded golds for their Pivo in the German-Style Pilsener and their DBA in the Ordinary or Special Bitter categories. So, it only made sense that they were awarded the Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewing Company Brewer of the Year award.
- Bell’s Brewery: Bell’s was founded by Larry Bell as a home brewing supply shop in 1983. They ranked eighth in total volume of all domestic craft brewers in the U.S. for 2010.
- Barley Forge Brewery: They were recently awarded “Best Brewery” in the OC Weekly in 2015. Barley Forge specializes in Belgian, West Coast and German-style beers.
- Brew Rebellion: This brewery is true to its name. Brew Rebellion brews beer in quantities of 30 to 50 gallons at a time. That means an awesome rotating tap list and more specialty beers.
- Coedo Brewery: Japan: Coeda beers are named after five classic Japanese hues. Coeda honors traditions. The brewers allow the first sip of beer to fall to the ground, from the tanks, as a tribute to the brewmasters who came before them. They’ve won awards in the World Beer Cup, European Beer Star and International Taste & Quality Institute. Their mission? Beer beautiful.
- Einstock Brewing: is located just 60 miles south of the Arctic circle in the fishing port of Akureyri, Iceland. All Einstök beers are 100% vegan, with no GMOs.
- Clown Shoes: Funny name, great beer. The craft beer industry is a fun bunch and produces amazing beer, all while being a little crazy. One example is their American Black Ale dubbed “Lubrication.” The label features a robot at a gas station holding a pump handle in his groin vicinity. Fun tidbit: the artist is a woman. And the Clown Shoes story isn’t your typical one. This brand came as a result of a liquor store loving beer so much that the owner decided to brew a line of their own. Clown Shoes contract brews through Mercury Brewing Company in Massachusetts.
- Hangar 24 Craft Brewery: At the end of a dusty road, with the San Bernardino Mountains serving as a backdrop; Hangar 24 is named after the hangar where owner Ben Cook—a licensed pilot—and his friends would relax after a day of flying. Fun fact: Hangar 24’s main brew house came by way of Las Vegas’ Monte Carlo Casino.
- Pizza Port Brewing: Pizza Port serves delicious craft beer in Solana Beach, Carlsbad, San Clemente and Ocean Beach. Each of Pizza Port’s four San Diego County brewpubs won at least one GABF medal last year. The original Solana Beach location won Great American Beer Festival “Small Brewpub of the Year” in 2003. In 2009, they won nine medals at GABF and the Carlsbad location was named “Large Brewpub of the Year.” Simply, Pizza Port rocks.
- Mission Brewery: Mission Brewery was originally established in 1913. See Acoustic Ales below. Like most breweries of the time, they went out of business during the first year of Prohibition. The revived Mission Brewery is now in the East Village in downtown San Diego in the historic Wonder Bread Building. As I always say, beer is food.
- King Harbor Brewing Company: was the first production brewery in Redondo Beach. Last June they opened the Waterfront Tasting Room, joining Los Angeles craft beer bar icon, Naja’s Place, on the International Boardwalk.
- Belching Beaver Brewing: This is a dog friendly brewery in North Park, San Diego. Their Beavers Milk, Milk Stout took a gold medal at the World Beer Championships in 2014 and 2015. Their Dammed! Double IPA also took a gold at the World Beer Championships in 2014.
- Strand Brewing: Torrance’s first production brewery has grown so much since 2009, it moved to Old Torrance last October. Now, Strand Brewing, Monkish Brewing, The Dudes Brewing and Smog City Brewing are all within walking or a short Uber ride distance from each other. Cool.
- Deschutes Brewing: Deschutes is awesome and it’s family owned and operated. They even set up an employee stock ownership program in 2013 so employees can own a percentage of the company. If you try anything from Deschutes, try The Abyss. It’s a world class, 12% ABV imperial stout.
- Alpine Brewing: You probably already know Green Flash and Alpine merged in 2014. Green Flash is about 20 times larger than Alpine. Apine’s IPA popularity couldn’t meet the demand. Now they can.
- Angel City Brewing: Angel City has a special place in my heart. When I first started writing about beer in 2008, I met Michael Bowe, the founder of Angel City. He’s since sold it and is sailing around the world. But it continues to thrive in downtown Los Angeles, bringing old-world craft brewing to the new expanding Arts District.
- Ironfire Brewing Company: John Maino and Greg Webb met at Ballast Point in San Diego and decided to start their own brewery in Temecula. Ironfire was born in 2012.
- Barrelhouse Brewing Co.: BarrelHouse not only has fantastic beers (& sours!), but beautiful views from their inviting Central Coast patio. They just announced their 2016 Curly Wolf. This Maple Vanilla Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout has been a crowd favorite in Paso.
- Rock Brothers Brewing: Music and beer are this brewery’s mantra. Creating custom brews for bands is their focus. And no surprise, they (along with Nebraska Brewing Company and Cigar City Brewing) made 311’s Amber Ale beer possible.
- La Quinta Brewing They opened their doors in the fall of 2013 in the Coachella Valley. And after much success and popularity, they recently opened a brewpub in Old Town La Quinta.
- Elysian Brewing: Elysian was founded in Seattle in 1995. Try their Avatar Jasmine IP brewed with died jasmine flowers.
- Golden Road Brewing: All of their beers are delivered in cans. Canned beers stay fresher longer without light oxidation and they are better for the environment. Anheuser-Busch Inbev acquired Los Angeles’ largest craft brewer last September.
- Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse: The Rancho Mirage BBQ restaurant and brewhouse was founded by the Marie Callender’s founder, Don Callender. Don had a passion for craft beer and opened two small breweries in 1998 and 1999. Babe’s later opened in April of 2002. In 2014, their Belgian Vanilla Blonde Ale took a gold at the Great America Beer Festival.
- Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment: Acoustic started brewing in 2012. But the building that houses their brew has over 100 years of American brewing history. The original facility housed Mission Brewery, which operated before Prohibition.
- Karl Strauss Brewing Company: Strauss was former vice president of production and reached Master Brewer at Pabst Brewing Company. He, Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner started the first-ever brew pub in San Diego in 1989. It was the first brewery of any type to operate in San Diego since 1953.
- Lagunitas Brewing Company: The brewery that brews in Northern California and Chicago sold a 50% stake to Heineken last September in an effort to expand the brand globally.
- Reverand Nat’s Hard Cider Rev Nat West started making cider in his basement and in the spirit of craft beer geeks, grew it to a business that now distributes in five states.
- Ritual Brewing Company: Redlands brewery founded by Owen Williams and Steve Dunkerken. Williams is the former Brewing Operations Director of BJ’s Brewhouse and Restaurants and teaches Beer & Culture at California Polytechnic University in Pomona. Dunkerken is a Redlands native and long time homebrewer.
Want an extra hour of unlimited tastings from these amazing craft breweries? You’ll want to check out the Friday night Bottle Share & Kick-off Party. Held on March 4th, the Bottle Share event is open to Rhythm, Wine & Brews Experience VIP ticket holders, Sponsors and Press. Make sure you brink one or two 22oz of awesome craft beer to share.
So, what about the headliner? 311’s name originates from the police code for indecent exposure in Omaha, Nebraska, after the original guitarist for the band was arrested for streaking. As of 2011, 311 has sold over 8.5 million records in the US. Never has running around naked in Nebraska proved this profitable. While 311 has called L.A. home for years, the band is orginally from Omaha. With collaboration from the band members and a local brew partner, Rock Brothers partners with fellow Florida brewery, Cigar City on all its bands beers. It's no wonder award winning Nebraska Brewing Company was chosen as the local brew partner to brew the 311 Amber Ale.
“Choosing bands from a variety of genres makes our event appeal to a broad audience,“ said Alex Haagen, IV, producer of the Rhythm, Wine and Brews Experience. “Reggae always draws a big, happy crowd. We added rock, a dash of blues and some funk and think we have an impressive show that everyone will enjoy.” He added, “We’ve woven together live music, craft beer and wine tasting, a variety of amazing food offerings, colorful art installations, circus performers and an incredible venue to create a real ‘experience.’ Come on out and have a great time!”