San Diego Brews

Bottled & Kegged: San Diego’s Craft Brew Culture 

El Paso SaloonIn the past decade and a half, San Diego County has earned national and international notoriety for its vibrant craft brew culture. This is due in part to the number of breweries throughout the county but also the quality of product that those breweries produce and some local innovators that have enhanced the U.S. craft beer industry.

Locally, craft beer has provided the City of San Diego with a newly invigorated economic engine that supports the local economy by providing jobs to individuals and charitable support for worthy organizations. For every 1 brewery job added in the county, 5.7 jobs in supporting industries are created.  As if anyone needed another reason to visit San Diego, craft beer attracts tourists. In 2011, during the city’s most popular, annual craft beer event, San Diego Beer Week held in early November—hotel operators reserved over 3,500 room nights equaling around half a million dollars in revenue. Stone Brewing Co. plans to capitalize on “brew tourism” by building a 40-50 room hotel set to open in late 2014.


San Diego’s Brewing History

Beer, as we recognize it today, was not brewedSan Diego Craft Brew Timelinecommercially in the San Diego region until the second half of the 19th century, though for thousands of years, early inhabitants like the Kumeyaay were fermenting local plants like pine nuts, agave, maguey, elder flower, and manzanita berries with water and honey.

Spanish missionaries arriving in 1769 sought to convert the native Kumeyaay population to Catholicism. In doing so, missionaries replaced native fermentation practices with those suited to the production of sacramental wine, although mission inventories show they also produced barley.

After gaining independence from Spain, the Mexican government secularized the missions, giving much of the land to former Spanish soldiers and Mexican citizens. Many raised cattle for the lucrative hide and tallow trade and beer from Boston and other cities made its way to San Diego via the trading ships though produced locally. After the United States annexed the region from Mexico in 1848, Americans (and newly-arrived European immigrants to the United States) began moving west. In 1868, Conrad Doblier, an Austrian-American immigrant, built a homestead in the Chollas Valley and began brewing European-style beer.

Around the turn of the century, brewing became big business in San Diego. The railroad and mechanized refrigeration allowed brewers to access previously inaccessible markets. Prohibition (19201933) put a stop to beer production in San Diego but after its repeal, San Diego brewers began operations again until the onslaught of brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Coors Brewing, and Miller Brewing drove them out of the marketplace. In San Diego From 1953 until 1987, commercial beer production ceased.


Mexico and Prohibition

During Prohibition, San Diego’s proximity to Mexico meant that San Diegans could still drink beer legally provided they were south of the border. This helped keep the taste for beer alive with San Diegans. It also provided economic stimulus to Tijuana’s main business district and its population soared. 

Aztec Brewing CoIn 1920, Tijuana had a population of 1,028. By 1930, it had grown to 11,271. Over 180 cantinas like La Ballena—known as “the longest bar in the world”—sprang up around present-day Avenida Revolución (then called Main Street.) The Agua Caliente Hotel (and later racetrack) was the most lavish establishment to cater to the crowds of American tourists. The racetrack attracted daily crowds of 3,500 people and the hotel touted 500 elaborately decorated rooms.

The rise in tourist business coAztec Brewing Co - Interiorrresponded to a rise in brewery business. Two breweries in Mexicali (112 miles east of Tijuana) supplied Tijuana’s numerous attractions with beer during Prohibition. Compañia Cervecera Azteca (Aztec Brewing Company) and Cervecería Mexicali (Mexicali Brewery) saw business levels quadruple in during the 1920s. To keep up with demand, Mexican breweries had to modernize quickly and Cervecería Mexicali became the most modern brewery in the Americas.

Though almost as quickly as it arrived, the experiment of Prohibition failed in the United States and was repealed in 1933. Visitation to Tijuana decreased sharply and soon, some cantinas closed for business. The breweries who had established themselves during Prohibition had lost much of their target market. Aztec Brewery, however, decided to move their operations north of the border and soon became San Diego’s largest, and most beloved, brewery.  


What conditions allowed San Diego to become such a craft beer town?

Within the past decade, San Diego has earned an enviable reputation as being one of the world’s greatest craft beer cities, but why?

1. Legislation: Favorable legislation in the late 1970s and early 1980s legalized home brewing and the commercial production and sale of beer in a restaurant setting which provided an environment where successful hobbyists could transition to business owners and sell their craft.

2. Robust home brewer scene: With the legalization of home brewing came several local (and highly organized) groups of home brewers who met, shared recipes, provided advice, entered beers in competitions and together, pushed the flavor boundaries producing beers that San Diego hadn’t witnessed for decades. Home brewing allowed for individual experimentation and experimentation allowed for a broad knowledge base to take hold locally.

3. Supportive community: San Diego was, prior to the early-to-mid 1990s, a light beer town. Since then, locals have developed a taste for hoppier, full-bodied beers which has since become one of the defining characteristics of a San Diego craft beer. This transformation is due to the outreach of the region’s brewers which takes place at the county’s numerous festivals, tasting events, and brewery tours. The region has embraced its brewers so completely that in 2012, the former mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders, dubbed the month of June as “Beer Month” in the city.

4. Collaborative brewers: The current brewing boom San Diego County is experiencing can draw its origins to a few key organizations and individuals. As such, an attitude of compatriotism, rather than competition, pervades the brewing industry in San Diego. Most brewers know the other brewers or got started in the others’ breweries and therefore, a sense of trust and respect dominates the culture in the region more so than other beer cities in the nation.