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Packed House Greets Brew Talks in San Diego

From left to right: Jacob McKean, Modern Times Beer, Shawn DeWitt, Coronado Brewing Co., Jeff Bagby, Bagby Beer Co., and Chris Furnari, Brewbound

The Brew Talks West Coast tour began Tuesday night just north of San Diego, which Chad Heath, the director of Southern California sales for Stone Distributing, calls “the Napa for beer.”

The event, which was moderated by Brewbound editor Chris Furnari and held at The Lost Abbey, featured two interview panels. The first, “Overcoming the challenges of starting a brewery,” featured Jacob McKean, founder of the recently-launched Modern Times Beer, Jeff Bagby, founder of Bagby Beer Company, and Shawn DeWitt, co-owner of Coronado Brewing Company. The second, “Exploring the mature but growing San Diego craft beer market,” featured Heath along with Tomme Arthur, co-founder of The Lost Abbey, and Tom Nickel, owner of O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego.

In the first panel, DeWitt said that when starting a brewery, approximate how much money you think you’ll need and then add some. He said that he often didn’t have enough resources when he needed it.

McKean said that he was surprised when investors found more risk when he asked for less. He’s funded more than $1 million for his new brewery, but he said that investors thought he should be seeking closer to $10 million. He also said that the savvier investors weren’t so concerned with his sales projections.

“They were far more interested in my ability to manage a business,” McKean said. “Like a generic business rather than a brewery.”

Bagby shared a different kind of advice. Even after winning several awards for his brews, he tries to be realistic.

“There’s no one out there that’s going to care as much about your brewery and it getting open than you,” Bagby said. “And as soon as you realize that, you realize that that relates to every single thing that you’re doing.”

In the second panel, Arthur, Heath and Nickel agreed that there’s still more room for quality craft beers to grow in San Diego, despite the rapidly growing number of breweries and pubs.

“High water floats all boats,” Nickel said.

The panel agreed that, even in San Diego, the more good beer available, the merrier — because it raises awareness for craft beer and can help increase craft’s market share.

There aren’t many cities where the “too much craft” question can be raised, but San Diego is one of them, standing out even among other bigger California cities because so many of its brands are home-grown.

And that’s a big contrast with a much larger city about 120 miles north. Los Angeles, Heath said, was an afterthought for Stone Distributing when he had started working there five years ago. But times are changing, even in L.A., it appears. Stone recently decided to focus on that market — and, he said, the wholesaler has added about 2,000 different points of distribution in Los Angeles alone. He also said that once big restaurant chains in that city start catching onto the craft bandwagon, it will become even greater.

In other words, while every craft brewer in San Diego aims for that local feel, nothing is local in Los Angeles, according to Heath. But, he added, that is changing: while Southern California used to have heavy demand exclusively on the coast, in places like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Long Beach, now craft beer sells strongly inland, in towns like Pasadena and West Hollywood.

Southern California: a microcosm for the country’s expanding craft footprint — and one that will be explored even more tonight, when Brew Talks move up to L.A.’s Golden Road Brewing.

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