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San Diego brewers bring suds to beer-barren neighborhoods

With San Diego’s reputation as a beer mecca and well over 200 brewery-owned venues throughout the county, it’s easy to assume every local community sports its own smattering of breweries and tasting rooms. Yet, there are numerous neighborhoods that homespun suds have yet to trickle into.

In some cases, it’s a matter of a municipality maintaining more stringent regulations against the production and sale of alcoholic beverages or a lack of available real estate that is industrially zoned for beer manufacturing. Other times, a perceived lack of consumer interest within a community inhibits a brewing company from taking a chance on an unproven territory.

Despite these and other challenges, some brewing companies are venturing into territories with little, or in some cases zero local-beer presence, expanding the segment one community at a time.

Beer deserts

Last month, 10-year-old Kearny Mesa interest Societe Brewing opened its first-ever satellite tasting room, opting for Old Town, a tourist-only area that has never housed a brewery-owned venue. An award-winning company that is well known in and beyond San Diego, they primarily hope to reach the tourists who visit Old Town Historic Park annually, thus increasing brand awareness beyond San Diego.

While there’s an element of risk in being the first to lay down stakes in any area, Societe’s is relatively low. An estimated 35.8 million tourists visit Old Town each year, providing ample opportunity for the company to attract a suitable number of patrons. Though installed in an unlikely building that also houses an auto shop and concrete supplier, Del Mar’s first beermaking interest, Viewpoint Brewing, took a similarly calculated risk, opening across the street from another high-volume locale, the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which receives more than 3 million visitors annually. Five years in, the business is thriving.

The level of risk is far greater for breweries that choose to blaze trails in neighborhoods devoid of landmarks, attractions, event venues or a population with a proven thirst for local beer. These are the places Greg and Jade Malkin, the owners of Little Miss Brewing, actively seek out. But it wasn’t always that way.

Bartenders Heather Basile and Pat Sichel at Little Miss Brewing in Poway.

Bartenders Heather Basile and Pat Sichel at Little Miss Brewing in Poway.

(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Little Miss was founded in a tucked-away end suite in the highly industrial Miramar area. From there, the Malkins went about the business of opening tasting rooms, beginning in Normal Heights before securing a space in Ocean Beach that would spell the end of their cookie-cutter story and inspire a 180-degree pivot.

After pouring substantial money into renovating their Newport Avenue space, Little Miss was unexpectedly denied a liquor license even though the governing agency had previously seen fit to award licenses to five brewery-owned venues on that same street. It was that very proliferation that was the basis of Little Miss’ denial and led to the Malkins walking away from their would-be OB space with a bad taste in their mouths and a new plan to avoid suds-saturated areas

Over the past five years, Little Miss has opened satellite locations in La Mesa (which had only two brewery venues when they opened), Escondido, downtown’s East Village , Lakeside and Poway , and has spaces in Chula Vista’s Eastlake community and a project within Balboa Park that opened Friday. They’ve also closed on a Quonset hut-style building in Logan Heights —a neighborhood with no previous connections to the beer industry—in which to build a second manufacturing facility.

The company now has more locations than any other local brewing interest, including large, longstanding operations such as Stone Brewing , Karl Strauss Brewing and Ballast Point Brewing . While there are advantages to building in what the Malkins call “beer deserts,” such as lower cost per square foot and lack of competition, there are also challenges.

“When you open in a city or area that doesn’t have tasting rooms, the governing body that handles the zoning, building and fire-department approvals is less — or not at all — familiar with the rules regarding tasting rooms. This means more headaches when trying to open, and means that if we’re not careful, we can get some kind of denial or refusal,” says Greg. “The second downside is that there is no customer base that’s currently going to drinking establishments in that area, which means we have to attract them with advertising and donating to local charities to slowly build a base. By opening in an area that already has tasting rooms and bars, you know people who regularly go to those places will try yours out, but that’s not the case for beer deserts.”

Malkin says it’s common to operate at a deficit for years when opening in a community with less of a craft-beer presence and says that’s likely why most companies opt not to take the road less traveled that he and his wife are traversing. But he says they are playing the long game and are OK with a slow-and-steady approach that could lead to well-established, loyal customer bases solely devoted to their brand as the local beer option, especially in communities like Lakeside and Poway, which they have almost all to themselves.

“I can’t say for sure whether our proof-of-concept will work out long-term,” says Greg. “I think it will, but there are definitely risks associated with what we’re doing.”

Bringing beer back

Up until 2021, La Jolla was home to a pair of stalwart brewpubs. One was its namesake La Jolla Brew House, which opened in 2003 and was later sold twice, becoming La Jolla Brewing in 2013, then CAVU Brewing in 2017 before going dark for good following COVID shutdowns. The other was Karl Strauss Brewing’s 25-year-old Wall Street brewpub. The birthplace of numerous award-winning beers, it shuttered after the company made the pandemic-era choice not to renew its lease last year.

That decision left La Jolla without a brewery-owned venue, a distinction the community shook last weekend with the soft opening of a new tasting room from local operation Eppig Brewing. Founded in a 1,850-square-foot lease-to-brew suite in H.G. Fenton’s shared “Craft by Brewery Igniter” facility in North Park in 2016, Eppig earned a fast and sizable following behind its traditional lagers and IPAs. Consumer demand allowed the business to relocate to its current 16,000-square-foot brewery in Vista in 2019, a year after opening an indoor-outdoor “waterfront biergarten” in Point Loma. The latter has served the company well, allowing it to reach and serve customers far removed from its North County headquarters.

 Epping Brewing La Jolla Bier Haus on Prospect Street.

San Diego, CA – August 25, 2022: The soon-to-be-opened Epping Brewing La Jolla Bier Haus stands at right on Prospect Street August 22, 2022, San Diego, CA. (Bill Wechter / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ownership has spent the past two years searching for the right place to install another tasting room in San Diego proper. Over much of that span, they had aimed for a return to their established fan base in North Park, a community that’s home to 11 breweries and five tasting rooms. But when the Eppig team caught wind of a vacant 1,300-square-foot art-studio space on Prospect Street, they quickly shifted gears.

“It was a great find that made a lot of sense for us,” says Eppig co-founder Todd Warshaw. “Our block attracts a ton of tourists, local diners and shoppers, and there are residential streets and apartments that are all within walking distance. All of these folks need local craft beer and we’re thrilled to offer it to them.”

Warshaw points to other advantages, such as consistent daytime foot traffic, and being in close proximity to popular restaurants and nearby activities. He also cites a lack of competition as La Jolla’s only local, independent brewery-owned business.

“We’re excited to take on a new neighborhood, especially one that currently lacks a local brewery location,” says Warshaw, who says that engaging with area residents will be key to the new location’s success. “We hope to host a few repeating weekday events to attract locals and build a pub-like community around the taproom — a run club, trivia, some live music — as well as participating in local events like the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival.”

Eppig La Jolla Bierhaus is currently in its soft-open phase. Warshaw expects to shut down the venue early next year to complete more extensive renovations during the slow season before reopening in early spring.

The next hot ‘hood?

History has proven it doesn’t take much for a previously beer-barren community to find itself awash in local suds. In 2005, when Stone Brewing moved from its original San Marcos brewery to open a sprawling headquarters featuring a grand-scale garden-equipped restaurant in Escondido, nobody was making beer within the city limits. Today Escondido is home to three other breweries and a pair of satellite venues with taprooms from Vista’s Bear Roots Brewing and Oceanside’s Black Plague Brewing en route.

Considered by many to be San Diego’s epicenter for food and drink — including beer — tiny North Park boasts 16 brewery-owned venues, but it had none 10 years ago. Further south, once-desolate Chula Vista now has two breweries and a taproom on a single block of Third Avenue. And serving as an example of what’s possible when municipal government sees the value of an industry and adjusts its regulations to help it grow, Vista now has more than 20 breweries (plus four non-brewing locations), roughly four-fifths of which have debuted in the past decade.

When assessing the landscape for burgeoning beer communities, Imperial Beach stands out. The county’s southwestern-most municipality has chugged along with a pair of tasting rooms for several years but it recently welcomed a brewpub from popular local operation Pizza Port (for food only right now) as well as a large bar and restaurant from Chula Vista-based Novo Brazil Brewing.

And if Scott and Tessa Christian have their way, Lemon Grove will have its brewery count double via the arrival of their shared aspiration, Sunny Grove Brewing. When looking for a place to site their business, the La Mesa couple limited their search to communities in need of a bolstered local-beer presence.

“We knew we wanted to be in La Mesa, Spring Valley, or Lemon Grove,” says Scott Christian, who has homebrewed for 14 years and will oversee production at Sunny Grove. “It didn’t take long to realize how few breweries are in [these communities] compared to other parts of the county, and we really felt like there needed to be more.”

Brandon Hernández is founder of San Diego Beer News (www.sandiegobeer.news), a site providing daily coverage of the county’s brewing industry. Contact him at: [email protected]s