Starting at Rock Bottom

Veteran brewmaster hands reins to go-getter who's into math and spreadsheets

New Rock Bottom La Jolla head brewer Carli Smith
  • New Rock Bottom La Jolla head brewer Carli Smith
  • sdbeernews photo

I didn’t go to college, but thanks to some friends of mine who attended UCSD, I got to tag along and enjoy the recreational parts of higher learning. By virtue of geography, many of our evenings began or ended at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery. It was our Cheers. Everybody knew our names and we knew theirs — Alexis, Sarah, Lee. (I just now realize how well those last two go together…I must have been too inebriated to notice back then.)

Rock Bottom Brewery

8980 Villa La Jolla Drive, La Jolla

I shot hundreds of games of pool there, drank pitchers of Ragtop Red Ale, and had many a carefree evening of fun “hitting Rock Bottom”…but that was many moons (and many Moonlight Porters) ago. Now, this award-winning brewpub is in the possession of Carli Smith, a first-time head brewer who, at 25, has already benefitted from the tutelage of two of San Diego County’s most notable brewers.

Gifted with a flair for mathematics and an almost inexplicable but undeniable love of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Smith thought finance would be her calling and earned a degree in the subject at USD. Along the way, she worked as a hostess and bartender at Gordon Biersch’s Mission Valley brewpub. When brewmaster Doug Hasker (regarded by every brewer in San Diego as the county’s foremost lager expert) solicited the venue’s staff for employees interested in helping out in his brewhouse, Smith raised her hand and soon found herself assisting him on a part-time basis. It was the first step in realizing a goal she developed while studying abroad and sampling beers in Austria and Germany — becoming a professional brewer.

While assisting Hasker, Smith also logged brewery time on a volunteer basis with Jason Stockberger at Rock Bottom’s (now-closed) Gaslamp Quarter brewpub. Confused by this, Hasker asked her why she was going elsewhere to gain brewing experience and, when Smith told him of her ultimate goal, he immediately bumped her up to assistant brewer. And that was the role she filled when moving to Rock Bottom La Jolla in October of 2013 and teaming up with Marty Mendiola, the only brewmaster that brewpub had known for a decade and a half.

Smith considers herself fortunate to have worked under both Hasker and Mendiola, saying the latter was very supportive of her ideas and good at letting her learn by doing. She has done all of the physical brewing at Rock Bottom for the past six months, preparing to take over the ship when Mendiola eventually left to start his own interest, Second Chance Beer Co.. His last day was more than two weeks ago, and a number of Smith’s weekly specialty beers have begun to trickle from the brewhouse, including a berry white tea honey ale, mint chocolate stout, and, on the day I visited, a chai-spiced porter (which was delicious and will be a Beer of the Week next time it’s available).

When asked the direction she plans to go with Rock Bottom’s beer, she admits that she’s still adjusting to life in the captain’s chair and in the process of charting her course, but she plans to “brew for the people.” Working in a brewpub environment allows her to build a rapport with regulars who have no problem requesting styles they’d like to see. To that end, she looks forward to brewing a hefeweizen for the many who have asked for one. Meanwhile, she recently brewed her first personally developed India pale ale recipe using Simcoe, Centennial, and Chinook (one of her favorite hops), and has ideas for a number of session beers.

But it’s not just Smith’s love of beer that diverted her from the business-and-finance path she was on. In working festivals with Gordon Biersch and training under well-connected industry veterans, she had the opportunity to meet many members of the San Diego brewing community. Seeing the camaraderie and cohesion that are its hallmarks, she found herself yearning to be a part of it. Through her status as one of only four female head brewers in San Diego and her involvement in the female brewing advocacy association known as the Pink Boots Society, she's found her way into the fold in a big way.

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