Earlier this month, the San Diego Brewers Guild announced a new study showing that San Diego craft beer made a more than one billion-dollar economic impact in 2017. The news arrives just as Karl Strauss Brewing, San Diego’s oldest craft brewery, is about to celebrate its 30th year in business.
How did one small brewpub downtown grow into a billion-dollar industry populated by more than 150 breweries? I asked that question to more than three dozen brewers, homebrewers, bar owners, and beer enthusiasts who were active within the local beer community from the late 1980s into the 2000s, and found the foundation was built within the first 15 years of San Diego beer.
Their first consensus: San Diego used to be a Coors Light town. Here is a look at the beers they say changed that, and established San Diego as one of the top beer cities in the world.
The beginning goes back further than Karl Strauss, to the American homebrew movement that arose after 1978. Forty years ago this month, president Jimmy Carter signed bill HR 1337 into law, amending the U.S. tax code, including a provision effectively legalizing brewing beer at home.
A new generation of homebrewers would need access to equipment and ingredients. According to Judith Downie, the historian preserving San Diego historyat the Brewchives, in the Cal State San Marcos library, a homebrew hobbyist named Audrey Eckblom first provided these in San Diego. She and husband Owen operated an El Cajon shop called Beer and Wine Crafts, where many of San Diego’s first generation of pro brewers got their start. They drove in from miles around to take classes and buy supplies.
One of those brewers was current Karl Strauss brewmaster Paul Segura, who recalls being motivated by an increased federal “sin tax” on retail beer during the first Bush presidency. “We said, screw that, we’ll make our own.”
With Audrey Eckblom’s support, a small group of homebrew hobbyists began gathering in the shop to exchange brewing ideas. In 1989, they formally organized a homebrew club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity). One of its earliest members, Rich Link, recalls, “A lot of the guys were just interested in making cheap beer.”
However, they departed the club as other members got more serious about producing sound versions of Belgian and English beer styles, which were tough to find at local beer retailers. They began developing a taste for a particular one of beer’s key ingredients. “There were a couple of us that were freaking everyone out with the hops we were using,” says Link.
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
- Chico, California, 1980
In other parts of the state, homebrewing quickly evolved into what in the early days were called microbreweries. And the early microbrew that made the single largest impact on San Diego beer is unquestionably this hoppy pale ale first brewed in Chico, California in late 1980.
Virtually every brewer active in San Diego during the 1990s cites Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as the beer that first turned them on to hoppy ales. Other California microbrews contributed, including Anchor Steam Liberty Ale, and Humboldt Brewing Co.’s Red Nectar. But for many years, the pine-meets-grapefruit bitterness of Cascade hops in this bottle-conditioned pale made local brewers want more.
- Bolt Pale Ale
- Fallbrook, 1987
The first microbrew brewed in San Diego County came from Bolt Brewing, a short-lived Fallbrook brewery dreamed up by a trio of La Mesa homebrewers, led by Paul Holborn. Bolt cheaply took over the location of a would-be brewpub called Fergie’s, recalls Clint Stromberg, who served as assistant brewer. Downie’s research suggests Fergie’s never got a license to sell beer, which wasn’t a routine operation in San Diego at the time.
“In those days, the local ABC didn’t know how to handle a brewery license,” recalls Stromberg, “because they had never seen one.”
Small-scale brewing equipment wasn’t readily available either, and Stromberg points to Bolt Pale Ale as the first beer produced on Bolt’s cobbled together one-barrel brewhouse, “the first beer brewed in the county that had a significant number of hops,” he adds. Holborn did not directly contribute this story, but those who knew him around that time describe his brewing style as decidedly hop-forward.
For less than two years, Bolt sold out of its beers every weekend. Unable to meet demand, yet too broke to upgrade brewing capacity, Holborn shut down Bolt in late 1988, when he got an offer to build and operate a larger, well-financed brewery within the old Mission Brewery building. He and Stromberg got to work building what might have been the first microbrewery in the city of San Diego. But a licensing snafu resulted in an ATF raid, and the project never recovered.
If the two experiences taught Holborn and Stromberg anything, it’s that there was a future in microbreweries, and that those microbreweries would all need small commercial brewing equipment. Both men would next launch careers in brew systems manufacturing.
- Karl Strauss Amber Lager
- Downtown, 1989
When San Diego’s longest running brewery opened in downtown’s Old Columbia Square in February 2, 1989, the first beer in its lineup was called Old Columbia Amber Lager, and the sign over the door said, “Karl Strauss Old Columbia Brewery and Grill.” To this day, San Diego beer folk who joined early crowds at the city’s first brewery refer to the place as Old Columbia, the most prominent words on that sign.
Brewery cofounder Chris Cramer laughs about it now. “We had come up with a name that was too long for people to absorb,” he says. By 1990, the name was shortened to Karl Strauss Brewing, and its flagship beer rebranded as Karl Strauss Amber Lager. Now called Columbia Street Amber, by today’s standards, the malty 4.5-percent, 18-IBU beer is a very lightly bittered brew, but compared to Coors Light, it tasted like a bold departure.
San Diego native Cramer opened Karl Strauss with fellow Stanford alum Matt Rattner. The two MBAs had planned to open a business together, and Cramer figured they had an ace in the hole supporting the brewpub concept: Karl Strauss the man. Cramer’s uncle, and the son of a German brewer, Strauss was concluding a 40-year career with Pabst Brewing Co., and agreed to help the young men embark on what he rightly considered the future of brewing.