San Diego Craft Beer

We’re living in a Golden Age of beer.

Craft beer has exploded across the country and around the world, growing far beyond its counter-culture roots. It has established itself as a new paradigm of quality American beer, and developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. New breweries open every week, and the area with the greatest concentration of breweries is the region around the city and county of San Diego, California.

Brew Kettle

San Diego County has over 150 breweries, and one of the hottest brands on the scene is a rapidly-growing brewery called Second Chance Beer Company ( located in the Carmel Mountain Ranch area of San Diego. While this brewery may only be celebrating their third anniversary in 2018, the people running it are certainly not new. Partners Marty Mendiola and Curtis Hawes worked together for nearly a decade at a favorite San Diego brewpub, Rock Bottom Brewery near the UCSD campus, and, along with co-founder Virginia Morrison, the trio are now living their dreams of operating their own label.

Mendiola is a veteran brewmaster, past president of the San Diego Brewer’s Guild, and one of San Diego’s most well-respected brewers. The San Diego-native has nearly twenty years of experience making some of the region’s finest beers, bringing home 13 Great American Beer Festival medals and 6 World Beer Cup awards during his tenure. Noted for his English-style browns and Irish-style reds, Mendiola is also well-versed in San Diego’s signature beer, the West Coast-style IPA.

Second Chance Beer Company’s Marty Mendiola and Curtis Hawes

Hawes, the business manager, is a consummate professional, and life-long craft beer enthusiast. His business card actually reads “Chief Tasting Officer.” He’s a numbers guy, with an MBA, and 20 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. “It’s a perfect partnership,” says Hawes. “Marty is one of the best brewers in the region, and it’s my passion to help bring our beer to the world. I feel pretty lucky to get to work with him every day.”

Last year the company opened its first satellite taproom called the Second Chance Beer Lounge in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, the heart of the craft brew social scene. “The neighbors are pretty happy we’ve moved in,” says Hawes. “The whole neighborhood is like a beer lover’s dream.”

The Second Chance Beer Lounge in North Park San Diego

Their work isn’t all hype, though. Second Chance posted back-to-back Gold medals from the Great American Beer Festival for its Tabula Rasa Toasted Porter in 2016 and 2017 (only the second time in history a beer has been awarded consecutive Golds), and grabbed a Silver for their Legally Red American Red Ale as well. The rest of their line-up features a range of seasonal and specialty beers, and an expanding core line of IPAs, Red and Brown ales, and even a notable Lager, brewed in partnership with the World Over the Line Championships, hosted annually by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

San Diego has become an important destination for beer tourism in California, and Second Chance’s location close to the I-15 corridor puts them right on the map for the many of the beer tours that travel up and down that vital thoroughfare. “People come from all over the country to visit breweries and tasting rooms in San Diego,” says Hawes. With Mendiola’s record for award-winning beer, there’s little doubt that this growing trend will continue to bring beer lovers to the region.

Beer tourism is nothing new to Societe Brewing Company ( Founding partners Doug Constantiner and Travis Smith were both life-long craft beer enthusiasts and home brewers before meeting in 2009 at, of all places, a brewery.

Troy Ashburn, Pintsman at Societe Brewing Company

Constantiner moved to California from Texas specifically to work in the craft beer industry, choosing San Diego because of the number of breweries in the region. Smith began his career at the highly-acclaimed Russian River Brewing in Northern California, and came to San Diego for the same reasons. The two became fast friends, and after a year or so of conspiring, decided to set out on their own.

The pair began production in 2012, focusing on making the best beer they possibly could. “From the beginning we’ve focused on quality, rather than quantity,” says Constantiner. “We don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Smith admits that demand for their beer is constantly growing. “No one can make enough beer,” he says. Remarking on the importance of quality, he says, “Every day, there are people trying craft beer for the first time, so it has to be good every time.”

Constantiner has a refreshing take on the relationships he and Smith have developed with other brewers in the region, who consider themselves colleagues, rather than competitors. “We owe a huge debt to breweries like Stone, AleSmith, Pizza Port—everyone that came before us,” he says. “They blazed the trail for us, and opened the world to craft beer. But they’ve also set a great example about being open and honest, keeping craft beer fun, and doing good things in the community.”

The barrel aging room at Societe Brewing Company

The partners identify four categories of beer they produce. Their “Old World” line features European-style beers, their “Stygian” line features a number of dark, heavy stouts, their “Out West” line heavily favors big, hoppy, West Coast-style ales, and a newer collection, the “Feral” line includes a selection of rich, interesting sour beers and other wild, unpredictable flavors.

“We’re making the beer we love, and the craft beer lovers in the region are loving it with us,” says Constantiner. And it seems that the rest of the world is enjoying it, too. Their Ferel beer dubbed “The Thief” took home a Gold Medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup in the Mixed-Culture Brett Beer category.

One of Societe’s noted influences is AleSmith Brewing Company ( Opening in 1995, AleSmith is the oldest stand-alone craft brewery in San Diego not connected with a restaurant (the only older brewery is the Karl Strauss brewpub in Downtown San Diego).

Like many of San Diego’s native brewmasters, owner Peter Zien began as a home-brewer, and a member of the local brewer’s club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity). Fellow QUAFF member and close friend of Zien, Skip Virgilio, founded AleSmith based on the strength of a now-legendary Belgian Strong Ale, the first San Diego beer to bring home a Gold Medal from the Great American Beer Festival. Zien worked with Virgilio early in the process, working for no pay, but enjoying being part of something that hadn’t been done before.

“It was like Tom Sawyer painting his fence,” says Zien. “We helped wherever we were needed, corking bottles, cleaning up, doing whatever we could do on a shoestring.”

Mash Tun at AleSmith Brewing Company

When AleSmith came up for sale in 2002, Zien took a hiatus from his legal career to make his hobby and passion for beer into his profession. At the time, AleSmith was producing around 400 barrels per year. In 2015, AleSmith produced 22,000 barrels, but after completing their 2015 expansion posted 65,000 barrels in 2016, with continued growth to 80,000 barrels in 2017, and is on track to produce 100,000 barrels in 2018.

“For 20 years now, we haven’t been able to produce enough beer to fill all the orders,” says Zien. “We’ve gone through 3 expansions now, and after every one, I think ‘this will be my last,’ but I’ve always been wrong about that. I can’t imagine needing to expand beyond our current capacity, but in this industry, never say never.”

That 2015 expansion and increased capacity ten-fold, while maintaining exacting standards for quality. The brewery (on AleSmith Court in San Diego, named for the brewery) services the largest taproom in San Diego, and is also home to the Tony Gwynn Museum, which opened in 2016.

Zien values the friendships he has developed with the region’s other brewers. “None of us feels like we’re in competition with each other,” he says. “We’re all trying to brew the best beer we possibly can, and make a few more barrels than we did the year before.” He also acknowledges the influence of Stone, both in the quality of their beer, and in their distribution network. “Without Stone, there probably wouldn’t be an AleSmith. They’re that important. I probably learned everything I know about this business from (Stone Brewing founder) Greg Koch.”

AleSmith’s line focuses on world-accepted beer styles, with Zien’s own unique spin, and a good measure of West Coast influence. “We maintain a regular line-up of classics,” says Zien. “I like beers that stand the test if time. We brew a huge variety of specialty beers, and people love to try new things, but in the end, they usually come back to the classics.”

With regard to the newer breweries which continue open every year, Zien is supportive and encouraging. “More breweries are good for the industry,” says Zien, “and what’s good for the industry is good for us all.”

Craft beer has become the modern standard for excellence and innovation in beer making, and nowhere is that revolution more prevalent than in San Diego and the region. The culture that has developed around craft beer in San Diego is a powerful, creative force that fosters and supports new breweries and new ideas, and enables veteran and new brewers alike to experiment with novel techniques, and rediscover traditional methods lost to time, creating a better beer drinking experience for us all.