San Diego Craft Beer: Improving culture and community with Modern Times & Benchmark Brewery

Self explanatory cover photo of logo

Self explanatory cover photo of logo

Not that long ago this guy who used to work at Stone Brewing Co. launched a Kickstarter (basics of Kickstarter) campaign to help fund some additional cool stuff in his not-yet-open brewery called Modern Times. Owing to my love of cool things, San Diego Craft Beer or perhaps just on a lark because I liked the dude’s blog, I plunked down 150 bucks and got an invite to a “backer party.”  Just as that invite was coming, a friend of mine alerted me to a brand new brewery called Benchmark Brewing Co. and entreated me to adjourn for a beverage.  Happily, I did what any good supporter of the home of the world’s most innovative and interesting craft beer would do…I decided to create a thought experiment about the roles of Modern Times Beer and Benchmark Brewing Co. in the evolution of their communities (and, if we’re being technical, stopped in for a beverage). This is part one of that experiment.   Here’s how the day went…

Wait, before I get into the fun of these adventures, can I just say that I am not a beer snob.  Well, I mean, I’m not a geographic beer snob. Portland brewers are fantastic.  Same for the Bay Area, Fort Collins, Asheville, Minneapolis and probably several cities I didn’t mention in the U.S. and abroad.  I am not judgy about their beers, many of them are supremely delicious and I like traveling to those cities to celebrate their craft as well.  My point is a simple truism about the breadth of what local craft beer and the culture that surrounds it is in this region.  It is not just Stone Brewing Co., Ballast Point brewing, Societe Brewing, Automatic Brewing Co., Green Flash, Karl Strauss (don’t sleep on Karl Strauss, in the last couple years they’ve dramatically improved) producing fantastic, internationally lauded craft beer.  It’s not even that our 71 breweries in the San Diego region dwarfs any place else in the United States and most renowned beer cities.  It’s also the culture of innovation that gave us White Labs, owned by a UCSD-trained biochemist, which supplies brewer’s yeast to almost everyone who brews.  It is a fully developed and growing home brewing network that celebrates collaboration and creativity.  And it’s the recognition that being a local brewer—or restaurant or bar that focuses on local beer—means there are interesting cultural connections to local food and community that don’t otherwise exist.  San Diego Craft Beer is a thing.

So let’s not get derailed, on to the fun stuff.  I was on a panel recently called Crafting Beer Policy put on by Voice of San Diego and a very talented writer named Andy Keatts.  His talent, by the way, isn’t just writing, it’s in being unafraid to tackle subjects that many journalists simply pass over.  Anyway, we had this panel and the owner of a new San Diego brewery called Modern Times Beer mentioned that his immediate neighborhood was more “methy than funky.”  This was in a broader conversation about the role of breweries in driving change.  Well, today as part of my aforementioned ‘backer party’ I cruised back down to the brewery to have a taste of Neverwhere and enjoy myself.

My July 21, 2013 panoramic shot from the steps of Modern Times

My July 21, 2013 panoramic shot from the steps of Modern Times

This fancy photo was a panoramic view of what I saw sitting at the brewery’s doorsteps outside.  More to the point of the “methy not funky” comment, there’s this shot from across the street facing the brewery.

Crumbling sidewalks, graffiti and trash in the foreground of the brewery

Crumbling sidewalks, graffiti and trash in the foreground of the brewery

I could make this post about why I showed up for the backer party 30 minutes early (what can I say, the beer is fantastic so I was a bit eager).  But I don’t want to lose the point that “methy not funky” brings up and the opportunity creative beer people like Jacob McKean (aforementioned owner) are opening up.  Let’s take a quick step back.  The brewery is located in the Midway District in San Diego.

Plain map of the Midway District

Plain map of the Midway District

Unfortunately,  my inner nerd got really excited by the map prospects so I went ahead and pulled this more detailed map from the city of San Diego’s official Zoning Maps

This map has alot of stuff, but orange is commercial, light blue is industrial, red is commercial with residential and white and tan are both types of residential areas

This map has alot of stuff, but orange is commercial, light blue is industrial, red is commercial with residential and white and tan are both types of residential areas

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the colors and lines, the only portion of the map important for this conversation is the light blue patch just south of (below) the I-8 emblem because that’s where Modern Times is located.  Also, this only really focuses on the part that says ‘Midway-Pacific Hightway District’ (Note: If you really want to dork out, here is an awesome mapping tool from SANDAG that will let you see much more cool stuff about a community – courtesy of GIS Wizard Ari Isaak).   Okay, back on task.

The point of all these maps is in part to help frame where I’m talking about and in part to highlight how land use might affect overall community character.  On the one hand, Modern Times Beer has opened up in an industrial zone.  This isn’t designed to have quaint, tree-lined residential streets and hip farm-to-table restaurants.  On the other hand, as the pictures suggest, there do appear to be some hourly motels, and there are some adult showrooms not far off.  And there certainly are people who either make this general area home or spend a fair amount of time hanging about – at least from what I could tell.  So the question is, what potential for change might a place that attracts mobile, discretionary income carrying San Diegans have for transitioning the area to one that is less “methy” and more funky?  And while we’re at it, can the very presence of businesses like Modern Times – using their microphone for good as well as good beer – elevate responsiveness of the (very) nearby County of San Diego mental health and substance abuse services available to the people who probably engendered that quip?

These are, of course, unanswerable questions at the moment.  But as long as I’m going to arrive 30 minutes early to get my glass of Neverwhere (a delicious beer brewed with 100% Brettanomyces yeast – help, where are White Labs and Neva Parker for explanations when we need them!), I might as well mix in some social commentary, no?  I suppose my broader point, to quote a friend of mine, is that we need to be thinking about something called ‘place.’  That is, what do we want the area around Midway to be and then how do we have local land use policy that helps encourage that type of evolution?  Is it about making life easier for new brewers? Maybe.  Is it about creating a climate where those who would build or live or create can flourish? Also a possibility.  What we can’t do, in my view, is settle for the same old conversations about how tall buildings should be, what densities are desired or looking to lay blame on one group or another for the situation.  San Diego Craft Beer and a new Planning Director named Bill Fulton are helping encourage creative thoughts on these issues and hopefully we’ll rethink what types of communities are possible.

Before I move on to the second stop in my day of great beer meets community growth experiment, I have to mention a couple things.  One, Black House is also very good, as is Fortunate Islands–these are other styles of Modern Times beers.  Here’s a view of the menu

Modern Times actual styles

Two, this was the owner’s big party and all the pressure was on him to ensure things went pretty well.  So I found it impressive that when I told him a guy had driven all the way from Riverside just to get a chance to chat with him and try his beer that he made it a point to find the guy and invite him on the first tour.  A classy gesture.  Three, there’s this

Random bit of tumbleweed that will be recycled into a light fixture

Random bit of tumbleweed that will be recycled into a light fixture

Why, pray tell, am I showing you what looks like tumbleweed in the production area?  Well, first, it IS tumbleweed, but that’s not the cool part.  The cool part is that the owner picked this up from a clean-up job on nearby Morena Blvd where it was going to be thrown away and he is recycling it into some sort of lighting fixture.  Or he plans to, anyway, which is pretty cool.  Moving right along, I was fully aware that I planned to meet a friend across town at another new San Diego craft brewery so I limited myself to one small beer, enjoyed catching up with an old neighborhood acquaintance, a couple public health grads and various other beer lovers and then headed out for stop number two.

**this is a quick interlude because, well the post is kind of long, so take a break and relax your eyes, grab a beverage or have some exercise…okay, let’s finish up**

The first thing you see when you enter Benchmark Brewing

The first thing you see when you enter Benchmark Brewing

So, I drove over to Benchmark Brewing with an eye towards what this new brewery might have to offer in the way of beer experiences and what it might portend for the community.  Let me take a quick side step to evaluate the beer since I’m enjoying this flight right now
2013-07-21 13.14.04

I only have a limited amount of space in this post, so I’m only writing about a couple of the beers pictured above.  You’ll have to head over

The Brown Ale (second from top left) is quite tasty. Kind of reminds me of Rogue’s Hazelnut brown. Brewers probably hate comparisons, but there you have it. Well worth a taste.

The 71 Double IPA is as good as friend Matt McInvale said it was. Note to my friends who don’t care for IPAs, a Double does not mean twice as much of what you don’t like. My wife finds San Diego IPAs a bit harsh and too hoppy, but loves several double IPAs. Just a heads up

I was fortunate to chat a little with a guy named Matt, an unassuming and friendly guy who is one of the owners.  Generally speaking, brewery owners—especially ones who participate in a meaningful way in the brewing or started as homebrewers—are not douchy nor pretentious.  This enhances the experience quite a bit from my perspective, because if you are generally friendly the brewers will actually chat about most anything.  Matt was a good guy who didn’t mind that I was asking all sorts of seemingly oddball questions.  I had seen this

2013-07-21 13.10.23

And this

Trail signs next to the beer list

Trail signs next to the beer list

And as a result I was curious what the deal was with all the camping references.  He told me the name of the brewery came from his family (the brewing and ownership team) being into camping and spending time looking for the many US Geological Survey’s benchmarks. You may be wondering why people search for these things, click here to understand that.  Or you may be wondering what a benchmark actually is in this context, got that covered, too, here.  Anyway, Matt told me he was surprised at the number of neighborhood residents who walked down to tell him how thankful they were his brewery had arrived.  While cool, this is especially odd because the brewery appears to be smack dab in the middle of an industrial zone with no discernible “neighborhood” that I could see.  Shortly after this conversation, and thanks in no small measure to my friend Anthony (detailed below), I was able to get a much better sense of this community called Grantville.

But before we get to that, this thing happened

The San Diego Chicken stopped by for a special Padres & Pints episode that was being filmed

The San Diego Chicken stopped by for a special Padres & Pints episode that was being filmed

Yep, that’s right, the San Diego Chicken showed up.  Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up.  Turns out there is a group called Padres and Pints, whose mission seems to be exposing Padres fans to delicious San Diego Craft Beer, and they were hosting a videotaped something or other while Anthony and I were enjoying a beverage.  My not so secret hope is that Padres and Pints helps convince folks like the Padres that they would be way better to open up even more handles to San Diego craft brewers in the stadium.  Honestly, I think the evolution of low alcohol content beers will help that evolution along so that your average fan won’t be asleep by the 3rd inning, but that’s a topic for another day.

Benchmark is one of the newer breweries to open in San Diego and it is working to add to our international reputation as the place to go for incredible, interesting craft beer.  What’s more, I noticed that a brewer from up in the Portland area just moved down.  If we continue to attract brewers locally and nationally with the right mix of supportive laws and creative people it can only help us flourish.  I was excited to learn recently that many of the jobs in a brewery pay at least $13.92/hour, which many contend is the amount of money a single adult needs to make per hour in San Diego to meet his or her basic needs.  I haven’t figured out if this number factors in things like roommates or living at home, but the point is that the industry seems not only to be producing great beer but economically viable and productive local jobs as well.  After I enjoyed a few samplings, I was treated to a great insider’s tour of the community called Grantville.

Grantville is a community over off of Mission Gorge, here is the map

Grantville is a community over off of Mission Gorge, here is the map

Here are some of the shots I was able to gather on our tour.

One of several business park type places in Grantville

One of several business park type places in Grantville

I tried to take a picture of where apparently roughly 20,000 homes are to be built, but it appears not to have worked out so well.  That’s too bad.  I may drive back over there and take it again just for principle.  I couldn’t help but notice that there appears to be plenty of room to put some kind of transit, like a street car line, that runs down this path to the Grantville MTS trolley station.  That and some segregated bike infrastructure seems like it could go a long way to making adding so many more homes palatable to existing neighbors.

Unlike most parts of San Diego, Grantville has an actual trolley stop.  Seems like a good idea to put a streetcar down Mission Gorge Rd to allow all those people to get to that fancy trolley station.  And some segregated bike lanes.  I mean, right now there is nothing built so that should be easy, right?  My time in Grantville brought up a few interesting thoughts.  I remembered analyzing Berman v. Parker (the Supreme Court case that paved the way for modern redevelopment) and thinking about the origins of California’s Community Redevelopment law.  Many people differed on whether the notion of blight in the California law was unconstitutionally vague.  In the end, the law went away and we are left with the former Grantville redevelopment area, struggling a bit to find a modern identity because like much of San Diego it lacks resources to help repair what’s broken and think through what might be it’s next step.  Perhaps there is a grand compromise available to allow the current residents a bit of peace while paving the way for meaningful progress.  One thing seemed certain.  There are very few good routes to the freeways or the transit and all the employment centers right now require both.  So adding a ton of people is going to be a curious exercise given that from there most people will need to go west on the crowded I-8 to downtown or north on the already crowded I-15 or west and then north on the equally crowded I-805.  None of these are great options.  The best choice would probably be to get an employment center that didn’t require the freeway, which might mean incentivizing economic growth in Grantville.  But I guess time will tell.

Thanks for coming along on this ride today.  I’ll be interested to see how the communities around these breweries evolve, how craft beer evolves and what it all means for San Diego.  Have a great day

7 thoughts on “San Diego Craft Beer: Improving culture and community with Modern Times & Benchmark Brewery

  1. Great post Omar, you beat me to the punch on the Modern Times backer party write up. Sorry we missed you. And thanks for the Benchmark info., been meaning to drop down the hill for that one.

    It’s a bummer that there’s the usual resistance to transit-oriented development in Grantvillle, with increased traffic being the main issue. How do we emphasize the alternate transit options in Grantville when most folks in nearby Allied Gardens swear by auto travel only?

    • Paul – this is a good point you raise about Allied Gardens. My sense is that transit alternatives don’t (and don’t need to be) the best solution for every community. It’s kind of like the free market and the planning world working together. In Grantville, with a huge transit station positioned right at the potential mouth of this massive collection of new houses, a street car might seem reasonable. Then, if the Allied Gardens folks see that it’s a much better system, they can vote by moving. Some people would rather have their car and I’m inclined to allow for that, too. Thanks for checking this out. I’d be interested to get your view on the SANDAG corridor stuff.

      • Hi Omar, thanks. I’m not opposed to folks having cars, just the efforts of the auto-only crowd attempting to stop projects that incorporate alternative transit. If we’re going to have growth in San Diego (in itself a contested issue by the “we and our cars got here first” crowd), it makes sense for it to be near current/potential alternative transit, so not all trips require a car.

        Here’s a good background on the project: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/aug/14/grantville-split-subject-riverbend/.
        “More traffic” is cited as a reason for opposition.

        I pasted an excerpt from the Grantville Action Group, which fought the now-dead Grantville redevelopment plan (which did have eminent domain and other legal issues). Their alternative: build more roads, or build elsewhere in a region that’s already sprawled to its geographic borders. From http://www.grantvilleactiongroup.com/problemsgrantville.html:

        Grantville is not an “Urban Village”

        The Grantville redevelopment plans that are currently on the table call for transforming this business community into a high-density, mixed-use community–an “Urban Village.” The plans would replace businesses with condos and apartments, adding 12,000 to 30,000 residents to Grantville. Planners envision people seldom leaving the neighborhood, walking or riding their bikes to shop or work, and if they must go elsewhere, they will use mass transit. This, of course, ignores reality and human nature.

        Traffic is not the Problem; but with Redevelopment it will be.

        The Grantville redevelopment plans currently on the table call for rerouting eastbound traffic from I-8 down Fairmount Ave. and away from Mission Gorge Rd., but the plans do not add more lanes of traffic or more roads into, or out of, Grantville. If Grantville has 30,000 new residents, will they only travel by trolley? What Grantville really needs, and it needs now, is more east/west arterial roadways.

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  3. Hi Omar,

    Thanks for including Waypoint Public at the summit. Everything was well planned and I found it super informative. I was glad to have gone! Nice job.

    See you around WP soon.

    -Dana

  4. Pingback: San Diego Craft Beer: One year later with Modern Times & Benchmark Brewing | eat.drink.give.go

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