San Diego Craft Beer: One year later with Modern Times & Benchmark Brewing

The tap handles at Benchmark Brewing in Grantville - a San Diego community

The tap handles at Benchmark Brewing in Grantville – a San Diego community

A year ago I wrote an article about Modern Times Beer and Benchmark Brewery (here).  Technically the piece was as much about the communities in which those breweries sit as about the craft beer they brew.  I decided to take another spin and check in on both establishments to see how they – and their communities – were doing.  Here’s how it went…

‘Modern’ Marvels

A photo I borrowed from the Modern Times facebook page

A photo I borrowed from the Modern Times facebook page

My nod to the T.V. show notwithstanding, I’ve really enjoyed watching the progress of Modern Times over the last year.  The owner, an affable dude named Jacob McKean (pictured above), has made it very easy for me to like what’s going on in his Lomaland Fermentorium.  First, he nabbed a guy named Derek Freese, who I first met while he was teaching a brewing class to a bunch of beer fans I rounded up at the old Home Brews & Gardens near T-32 in North Park.  Derek is talented.  He created some delicious options as Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery’s initial brewer (Sweet Georgia Brown, anyone?) and has since created Blazing World. Monkey Paw’s loss was Jacob’s gain, but let’s be fair, the guy Monkey Paw landed (Cosimo Sorrentino) is brewing some great beer and you ought to try Lab Monkey if you haven’t – but that’s a tale for another day.  The other thing I like about what Modern Times has done is it hasn’t been afraid to have a civic voice.  Seasoned business owners will tell you how hard it is to do anything other than focus on your business – especially in your early years – yet somehow Jacob has managed both to care about issues that impact the community AND to act on those principles.  I’ve been to political fundraisers, seen well thought out blog posts, watched him donate to local causes and generally be willing to pair making great beer with being a civic participant.  He even joined the local Community Planning Group – which any of us who’ve walked that path can tell you is often an exercise in very, very long meetings in which you don’t always see the pay off in benefit to the community.

An interesting thing happened today (7/27/14) when I rode by Modern Times to take a few make up photos.  I wasn’t sure where to park and keep my car out of the shot, so I pulled around the corner, got out, and promptly bumped into a homeless man pulling together his belongings.  He asked me the time, “10:30,” I replied, and continued around the corner.  I took these three photos

CAM02814 CAM02816

One change from last year that I noticed

One change from last year that I noticed

The photo of the planters I took as a way of showing something that was noticeably different since last year. Here’s one other shot, you’ll remember the tumbleweed Jacob recycled from a nearby street.  Well, he made good on converting it into a lamp – nice work, man.

Some event last august with tumbleweed light

The light to the left of Bubbles was made from the tumbleweed I mentioned in the original post

Having captured a few photos (and borrowed a few from the Interwebs), I was ready to head to Benchmark. As I turned to head to my car, I noticed a homeless man and his companion pushing a shopping cart.  Then I took a few more steps back around the corner and found, across the street from my car and in another vestibule just up a bit, another homeless man pulling together his “mattress” and a small pack.  I hopped in my car, drove to the first intersection and came across a man on the corner with a sign asking for help because he was between jobs.  Then I turned the corner and at the next intersection spotted one more homeless man asking for money and a homeless woman on the opposite corner seeking any help one could offer.  This certainly was a change from last year.

I’m not sure if it was just the time of day that made the difference.  And the land use attorney in me can’t help but wonder what role zoning restrictions have played in the evolution of this area.  The community plan in Midway seeks to preserve industrial zones, though I wonder if one of the changes necessary to enhance this area, provide for permanent supportive housing, and increase the diversity of uses might be to purposely seek to shift our city’s industrial uses to other areas.  I don’t have the answers, but these questions made me wonder about the role breweries like Modern Times might play in elevating issues of importance.

Modern Times Beer founder Jacob McKean: In his own words

Instead of just dropping in my own photos and commentary, I decided to ask Jacob about what the last year has been like.  Here’s what he said:

  1. How are things going with the brewery today as compared to this time last year? Are you where you thought you’d be?

Things are going wildly better than I ever imagined. We’re going to beat my second year volume estimate in our first year, and we’ll beat my 5th year estimate in our second year. I never dreamed we’d grow so quickly.  At this time last year, we were on the verge of releasing our very first kegs, and it was incredibly stressful. Now, we’re preparing for our 1st anniversary party, and we have a slew of really exciting new projects that are about to go live. It’s a cool time.

  1. Any big successes about which you are particularly proud?

We were named one of the Top 10 New Brewers in the World by RateBeer, which is just an enormous honor for us and a real validation for the beer we’re making. Our beer has gotten better and better even as we’ve grown at a shocking pace, which I consider a huge achievement. We also managed to open a second tasting room in North Park, which was a big and unexpected undertaking, but I’m extremely proud of the way we pulled it off. (editor’s note: this tasting room, dubbed the Flavordome, is at the increasingly cool corner of Upas and 30th Street in North Park, where you’ll also find neighborhood stalwarts like Blue Foot Bar & Lounge, Alexander’s on 30th Italian Restaurant, Mosaic Wine Lounge, Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria, Zensei Sushi, Cardamom Cafe & Bakery, and The Smoking Goat, as well as newbies Tacos Perla and Bazinga – a mac ‘n cheese eatery – and (soon) Underbelly II).

  1. From a community standpoint, who are your typical tasting room visitors at your production facility (i.e. are they nearby neighbors, people on the hunt for your beer, post-work crowd, etc)?

We get lots of neighbors in our tasting room, particularly during the week and on Friday afternoons. In fact, most of our best regulars are folks who work in the area. We also see a ton of people from out of town who have heard about us one way or another, often coming to visit us straight from the airport. On weekends, it’s largely a mix of new and returning San Diegans from outside the neighborhood.

  1. What’s your take on whether residential or live-work or other uses of land would be appropriate around your facility?

Absolutely it would, and I hope we’re here long enough to see it happen. The most obvious site is the Sports Arena, which is potentially slated for a big mixed use development. The immediate surrounding area could absolutely be home to the kinds of developments that have transformed similar urban warehouse districts in other cities: a mix of “artisan industrial”, commercial, and renovated warehouse lofts. I’d love to see it happen.

  1. Are there any positive or negative changes that you or your team has seen in the immediate area over the last year?

There has been a small uptick in commercial activity in the area, and a few more industrial businesses have opened. It’s a bit less desolate. Overall, though, I’d say there’s still an enormous amount of untapped potential.

  1. If you could tell a policymaker one thing that you wish was different at the local, state or federal level about the beer business, what would it be?

The craft beer business is a model for the future of American manufacturing: super high end, extremely innovative, and very niche. If we want to create jobs, renew urban areas, and harness American ingenuity, we should extend that model to as many sectors as possible.

 

Setting a new benchmark

Co-founder and brewer of Benchmark Brewing, Matt Akin

Co-founder and brewer of Benchmark Brewing, Matt Akin

I didn’t realize the first time I tasted the 71 Double IPA that Matt Akin had cut his brewing teeth with national brewing heavyweight (and generally one of the nicest dudes I’ve met) Peter Zien of Alesmith Brewing.  In retrospect, it all makes sense, because as I wrote last time, Matt was super friendly when I rolled in and also brews some very, very good beer. My first trip in I met his mom, possibly his dad, wouldn’t be surprised if a second uncle was tooling around in the back as well.  I’ve been back a couple times but prefer not to bother the crew.  Actually, one of the last times I happened upon Matt it was during a “tap takeover” at the ridiculously good Carnitas Snack Shack in North Park (yes, it is worth that line – bring a friend and enjoy the experience).  A tap takeover is just a name given when a restaurant allows a brewer to take over all (or many) of the available taps.  The tap (or handle or funny looking thing you pull on) is just the name of thing your bartender yanks on to make the beer come out.  It’s not by accident that handles are very unique.  It’s so you can spot a beer (or at least a brewery) that you like at quite a distance if you happen to be in some city not as well known for deliciousness on the beer front.

The brewery is located in the community of Grantville, just north of Interstate 8 at the Mission Gorge exit (around the Home Depot).  One of the interesting things happening in Grantville from a community perspective is the possibility of growing along the transit corridor.  This issue was recently featured here in Voice of San Diego. I also found this detailed account from lifelong resident, civic activist and City of San Diego Planning Commissioner Anthony Wagner.

Matt alludes to the growth issue in his comments below, and it’s one of those topics that could shape the entire future of both that community and the San Diego region.  As a community, we did a really poor job of executing on reasonable growth and development strategies in the last century.  As a result, Grantville is as filled with choke points and dangerous travel zones for pedestrians and cyclists as many San Diego communities.  I drove the neighborhood today and found myself thinking it was a) likely an automobile commuter’s nightmare during rush hour and b) a real ‘take your life into your hands’ situation for anyone hoping to hop a bike down to the trolley to get to work.  Given that San Diego is finally connecting its trolley to the big job and tech centers in the UCSD area, now is the time to think (and act) a little more strategically around the population growth that will feed that line.

The reason I mention the tap takeover above is that it points to another beneficial and underutilized aspect of our regional craft beer scene – the precise pairing of beer designed for flavors in food.  It is one thing to brew your own beer and then partner with good restaurants to complement those beers.  That’s an incredibly important development that will help both the brewers and the restaurants elevate their exposure base.  But as a region San Diego (by which I mean the whole county of brewers including Vista, Santee, Oceanside, Solana Beach, Chula Vista, etc) has the ingredients to do something not really being done on a major scale by other regions.  Collaborate with chefs to design seasonal menus of craft beer and food.  I’d love to see Matt Akin team up with Matt Gordon of Urban Solace or Amanda Baumgarten of Waypoint Public and create a seasonal menu of specialty beer that would be carried with seasonal food items.  This type of arrangement might be best-suited for brewers like Monkey Paw or Stone Brewing, who have brewing systems that allow for this type of creativity and flexibility.  Monkey Paw actually did this very thing recently with world-renowned Chef Javier Plascencia down at his Finca Altozano restaurant in Valle de Guadalupe – which highlights a reason for San Diego to more closely identify with the entire Baja region.  But as someone who loves great food and great beer, I’d love to see many more restaurants and brewers working together in this way.  Here is the summary of my three-day trip to the Valle back in February. If you didn’t know that 90% of all wine grown in Mexico comes from a region closer than Irvine, it might be time for a trip southward.  These developments are great for food people and also great for tourism to help people see that in addition to being about great craft beer, our region is actually stepping onto a larger food stage as well.

Map of Grantville breweries I got from co-founder Rachael Akin

Map of Grantville breweries I got from co-founder Rachael Akin

I got off track a little bit, back to Benchmark. The image above was something I saw on the counter the last time I went in.  It’s a hallmark of most of the brewers I’ve come to know – an unabashed willingness to visibly and actively promote other brewers.  It makes me want to help because I see how many people the industry is able to lift up.  And I see the passion in the eyes of many of the assistant brewers and tasting room staff who love the industry and see the potential to create a profession.  What I liked about Benchmark the first time was the family vibe and the “we can do this with hard work and patience” sense I got from the Benchmark team.  I went back in recently to ask them how things were going, if they’ve seen any community changes and really just to explore again – and, technically, to have a small pour of the Belgian Table Beer – which is currently my favorite beer they are brewing.  I wanted to know what the last year has been like, what impact the brewery might be having on the community, and what the future might hold.  Here’s how my conversation with Matt went:

Benchmark Brewing Company Co-founder Matt Akin: In his own words

  1. How are things going with the brewery today as compared to this time last year? Are you where you thought you’d be?

I was amazed, our number of batches predicted was exactly right up to 12 months of production. But at the 12 month mark thing got super hectic and production is trying to triple, not double.

  1. Any big successes about which you are particularly proud?

I am quite proud of everything we have done so far. Our beers are recognized by many as being of exceptional quality which is the most important thing for me in a brewery.  But in addition to high quality beers we have found a strong community following in our tasting room. We have gotten to know quite a few people who live around us and we are starting to bring some community together in our space around beer. We also are a drop off for the Be Wise Ranch CSA program which we feel has added value for the community.

  1. From a community standpoint, who are your typical tasting room visitors at your production facility (i.e. are they nearby neighbors, people on the hunt for your beer, post-work crowd, etc)?

All of the above. As I mentioned in the previous answer we definitely have a local following but every day is different. Saturday afternoon is beer hunters, then evening is lively with families and your groups.

  1. What’s your take on whether residential or live-work or other uses of land would be appropriate around your facility?

I am a fan of the current plans in our area for some higher density housing combined with commercial space. In Grantville, as in many parts of San Diego, we have to look at our transportation options a little more before we can feasibly become more dense though. Yes, we have a trolley stop. [But it is o]ut of the way of much of the neighborhood and [comes] with some truly daunting streets to ride a bike down.

  1. Are there any positive or negative changes that you or your team has seen in the immediate area over the last year?

I know that there are more people aware of this corner of Grantville now. But change is small and slow here right now as far as I can see.

  1. If you could tell a policymaker one thing that you wish was different at the local, state or federal level about the beer business, what would it be?

My current pet peeve is label approval at the state level. It is taking 40 plus days right now. It means I sit on the beer for a while after it is ready because I can’t sell without approval of the label which by the way is the same label I use for all of my beers just with a different style and alcohol level written in. And heaven forbid I miss my alcohol and have sent in the wrong abv (alcohol by volume).

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I really enjoyed reaching out to these young, passionate owners who are both helping to add to our county’s reputation for great craft beer.  With work in progress for professionals (and many times over Gold Medal winner) Jeff Bagby and expansions into new parts of the county by Rip Current, Ballast Point and Border X, the future of this industry looks very bright. I’m hopeful the cities around the county–especially those currently taking a harsh stance towards breweries and tasting rooms–embrace this huge part of our regional culture and find ways to make it less burdensome for breweries to get started.  I will be eager to keep track of how openings of breweries and tasting rooms impact other communities across the San Diego region.  Thanks for dropping by.

Download the complete guide for San Diego Breweries (2014 edition) below

San Diego Brewer’s Guild Visitor’s Guide 2014

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