San Diego Craft Beer: Modern Times and Benchmark Brewing – people, politics, passion

Several very good options at Benchmark Brewing, a San Diego brewery

Several very good options at Benchmark Brewing, a San Diego brewery

Here’s what happened. I was a (very small) part of a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago for a guy I didn’t know but whose blog was well done. And I’m a land use geek who heard about really good beer in some area I only ever went for power tools and plungers. But something cool happened to me while thinking about San Diego Craft Beer. I stumbled onto an annual exploration of the people and personalities behind a community about which I’ve grown quite fond.  I like good beer, sure. But in the years since I started writing about – and enjoying – the people behind two of San Diego’s really good breweries I’ve found that what I like even more is what they represent. Let’s take a look.One of the very cool things about following two breweries in different parts of town over a few years is that the personality of the businesses and the beer they produce develop just as much or more as the sales.  You can check out year one and year two at those links. I’ve changed things up a little this year in several ways.

First, Benchmark has two owners, but despite having gone to the same performing arts school with one of them, I didn’t realize how integral to the company she was until a few interactions over the last year. So instead of just asking Matt Akin my questions, this time my Q & A asks Rachael Akin, the creative brain behind the brand, the same questions. Second, I really separated the two breweries in the previous two pieces. This time, there’s still a dividing line, but I find some of the comparisons fascinating and so I spend a bit of time melding the conversation about the two in a way that helps to show some of the breadth and depth of the beer culture.

Jacob (Modern Times) and Rachael and Matt (Benchmark) have what appears to me to be overlapping but distinct passions. I want to capture that. Third, craft beer in San Diego has grown from primarily being seen as breweries in sleepy, shoebox size units in industrial parks to being regional cultural touchstone and over half a billion dollar economic engine for San Diego. The industry has grown to influence all aspects of San Diego culture and so this time around I’ve tapped a few politicians and civic leaders to weigh in on the roles of the two breweries on their communities and the region more broadly.  I love what they do – in very different ways – and it’s an important story to tell.  So let’s get into it.

Busting the time warp

Photo from an angle I've taken each year

Photo from an angle I’ve taken each year

When you stroll up to the Midway location near Sports Arena Blvd where Modern Times Beer Events and Education Coordinator Derek Freese plies his craft, you’d be forgiven if you thought the area was stuck in a bad 1970’s time warp.  Set in an industrial section of San Diego best known for traffic congestion, strip clubs, and anachronistic building restrictions, Modern Times Beer is a place and an idea that is already bigger than its environment. Fortunately for me, they opened up a tasting room a few blocks from my house in North Park, so there is no need to brave these streets or pay an Uber driver to make a nice session possible.  For those in the beer and bar business, the notion of tasting rooms like the one in North Park – known as “Duplicate Type 23s” because the licenses are tied to a small brewer’s primary beer-making license, a Type 23 – have caused both consternation and joy.  More than a few bar owners – and at least a couple brewers I’ve spoken to – aren’t in love with the idea and see the stand alone tasting room as a way for a brewer to act like a bar without the regulations.  Conversely, those in support see these tasting rooms as a useful way to enhance the footprint of craft beer while allowing the brewer to maintain control.  This piece isn’t about taking a stand on the issue, the point is just that Modern Times has a North Park location right in the thick of things where a beat up old second hand store used to be.

Formerly the site of a dilapidated second-hand store, the "Flavordome" sits  on the ground floor of a newly activated mixed use corner

Formerly the site of a dilapidated second-hand store, the “Flavordome” sits on the ground floor of a newly activated mixed use corner

As with year’s past, I sent some questions to the owner of the brewery, a young industrious guy named Jacob McKean.  I’ve got some thoughts about his interesting observations but first let me give you him – in his own words – about the development of his brewery.

Q: Tell me how (or whether) the experience has changed you

JM: Yes, a great deal. I no longer sleep normally.

Q: What percentage of your employment opportunities require a 4-year degree?

JM: Very few, probably 10% at most.

Q: How, if at all, should the San Diego beer scene grow by embracing non-SD brewers?

JM: Of course it should. We should embrace anyone making world class beer. Provincialism doesn’t benefit anyone. We also should not give a pass to crappy local breweries; they hurt all of us.

***These next questions are ones I’ve asked each of the three times I’ve done this. I ask each year to get a snapshot of change***

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

JM:  Extremely well. We’re WAY bigger than I thought we would be at this point.

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

JM:  So many it would be impossible to list them all. (editor’s note: in a follow up email he mentioned that his lowest paid workers make $14/hour, which many have described as a “living wage” in San Diego, and that he also offers 50% health coverage to employees and their spouses/partners, equity after a certain tenure, unlimited paid time off, and other benefits – it speaks volumes that the success of his employees and the benefits he offers is among the things about which he is particularly proud)

  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)?

JM: It’s a mix of all of those things, plus lots of out of town folks. We get so many people coming to us straight from the airport that we’re used to storing luggage for them.

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

JM: Absolutely they would, and everyone would benefit from it.

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

JM: There have not been any significant changes. The neighborhood is still operating way below it’s potential due to unnecessary restrictions on development, poor public transportation, and a general lack of vision & direction from policy makers on major questions like the future of the Sports Arena.

  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?

JM: I wish local, state & federal regulators took illegal and unethical business practices in the beer industry seriously.

My thoughts on Modern Times

First, Jacob is not the first owner of a craft brewery to tell me that he wishes regulators would take seriously enforcing the rules evenly as to all breweries. Perhaps one of the most obvious is the far-too-frequent “pay to play” schemes that violate both the Alcohol and Beverage Control Act and the Business & Professions Code Unfair Business Practice laws.  State Senator Marty Block (link) is the elected official who represents more breweries than any other in the state of California. So I asked him about it.

Here’s what he said:

“California’s Craft Brewing industry is booming and well on its way toward becoming a vibrant element of the state’s economy, particularly in my district that can boast of almost 100 craft breweries. That is why I worked closely with local craft brewers in my district, to introduce SB 1401 in 2014, which passed as a budget item. It allocated additional resources to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to improve trade enforcement to fight “pay-to-play.” – State Senator Marty Block

I am hopeful with the continued work of the state legislature and people like Tom McCormick of the California Craft Brewers’ Association that unethical practices continue to get rooted out.

As for the owner of Modern Times, I cannot stress enough how important a couple things Jacob said are.  First, for me the craft beer world isn’t just about great tasting beer. It’s about opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and learn. As a consumer, it’s about a return to supporting workers whose lives you get to know a bit and whose commitment to what they do comes through in the product.  So the fact that the lowest paid worker starts at $14 per hour and nearly 90% of the 47 employees do not need a college degree make this a very important business – and hopefully one that with enough attention will help others realize that you can turn a nice profit and also do really great things for your employees.  I hope some breweries in the planning phases reach out to him to see if they can make this arrangement work.

I also find it valuable that Modern Times sees the role it can play in the civic realm and takes that role seriously.  I’ve seen events for everything from art to politics to non-profit fundraising happen at Modern Times.  It’s a recognition that a popular business like a craft brewery has a unique opportunity to help make change because the environment is much more fun than a lecture hall or a city council meeting.

Sadly, what Modern Times Beer has not become (yet) is a driving force to re-think what we do with certain portions of our City.  We have a height limit restriction passed before most San Diegans were alive in an era when the community and the economy were in very different places.  Fears of turning Mission Beach into South Beach have irrationally and unreasonably led to a fiercely uncritical view of a rule that no longer serves the greater good.  It is possible to preserve the beach while leveraging desired real estate like that around Modern Times to foster the economy of tomorrow rather than clinging to an idealized version of yesterday.  We’ve seen community after community in San Diego grasp at their 1970s and 1980s selves, content in their own comfort with little view towards the development needed to sustain our future, to support housing affordability and sustainable environmental practices, nor the economic trends that are coming. There’s still hope that our city will recognize the potential that places like Modern Times creates, though we have to wonder if every anti-growth position we take makes it harder and harder for businesses like this to make San Diego home.

This is an unanswerable conundrum at the moment, so I’ll just enjoy some of the very outstanding beers I’ve had come out of that building on Greenfield and sit tight, content to enjoy the brewers in our community who see the big picture of what they can be.

The Gateway to Grantville: A Benchmark for the future

Wall of cans in Benchmark

Wall of cans in Benchmark

One of the happy accidents of my adventures in beer-seeking was stumbling upon a relatively new brewery in the Grantville section of San Diego a few years ago. Benchmark Brewing was San Diego’s 71st professional brewhouse – they even have a proper Double IPA of the same name to commemorate the experience.  As with Modern Times in the Midway area, my interest in Benchmark is as much about its role in placemaking in and around Grantville as it is a story about what hard work, creativity and sacrifice can bring you.

Grantville somehow managed to get a trolley station before there were very many people in the community.  Great. Seriously, that’s a good thing that will hopefully be made better as the community grows.  The question, given the relatively small size of the parking lot, is how will people get from their residential homes to the trolley itself?  It might seem odd for this query to find itself in a post about a brewery, but one thing we certainly don’t want if people are enjoying alcoholic beverages is more drivers.  But more importantly, as the existence of public transit attracts builders and buyers who want a hybrid suburb feel with transit upshot, having at least one very solid craft brewery is quickly becoming an essential component of the new American Dream – San Diego style. As I thought about the evolution of this area, it occurred to me that the City Council will play a key role in what happens in Grantville.

So I reached out to San Diego City Councilmember Scott Sherman to get his take. He wrote:

“One of the important things as Grantville shifts from an industrial use to a mixed-use, transit-oriented community is having anchor tenants.  Benchmark Brewing has carved out its own little niche and fills that role very well.  It is great to see a business be community oriented while also attracting people from all over San Diego.  When I first met Matt (the owner), he expressed his desire to see the San Diego River incorporated into future expansions of the brewery.  It was exciting to hear this as we worked very hard to complete the River Park Master Plan and made sure it was a focus in the recently passed Grantville Community Plan Amendment.  Grantville has wonderful potential for being a strong mixed-use community.  The proximity to the trolley and the River Park Master Plan provides a lot of options.  The true sense of place for Grantville will be determined by the success of businesses such as Benchmark as the community around it begins to change.” – Councilmember Scott Sherman

In my view, having elected officials who appreciate the importance of what the craft beer industry can be is a critical part of its overall growth. Councilmember Sherman highlights some of the real strengths for the community.  Rather than spend too much time offering my own thoughts, though, I would rather share my interview of two of the owners of Benchmark Brewing – husband and wife duo Rachael and Matt Akin.  I asked them a range of questions about their experiences and their philosophies and how they see the community evolving.  The next section is long, but it’s a really an interesting insight into one of the region’s fastest growing businesses and the people whose stories make it possible.

In their own words

From Rachael and Matt

Q: How (or whether) has the experience has changed you?

Rachael: Two things come to mind: First that in this rapidly growing industry there is a great need for education, I believe that it is our job as brewers and brewery owners to tell our story and the story of the beer we are creating, over the bar, through social media and even through the bar owners and bartenders pouring our beer. Second that I am truly lucky to work so closely on this project with Matt. We balance each other well, I recognize the uniqueness of having one person to focus on the quality and consistency of the beer and one to focus on the quality and consistency of the message.

Matt: I am sure that it has changed me.  Have I had the time to reflect on those changes?  Not really.  I do learn something new every day and those lessons cover quite a wide range of topics

Q: What percentage of your employment opportunities require a 4-year degree?

Rachael: Although we give preference to someone with a degree we have no hard and fast rules about this. We are more concerned with someone showing their knowledge of beer (in the context of the position they apply for) and the ability to think critically and respond to issues appropriately. This all in the context of us having only hired/ contracted only five people so far.

Matt: 0%

Q:  Should the San Diego beer scene grow by embracing non-SD brewers?

Rachael: I think there is room for all great beer. San Diego is a great beer city because the history of the business here is that we as a craft beer community are all on the same side. We have to be united to take on big beer, and I certainly think of craft beer as a whole as opposed to just San Diego beer. The bar is very high in this city, for outside breweries to make it here they will need to be good. Good beer breeds more good beer. There is potential for this to be a challenge moving forward with so many folks with no background in professional brewing opening breweries. I believe whole heartedly in being welcoming to the new guys, and it is my hope that the new guys approach the industry by showing  just how important  maintaining quality and training really is.

Matt: We have a great thing going on here in San Diego and it is growing rapidly.  I support brewers who are making good beer no matter where they are, even in L.A.  We can learn a lot from people with different influences in their experience.  Quality is more important to me than where you are from.

***These next questions are ones I’ve asked each of the three times I’ve done this. I ask each year to get a snapshot of change***

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

Rachael: As things stand right now we will have tripled our output by year’s end – that is before the cans really make a dent in things. We have not added any capacity but are using our original equipment to its fullest. We plan to be adding tank space near the end of the year. Things are on track and we are where we planned to be.

Matt: We are once again moving right along with a lot of growth.  We have just started canning and that is pushing production levels to a new height.  2015 production levels should end up being 3X those of 2014.

Q: Any big successes about which you are particularly proud?

Rachael: Getting the cans out into the world is a big deal, so was that gold medal at GABF (Great American Beer Festival) for Session beer! (Session Beer Defined) That was the last time that IPAs were included in the category, so it was an even bigger win – this year they have split the category to be “Session IPAs”and “Session Beers” (the latter category meaning all the rest). It was also amazing to follow Karl Strauss (Bronze) and Pizza Port (Silver) up onto the stage! (editor’s note: if you haven’t tried Mosaic, Karl Strauss’ session, you really are missing out on something good)

Matt: Lots but I will list 2.  Winning the gold medal at GABF for Oatmeal Stout in the Session Beer category.  Canning.

Benchmark Brewing co-owner Matt Akin purchased his canning line from Modern Time Beer

Benchmark Brewing co-owner Matt Akin purchased his canning line from Modern Times Beer

Q: 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)?

Rachael: I’d say we get all of that, we have made a great effort to be a part of the community by offering things like Yoga classes to the public, being a CSA pick up location and hosting the community council for their regular meetings. We also get beer hunters, and about 60% of our traffic is first time visitors. The thing with making session beer and not having well known whale type beers is that the audience is different. We are aiming to be that solid consistent four pack that you pick up along with the awesome 750 you are trying out – that four pack doesn’t get talked about or posted as much but that’s what you are drinking after work on a Tuesday.

Matt: All of the above.  It just depends on time of day.  After work we see a lot of neighbors from both the other businesses and the surrounding neighborhood. Weekends we have a strong beer hunting crowd.

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

Rachael: We are open to what’s coming. The River Park and community have big plans for our area, lots of residential is going in and we welcome other businesses as well. We work a lot with the San Diego River Park Foundation to clean up the SD River, long term we are aiming to have a river front tasting room. That will happen as we continue to expand into the units west of our space. (we have already taken the one immediately to the west of us for can storage).

Matt: I favor a blend of residential and live work.  I like to be able to live close to work and cut down on that waste of time that is a commute.  I also think that we need some light industrial in the city center in order to make that possible across multiple industries.  This is a curious pocket that we are in down here and the new zoning will change things quite dramatically, including where we are located unfortunately.  We will have to move eventually because we are now in an open space zone.

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

Rachael: It stinks that they closed the neighborhood Albertsons, and we are all eager to have the Chargers settled.

Matt: We keep meeting more neighbors in our tasting room and that is great. But we still see a large homeless population spread out throughout the river area, especially just after the city winter shelter closes.  We see a large wave of homeless right after that closure each year.

Q: 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? 

Rachael: This is very pie in the sky, but simplify please! There are things that have gotten better in the last two years, like the label submittal process with the state – they now email their reply but we still have to submit paper, and we are gaining on the wine industry in terms of rights, like we can now sell at farmers markets. We are supported in California by the CCBA (California Craft Brewers Association) and Tom McCormick (the Executive Director) is a major asset to this type of change, I just have dreams of someone scrapping all the existing laws and – logically – starting over. I’d also like to see breweries have more control over their brand when “partnering” with a distributor. Franchise law is insane.

Matt: There is still a lot of pay to play going on and I would love to see that stamped out.  It is still so pervasive in this industry and it stuns me when I have to explain to bar owners that no, I will not be providing you with a new draft system or a few cases of glassware and the guy that is going to do that for you is doing so illegally. They often just laugh and tell me no one else cared.

Thoughts on thoughts

More than either of my two previous trips to write about Benchmark, this time around I really felt like Benchmark had a very San Diego. Although the brewery is set in an industrial park, the inside feels super laid back and comfortable.  The Pandora was set to an easy reggae station and the crowd was just relaxing and enjoying catching up in small groups.  I was struck, again, that the jobs in this brewery don’t require a ton of higher education.  That said, the Akins have solid beer pedigrees.  Before co-founding Benchmark Matt plied his craft with QUAFF and then the brewery rated best IN.THE.WORLD. several times in the last decade – Alesmith.  Rachael, also a QUAFF member since 2002, brings the creative intellect to the brand side of the business. Getting her start at San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts, she adds an important consistency to the outward facing presence of the company.

One of the other things that really struck me about Benchmark was how invested in the community they had already become.  I decided to reach out to a long-time activist and San Diego Planning Commissioner named Anthony Wagner to get his take on Benchmark and how deep he sees their roots in Grantville and beyond.

“Benchmark has been a wonderful stomping grounds to be creative, try something new, and cherish this type of business in our community,” Wagner said, “They have been a true, legitimate, authentic community partner, especially including their commitment to the San Diego River.”  – Anthony Wagner

Anthony shared several examples of the way Benchmark went beyond merely being a good neighbor in its operations and really dug in on helping financially and systemically in the community. They’ve gone so far as to create a welcome option for some of the local community groups and even ground zero for some weekend Yoga.  Anthony gives a good deal of his time to his community and takes the role of local businesses seriously.  So to hear someone who is so ingrained in the civic fabric of his community speak as earnestly as he did about Matt and Rachael’s involvement really was a strong signal about how deep their roots run.

A word about the craft

One of the interesting subtleties I gleaned from a handful of conversations about Modern Times and Benchmark Brewing was a delineation between two reference frames – brewers who start businesses and business people who start breweries.  Very few people fall neatly into one camp on this issue. But my experience is that many, many people have an opinion.  Some think the craft beer industry is primarily for and about brewers – that everyone else is kind of honing in or pretending.  Some take the view that business people are an indispensable part of raising the profile of craft beer and are great for the industry. Obviously, there are brewers who are business people and business people who are brewers and lots of permutations in between.  The thing I continue to be impressed by in San Diego’s scene is the depth of interest and knowledge and passion outside of the brewhouse for what happens inside the beermaking process.  Matt and Rachael on the one hand and Jacob on the other bring their own unique skills and interests to this world.

As more people think about what part of the country to call home, places like San Diego can become increasingly more desirable with the fun and creative connections people make in tasting rooms and brewpubs.  As we stretch to address the housing affordability crisis that is crippling our ability to grow and retain talented people, perhaps the advent of industries popular with a younger workforce will drive much needed changes.  But in the interim, I’ll take a moment each year to celebrate how breweries with rather different personalities are lending strong credibility to San Diego’s role as one of America’s epicenters of great craft beer.

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