Photo by Andrew Dyer
From left: James Gomez, general manager; Ben Shirley, San Diego Innovations brewmaster; Garrett Wales, co-founder, 10 Barrel; Tommy Fraioli, executive chef
Minor delays aside, 10 Barrel Brewing Co. (1501 E St.) is opening in East Village. Depending on who you ask, it is either the end of something great or the beginning of something greater.
The AB Inbev-owned brewery (the “AB” stands for Anheuser-Busch) has enjoyed a welcome reception from the moneyed developers at Maker’s Quarter. The five-block area of derelict warehouses are owned by a consortium of real estate interests, and 10 Barrel is just the first of many new developments that could potentially transform the neighborhood for the better.
The cranes and sounds of construction can be seen and heard from a barstool at Monkey Paw Brewing Co. (805 16th St.). Its owner, Scot Blair, is not happy.
“The only ‘maker’ in Maker’s Quarter, the only one who has ever been in Maker’s Quarter, is Monkey Paw,” he says. “The greedy pricks, the real estate fuckers—these guys used AB InBev to develop a dilapidated space. The owners didn’t want to invest any money in it.”
Development issues are just one facet of why 10 Barrel’s entry into San Diego has been met with so much resistance from the beer community. There is, of course, the classic David vs. Goliath narrative of craft beer vs. big beer, something 10 Barrel co-founder Garrett Wales doesn’t buy into.
“(The critics) are a very small but vocal minority,” he says.
Noting other craft brewers—such as Stone, among others— have taken private equity or taken on large foreign investments, Wales called criticism of 10 Barrel for selling to AB InBev “hypocritical,” adding that at least with 10 Barrel, the big-money backer was transparent.
Craft beer is big business now, and major players have bought in. Firestone Walker and Lagunitas took on foreign partners and Constellation Brands famously paid $1 billion for Ballast Point. From a business perspective, 10 Barrel’s move to sell to AB InBev back in 2014 was a smart one. Wales said its parent company has no say in what beers are brewed and it has the capital to grow, expand and realize the vision of its original founders.
10 Barrel brewpubs have sprouted up in most of the major beer cities west of the Mississippi. In addition to its original pub in Bend, Oregon, there are now locations in Portland, Denver, Boise and, now, San Diego. Each location has its own brewer who, according to Wales, is free to create and brew their own recipes.
This strategy lends credit to the critique that 10 Barrel is trying to, as many have claimed, “pass itself off as local.” Wales does not deny this.
“The pubs localize the brand,” he says.
“I have full permission to brew the best beer possible,” said Ben Shirley, 10 Barrel San Diego’s head brewer. Shirley got his start at Deschutes Brewing in Bend, Oregon, before moving over to 10 Barrel six years ago.
One argument in support of 10 Barrel is the jobs it will create. A few weeks ago, it held a job fair at SILO in Maker’s Quarter.
“Around 500 people showed up,” said 10 Barrel General Manager James Gomez. “We hired 110.”
Blair is unmoved by those numbers.
“Are they going to create jobs? Sure,” he says. “But do the ends justify the means? Couldn’t Maker’s Quarter have made it a little more affordable for a local brewery to go in there? A local brewery could also have created jobs.”
Good or bad, 10 Barrel is AB InBev’s answer to craft’s encroachment on its turf, and objectively the manifestation of its move to co-opt the culture of craft beer. Not only has AB InBev acquired local breweries, but it is now backing the beer/ travel/ lifestyle website October, a partnership with the popular websites Pitchfork and Good Beer Hunting.
One of October’s self-proclaimed journalists published a glowing review of 10 Barrel and rebuked criticism of “big beer” after a paid junket to Oregon. Now, not only is the ownership of “local” breweries being obfuscated, so is the content of websites who cover the industry. The inclusion of a disclaimer acknowledging AB InBev’s role as an investor doesn’t absolve that conflict of interest.
While it’s not the end of the line for local craft beer, it is the beginning of a new era. The industry is going through its own growing pains unrelated to big beer, so it is unlikely 10 Barrel will be the sole cause of future hiccups. Whether locals will embrace 10 Barrel as “local” remains to be seen. Wales thinks they will.
“It’s not a chain,” he says. “There are no menu or beer guidelines. It’s not 10 Barrel in San Diego; It’s 10 Barrel San Diego.”