In honor of the San Diego Brewers Guild’s milestone anniversary, we take a look at the history of creativity and collaboration in the local beer community
Gina Marsaglia remembers a time before San Diego earned its stripes as one of the most collaborative cities in the craft beer industry.
“Back then, all the breweries were so spread out we were kind of on our own island,” said Marsaglia, the CEO/President of Pizza Port Brewing Company. “We would reach out to each other and everything, but the Guild was really formed because we wanted unity.”
Pizza Port was among the original 15 breweries to join the Guild, formally known as the San Diego Brewers Guild (SDBG). This was back in 1997 — more than a decade after Marsaglia opened her brewpub with her brother, Vince.
Tomme Arthur, co-founder and CEO of The Lost Abbey, said he thinks there was an initial hesitation for these breweries to work together. However, it soon became clear that collaboration was the way to also stay competitive in the market.
“Everybody knew that there was a really small pool of drinkers (in San Diego),” said Arthur, who got his start at Pizza Port in 1997. “I think that’s where the Guild came from. We were like, ‘OK, we now have X amount of operating breweries. We’re all preaching to the same people. Maybe we should try to work together to synergize the actual city as a drinking destination.”
"(The Guild) started out almost like a meet-and-greet. Now it’s a complete (operation) — thanks to Paige, in a lot of ways,” Marsaglia said, referring to one of SDBG’s leaders, Paige McWey Acers. “Having an executive director really tightened things up and created an agenda with focus. As more breweries became relevant in San Diego, I think it’s really the one thing that holds us all in one place.”
The mission of SDBG, which has now grown to nearly 300 active members, is to “promote awareness and increase the visibility of fresh locally brewed beer through education and participation in community events.”
Since its founding, SDBG has grown exponentially, including launching education initiatives and hosting annual community events like the Guild Festival (2005), San Diego Beer Week (2009), and the SDBG Golf Tournament at Rancho Bernardo Inn (2014).
This weekend, SDBG is celebrating its 25th year anniversary with the launch of San Diego Beer Weekend, happening today through Sunday. The informal celebration is less of an event and more of an initiative — encouraging San Diegans to visit their neighborhood brewery and support the businesses.
"(SDBG) really wanted to create an opportunity to get fans into tasting rooms instead of pulling them out of tasting rooms and hosting an event for ourselves,” Acers said. “The dollar goes a lot further in the brewing tasting rooms and their physical locations. ... They still need support; they’re still coming back; they’re still fighting to stay alive (post-pandemic).”
What makes San Diego special
So how did San Diego establish itself as the Capital of Craft? There are a lot of theories, depending on who you talk to. The city’s status as a lifestyle town, the number of homebrewers residing in the area, and even the water quality are all aspects that could have contributed to its success.
One thing everyone can agree on: San Diego breweries know how to work together.
Historian Judith Downie is the curator of the Brewchive, a resource at California State University San Marcos that aims to archive the brewing history of San Diego County. She notes that the mission of local breweries supporting each other has been vital to the success of the San Diego beer scene.
“It’s definitely setting a model,” Downie said. “I’m starting to see more collaboration with other breweries out of our area. I mean, they’re looking at San Diego and saying, ‘Why is San Diego working out so well?’ And anybody with any sense is looking at what we’re doing with collaboration, beer festivals, charity support, and all these other things — and a lot of that is done by our local Brewers Guild.”
San Diego’s knack for collaboration doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Downie, who recently gave a local presentation about women in brewing, noted the longtime lack of female representation in the community.
“Nationally, the numbers are terrible for women — even the owners, much less the brewers — and San Diego is pretty parallel to those numbers ... when you think of a brewery, you think of a bearded White guy,” Downie said. “That’s just the stereotype. And we’re still dealing with stereotypes today.”
But there are steps toward progress, like the opening of Mujeres Brew House, a woman-owned and women-run brewery in Barrio Logan. Additionally, SDBG established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee in January 2020. Spearheaded by Virginia Morrison — the cofounder and CEO of Second Chance Beer Co. — the DEI Committee aims to provide education, resources and opportunities for marginalized groups.
A lot has changed in the last 25 years — both good and bad. Downsides include an oversaturated market; the brewery experience outweighing beer quality; and increased shelf competition from non-beer craft alternatives like hard kombucha or seltzer.
One of the most positive shifts, however, is a hyperlocal approach many San Diego breweries have adopted. Rather than aim for a large footprint, breweries are sticking close to home.
“Their business plans are community-driven,” Acers said. “They are neighborhood-type breweries — each neighborhood has an identity and those breweries within that neighborhood. They all speak to that.”
“San Diego is such a sophisticated community,” said Chris Cramer, the co-founder and CEO of Karl Strauss Brewing Company. “The emphasis on local has become so profound, and local has changed in definition.”
Moving forward, what does the future of the San Diego beer scene look like?
“It’s a maturing industry. ... I don’t think we’re going to necessarily decline, but I don’t think we’re going to be growing as quickly (as before). We’re going to be slow and steady, once we get through this super rocky path,” Acers said, referring to the post-pandemic landscape.
There are certainly challenges ahead, but San Diego’s beer scene doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.
“If there’s one thing,” Cramer said, “it’s that history has shown that people love a good beer with friends.”
For San Diego Beer Weekend, various breweries throughout San Diego County will offer exclusive glassware, specialty beer releases, or both. Visit sdbeer.com/sdbeerweekend.html for a full list of participating breweries.
A timeline of SDBG