San Diego

The Founding Fathers of San Diego's Craft Beer Scene

In honor of San Diego’s upcoming Beer Week, NBC 7 speaks to some of the people that helped kick start San Diego’s craft beer economy over a more than 20 year period.

Many craft brew lovers may not realize the long road to the successful craft brewery community of San Diego all started with two friends in Mission Beach.

Chris Cramer, founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company, and his partner Matt Rattner, started playing around with the idea of starting a brewery by Cramer's apartment.

“Matt and I would take my football and we'd throw the ball around Tower 10 as we'd write the business plan to start the first new brewery,” Cramer said.

In many ways, it all started with Karl Strauss Brewing Company. When they opened in 1989, they were the first new brewery to open in city limits in more than 50 years.

Now, more than 26 years after the doors to the brewery opened, 115 breweries operate around San Diego. The industry has propelled more than $1 billion into the local economy and $6.5 billion into the state’s economy.

Many of the employees who helped open Karl Strauss Brewing Company branched off to open their own breweries. Scott Stamp, the original bartender at Karl Strauss', went on to open Callahan's and the San Diego Brewing Company. Their original cocktail waitress Gina Marsaglia opened Pizza Port Brewery in 1992 with her brother Vince. The brewery’s original tour guide, Jack White, later started Home Brew Mart in 1992.

“One of the reasons why San Diego has become such a mecca for craft beer is we started off with a group of individuals who were friends and collaborative rivals,” said Chris Cramer, founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company, said about his former employees later building their own companies.

Throughout the decades of San Diego's craft beer scene, a handful of craft brewing pioneers collaborated to help mold and create the city’s modern day economic powerhouse.

"It's been a lot of work over a long time by an enormous group of passionate individuals who are all following your own muses," Cramer said. 


Cramer and Rattner started the company back when few San Diegans even knew what craft beer meant.


"People thought we were crazy when we said we would start a brewery,” Cramer said. “The city fathers had no idea what we were talking about.”

The pair didn’t start out as brewers; they were more like beer lovers when they began. 

Cramer's cousin, Karl Strauss, had been trained in Germany as a brewer before World War II. Strauss later fled Germany prior to the Holocaust and began working for a brewing establishment in the U.S.

When Rattner and Cramer started the process of opening up their brewery in San Diego, the brewmaster Strauss became their mentor.

After learning the ropes, Strauss helped the men set up their own brewery, formulate beers and train newly employed brewers. He helped them use national quality control standards of a large-scale brewery and translate it to a smaller-scale craft level.

The Brewer's Association defines a craft brewer as a brewery that produces six million barrels of beer or less at a brewery where 25 percent or less of the brewery is controlled by an industry member. 

Every new customer was like a cold call, Cramer said, because residents were so unfamiliar with the process of brewing craft beer.

“People would look at our Karl Strauss Amber and say, that’s way too dark, I could never drink anything like that,” Cramer said.

Now, the brewery is the 45th largest craft brewer in the nation and the company only distributes its beer in California.

“What people don't remember is how rapidly the industry has developed in the last five years,” Cramer said. “People think in San Diego there's been an explosion of beers and it's always been this way, but it really hasn't always been this way.” 

Eighty five of the 115 breweries opened in the last five years, and at least another 40 are in the planning stages.


Karl Strauss Brewing Company's first tour guide started his own endeavor in 1992: Home Brew Mart. 

The University of California at Los Angeles graduate’s shop was a place where people interested in starting their own home brewing operations could buy the materials to make it happen.

“Our roots go back to this home brew shop, there really wasn't availability of quality home brew supplies,” Yuseff Cherney, who later became COO and head brewer at Ballast Point, said.

Cramer credits Home Brew Mart with inspiring and enabling local brewers. Once people had the right equipment, brewers were able to build a community, one which only grew over time.

Home Brew Mart had been around for a month when Cherney walked in.

He had come in to buy grains for his own brewing needs, but a customer mistakenly thought he was an employee and started asking him questions.

“Rather than getting Jack, I kind of just helped the guy out,” Cherney said. “Jack was kind of standing in the background, just watching, (thinking) ‘who are you? How do you know all this stuff?’”

White hired Cherney the next day.


At that time, White wanted to open a brewery in the back of the store, and in 1996, he founded Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits Company with Cherney’s help.

At the same time, Cherney was working with fellow UCSD student Chris White, a post-graduate biochemistry student who later started White Labs in 1995. White Labs became a pre-eminent yeast lab, Cramer said, and helped supply brewers with custom yeast strains. Now, for the first time in San Diego, brewers had unprecedented access to world class yeast.

Ballast Point has grown to become one of San Diego’s most recognizable brands. It employs 415 people and distributes their products in 26 states, and even to countries like Japan and Australia. They have four facilities, including two in Miramar, two restaurants and two tasting rooms.


It took more than a decade from the time Karl Strauss Brewing Company opened for craft brewing to look like it does today in San Diego. 

By 1997, only 15 total brewers were operating across San Diego. Alesmith opened in 1995, Coronado Brewing and Stone Brewing both opened in 1996. 

In the next nine years, only five more breweries opened. But by 2010, the local industry was on the verge of what some would call a "boom." Most of the city’s breweries have been operating for only five years or less.

Today, San Diego brews more than 2,000 unique beers annually. One of every five breweries across the state is in San Diego, Cramer said.

"I think it's a perfect storm of what's happened over the course of the past 20 years,” Cherney said of the success of craft brewing in San Diego. “You've got a great home brew clubs, and a great home brew society in San Diego, it really did a great job of educating people and providing supplies"

There’s a long history behind the craft brewery boom, but many craft beer lovers don’t realize it.

“They see it as an overnight success, and I’m like, yes, a 20 year overnight success story,” said Cherney. “They don’t see all the history behind it.”

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