Much ink has been spilt–or more exactly, many pixels have been illuminated–on the subject of the new 10 Barrel Brewing location in downtown San Diego’s East Village, essentially across the street from Monkey Paw. (For example, see this and this and this; if you are a glutton for punishment, you can read the comments section, too.) People even crowd-funded a banner to fly behind an airplane declaring that “10 Barrel is not Craft Beer”. Some of my favorite San Diego craft breweries (Resident, Half Door, and the aforementioned Monkey Paw) brewed a collaboration beer they called 11 Barrel IPA in order to draw attention to the controversy and allow craft beer drinkers to show support for the anti-10 Barrel position.
My sympathies–as I hope is clear from the fact that I’m spending a year of my life and quite a lot of my money visiting every craft brewery and tasting room in San Diego–are entirely with the craft beer community. I have a gut reaction against mega-corporations; perhaps partly because of excessive exposure to dystopian science fiction, but also at least partly because I have heard too many stories (both general and specific) about how mega-corporations (such as AB InBev, owners of 10 Barrel) are guilty of slimy practices on various levels including social, environmental and commercial. Large beer corps own a lot of distributors and sometimes throw their weight around to limit shelf space for smaller competitor breweries; there have been cases of illegal practices like pay-to-play (even recently in California); and big beer has been buying up successful craft breweries (including Goose Island, Ballast Point, Wicked Weed and of course 10 Barrel) with the intention of using them to secure market share amongst craft beer drinkers, i.e., using “fake craft” beer to undermine craft beer by counting on fooling people.
All that said, there’s a reason mega-corporations make money, namely that they provide products/services/experiences that people want to spend their money on. You can make the case that some of those people are willing to buy those things because they don’t know any better, but I worry that that is too simplistic (not to mention being condescending towards the average consumer).
For present purposes, I want to identify four factors that I think are related to why 10 Barrel will succeed, even in a craft beer town like San Diego where the many beer aficionados are generally against their very existence. I mean, factors besides the circumstance that San Diego gets 30 million tourists every year and some proportion of them will find their way to 10 Barrel without realizing it is not craft beer. The four factors I have in mind are setting, sophistication, customer service and consistency. Now that I’ve visited 115 San Diego breweries and tap rooms, I feel confident in saying that on each of these points, independent craft beer would do well to try to emulate the big boys.
10 Barrel’s setting is nice; much nicer than you’ll find in most craft breweries. Admittedly, there are protesters out front with a banner that tells you that the place was built by bypassing union labor, and that does take the shine off a bit. But as you walk in, the place is impressive both for its size and its design. The interior finishes are excellent, and there is a lot of seating of various kinds, most of it near big windows that open to the street. There’s a side patio and a beautiful rooftop patio, too. Most craft breweries are in industrial or commercial parks, which is already a strike against them from the point of view of many consumers. More than that, they often make little to no effort to provide a comfortable, attractive setting. So much so that I found myself remarking in a recent review that one brewery even had “finished walls.” (The worst I’ve seen is Reckless Brewing, but they have built out a new tasting room since I visited.) There are notable exceptions–Karl Strauss, Stone Brewing, and AleSmith are examples of craft breweries that go above and beyond for setting–but for the most part craft breweries more often resemble warehouses and garages than they do nice restaurants or bars.
Sophistication is partly shown in the setting, of course, but in this case I mean how the whole experience is packaged–from signage to surface finishes and graphic design, to the appearance of beer menus, employee dress, and how flights are served. At 10 Barrel, each of those things is well done, with a level of polish you don’t usually see at craft breweries. Places like Ballast Point did those things well enough to grow enough to be bought out by big beer. That should tell the craft beer industry that it needs to up its game in this area in general. (Not just to compete with big beer, but to provide a better experience for their customers.) AB InBev properties like 10 Barrel can, of course, rely on a large stable of industry experts to help them get these sorts of things right, whereas small start-up breweries don’t usually have the money to work with consultants. Still, a little more effort would go a long way.
Customer service is almost universally solid at venues owned by major corporations. From friendly greetings to regularly asking how everything is, to quickly and successfully resolving issues, the staff at these places have been trained well. That is unfortunately much rarer at craft beer venues. Smaller places, of course, are usually run by the brewers, who may or may not have good public personas or any customer service training. There’s a trade-off in authenticity perhaps, but that is overrated for all but a small slice of the beer drinking public. At large, successful craft breweries, I have too often encountered a phenomenon that I called “a hipster-er-than-thou vibe” when I visited Pizza Port and Modern Times (though maybe that will improve now that Modern Times is employee owned).
Ask any craft brewer to say one nice thing about big beer, and they are bound to say “their beer is incredibly consistent.” No matter where you drink a Bud or Corona, it is always the same. That is difficult to achieve. That level of attention to detail and quality control should be an aspirational goal for every craft brewer. As a craft beer drinker, I can put up with poor settings, weak customer service and low sophistication, provided that the beer is good. But also as a craft beer drinker, there is little that is more disappointing than coming back for a second drink of a beer I loved to find that it isn’t the same anymore. Batch-to-batch inconsistency in craft beer, in my opinion, is the biggest general problem in the industry. Some places sidestep the issue by never brewing the same thing twice, which is a viable strategy for tasting-room-based businesses but probably won’t work if distributing in kegs or cans is part of a brewery’s business strategy.
Perhaps even more important than batch-to-batch consistency, though, is consistency in quality. Big beer never has any “off” flavors (unless we are talking bottles that have not been stored properly). Admittedly, at least according to some, big beer doesn’t have any “on” flavors, either. But off flavors in craft beer are not uncommon. I have had beers at very reputable breweries that should have been poured down the drain rather than served because they didn’t work out. Breweries that are willing to pour out failed batches stand a much better chance of making it in the long run: quality is supposed to be what distinguishes craft from big beer, and if the quality isn’t consistently there then there is really no reason for a consumer to choose craft beer over mass produced beer.
All that said, my overall impression of 10 Barrel is that it is a good spot. Their beer is pretty good (not the best, but better than average craft beer). The food is outstanding (try the watermelon and Korean pork belly salad). The service is top-notch. The setting is excellent.
About the beers, you can get a flight of ten (!) 4oz pours for $10 (!!). It is a surprisingly good deal, but keep in mind that that is 2.5 pints of beer, quite a lot in one sitting if you go quickly. If you don’t go quickly, the beer gets warm. Some of the beers I tried didn’t do well warm. And, one suspects, the pricing is intended to undercut nearby independent breweries that can’t sell it so cheap.
There were 18 beers on the menu, nine of which were made on site; the ten in the flight are a set “curated list” so you don’t get to choose (though my bartender said I could get a taste of anything else I wanted, too). The following are the 10 Barrel beers that are at least San Diego brewed even if they are not craft beer by the Brewers Association definition. (These beers, then, are in the same category as Ballast Point and Saint Archer.)
Renegade (Dry Hopped Pale Wheat Ale, 5.8% ABV). There was a time in my beer drinking history that something like this could have been my go-to. Smooth, sweet, spicy. 3/5
Brick Dust (Red Ale, 6.9% ABV). True to style: nice malts, a little bite, smooth. The hops might be a little more tropical than typical, but it works. 3.75/5
Riding Solo (Pale Ale, 6.5% ABV). A good IPA. “Heirloom” Comet hop is interesting. Piney with an earthy backend and plenty of bitterness. 3/5
Throwback (Oatmeal Stout,4.7% ABV). It’s a pretty good, straight-ahead stout. 3.25/5
Day Dream (Session IPA, 5.1% ABV). The beer was getting warm by the time I got to this one. It wasn’t great. 2.5/5
Dawn Patrol (Pale Ale, 6.1% ABV). The aroma and flavor remind me of a summer afternoon in my Canadian youth–which means, it is like a macro, but pretty good of that kind. Carlsberg, maybe? Molson Export? I can’t quite put my finger on it. 3/5
Craft Heavy (Imperial IPA, 8.8% ABV). The name of this beer is the most overt attempt to insinuate that this is craft beer that I saw during my visit. It is a pretty ordinary-tasting beer, so I don’t think many craft drinkers will be fooled. 2.75/5
Even if you have decided that you will never step foot inside 10 Barrel Brewing or drink another mass-produced lager, at least the craft beer industry can learn from Big Beer in some regards.
https://10barrel.com/ 1501 E St, San Diego, California 92101