Beer Maverick

Saint Archer Brewing Co., Miramar

Saint Archer drew the ire of many San Diego craft beer aficionados by selling out to MillerCoors. They still make some good beer.

By the Brewers Association definition, Saint Archer does not count as a “craft brewer” and so you might well wonder why is reviewing them. To be precise, Saint Archer stopping being craft in 2015, when it was acquired by (or, depending on who you ask, sold out to) MillerCoors. Before that, though, Saint Archer was an independent, San Diego, craft brewery–if not highly respected then at least respected. Certainly, they grew quickly and found an audience. It didn’t hurt that their original investors were popular skate boarders and surfers–they were able to market themselves to the California lifestyle. 

Even more than that, though, they made some pretty good beers. In 2014, Saint Archer won four medals at the San Diego International Beer Festival (White Ale, Gold; Pale Ale, Gold; Double IPA, Silver; Blonde Ale, Bronze) AND a Gold at the Great American Beer Festival for White Ale (in the Belgo-American Ale category). That’s a remarkable achievement for any brewery. No doubt it helped make them attractive to MillerCoors.

They may not technically be craft beer anymore, but do they still make good beer? Certainly, it is much better than the mass-produced light lagers you see advertised during football games. Have they lost a step since the acquisition? That’s harder to say. There haven’t been any more medals, but competition is extremely tough these days and plenty of good breweries have no recent medals from GABF or other major competitions.

There’s a nice Brewbound article from just after the sale that gives some background, context and history about Saint Archer. The LA Times covered the acquisition, even. West Coaster Magazine, both then and now, has channeled the feelings of many in San Diego and the wider craft beer scene: They have been sharply critical of “big beer” moves to acquire “craft” brands and open beer bars and even breweries that can only fairly be called “fake craft.” The pending opening of a 10 Barrel brewpub–another former craft brewery acquired by big beer–in downtown San Diego has called forth a good deal of hand-wringing and finger-wagging (for example, see this and this from 2016, and this from 2017).

The main issue is that “fake craft” is (a) deliberately fooling consumers into diverting their money from small, independent brewers and (b) using that money to perpetrate commercial dirty tricks (lobbying for legislation that hurts small brewers, buying up distribution channels and blocking out true craft, etc.). In the background lurks the tempting but unanalyzed idea that “big beer” is bad simply because it is big.

My experience with Saint Archer beer has been pretty good. Not excellent, but good. The last time I logged a Saint Archer Blonde on Untappd was in 2014–I rated it 4/5 at the time, but that was before the acquisition and so it does not tell us about the current state of affairs. During my visit to their brewing facility in Miramar, I was in a dark beer mood and ended up not trying the more stereotypical Saint Archer beers you see in bars all over the place (such as the White, Pale, IPA, and Blonde). At $5 for a flight of three 4-ounce tasters, I thought the prices in the tasting room were good. $8 for chips and salsa seems steep until they hand you an entire bag of chips and a whole tub of very good salsa.

Breakfast Stout (6.2% ABV). I got a hint of a metallic aroma, but the rich coffee flavor melds beautifully with the nearly black malt on the palate. There’s almost no head, and the finish is a little sharper/more acidic than I like in stout.  3.5/5

Chocolate Porter (6% ABV). Like the Breakfast Stout, this tastes rich. It is noticeably chocolatey and has deeply roasted malts. It is a little too sharp/acidic, also like the Breakfast Stout. But it is still good.  3.75/5

Irish Dry Stout (4.2% ABV). This is an acceptable–but not a distinguished–example of the style. It has a deep dark color, a thick stiff head (on nitro), and a smooth mouthfeel.  3.25/5

The facility itself is impressively large, and the complex, high-capacity brewing system is right there for you to see as you walk in. At one end of the tasting room is a small store selling shirts and branded merchandise; at the other end is the bar. In between there are a few high tables and one long communal table. The colors are dark grey and metal, with rough wood accents–from that description it sounds like any old tasting room’s design but it is actually better than most. There is an outdoor space, too, nestled under some big pine trees, which makes for a pleasant place to enjoy San Diego’s amazing weather.

Service was quick and pleasant enough, though it was a bit hard to communicate because the music was turned up so loud. I only got a bit of the “I just work here” vibe that I felt in full force at, say, Green Flash. (AleSmith, in contrast, though it is also large like Green Flash and Saint Archer, had very engaged beertenders.)

Big parts of the Saint Archer website are out of date: the list of current beers on offer in the tasting room, for example; and the most recent “blog” post is from November 2015. That’s shortly after MillerCoors acquired Saint Archer, and maybe that’s not a coincidence. It does suggest a lack of attention to detail by the parent company.

The parking lot for a strip mall that includes Legacy Tap Room and Kitchen (my review here) backs up to the side of the Saint Archer facility. Also just a few hundred yards away is 32 North Brewing (I reviewed their now-defunct Liberty Station satellite tasting room here). For proximity, those three make a good set to visit on an afternoon, but there are so many other breweries nearby (Miramar’s nickname is “Beeramar”) that you are spoiled for choice. Given the plethora of (mostly great) craft breweries in the immediate area, not spending your beer money on non-craft is a viable choice.     9550 Distribution Ave. San Diego, CA 92121