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Friday, January 30, 2015


North Park resident and nationally acclaimed brewer, Kelsey McNair was photographed signing the application seeking public approval to open his North Park Beer Company at University Avenue and Ray Street in North Park, a historic San Diego neighborhood noted for its craft beer centric vitality.    Photograph by Mike Shess, Publisher West Coaster.
LABOR OF LOVE--Award-winning homebrewer Kelsey McNair will open North Park Beer Company at 3038 University Avenue. With terms for a long-term lease negotiated, the nearly 9000 square foot space will contain a 15 barrel brewhouse in addition to a kitchen.

McNair, a North Park resident, won Stone Brewing Co.’s March Madness homebrewing competition with his San Diego County Session Ale in 2010, and won Gold in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 National Homebrewing Competition with Hop-Fu! IPA.

North Park Beer Co. will occupy the former location of Undisputed Gym on the corner of Ohio and University, joining nearby beer neighbors Mike Hess Brewing, Bottlecraft and Seven Grand. Construction on the brewpub is expected to begin in six months.

Times couldn’t be rosier for McNair.  As an avid homebrewer Kelsey McNair recently brought home the Gold Medal to San Diego for his Hop-Fu! in the final round of the 36th annual American Homebrewers Assn.’s annual National Homebrew Conference Competition (held this year in Grand Rapids, Michigan).  In the world of homebrewing that’s a huge accomplishment as McNair turned away 852 (in the IPA category) other amateur brewers for this year’s win. 

McNair now boasts three Gold medals in the past five years for the same India Pale Ale recipe.   “No other homebrewer has ever accomplished that,” adds West Coaster magazine editor Ryan Lamb. 

It will be interesting if McNair can top his accomplishments to date when this year’s home brew event will be in June, 2015 in San Diego.
So, what is it about San Diego that brings out the best in home brewing?
First, let’s go back a few years September, 1979 when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law allowing home brewing.  That piece of federal legislation became brewing’s big bang for amateur and professional brewers all across the country.  For the next 35 years, homebrewing has grown exponentially and so has the collective wisdom of its participants.
Watershed years for area home brewers can be traced to the mid-1990s.  That’s when homebrewer Jack White turned pro by founding two key beer centric businesses (Home Brew Mart and Ballast Point Brewing) and aided in the start up of a third (White Labs, a world wide supplier of fresh yeast).
While a homebrewer, Jack White grew tired of driving to El Cajon from his home in the beach area to one of the few beer supply stores operating in the area at that time.  He and a brewer friend, Yuseff Cherney, felt there was enough homebrewing zealots around to support Home Brew Mart, which they founded in the Morena area in 1995.  Within a few years after the big success of Home Brew Mart, White and Cherney founded Ballast Point Brewing Co.
Another Rosetta Stone in local homebrewing was when White and Cherney also collaborated with Chris White (no relation) to found White Labs in 000.  The lab today is one of the world’s largest producers of quality yeast for brewing.
Writer, home brewer Sam Tierney, a Siebel Institute graduate, who turned pro as a brewer with Firestone Walker said “a huge part of the incredible growth of the brewing industry—amateur and professional—has been due to the presence of White Labs, one of the industry’s leading yeast labs.”  Chicago-based Siebel is America’s oldest brewing school.
Having White Labs in San Diego gave local homebrewers easier access to such a vital ingredient. With fresher ingredients San Diego homebrewers started to produce in a nutshell better tasting beer.
White by no means was the only active homebrewer dozens more all have claim to helping put San Diego homebrewing on the proverbial map.  Homebrewers, who turned pro, Skip Virgilio, co-founder of AleSmith (that was sold to Peter Zien in 2002).  Virgilio was also instrumental in the founding of QUAFF, a popular homebrewing club (Quality Ale and Fermentation Society).
Today, there are three home brew clubs in San Diego, Foam on the Brain, The Mashheads and Quaff while the three in North County are Barley Literate, North County Homebrewers and the Society of Barley Engineers.
 “Home brewing clubs in the San Diego area are fantastic, said Mitch Steele, the brewmaster at Escondido’s Stone Brewery, “By hanging out with the people who are experienced brewers and who love to brew, a new homebrewer can soak up tons of knowledge to improve their skills.”
Steele, a widely experience brewer a the national level, pointed out another driving force, which makes the area so well respected is the fact homebrewers have taken to heart the technical aspects of brewing championed by the American Homebrewers Assn.  “AHA has been a driving force in the hobby since it was founded in 1978, including the influence of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) really can’t be understated.”
AleSmith Brewing Co.’s Peter Zien took to heart the technical aspects of quality brewing.  He’s gone from garage-based homebrewer to world class brewery owner to honing reputation for being one of the nation’s top BJCP-certified Grand Master Level One judges.  At the university level, Zien, is also teaching others how to be beer judges.  And, Zien is taking his zeal for food another step in 2011 by founding CheeseSmith, a creamery at AleSmith’s Miramar district location.         

Obviously Zien’s acumen and zen approach to life (he calls his operations “artist colonies”), has paid off because in 2013 AleSmith beat out more than 16,000 other breweries worldwide to earn the title of “Top Brewer in the World” by RateBeer, a international consumer web site dedicated to craft beer and the craft beer culture.
Kelsey McNair expressed Zien has played a big role in his growth as a brewer.  “I recall hitting a plateau when I was brewing good beer but I wasn’t winning any awards.  I met Peter when I took his beer judging class and I pointed out my dilemma.  He asked me what I was doing with my water and suggested I delve into water chemistry.  That’s what I did and I began to win awards after that.”
McNair’s experience with Zien is one example of how so many San Diego amateur and professional brewers enjoy interacting with each other to make better beer. 
But let’s return to a question posed earlier.  What makes San Diego so craft beer/home brew centric.  Respected area homebrewer Stan Sisson explained it is the sense of community and the willingness to share expertise with rookies.  “Joining a homebrew club is the most important thing a newbie brewer can do.  Club interaction keeps you learning and stops you from repeating the same mistakes.
Ex-Wall Street litigator Finn Parker got into the craft beer industry full time by becoming a buyer for Brothers Provisions, a unit of Urge Gastropub in Rancho Bernardo.  “I had 400 beers in my beer cellar and realized those beers needed to be shared.”  It has been all craft beer for Parker since that realization.        
Sharing knowledge is key. Currently University of California San Diego and San Diego State have degree programs in brewing. 
And, if you think homebrewing is a just for the good ol’ boys, think again as the brewing scene locally has so many women in the industry that’s its not tokenism.  Women in brewing are well organized and are quick to embrace charitable events by hosting beer events.  Chicks for Beer and the Pink Boots Society are examples of women’s groups active in the area.
With so much support available for men and women at every level of homebrewing that it has encouraged locals to be wildly creative mixing and matching ingredients and brewing techniques.  For example, here’s a judge’s description of McNair’s recent Gold Medal IPA: “Hop-Fu! is a true West Coast style IPA featuring a blast of orangey-citrus, woodsy-pine, with notes of tropical fruit and sticky resinous hop oils.  Hop-Fu! is aggressively bitter yet has a smooth, clean, crisp and dry finish.”
And, in San Diego homebrewing circles for 2015 you can take that gold to the bank.

Articles from West Coaster by Mike Shess and San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles by Tom Shess contributed to this blog post.

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