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Friday, May 17, 2019


View from Jim Millea's OB Brewery in San Diego, California mid-winter
Editor's note: This opinion essay first appeared on West Coaster monthly print craft beer magazine and website.   

GUEST BLOG / By Jim Millea, who is head brewer at OB Brewery, named the country’s best small brewpub at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival.

It’s remarkable how much great beer is produced in this wonderful City and County of San Diego. In the almost 20 years I’ve lived here, it’s been amazing watching the industry grow and I feel “pinch me” lucky to be a part of it. Much of this growth and change has been for the better, but along with it has come an expanding dark cloud overshadowing its greatness. No, I’m not talking about “big beer.” I’m talking about the lack of unity that helped establish this town as a beer-making powerhouse.

Jim inside his brewery
What has always struck me about the excellence of the San Diego brewing community is the willingness of brewers and breweries to work together and help each other out — sharing a bag of grains or hops when another is in need, for example. Or sharing ideas on techniques and recipes, helping each other set up a tent or a jockey box at a festival, being fired up for each other’s success… these are major factors that drew me in from home brewing as a hobby to brewing professionally as a career. I would argue that this factor alone has contributed immensely to the success of San Diego as one of, if not the best place to make and drink beer.

The collaboration of brewers and breweries still exists, but we have started to head off-course from what I would consider the best way to steer our ship through the fermented waters of our industry. I used to hear how a rising tide floats all boats, and the tide of the beer industry in San Diego has indeed risen to mind-blowing levels since its humble beginnings. It has risen to such an extent that our relatively small sea of breweries has spilled into the ocean of “big beer.” Is it bad or good? That can and will be debated as time goes on. But now instead of simply talking about breweries and beer made in San Diego, many have decided that some of the breweries in our great city are no longer wanted or were never wanted at all.

The San Diego Brewers Guild recently sent out an email to its members acknowledging that we now share our beer community with three of the largest alcohol conglomerates in the world. The Guild informed its independently owned members that those of us who choose to collaborate with these “mega-beer” brands are creating confusion in the marketplace by helping big beer blur the lines between what should be considered “true independent craft beer” and beer being portrayed by large corporations as craft.

What does “craft” mean anyway? Currently, the Brewers Association (BA) defines a craft brewer as small, independent, and a brewer. The BA further defines each of these words, and has continually changed its definitions every few years. We get so bogged down coming up with clever sounding words to define who we are, perhaps the most important part of our identity is getting lost: who is making good beer? Isn’t that what it’s all about? At the very least, shouldn’t that be part of the discussion?

I understand the main distinction the BA is trying to make is keeping a separation between huge corporations like AB InBev, MillerCoors, and Constellation Brands, and the relatively much smaller businesses. We should be concerned that these mega-brands are a “legislative force” with enormous resources and influence to try and change the rules to make it harder for the little guy to survive in this competitive market. Now that we have all three of these giant players right here in San Diego, however, is it best to shun them from our independent community, or would it make some sense to keep an open dialogue so we can better voice our concerns? Is there no potential benefit to utilizing some of the time and effort being spent demonizing the non-independent crowd into doing something more productive?

Maybe while they’re telling me how I’m creating confusion by supporting a mega-brand beer festival, the Guild could also tell me how they were working to create a panel with Constellation, MillerCoors, and even the evil AB InBev to provide an avenue for telling them our concerns face-to-face. Maybe this avenue could pave the way for us to learn what some of these breweries that have “sold out” have changed, and what they have continued to do the same. If the former World Champion Ballast Point could pioneer their way to becoming the largest craft brewery purchase of all time, maybe they can continue to innovate their way toward developing some relationships between mega beer and craft. If not, at least we can say we tried to partner with and learn from them, instead of trying to do to them what we claim they are doing to us.

I hear from beer drinkers all the time about how they love the people at Ballast Point but can’t or won’t support them because they are now big beer and not local independent craft. How about the hundreds of people employed by this company, many of whom were working there when they were still “independent”? Would it be best if they all quit? If they do, are all the local independent breweries going to step up and provide these people with jobs as well as the pay and benefits that this big beer company was able to provide? Is that really how we want to play it?

If we are going to excommunicate these guys from our group, let’s not be hypocrites then. If you’re a staunch supporter of independent craft, do you proudly refuse to drink a non-independent Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day? Do you turn up your nose at the thought of sipping on a non-independent Pacifico or Corona on a sunny warm beach in Mexico? Let’s say you belly up to a bar and are presented with a Sam Adams Rebel IPA, Elysian Spacedust, Lagunitas IPA, and a Sculpin… do you breathe a sigh of relief when you see the Sam Adams because they are defined as independent craft and the others are not? If so, I respect your decision, but I’m glad I don’t put myself in that box.

Years ago, the San Diego Brewers Guild put together a small festival at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park to celebrate beers made by local San Diego breweries. All that delicious beer was made by breweries right here in our great city! That’s what the Made in San Diego Block Party is all about for me. It would be refreshing to put politics aside for just a little while and give our taste buds a chance to simply enjoy some tasty suds made in breweries that physically exist within the borders of our city and county. Maybe we can even take a moment to admire some of the breweries that started out small and independently owned and have become so successful that we’ve started to change the way we label them.

Ballast Point has been throwing stellar parties since way before they were owned by Constellation Brands. I consider myself lucky to have been to many of them. I’ve learned more about beer from the good people at Ballast Point than I have from anyone else, and I’m proud to say I’ll be happily pouring some of my own OB Brewery beer at what I’m sure will be another first-rate event to remember.

Jim Millea at OB Brewery. Photo by William Prickett/Hoplight Social


Jim Millea is head brewer at OB Brewery, named the country’s best small brewpub at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival. He earned BJCP (Beer Judge Certificate Program) recognized judge status in 2005 through local homebrew club QUAFF. In 2010, Millea began volunteering at Ballast Point’s Home Brew Mart location and learned to operate a large brewhouse. In 2013, he began attending UCSD Extension’s Professional Brewer’s Certificate Program (he graduated in 2015). In 2014, Millea interned at Ballast Point’s Little Italy R&D facility, before his first paid gig in the industry, at O’Sullivan Brothers in Scripps Ranch later that year. He also interned at Benchmark Brewing in 2015 while working at O’Sullivan Brothers. Millea helped build out OB Brewery, which opened on July 1, 2016.

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