San Diego may be best known for its surf and sun, but the county is quickly becoming recognized for its burgeoning craft beer scene. The area boasts a diverse range of breweries, brewpubs and brewery-restaurants, not to mention an annual beer week, numerous brewery tours and, soon, accommodations tailored to the traveling beer connoisseur.
If you’re looking to understand the ins and outs of San Diego’s booming beer scene, then grab a brewski and check out the latest beer news from local writer Brandon Hernández. An award-winning journalist, Hernández is passionate about his hometown’s craft beer culture and has turned his obsession into a thriving freelance writing career as well as a coveted communications position at the largest craft brewery in Southern California. He frequently pens a column for San Diego Reader and has contributed hops-inspired articles to a slew of industry publications, including San Diego Magazine, Imbibe and Beer Magazine.
In our interview, Hernández shares which brew trend will be hot this year and reveals his inspiration for creating the area’s first comprehensive guide to more than 80 local breweries.
R.W. Smith: You are San Diego’s top craft beer journalist and a contributor to many local and national publications, including San Diego Reader. How did your writing career get started, and why craft beer?
Brandon Hernández: My road to beer and food writing was both long and uncommon. Since junior high school, I’d written fiction as a hobby. After high school, I developed an obsession with the culinary arts and immersed myself in them for over a decade. Along the way, I discovered craft beer—I was lucky to have never had macrobreweries’ bland industrial interpretation of beer, so it was easy to fall in love and avoid substandard imitations. I also had the good fortune of having Food Network select and spotlight one of my award-winning recipes. That led to a return performance as a consultant to Emeril Live. My efforts with Food Network lit a fire inside me. I wanted to devote my energies and my culinary knowledge to a career in food, but I was in the midst of a career I’d worked hard to establish and not in a position to pursue kitchen work. A friend of mine who knew of my writing suggested I reach out to local publications. I did and, within 24 hours, had assignments from three publications.
Over the next seven years, as a result of diligent work, tenacity and assistance from industry contacts, I have become one of San Diego’s most prolific food and beverage journalists, and the county’s most keyed in craft beer voice. I was one of the first to focus on the latter medium, and the first to contribute articles on San Diego’s craft breweries (well over 80 operating brewhouses in the county at the time of this writing) to many of the area’s magazines. Back when I was pitching round-ups of the brewing scene, editors were confounded by the subject and leery of freeing up page space for it. I was ahead of the curve, but recognized the exceptional nature of the high quality ales and lagers being produced by San Diego companies, and fought hard to win some ink for the industry.
Fast forward to present day and San Diego is considered by most to be the craft brewing capital of the United States. Local brewers are celebrated nationally and by the county’s residents. It’s rare to come across a publication that doesn’t feature beer in some significant way, and I am proud to have, in some small way, helped to make that happen. Craft beer is a driving force in my life and something I very much appreciate and feel honored to have a platform to support.
RWS: Last fall, you published San Diego Beer News Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, which takes readers through nearly 80 local craft beer brewhouses and tasting facilities. What motivated you to create this in-depth guide?
BH: No definitive guide to what is arguably the country’s finest craft brewing landscape existed, so I created one. But in doing so, I avoided approaching the subject of San Diego’s breweries in the manner most every other journalist reporting on the subject does—as a cheerleader only expounding on the many positives. As with any type of business in any region anywhere, there are great operations, there are good operations, there are so-so operations and there are some that fall into the unacceptable range. Anybody interested in a guide to a region’s breweries will naturally want to know what category those breweries fall into rather than read a glossy, all-sunshine production that reads like it was put together by the local chamber of commerce. I endeavored to give readers the truest interpretation of craft beer quality in San Diego County on a business-by-business, venue-by-venue basis, drawing on the educated opinions of local bar owners, brewing industry personnel, beer experts (Cicerones) and quality control professionals. The result is a guide containing numerical scores mirroring the Zagat Review (for which I am a local editor) in three categories—beer quality, service and setting. It is the only critical guide to what is a fascinating region for artisanal ales and lagers that should be a required entry on any craft beer lover’s bucket list.
RWS: We noticed you’re the Communications Specialist at Stone Brewing Co. That sounds like a pretty interesting job! Tell us, what is a typical day is like?
BH: Honestly, there is no typical day. Like most craft breweries, Stone has a lot going on, usually all at once. My day begins with triage, assessing which projects—new beer promotion, bottle and packaging text generation, social media content development, blog post writing, long-term planning, internal communication, imagery coordination, event planning, etc.—require the most immediate attention. Since it’s all about the beer, tasks related to it are hammered out first. The best part of my job, and something I try to do as often as possible, is taking fans behind the curtain and giving them as many glimpses as possible at what life is like here at Stone as well as what we have in the hopper. Being a craft beer enthusiast, I know this is what people like me want and it is both a privilege and a joy to get to share this amazing place and the talented people I work with to Stone fans. Though always busy (often too busy), it is an extremely fun and rewarding job that falls directly in line with my core passions and skill sets. And did I mention there’s beer there?
RWS: Any craft brewing trends making their way on to the local scene this year?
BH: Imperialized everything—high-alcohol beers in every style one can think of—have been the norm in San Diego for some time. By and large, brawny, big character beers are what locals crave (as do outsiders consuming our beer abroad), but there is a growing demand for session beers—low-alcohol ales and lagers imbibers can consume several of without succumbing to deeper degrees of inebriation. There is one condition, however. San Diegans are not willing to give up the big flavor of their imperial beers. Session beers, which generally come in at 4.5% alcohol-by-volume or lower, need to pack the tasty punch of big beers to be considered viable alternatives. Fortunately, more and more breweries are picking up the gauntlet and laying down seriously flavorful and pleasantly sessionable brews, thus further diversifying San Diego’s sudsy portfolio.
RWS: Spring is nearly here in San Diego. Which seasonal food and craft beer pairing is your favorite?
BH: I could never choose just one pairing as my favorite, but when I think springtime, my mind conjures images of the many seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs hitting their stride. To me, few beer styles convey the green, vibrant nature of spring and its edibles as well as saisons. Spicy, flowery and effervescent, these ales hailing back to farmhouses in Belgium and France pair beautifully with the season’s bounty thanks much in part to yeast-borne fruit and funk.
Brandon Hernández is a native San Diegan and award-winning journalist with a passion for the culinary arts and all edible and quaffable fare. He is an editor for Zagat Survey and a communications specialist for Stone Brewing Co. In addition to his work for the San Diego Reader, he is also the San Diego correspondent for the nation’s oldest craft beer publication, Celebrator Beer News, and a contributor to national outlets including Wine Enthusiast, All About Beer, Imbibe, The Beer Connoisseur, Beer West, USA TODAY and Tasting Table. He has served as a consultant for Food Network, and has contributed to numerous chefs’ cookbook projects. His book, San Diego Beer News Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Kobo.