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San Diego microbreweries tapped as catalyst for growth

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The craft beer boom in San Diego is becoming statistically significant.

When the San Diego Association of Governments drafted its recent “Traded Industry Clusters in the San Diego Region” report, the “specialty food” cluster now cites microbreweries as an emerging area of job growth and production. The combined specialty foods and microbreweries cluster reportedly includes 1,717 employees with an average wage of $43,500, according to SANDAG figures.

“Microbreweries have grown at such a tremendous rate,” said SANDAG’s chief economist Marney Cox, citing the increasing reach of local beer brands like Stone Brewing Co., Karl Strauss and Ballast Point. “They have become economic drivers.”

SANDAG looks at traded industry clusters -- characterized as interrelated, export-oriented industries that drive innovation and productivity -- because they bring new money into the San Diego region. When SANDAG looks at cluster components like microbreweries, it’s not just considering the impact of beer exports, Cox said. Also taken into consideration are the correlated industries: the manufacturers of bottles and cardboard boxes, the agricultural industry that supplies the hops, the tourism industry boosted by visitors in search of homegrown beers.

“We’re interested in public policies that can assist in ways that stimulate the economy,” Cox said.

Shawn DeWitt, president of the San Diego Brewers Guild and the director of brewery operations for Coronado Brewing Co., said the local brewery scene is expanding at a remarkable rate.

“It’s an explosion compared to what I’ve seen in the past,” DeWitt said. “From ’97 to 2002, there was not one new brewery. In the last two years, I’ve seen at least 20 breweries open up. I’ve been doing this since 1996 and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

DeWitt said there are 63 licensed and operational brew houses in San Diego and 33 being planned, citing figures tallied by the West Coaster trade journal, which focuses exclusively on the San Diego craft brewing industry. Of those 63 locations, some are operated by the same owner, such as Coronado Brewing Co.’s flagship brewpub in Coronado and its new tasting room in Bay Park.

Coronado Brewing Co. is increasingly hiring for entry-level jobs, DeWitt said, in production-side tasks like cleaning, filling kegs, and driving trucks.

DeWitt attributes growth in the local brewing industry to increased national interest in beer, and a number of San Diego entrepreneurs who established a respectable foothold in the larger industry.

The big local brewers have been “winning a lot of awards, bringing attention to San Diego. We also have a strong home brew club, and they’re seeing what’s going on and want to be part of it," DeWitt said.

According to the national Brewers Association based in Boulder, Colo., craft brewers provide an estimated 103,585 jobs in the United States. The U.S. craft brewing industry grew by 13 percent by volume in 2011, and 15 percent by dollars. In other terms, U.S. craft brewers sold about 11.5 million barrels in 2011, for retail sales of $8.7 billion.

There’s a lot of variety in San Diego beer, DeWitt said, though the region has come to be known for its unique take on India pale ales (IPAs).

“The West Coast IPA has evolved, because generally IPAs are not like what we’re doing. These are bigger, bolder, more aromatic,” he said.

The secret, DeWitt said, is in the hops. “We add more of them. We’re more generous with the hops addition. It’s bitter, fruity, citrusy. People have come to like that flavor.”

San Diego’s growing brewing industry will be on display at the San Diego Brewers Guild’s annual San Diego Beer Week, planned for the first week of November.

“San Diego has become a destination for those seeking out craft beers,” DeWitt said.

-McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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