By Lauren Duffy
There aren’t many brewers who will reassure you they don’t want to make a living off brewing. But that’s exactly what Mike Hess of Hess Brewing explained to me last week. Although Hess Brewing, which debuted in early July, produces five regular beers, it’s not, for Hess, a reason to quit his day job—at least for the time being.
Hess Brewing is one of San Diego County’s few nano-breweries, a term that refers to breweries operating on a very small scale. (Others in the area include Lee Chase’s Automatic Brewing Co. out of Blind Lady Ale House, and Mother Earth Brewery out of Vista). Hess’s custom-built brewing equipment can produce just 50 gallons of beer per batch, which is much larger than the typical five- and 10-gallon home-brew systems, but a far cry from, say, the 775 gallons that is made in a typical batch at a craft brewery.
Hess Brewery is fully licensed to make and sell beer, so they’re a big step up from the 20-gallon homebrew batches Hess was working with before. Hess calls this in-between step brewing on a “pro-nano” scale. While it may be rare—Hess knows of only about 40 other nano-breweries around the country—it certainly seems perfect for Hess.
“I can’t jump in with both feet first,” he explained about what it would take to quit his day job and become a brewer.
Instead, while keeping a full time job, Hess brews a few times a week, operates his tasting rooms in the evenings and sells tasters, growlers and eventually bottles just as a craft brewery does—but on a smaller scale. Hess’s idea is to work on this nano-scale for at least a year, to sell beer from the tasting room, and if all goes well, to step up the brewery’s production. If you think about it, it’s a smart approach.
“I wanted to turn my hobby into something that I can turn into a business,” he explained.
San Diego, it seems, is a perfect place for the nano-brewery experiment.
“There’s a beer culture here … that’s collaborative, not competitive,” Hess said, adding that he thinks that being in San Diego will “help us make our beers better.”
He looks forward to all the feedback his beers will get. “There are a lot of people in this town who know beer,” he said.
Since Hess Brewing’s soft opening on July 7, news of the brewery has spread quickly through word of mouth, social media and the press.
“It’s totally crazy,” Hess said of all the attention they’ve been getting. “We welcome all of it.”
Still, Hess is committed to the idea of slow growth, not a fast explosion.
“We’ve had folks ask us for tap handles,” he said of restaurateurs eager to serve Hess on tap, “but we can’t do that yet.” With his size of equipment, providing kegs to restaurants would leave little left for the tasting room patrons, he explained.
So for now, the only way to taste Hess beer is to take a trip to the tasting room, which luckily is not too far away. Tucked into an industrial park off of Miramar Road, the tasting room is open Wednesdays-Saturdays. There, you can sample beers for $1 or $2, buy a pint (and keep the glass) or purchase a refillable growler. (Go to hessbrewing.com for more information.)
Hess currently produces five beers, all of which are worth the trip to the tasting room:
Claritas Kolsch is a light, crisp and refreshing beer, perfect for a summery afternoon. The beer pours a hazy golden color and is mild yet delightfully yeasty on the palate. At just 5.4 percent ABV, this makes a perfect session beer.
Grazias Vienna Cream Ale is perhaps the most unique of Hess’s lineup. A cross between a Mexican and Austrian style, it is at once smooth, slightly sweet, and yet dark and intriguing. Light brown in color with a frothy head, this beer is a delightful departure from San Diego’s traditional styles. This would be wonderfully food-friendly beer—there is enough malty undertone to add complexity, yet a delightfully clean finish.
Intrepidus IPA is the beer that marks Hess as a San Diego brewery. An explosion of floral hops greets the nose, followed by a bold, bitter and unmistakably hoppy palate. This is a strong one—it’s over 8 percent ABV—so watch out.
Amplus Acerba San Diego Pale Ale is the brewery’s most dangerous beer—at 11.3 percent, you need little more than a taster. Still, this is a nicely balanced beer that disguises its strength—it is surprisingly smooth and easy to drink.
Ex Umbris Rye Imperial Stout will be the brewery’s first bottled beer, and it is easy to see how amazing this one will get with age. From the tap, it pours silky smooth, with the flavors of chocolate, honey and rye playing out on the palate. At 9.8 percent this is another strong one, yet once again, its strength is balanced nicely.
A few for the craft beer radar:
There are a few seasonal beers on tap handles around town right now that are downright exceptional. If you come across any of these beers, don’t pass them up, as their release is limited and their season short:
AleSmith Summer Yulesmith—this double IPA was one of the first of its style to win me over. Brewed only in the summer time, it’s a 9.5 percent beer that is light in color, strong in flavor and, in my opinion, one of AleSmith’s best. It’s on taps around town, but you can also find it in 22-oz. bottles in specialty beer shops. Look for the red, white and blue fireworks on the label.
Alpine Hoppy Birthday—at just 5.25 percent ABV, this is a delightfully hoppy, low-alcohol pale ale that is characteristically Alpine in its citrusy character. It’s one to drink all summer long—or at least as long as it’s available.
Ballast Point San Salvador Saison—this Belgian-inspired saison is what Ballast Point calls “a San Diego indigenous ale.” Made with an array of local ingredients like pine nuts, agave, white sage and honey, it’s a beer that, according to Ballast Point, “tastes like the San Diego countryside.” It may be one of the most unique beers brewed in San Diego, and is certainly one not to miss.