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This Gaslamp Gold Is for You, Bud : Family Tradition Renewed to Take the Plunge Into Homemade Suds at San Diego’s 1st BrewPub

The fine art of brewing beer is returning to San Diego after a 40-year absence, thanks to a distinctly 1980s mix of business school savvy and seasoned skills. In a sense, Karl Strauss’ Old Columbia Brewery and Grill, opening Thursday at 1157 Columbia St., has its roots in the 1880s when Karl Strauss’ great aunt followed her heart from Germany to San Diego.

“My grandmother came from a large family of 13 kids, and about six or seven of them went to the United States,” said Karl Strauss, during a phone interview from his home in Milwaukee. “One of my grandmother’s sisters followed her boyfriend all the way from Germany to San Diego in 1886--first by boat, then overland train to San Francisco, then boat again to San Diego.”

Chris Cramer, 27, thought of this family history as he searched for a business to enter.

Cramer’s brainchild is not about to put Spuds MacKenzie in the doghouse or turn out Miller’s Lite. After all, the brewery side of the business will only produce about 1,500 barrels of beer a year. Contrast that with the 5 million barrels a year that Miller’s Irwindale plant can produce.

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But for Cramer and his 25-year-old partner, Matt Rattner, a small pub brewery was the logical starting point for what they hope will develop into a string of pub breweries from San Diego to Los Angeles.

The two Stanford Business School graduates have that air of confidence that seems to come with MBA degrees in the ‘80s. Both talk about their new enterprise as if it were a class at Stanford, variously referring to it as a “project” and “the concept.” If not for the fluke of relationship, the “concept” could have just as easily been a drive-through stock brokerage.

Grandfather Ran Tavern

The fluke is 75-year-old Karl Strauss.

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“When you have a ringer in your family like Karl Strauss, the project becomes more natural,” said Cramer.

Although part of Strauss’ relationship was setting up a bakery shop in 1880s San Diego, Strauss’ grandfather was running a tavern. His father later operated a brewery in Westphalia. It was fitting, then, for Strauss to enter the Technical University of Munich to study the art of brewing.

But the late 1930s were a difficult time for German families with any Jewish heritage, and Strauss, who had some Jewish relatives, decided in 1939 that it was time to leave for the United States.

“I was supposed to keep going to San Francisco, where I had a relative who was responsible for me getting out,” said Strauss, in his still-thick German accent. “But I stopped in Milwaukee on St. Patrick’s Day. I had a friend there, and he got me a job at Pabst.”

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Strauss stayed on at Pabst for 44 years, during which time he rose to master brewer and vice president of production.

A year after Strauss retired in 1984, Cramer graduated with his MBA and hit the road in search of business ideas.

Impressed by Pub

“I took two years off and traveled around the world,” Cramer said. “I ran into the concept of a brewery when I went to Fremantle, Australia, to check out the America’s Cup venue. I went into the Sail and Anchor, a beautiful pub, and ordered a beer, which was great. I asked what brand it was and they said, ‘We make it right here.’ Well, they took me inside the brewery, and I thought, ‘God, what a great concept.’ I said to myself, ‘This would go in San Diego.’ ”

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Cramer approached his “Uncle” Karl (the two are actually distant cousins) when Strauss visited San Diego during Christmas, 1986.

“I never would have done it without him. If I didn’t know coming in that we were going to make the best beer in any locality, we would have done something else.”

Not only does he have Strauss’ expertise, but Cramer is riding the crest of a trend that took off in Northern California about five years ago. Buffalo Bill’s BrewPub in Hayward is often credited with pioneering the microbrewery and restaurant in which simple food is served with freshly brewed beer. Strauss himself has been involved with starting microbreweries from Northampton, Mass., to San Diego in his new career as a consultant.

“It’s been a trend for about four or five years now,” said Mary Toki, of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) office in San Francisco. “I recall that, for a while, we only had about 20 breweries in California, but the microbreweries have been mushrooming because the state passed a law permitting their operation. Now we have close to 60 breweries.”

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Toki defines a microbrewer as one producing less than 60,000 barrels a year. Most make far less than that.

With Strauss on board, Cramer and Rattner pooled their money and easily attracted 24 other investors to their new partnership, Associated Micro Breweries. They searched downtown San Diego before deciding on the Columbia Street location.

“San Diego is a little odd in that it’s hard to find people working and living in a high-density area like you have in San Francisco,” said Rattner. “Chris and I spent five months looking at traffic patterns and at where the growth was going to be.”

Soon after they selected Columbia Street, next to the B Street Cafe, a large office tower went under construction.

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“We were a bit premature at first,” said Rattner, “but now everybody says, ‘Wow, what a great location.’ ”

The building formerly housed architectural offices, so the place had to be gutted, $250,000 worth of brewing equipment installed and the restaurant built. Now the space features a long bar, from which patrons can view the gleaming stainless-steel brewing vats, and a raised dining area accented with wood and brickwork.

Permits from the BATF and the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control office had to be obtained. City zoning officials asked for reassurance that the brewery wasn’t going to be a nuisance.

“They thought we’d have smokestacks coming out all over the place and big trucks rolling down the street,” said Rattner, laughing. “I explained that it was really going to be more like a beer kitchen than a beer factory.”

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Cramer’s hopes will ride on the product the beer kitchen produces. Marty Johnson, the on-site brewmaster, will be using no artificial ingredients in the brews.

“Uncle Karl would never stand for it,” said Cramer. “Someone, during one of our meetings, said, ‘Gee, can we make green beer during St. Patrick’s Day?’ Uncle Karl looked at him with horror on his face and said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

As for the San Diego city water used in the brewing, Johnson claims that it is specially treated by a secret process to remove its notorious taste.

Secondly, says Strauss, “We are making an all-malt beer. The beers you buy on the market are not all-malt beers. Finally, in contrast to having to make something for mass consumption, we can make small batches of different types of beer. The big brewers can’t afford to do that.”

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Of course, it would be tougher to get beer any fresher. After the ales have fermented for 16 days and the lagers for 21 days, they are filtered and pumped directly into “bright” beer tanks, the tanks in which the beer is cooled and the carbonation stabilized. These tanks are connected to the taps at the bar.

Strauss has started with three different brews, an amber lager, a golden ale and a dark ale. Since the beers are brand new and without a brand, they can call them whatever they like. Thus, the ale is Gaslamp Gold, the lager Old Columbia Amber Lager, and the dark ale is Downtown After Dark. Those are the three that will be available for the pub’s opening party Thursday (it’s open to the public from noon to 2 a.m., with beers going for $1).

According to Cramer, the brewery will eventually feature about 10 brews. They also plan to sell seasonal beers like bock, porters and Christmas ales. Strauss will be involved with every new beer. Prices will range from $1.75 for a 12-ounce glass, to $2.75 for 23 ounces.

Johnson, who went to Point Loma High School with Cramer, will oversee the daily operation of the brewery. Johnson studied fermentation science at UC Davis and got additional training from Strauss and one of his longtime associates from Pabst.

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Now that the brewery and restaurant are about to open, San Diegans will judge whether the Cramer/Rattner “concept” is really a good one. But Strauss doesn’t have “concepts” or “projects” or restaurant consultants on his mind.

“I’ve lived beer all my life,” he said. “I think it’s fine my name is going to be on the brewery, and I guarantee it’s going to be good beer.”


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