How I Made It: Tomme Arthur is brewing himself a legacy at Lost Abbey
Tomme Arthur, 45, is co-founder of the Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos. Over the last two decades, his flavorful beers and experimental brewing techniques have helped him rise through the ranks of the Southern California brewing industry.
Now, his company has 45 employees, 24 beers and two locations, and he’s eyeing an expansion at a time when some others in the craft beer scene are fizzling out.
As a child, Arthur spent his weekends helping out at his father’s printing business, Balder & Balder. The company never turned a strong profit, and it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“I never wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Arthur said. “I saw how much my dad struggled with his business and the amount of hours it took, and I really didn’t want that in my life.”
The experience, however, established a work ethic that would help him in the years to come.
The finer things
At Northern Arizona University, Arthur drank whatever he could get his hands on. His favorite beer was Miller Genuine Draft before a friend stepped in and forced him to up his game. The pair started trying American brews, then Canadian, then German, then English before arriving at what Arthur considers the apex: Belgian.
“I fell in love with how crazy the Belgian beers were relative to all other brewing traditions,” he said. That love still informs many of the concoctions he creates.
As the hobby turned into a passion, Arthur’s friends bought him a home-brewing kit. He tried to make an Irish stout but considered it a failure.
“My non-beer-drinking friends said it was a good dark beer, which meant there wasn’t enough flavor in it. It was an underwhelming batch,” he said.
Rising through the ranks
Although the English major earned a bachelor’s degree and was about to start a master’s program, Arthur dumped teaching plans for brewing. In 1996, he landed a job at the now-defunct Cervecerias La Cruda in San Diego before upgrading to bigger and better gigs at White Labs and Pizza Port.
“I was never happy with the status quo,” he said. “It’s a never-ending quest. You can make a better beer, but you’re never going to make a perfect beer.”
When Arthur entered the industry, the internet lacked its current wealth of knowledge on beer recipes and techniques. He had to converse with other brewers, take risks and experiment with styles that wouldn’t always work.
“I was one of the first people in town to use oak for aging beer, and we took it a step further and made some of the first intentionally sour beer in San Diego,” Arthur said.
He compares the process to writing a science paper: read books, digest information, make a hypothesis and test it out. Sometimes the beer tastes great. Other times — such as when he brewed a bad smoky wheat beer and trashed 100 gallons of it — things aren’t quite as smooth.
In 1999, Arthur created his favorite beer, the Cuvee de Tomme. A sour brew with a brown ale base, it packs an 11% alcohol level while incorporating malted barley, candi sugar, sour cherries and raisins.
“It’s a highly influential beer. Plus, it’s got my name on it,” he quipped.
The type of beer that puts a brewer on the map, the Cuvee de Tomme has won multiple awards over the years, including gold medals at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival and the 2008 World Beer Cup.
Learning to lead
In 2006, Arthur co-founded the dual-brewery of Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey and soon found himself with an entirely new set of responsibilities. He spent as much time with human resources codes and legal work as he did with the hops, kettles and fermenters that had defined his career.
“I don’t run to work every day hoping to rewrite the employee handbook,” he said. “I run to work every day to make better batches of beer.”
For Arthur, that mindset has resulted in a more hands-off approach. He’s still involved with the brewing process, but he’s also spending time going over numbers, delegating tasks and dealing with the overarching needs of the business.
A shifting industry
In the days of old, the best brewery was the one that brewed the best beer. Now, consumers want something more.
“There’s a side narrative that comes along. Whether it’s the experience, the people or the space, something has to resonate,” Arthur said. “Hospitality is becoming a big part of the business.”
With the emergence of Untappd, a social media service that allows users to share and rate beers, drinkers are wanting something new — even if it’s at the expense of the more classic, historically great beers. Those who can’t keep up, he said, will close.
As a brewer, Arthur credits his palate as one of his finest skills. “The sheer volume of beers and flavors I’ve tasted over the years has given me a very refined palate. I can taste something, analyze it and find a way to translate that into a beer,” he said.
A discerning palate is as good as gold in the world of beer, and he uses his talent as a judge in contests and festivals around the country.
Cementing a legacy
The Lost Abbey finds itself in a peculiar place. It’s not quite aged enough to be an established mainstay, but at 13 years old, it’s been around longer than many of the new breweries flooding into the market. “The brewing industry has so many new entrants that there’s a lot of pressure to get to the top and stay there,” Arthur said. “Right now, I’m chiefly focused on preserving what little legacy and heritage we’ve built.”
For starters, that means expansion. In addition to the tasting rooms in San Marcos and Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Arthur is eyeing a new location in downtown San Diego. “You need to connect with the consumer, and one of the best ways to do that is being able to tell your own story over your own bar,” he said.
After more than two decades in the industry, Arthur’s chief motivator isn’t more money or bigger facilities. “I’m motivated by being respected by my peers,” he said. “I’ve been in this industry a long time, and I would like to get to the end of it and still be respected by my peers.”
Arthur lives in San Marcos with his wife, Maureen, and their daughters, Sydney and Lexi.
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