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How Vista, California, Became the Capital of Craft Beer

In just the past few years, a suburb of San Diego has become a national destination for beer brewers and connoisseurs.

Iron Fist is one of a dozen craft breweries that have clustered in Vista, California. (John Holzer/Flickr)

It's a Sunday afternoon on the sleepy main street of Vista, California, in northern San Diego County, but the cavernous home of the Mother Earth Brew Company is hopping. And hoppy.

The craft-beer tasting room, with its 19 varieties of Mother Earth on tap, is packed. People sip from small glasses of beers in varying shades of amber, with names like Sin Tax, Hop Diggity, and the ever popular Cali Creamin' (a vanilla cream ale). Just a few miles east, at its manufacturing facility, Mother Earth has another tasting room.

The brewery's production has grown about 100 percent year over year since it opened in 2010; from 2013 to 2014, it quintupled, says Kevin Hopkins, the chief branding officer.

The Mother Earth tasting room in downtown Vista on a recent Sunday (Eilene Zimmerman)

Craft beer—produced in small, artisanal batches by independent brewers—is a $5.5 billion market in California. The state produces more craft beer and has 480 craft breweries, more than any other, according to the California Craft Brewers Association. Nationwide, beer sales in 2013 were actually down about 2 percent, but sales of craft beer were up 17.2 percent.

Nearly 100 of California's craft breweries are in San Diego County. Of the cities within the county, the one that's seen the most growth in brewing is Vista: 19 square miles, 96,000 residents, and as of today, 12 breweries, with more in the works.

Green Flash Brewing Company was the first to open in Vista, in 2002 (it moved in 2011 and was quickly replaced by Latitude 33). There wasn't much else until Iron Fist and Mother Earth opened in 2010, and it's been a wave of expansion ever since.

Craft beer has had a profound economic impact on Vista: According to a 2014 report, the industry provides $272 million in annual revenue and supports 850 jobs in North County, an area that includes Vista. That's a bigger impact than that of Comic-Con International, the largest annual convention in San Diego, about 40 miles to the south.

Kevin Ham, Vista's economic development director, says those beer dollars circulate through the local economy and support the creation of additional, indirect jobs and more business activity, like new restaurants and boutiques.

"It's helped to revitalize the downtown," Ham says. "We used to have to reach out to businesses to get them to locate here. Now they are coming to us. There's the Apothecary Off Main, new retail stores, an urban winery, a record store. And there are more people downtown now with a disposable income."

Many Vista breweries don't serve their own food but allow food trucks and nearby restaurants to sell and deliver food to their patrons. Ham says many downtown restaurants report a threefold increase in business since the proliferation of brewpubs there.

Craft-beer tourism is also growing, says Ham. Visitors come to San Diego not just for sun and surf, but to see Vista's breweries, many of which are located in the sprawling Vista Business Park—a 14 million-square-foot business park with 800-plus companies that employ about 23,000 people. That's a lot of happy hour patrons.

"We've got the lowest vacancy rate in the business park we've ever had—5.7 percent," says Ham. "The breweries create an environment where people want to be."

Vista has become a magnet for craft breweries because it made an effort early on to understand the industry's specific needs, like manufacturing space that usually requires roll-up doors and access to water and gas. City ordinances changed to allow tasting rooms in industrial areas.

Vista's location is another plus. It's central to San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, and Orange counties, and sits right off Highway 78, now known as the "Hops Highway." The 78 runs from the coastal town of Oceanside to the mountain town of Julian and connects a host of well-known breweries along the way.

Aztec Brewing Company is one of those breweries. It's co-owned by Claudia Faulk, her husband John Webster, their son Tristan Faulk-Webster, and brewer Paul Naylor. The Aztec brand started in Mexicali, Mexico, during Prohibition and then moved to San Diego when the liquor ban ended. The brand was retired in 1953, says Faulk, until she and Webster decided to relaunch it.

They opened their brewery and tasting room in Vista in 2011. Customers enter through a roll-up door and peruse the chalkboard above the bar to see the 11 varieties on tap.

When I visited early that Sunday afternoon, the place was largely empty; it starts to get busy closer to 3 PM, Webster says. During its first year in operation, Aztec brewed 350 barrels of beer; this year it brewed 1,100.

John Webster and Claudia Falk, two of the owners of Aztec Brewing Company (Eilene Zimmerman)

In many ways, the brewery community in Vista feels a lot like a startup community—innovation is the name of the game, in terms of brewing techniques and beer flavors—and young-ish hipsters (there were plenty of bearded 20-somethings in the Mother Earth crowd) come to taste beer, not get drunk. About four years ago Ham helped found the Vista Brewers Guild, for much the same reason startup communities have entrepreneurial meetup groups: support.

Claudia Faulk says brewery owners, despite being competitive, often help each other out. For example, hops is a necessary ingredient for brewing beer but can sometimes be in short supply, so brewers often buy from one another if they can. They also lend each other equipment, talk through problems, and share experiences and information.

Another similarity to a tech startup community? Fast growth. In fact, Faulk wonders what the saturation point will be, although there appears to be no shortage of beer lovers. "Five years ago if someone said they were going to Vista, you'd say, 'Why?' And now people from around the world come here for the breweries."

About the Author

  • Eilene Zimmerman
    Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist based in San Diego. She has written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Slate.