Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — Travis Smith of Societe Brewing

Societe Brewing out of San Diego, CA took home a GABF gold for their session IPA this year. For anyone who knows this brewery and its people, the irony was not lost on them. In a county where most of the world’s best IPAs come from, Societe has charted a unique path toward funky Belgian beers, focusing their efforts on yeast-driven aromatics and deeper, dark beers. And in the back, there’s a new phase of Societe slowly coming alive in wooden barrels.

But in San Diego, if you make an IPA at all, it has to be good — because in a county with well over 100 breweries, you might stand out with Belgian beers, but you’ll be measured by your IPA. And Travis seems to think that’s a pretty cool part of brewing in an industry town.

photo by Kyle Kastranec for GBH

photo by Kyle Kastranec for GBH

Let’s talk about the role of Societe in San Diego. From the outside looking in, it seems like a very unique brewery.

I’ve never seen it from the outside, so I don’t really know what it looks like!

Being from Chicago, we think San Diego, we think: IPAs. What are you guys trying to do that you think sets you apart in San Diego?

Everyone says the same thing, but everyone doesn’t mean it. There really is a strong focus on quality, and it’s not just “making it” quality, it’s “keeping it” quality, all the way through the process.

Okay. What does quality mean in San Diego for you?

When a person ends up drinking it — it needs to taste fucking good. If we make this fantastic product and then don’t care what happens to it after that, someone’s going to drink it, and it’s not going to be good. We control the entire process. We self-distribute, we hand-select the places it’s in, which are the most quality-focused operations. Meaning we don’t take shortcuts for saving a few bucks. It’s all about what makes the best beer. Even though we could squeeze out one to two more barrels per batch, the way we do things allows us to make a better product at the sacrifice of money.

For example, where do some brewers, not naming names of course, take shortcuts that you just wouldn’t do take in the process?

Talking about squeezing every last drop out of a brewed batch, so bringing more trub and hops out of the fermenter into the final product, trying to squeeze every last drop through filtration, centrifuge — these are great things as long as they’re done with the quality mindset. If you’re not worried about DO (dissolved oxygen), you can get a lot more beer out of each batch than if DO is a big issue. Running our beers through a filter would pick up more DOs. We’d be able to squeeze out some more kegs from each batch. That’s one example. Our whole growth motto — we’re not growing just to sell beer. We want the beer to be in the right places.

What’s indicative of a place that is right for you? What are the characteristics?

They have to treat our beer the way we want, which is always cold-stored. Some places leave it out before tapping it, so they don’t get beer anymore. It’s important because this is our product. This is what we’re banking on: someone enjoying the beer when they drink it. And not just someone like you that might get the cream of the crop. It’s anyone. Anyone should have the best opportunity to drink.

How did that ethos develop for you? Not everyone is born into beer with that awareness. What did you learn along the way, and where did you learn it, that gave you that sense of responsibility?

There’s all kind of things that shaped my push towards this. All the way from working for Vinny and Natalie at Russian River through to pride of what I do. It’s not something that people don’t want to do, it’s something people weigh the options on. No one wants their beer to taste bad. Everyone wants their beer to be good. No one’s cutting corners just because. There’s a reason for it. Twice as much beer if they go with a distributor, but no more control over that beer.

Those pros and cons are getting bigger than ever for a lot of breweries as we’re starting to see multiples and buy-outs and partnerships, and things that have never occurred before. How do you feel about those pros and cons being weighed now versus the past? Are we on a slippery slope towards people just going after the efficiency and the models and the money?

A lot of people are going after that. I think moving forward, fewer and fewer of those businesses are going to be successful to the point that someone’s going to want to buy them. Really, I don’t know. I could also see the entire industry going into another macro phase where everything is owned by the big guys, mostly because of distribution channels.

Do distribution channels seem like the biggest leverage right now for why people would sell a brewery or not?

I think the biggest leverage is the dollar signs. Hard to pass up. Everyone has a price for something.

Do you have a price?

Everyone has a price. [laughter] Let me put it this way: for $1,000 would you choke a puppy to death? What about for $10,000? There is a price. Maybe it’s $500 million, but there’s still a price tag on it. Even though you have to live with choking that puppy to death.

As disturbed as I am by that example, I suppose I can follow. For many people, that’s what it is; it literally affects them emotionally and physically to think about selling their breweries. What is it about that model of control over the quality through the value chain that makes you confident you can keep doing that?

Honestly, I’m not entirely confident because financially it’s not great. We’re doing fine. We’re getting by, but growing is much more difficult when our guys are the ones delivering the beer. We’ve come up with some serious distribution limitations as a result. But, to date, that has ensured that our beers are always drinking good wherever they’re being poured.

About how many accounts do you have right now?

In San Diego, we’re around 180.

That seems like a lot. That’s a lot to keep track of at least. Do you feel pretty confident about all 180?

We’ve got a really good guy doing our sales management, so he’s on top of it. I don’t actually get out much. I’ve got a family. Always at the brewery. So I don’t get out much, but Doug goes out and checks on the beer. We’ve also got our sales and distribution team who service the accounts, but servicing is one thing. Ensuring that the beer is still tasting good is an entirely different matter.

Has there ever been a time when you needed to pull something back from an account? And was that uncomfortable for you, or was it cut and dry? How’d that play out?

Yes. I normally don’t care about hurting people’s feelings.

How come?

I’m an asshole, I guess? [laughter] But this one account, after repeated warnings, kept leaving our beer out in the sun in San Diego—95 fucking degrees. That’s against our standards, and they were warned, so they don’t get any more beer.

For someone who’s a novice with beer, how would you describe the taste of a sun-drenched, cooked beer versus a regular Societe beer?

Heat is going to degrade the beer fast. All beer degrades over time, but minimizing oxygen and keeping it cold helps prolong it. I don’t want people drinking Societe thinking, “Oh this is just like every other old, stale beer.”

photo by Mike Sardina for GBH

photo by Mike Sardina for GBH

San Diego seems like a tough market to compete in. You have more breweries per capita, I think, than anywhere else in the U.S. You also have some of the top breweries in the world. When it comes to certain styles like an IPA, of course, it’s pretty definitive in San Diego. For anybody opening a brewery in San Diego right now, what are some of the biggest benchmarks to hit on the way to success?

You have to have some kind of recognition, otherwise you’ll fall into the cracks. Whether it’s through a vigorous marketing campaign or through social media, whatever it is, something has to get someone’s attention. There’s just far too many breweries to think you can just open your doors and everyone’s going to flock. In such a crowded market, you also have to have a product that stands out, and hopefully that’s one through quality and not just trying to be different.

What are some of the breweries in your personal opinion that have done a good job of navigating those things?

There’s not a lot that have done both. For example, Benchmark makes a fantastic product, but they don’t get the recognition for it. For whatever reason, their word-of-mouth marketing hasn’t been as strong as it should be with the quality of beer coming out of there.

They’re also making an Oatmeal Stout — that’s their lead horse. That’s uncommon in San Diego among beers.

They also make an IPA, but the Oatmeal Stout is amazingly delicious.

There’s certainly an advantage to being a San Diego brewery in terms of your perception to the rest of the world.

There shouldn’t be, but there’s always a perception. If you’re made in Brussels? “Oh, that’s going to be a great Belgian beer.” San Diego? “They’re going to have a great IPA!” Truth is, it’s not the case. There’s a proportionate number of good and bad breweries as in Portland or Denver or . . . maybe the East Coast, not so much. [laughter]

Do you think San Diego is essentially the Brussels of Belgium? What do you think the hype is about, and what do you think the role of a San Diego brewery is to deliver on that?

It’s unlikely that San Diego should’ve ever been a beer center. Everything’s imported. There’s no hops, no barley, no malting facilities, even the water’s imported. Everything is imported and then we make it there. So it’s not like it’s a geographical product, but breweries like Stone and Pizza Port have paved the way for people’s taste buds for hoppy stuff. That’s what beer drinkers started to drink, and that’s what they’ve grown to expect. Having the quality is mostly the beer drinker. They don’t accept something less. That’s why San Diego is so great — the average beer consumer demands great beer.

With all of those things not being sourced from San Diego, why do you think it became such a Mecca? It’s one thing to say Stone is from there and a couple others, so it became an anchor, but it’s another to say most breweries per capita in the U.S. I mean it’s insane.

It’s not an anchor. What I’m trying to say is because the people demand it, it’s happened. They got a taste of good beer, and because there were many good beers like AleSmith, Alpine, Stone, Pizza Port—take those four. They paved the way for the flavor of San Diego beer. Since then, plenty of other breweries have come on and been successful marketing that same flavor, that same profile. What the people in San Diego want is a discriminating palate. A discriminating consumer. And that’s what ends up getting made. There’s plenty of breweries you don’t hear about in San Diego. There’s 115 or whatever now, you can’t name half of them.

The outside perception that San Diego equals IPA — is that a stereotype or a reality?

It’s a reality. The best beer we make at Societe, in my opinion — not my favorite, but our best — is the Harlot, but it’s not an IPA so it gets overlooked.

Talking about discriminating palates, it seems like that functions in a very narrow capacity.


What do you, as Societe, do to get people to open up a little more?

We offer a number of Belgians, we offer stouts, starting to offer lagers now. I think the lagers are absolutely delicious, but they’ll never take the place of an IPA for the typical San Diego drinker.

So you don’t foresee a future where the IPA isn’t your bestselling beer by far?

I don’t. I don’t see that happening even though I’d love for The Harlot to be the number one selling.

Randy Mosher from Chicago has gone on the record a couple of times saying that San Diego is one of the places he hates drinking. He’s not a hophead, and I think what he’s mostly referring to is obviously not the quality of the beer but the narrow focus of IPAs.

All of the breweries have other styles, it’s not like you only find IPAs there. It’s just that IPAs stand out as being excellent.

Do you have your fingers crossed that at some point that’ll start to shift? Would you love to see it much broader than IPAs?

I absolutely would love to see it broader, but I also like the idea of geographical variances in beer styles. I do like that the West Coast, in general, is more hoppy. Pacific Northwest? You get more malty, some heavier beers. You go to Belgium, there’s a similarity between all the beers. I do like that. You go to England and drink a pint of bitter — it’s something unique to a geographical area.

What do you like about that?

When you travel places and you get to experience something that you don’t get to all the time. Each region ends up becoming an expert on something.

What do you think makes San Diego such an expert on that particularly? It could have been anything. Like you said, you don’t grow anything there!

It could have been. It all comes down to what the consumers drink.

What I liked about Societe when I visited was the Belgian and funk side. Not only was it a nice differentiator in that market, but it was done exceptionally well. For a market that doesn’t do a lot of that, where did your love for that come from?

Doug and I had a very similar vision for The Harlot. We knew it was a beer we wanted to make. Having the Belgian yeasts around allowed us to fill the barrels with sours. There’s a lot of practical aspects in having that yeast around the brewery. Not to mention that Belgian ales are fucking delicious.

How does the brewery you had in your mind when you first started out compare to what you actually have now?

Smaller, honestly. I never expected to have 21 employees only making 4,000 barrels a year.

That’s a lot of employees, man. Are you built for that kind of management, or do you hide from it?

I think I’m built for it, but everyone still thinks I’m an asshole. That may be true. I don’t know. They’re scared of me.

Do you think Societe ever grows beyond San Diego?

Absolutely. We’ve been sending kegs here and there, up to the Bay Area.

As a growth market, or mostly for fun?

Well, not just for fun. Honestly, an eight-hour drive there and back sucks. It’s not fun. But it’s to throw teasers out there in the area because that is our future market, so we’d like to distribute our beer there. But we don’t want to self-distribute there. That’s why we don’t have a distributor yet, at least not one that can maintain our strict quality standards.  

Where do you think you want your footprint to ultimately stop?

The vision is San Diego to always be number one. The Bay Area, Denver, and then maybe Portland, but maybe not. They’re very local-oriented there.

What do you think someone like Societe looks like to them?

Outsider. [laughter]

What will you do to fix that?

I don’t need to. I’m fine with that. I’m all for drinking local, so I don’t want to change that whatsoever. Societe doesn’t have to have a role. If it does, that’s fine.

Then why go there at all then?

If it’s receptive to it. Just like we’re discriminating with any particular account, a city is a kind of account. If it works out, then great. If it doesn’t, it’s not that big of a deal. We can move more beer in our current market.

That’s interesting. I’ve never heard anyone talk about a city like an account. You’re thinking in terms of the characteristics of that city. So help me understand Denver for you, then, because that’s about as far away from home as I can imagine you being.

Well, Denver and San Diego have a lot of similarities. I think beer is one of the cornerstones of the similarities — fantastic, hoppy beer in both regions. San Diego gets looked at as this IPA city, but there’s just as many fantastic IPAs in Colorado.

People don’t think about them the same way, though. How would you describe the way people think about Dever IPAs and Pacific Northwest IPAs and San Diego IPAs?

People probably don’t get hooked on the lupulin [in Colorado] because they actually have weed to smoke. [laughter]

What do you think it is about San Diego IPAs that sets them apart from all of these other massive IPA cultures? How would you describe a quintessential San Diego IPA?

It’s pale. That “P” in the middle of IPA — that actually rings true. There’s nothing worse than an India Amber Ale, which is loaded with crystal malt. Those are disgusting.

What regions do you think overemphasize that part of it?

Most every other region.

People come to San Diego and they have multiple IPAs and they leave thinking, “Holy shit. I had no idea fresh IPAs tasted like that.” That was my experience. I thought I knew IPAs, I thought I knew IPAs, I thought I knew IPAs, and then I went there and discovered I had no idea what an IPA was until I left San Diego. And now I'm bummed out drinking an IPA anywhere else! Am I crazy? Was that me being too attached and nostalgic to my San Diego visit, or is there something fundamentally different about the way you guys approach IPAs?

It is about the hops. There’s all this talk about balance — screw balance! Give me more hops. That’s the mentality of San Diego IPA.

San Diego is still a pretty small city. With so many people and breweries, how does competition work within San Diego? Obviously in Denver there’s a certain kind of competition. East Coast there’s a certain kind. How does competition play out for you guys. How do you measure each other? When there’s a new brewery opening, what are you going there to look for to decide, “Are these guys going to be another quintessential San Diego place, or are they going to fall through the cracks,” as you say.

No one's really fallen through the cracks yet, but there will be a shake-out. You can’t judge a brewery on one experience or one beer. Even if a San Diego brewery doesn’t make a good IPA, that doesn’t mean they don’t make something else that’s good. But, if they don’t make a good IPA, what are you doing in San Diego?

So that’s the bar: How good is your IPA? And then anything that comes after that is a secondary measure?

It’s a rite of passage for a San Diego brewery. And I don’t necessarily like that because there’s so much more to beer than IPA. I quite honestly drink far more of The Harlot than all of the IPAs combined, but I knew this was San Diego and we’d be measured by the IPAs.

What did you do then to make sure that first IPA was on-fucking-point?

For the very first one, we were very limited on hops, so it was sort of scramble to make anything. It was The Apprentice. It’s a brewing philosophy here that beer of any kind is not the recipe. It’s the way it’s made. The process that goes into it — that’s far more important.

When you decided to start a barrel program, what were some of your goals?

Mostly interested in being able to drink these wild and funky sour beers. Screw everyone else that wanted it, I just wanted to drink it.

Do you think those kind of beers are under-represented in San Diego?

No, I think it’s becoming very popular. Almost everyone dabbles in it now. But we haven’t released anything yet! We’ve done a few teasers here and there, but we’ve been waiting on the bottling line. Now we have the bottling line and are doing some trials, and hopefully next year we have a release.

What will some of the first couple of beers be, hopefully?

We’ve done The Savage, The Swindler, The Highwayman, The Highbinder, and The Thief. The Savage is a darker colored beer with sour cherries. The Swindler is blonde all the way through, no fruit but barrel-aged. The Highwayman is a Brett beer. We do exposure to bacteria, but there’s enough hop content that it doesn’t go sour. We still have all the funky flavors from the Brett. The Thief is blonde ale aged with local Grenache grapes, and The Highbinder is an amber with raspberries.

So the grapes are local to San Diego?

Yes, there’s actually a wine-making community in San Diego. This one winery we're working with to get the grapes, Vesper Vineyards — they make a couple of reds and couple of whites.

I’m just trying to think of the geography down there. Maybe similar to Portugal?

It’s hot, certainly hot. And the grape industry has been devastated before down there by a bug, but it's making a resurgence.

I hear brewers say all the time, “I make beers that I want to drink.” I think some of them know that’s just a smart thing to say, I think others mean it to their core. For you, when you make those beers that you like and hope others do, too — how much of a risk are you willing to take on a beer you really want to make not knowing how much of an audience there might actually be for it?

That’s all it’s about. I don’t like risky beers, like something with chicken livers and coriander and whatever other food product or non-food product someone shoves into a beer. I fell in love with the taste of beer, so I want my beers to taste like beer.

For you, what are the characteristics of beer, just at a basic level?

Beer has a flavor. There are different flavors in beer, but beer has a flavor. Yeast and malt make beer but it doesn’t necessarily give the flavor of beer. It’s a combination of those things. It’s beer — it’s magic.

Is there a certain amount of simplicity or rusticness you’re interested in?

Before being a brewer, and concurrently with being a brewer, I am a beer drinker. I don’t just drink Societe beer. When I travel, I drink the local brewery beers. I don’t think I’d ever drink the pumpkin beer no matter the time of year, but I’ll order the beers that are clean and delicious. That’s what I'm looking for. And the ones that taste like beer.

What is it about "beer that tastes like beer" that’s attractive?

It’s all about the enjoyment. I drink this, and it’s really good. I’ll have another sip, another pint. If you taste it and it was fun to taste but then want something else, that’s not what I'm interested in.

And that’s what the addition of, say, pumpkin does for you. It makes it interesting, but not necessarily good.

Yes, that’s the difference for me between "enjoyable to drink" and "fun to taste."

Have you ever made a beer you think is borderline “fun to taste”?

Oh, yeah. There’s been a few of those. I actually think The Butcher is fun to taste. It’s our Imperial Stout, 9.8%, one of our biggest beers. It can be enjoyable to drink in certain circumstances, but with how big, how thick, how roasty it is, it’s less diverse than some of the other beers we do. I don’t drink it often, but it’s still fun to taste even when I’m not drinking it. For my palate, if I drink a pint of it at least twice a year, then it should exist. Just me personally. If I’m good going a few years, then maybe it shouldn’t exist.