Vista — What’s on tap for craft breweries in Vista? The simple answer: Growth.
Take Iron Fist brewery, arguably the heart of Vista’s booming craft beer industry. Since opening its doors in 2010, Iron Fist doubled the size of its tasting room and upped production three-fold by installing extra fermenters. And the brewery, known for Belgian-style ales, has plans to take over more space.
“Around San Diego and even abroad, more people seem to be talking about what Vista breweries bring to the table,” said Brandon Sieminski, who brews and runs Iron Fist with his family.
With the word getting out, Vista is playing a greater role in the county’s renowned craft beer scene.
Craft breweries and brewpubs generated nearly $300 million in economic activity for the county in 2011 — more than one-and-a-half times greater than Comic-Con, according to an independent study released on Monday from the National University System Institute for Policy Research.
The study identifies three areas where craft breweries are clustered in the county: North Park, Mira Mesa and an area covering Vista, Carlsbad and Escondido. Of those three North County cities, Vista has the most breweries.
The study notes that in the last few years, the number of craft breweries in the county has doubled. But Vista craft breweries have cropped up at even greater rate — from two in 2010 to nine presently, according to data from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
So why have brewers flocked to Vista?
Sieminski, who began brewing at home and was only 21 years old when Iron Fist started, said that the brewery considered setting up shop in other North County cities. But they ultimately decided to call Vista home because the rent is cheaper. Also, Iron Fist’s liquor license already limits its hours of operation, and neighboring cities would have forced the brewery to close its tasting room even earlier.
Sieminski noted the city’s policy on food trucks has been another plus. Last year, Vista loosened its rules on food trucks, giving mobile vehicles the go-ahead to freely park at the craft breweries.
Indeed, a food truck was stationed outside Iron Fist on a Wednesday afternoon awaiting hungry customers.
“We can’t serve food with our license, and we’d rather focus on beer anyway, so it was a win-win for both of us,” Sieminski said.
He added that the food trucks, which have strong online followings, bring more customers to the brewery. People are also more inclined to stay longer with food options readily available.
The city has been willing to bend on other restrictions. After hearing from the businesses, last year it approved live music at most of the breweries.
On top of the business friendly rules in Vista, Kameron Khannakh, a brewer with Mother Earth Brewing Company, said that there’s a real camaraderie among the craft brewers in the area.
“It’s kind of the little guys coming together to take on the bigger guys,” Khannakh said, referring to beer giants like Anheuser-Busch.
He noted that all the local craft brewers banded together to form the Vista Brewers Guild. They meet once a month to discuss ways to promote Vista breweries and to keep a good working relationship with the city.
“There’s a spirit of what’s good for one is good for all of us,” Khannakh said. “We all want more people drinking Vista beer.”
There’s another likely reason Vista is a hotbed for brewers: redevelopment.
Vince Vasquez, who helped author National University System’s study on craft beer, said that more than half of the county’s breweries are located in redevelopment areas. In the past, redevelopment agencies fixed up blighted areas with tax dollars. But the state dissolved the agencies last year.
Vista’s business park, which hosts half of the city’s breweries, previously moved forward thanks to redevelopment dollars.
He noted that the Vista craft brewing industry supports an estimated 80 jobs.
Vasquez said that the county’s craft beer industry is doing a lot of things right. But it should try and bring in more so-called beer tourists to San Diego and Vista, he said.
Cities across the nation are aggressively stepping up their marketing campaigns to attract beer aficionados. North Carolina, for example, completed a survey of its average beer tourist to better reach them. Vasquez recommended that craft brewers in Vista and the county coordinate with tourism officials to come up with ways to tap into outside markets.
“More cities all over the country are trying to woo craft beer fans,” Vasquez said. “San Diego has to compete.”
Bret Schanzenbac, CEO of the Vista Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber includes brewing businesses in its local festivals whenever possible. And it will feature them in tourism brochures it’s working on right now. But he agreed that there’s certainly room for more marketing.
“We want to do everything to encourage this industry,” Schanzenbac said. “They’ve reinvigorated an area.”
Back at Iron Fist, married couple Ben and Megan Fry noted it was their second time at the brewery. Based on their experience, they’re interested in checking out more Vista breweries.
“We’re creatures of habit — we keep coming back to the places we like,” Megan said. “We like Iron First right now, but we definitely want to explore the area.
“We’ve been hearing more about all the other places around here,” she added.