Northbound: 2015 was a good year for San Diego craft beer

Every year, as part of my full time job as a think tank analyst, I survey San Diego County’s craft brewing industry and develop economic reports based on my findings. This last year had some surprising results, with implications for North County.

Overall, 2015 was a good year for industry growth in the region; jobs, establishments and sales all increased on a year-to-year basis. In all, 114 breweries and brewpubs operated in San Diego County at the end of last year, generating $851 million in gross annual sales, and employing 4,512 workers.  This was an increase of $125 million over 2014 levels.

Of the 19 new breweries and brewpubs that opened their doors in 2015, only five of them are based in North County. The lion’s share instead opened in the Miramar and Kearny Mesa areas. Still, 2016 is already shaping up to surpass last year’s numbers — five of the 11 breweries and brewpubs that have opened thus far this year are based in Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista.

Most surprisingly, industry wages have fallen in San Diego County. Previously, I reported that San Diego industry establishments offered the highest average industry wages among craft brewing regions. By 2015, however, that wage gap has closed. Data from Quarter 3 2015 indicates that wages in Portland and Boulder are now nearly identical to that paid in San Diego ($36,608, $36,400, and $36,816, respectively).  It’s unclear why this happened.

With North County’s high cost of living, these wages put the need for more affordable housing and smart growth development in focus in our part of the region.

Industry training programs based in North County may also be something worth considering, as part of workforce training and retention efforts. Most industry workers receive on-the-job training, or learn industry knowledge through hobbyist and competitive home brewing. However, formal industry education is a growing trend, particularly in San Diego, where there are now three major industry education programs — the San Diego State University (SDSU) College of Extended Studies Business of Craft Beer Professional Certificate, the University of California — San Diego (UCSD) Extension Brewing Certificate, both founded in fall 2013, and the Cal State San Marcos Professional Certificate for the Wine, Beer, and Spirits Specialist.

Key to understanding the direction of the craft brewing industry is learning about the challenges and concerns of industry participants, and measuring those viewpoints in a quantitative way. As part of our survey, we asked respondents: “Looking towards future growth for your business, please rank only the top five issues that are impediments to growth.”

We offered nine major policy categories to select from, based on prior surveys in other markets and interviews with industry participants. Overall, “access to capital” was the clear top choice among survey respondents, followed by “land/space/available real estate” and distribution. Taxes, state and federal regulations ranked lowest on the index scale.

As the industry footprint grows within North County, so too has the intersection with many of San Diego’s most pressing policy issues. The migration of breweries and brewpubs from far-flung industrial parks to our dense urban corridors also heightens the need to consider the impact of land use and regulatory restrictions on manufacturing and selling beer. As the industry grows, North County’s elected officials should consider extending more invitations to local brewery and brewpub owners to participate in important policy decision-making that will affect everyone’s futures.

Vince Vasquez is a think tank analyst based in Torrey Pines. He is a Carlsbad resident.

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