When Vista High School friends Mike Stevenson and Ben Fairweather first opened Culver Beer in 2016 in Carlsbad, they had a little help from family and friends.
But they did almost all the work themselves, including cleaning out the space, renovating it and installing brewing equipment.
Stevenson describes their brewing system as a “Frankenbrew” setup, assembled out of whatever they could find that was affordable (including dairy tanks, which are cheaper than tanks sold for brewing).
This spirit of self-sufficiency, innovation and frugality is part of what has allowed them to survive and thrive — to the point that they operate with no debt and are growing organically by reinvesting profits.
Figuring out the best strategy for running a brewery is no easy feat in San Diego’s competitive beer ecosystem, home to over 158 breweries and 46 satellite tasting rooms.
“The rules haven’t been written but there are a lot of good models out there,” Stevenson said.
The model Culver has chosen to follow is “slow and steady.”
For example, although they are now expanding their (self-) distribution into bars and restaurants, they aren’t banking on it. If it doesn’t work, it will have been an experiment that doesn’t affect the business’s overall health.
Their beer is so good, however, I predict their increased distribution will be a success.
Stevenson remarked that since profit margins are better in their own tasting room, Culver thinks of distribution as marketing rather than as a revenue source.
This is the opposite of the approach taken by some notable breweries that have run into trouble, as Green Flash did last year, trying to rely on rapid growth of regional or national distribution.
Although Culver has capacity to produce 2,000 barrels of beer per year, in 2019 Stevenson expects to brew about 600 barrels.
“We see lots of potential, but we are in no rush,” he said. “We want to be bursting at the seams before we expand.”
Culver makes a wide variety of beers. They had 16 taps pouring when I visited, from lagers and Belgians, to hazy IPAs and sour beers.
There is something for everyone, and everything I tried was well made.
Stevenson was a homebrewer in college. He credits the Mother Earth home brew shop in Vista for showing him the ropes.
Ultimately, he earned a Professional Certificate in Brewing from the UCSD program and moved to Germany to do a brewing internship. He worked at now-defunct Twisted Manzanita Brewing in Santee.
Stevenson also did an internship at White Labs, the highly-regarded Miramar company that produces yeast and other products for professional and home brewers worldwide.
Education and training were an important part of Stevenson’s development as a brewer, and he has made it a point to “pay it forward.”
Culver hires interns of their own, and Stevenson was recently tapped to start the Craft Brewing Technician program at MiraCosta College.
The first cohort of that program graduates in a few weeks, and Stevenson is already excited about its next phase of development.
“Chef Matt” Craig originally came to Culver as a beertender, but his love for food and beer pairings inspired the team to open a deli.
Cleverly named “Locally Toasted,” its kitchen occupies a small room added near the front door.
There are 11 sandwiches on the menu, including vegetarian options, plus rotating specials. They use Boar’s Head meats and cheeses and they get their bread from a local bakery. I highly recommend the Reuben.
While lunch only began on March 5, already overall sales are up 35%, according to Fairweather, who handles the business side of things at Culver. “It is the very local people who keep us going, and they keep coming back,” he said.
Customers remark that Culver is like the TV show “Cheers”: everybody knows your name, and it is always fun to be there.
Craft beer tasting rooms like Culver are starting to function in America as local pubs do in Britain.
I was impressed to see that employees greet repeat customers by name, and they are equally friendly to newcomers, something that doesn’t always happen in places that have a large local following.
Open for lunch starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, Culver Beer Co. is located at 2719 West Loker Avenue, Suite D, Carlsbad, CA. For best results, park on the street before 5 p.m.
Bill Vanderburgh writes the Craft Beer in North County column for Coast News. He started his award-winning blog, CraftBeerInSanDiego.com, in 2016 and has since reviewed every brewery and tasting room in San Diego. He loves sailing almost as much as beer.