The large, happy crowd on hand for Stave & Nail’s recent monthly opening. Photo by Bill Vanderburgh
Craft Beer in North County

Craft Beer in North County: Save the date for San Marcos’ Stave & Nail Brewing Co.

When I first heard that Stave & Nail Brewing Co. (1325 Grand Avenue, Suite 107, San Marcos) is only open one weekend each month, that they don’t have a brewing system of their own, that they mainly sell sour beers, and that in their first couple of weekends of business they had run out of beer, I wondered whether their model could work.

After my recent visit, I think it is going to be a smashing success.

Explore sour beers at Stave & Nail Brewing in San Marcos. Photo by Bill Vanderburgh

Stave & Nails’s owner/head brewer Justin Stambaugh, his brother Joe, and their father are the principals of Stave & Nail. They have help from family and friends, some of whom work at Rip Current Brewing. The connection to Rip Current is a rather direct one: Not only do Rip Current and Stave & Nail have their locations in the same building, Justin is also the head of brewing operations at Rip Current. This gave him something of an advantage when negotiating rates for when he brews Stave & Nail beer on Rip Current’s equipment.

Typically, Justin and Joe — who is himself also a brewer at Miramar’s Mikkeller Brewing — make wort at Rip Current, then transport it to their space where it is fermented. Sour beers get aged in wooden wine barrels and so-called “clean” beers in the stainless-steel fermenters. Once aged, sour beers from different barrels are blended together, and sometimes with fruit or other flavor additions, to create the final product.

At Rip Current, where he has worked since 2012, Justin has learned from some of the best in the business. Rip Current owners Paul Sangster and Guy Shobe have won some of the most prestigious brewing awards in the world.

Sangster was named the Top Homebrewer in the World and California Homebrewer of the Year in 2011. In 2012, Sangster and Shobe started Rip Current and then quickly won the 2015 Great American Beer Festival Very Small Brewing Company of the Year. They have continued to win medals at prestigious competitions, including Best in Show for Breakline Bock at the 2019 California Brewers Cup.

It takes a great deal of knowledge, skill and discipline to make consistently high-quality beers precisely “to-style” in a way that wins medals. That makes Rip Current the perfect sort of place to get brewing experience.

Justin Stambaugh has long wanted to open his own brewery. Starting small by making wort at Rip Current — and keeping his day job there — was the perfect way to get the ball rolling while also allowing him to express his creativity.

Besides low overhead from having a smaller space than most breweries need, start-up costs for Stave & Nail were less than usual since they did not buy a brewing system and because they did most of the buildout themselves. They are also in no hurry. As long as they make just a little bit more than their monthly costs, Stambaugh is happy. And so far, after four months of being open to the public, things are going well.

Being open only one weekend per month has created a kind of scarcity effect. It is a special event when they do open, so people make a night of it. It helps that the tasting room is cozy, fun and welcoming — it is “another brewery in a warehouse” but one that is well set up and which pays attention to interior design. Having a lot of barrels stacked in the room aids the ambience, as does the feature wall covered in old barrel staves. Lighting at night has a soft, warm glow from the Edison lamps hanging from the ceiling.

Service is another area where they get things right: I received a friendly welcome and excellent service from everyone behind the bar. There is a “family” feel to the place and I could tell that they have dedicated fans already. It was almost completely full on the Friday night I was there, as it reportedly is every day they are open.

And, of course, the place wouldn’t keep filling up if it weren’t for the beer. I sampled four of the seven beers on the menu when I visited, and all of them were excellent. There is enough variety that anyone who visits is sure to find something to their liking. In addition, they sell special release bottles to go.

There are some other local beer companies with similar models. California Wild Ales in Sorrento Valley opens their tasting room more than Stave & Nail does but they, too, have their wort brewed elsewhere and then age and blend it in their own facility. Horus Aged Ales, located in Oceanside, doesn’t brew any of their own wort and doesn’t open a tasting room to the public at all: instead, they do guest brewing and collaborations with breweries around the country, sell the beer mainly in kegs at select accounts, and then age and bottle some for sale to an exclusive members-only bottle club.

In an unexpected twist, the Horus collaboration beer with Stave & Nail is not a funky sour or a big bourbon barrel aged stout, but instead is a lovely, crisp Japanese-style rice lager.

Aiming to surprise as well as please, Stave & Nail is off to a great start. It is worth arranging your social calendar around their openings, which you can find on their website, https://staveandnailbeer.com.

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