The greater San Diego area is home to some 150 breweries, and quite a few of them are large national, or at least regional, players. The city is synonymous with hops-forward ales and established brands that have helped grow an industry. It’s littered with brewing medals, brewers who need only go by their first name, and a can-do spirit that often leads the state when it comes to trends and influence. So, if you’re going to open a brewery there these days, you need to come ready to blaze further down a path that has already been set, or you need to find a patch of land that hasn’t been trodden and make it your own.
And so it is for Pure Project, which opened in 2016 and, in the words of Brewer and Partner Winslow Sawyer, “is focused on staying small.”
“Less is more sometimes. Being bigger means more beer, more production, and more employees, and so the question we ask is, ‘How much money do you need?’ because it is a business, and we want the brewery to be sustainable, to feed our children, to maybe buy a house. It has to do with life goals. If you want a helicopter or a jet, maybe you want to be bigger. For us, we want to be simple and small, to live humbly, and to treat our employees well (and being small, it’s easier to do that). We’re all in agreement on this.”
And from the beers they make to the suppliers with whom they work to where they put their money, this ethos touches every part of the brewery.
The Road To San Diego
Sawyer grew up in Los Angeles, and his parents’ friends ran a pub that served more than the American domestics. At a young age, he was introduced to Fuller’s London Pride and Timothy Taylor Landlord while hanging out with his folks, and he was dismayed when he went to college and discovered Coors Light. So, he did what any industrious seventeen-year-old would—he started homebrewing.
At the University of California Santa Cruz, one of the guys working the front desk of the dorm was Tim Clifford who would go on to launch Sante Adairius Rustic Ales. He passed along a homebrewing book and a bit of advice: learn the classics. As Sawyer spent the years getting a degree in agriculture focusing on biodynamic farming, he drank a lot of bitters and other English styles.
In these formative years, he learned to brew with and for the seasons and to brew with the ingredients that were available—something he would later revisit. But before then, he went to a brewpub in town where, at the age of twenty-two, he was named head brewer and spent a lot of time making amber ales and blonde ales on an early generation JV Northwest (JVNW) system until an electrical fire burned the brewery to the ground. Sawyer met up with some folks who were interested in opening a brewery in Costa Rica—a heavy tourist market they thought could benefit from high-quality, locally made beer. But everything from the wastewater treatment systems to access to ingredients to other logistical issues kept them from following through with that plan. San Diego was a plan B that has worked out thus far.
“We blend distinctively Southern California style with unique flavors and ingredients,” the brewery states on its website. “It is a big world out there, and we are committed to sourcing quality from across the globe to right down the street.” The brewery is a member of 1% for the Planet and prominently lists on its website charities that it holds dear, including the Surfrider Foundation and The Conservation Alliance.
There are five tenants that the brewery strives to achieve in not only their beers but also in the everyday business of running a brewery: community, sustainability, preservation, purity, and experience.
By staying small, the brewery is able to point to every beer they make and say where each ingredient comes from.
“We want to look at beer differently,” Sawyer says. “Differently from being looked at as an industrial product and more of a local or vintage-based [product]. We can show the terroir of ingredients.”
Working with a hops broker, they can source from specific lots. They get the majority of their malt from Admiral Maltings in northern California (and the small maltster is even working on a proprietary blend for the brewery).
“We wind up using a lot of raw wheat and oats so that we can source directly from the farmers,” he says. The same extends to the fruit that goes into the beers they make—and they use a lot of fruit, from peaches to blackberries to strawberries.
“We processed 4,000 pounds of strawberries last year and work with berry farms who grow organic, sustainable strawberries,” he says, noting all of the chemicals and harmful methods that go into generally commercial strawberries and how the ingredients he uses in beers can tell a story of growers and further educate drinkers.
“Having the ingredients speak to you is really great.”
There was a time when brewers strove for nuance, and customers had fun teasing out flavors based on ingredients. These days, Sawyer believes, the modern customer has embraced “being in the age of flavored beer, and people want to taste the advertised ingredients—get hit over the head.”
Here he’s not shy. For, say, his strawberry beers, he wants no room for doubt that the little red fruit is the star of the show. “Give the people what they want and use as much as you can afford if you want to make a statement,” he says.
He has a similar philosophy with hops. This, of course, means that his beers aren’t cheap to make. An average keg of his strawberry ale can have upward of $200 in fruit in it. This is one reason that most of the draft beer they make is served at the taproom. Working with a distributor or expecting outside accounts to pay well above market standard for a keg is unreasonable.
Also, by keeping the beer in house, they are able to make a better return on the investment (ROI) in ingredients. That’s not to say they don’t send beer into the wild. They do several can releases per month, of what Sawyer calls “special beers,” that are limited to 100 to 200 cases, and that’s complemented with special bottle releases, usually barrel-aged beers.
“We package things that are tradable or something that can go into a cellar,” he says. “We don’t package something that’s not special.”
Sanitation and Letting the Beer Do Its Thing
In the same way that the brewery is concerned with chemicals being used on and around their ingredients, Sawyer is cautious but has also embraced his “brewery ecosystem” when it comes to sanitation. When he starts to explain his philosophy, it might raise an eyebrow, especially when quality controls are paramount at so many places, but the more he shares his thoughts, the more it makes sense.
“We purposefully don’t put Brettanomyces in anything, but we do want to minimize our chemical usage, so it’s not unreasonable that it would be around the brewery,” he says. If the wild yeast strain were to get into, say, one of his IPAs, he doesn’t see it as problematic because the relatively short shelf life shouldn’t cause quality issues. “So, if there’s Brett in there, our Brett strains are more fruity and less barnyard, and if it shows up, that can actually benefit the beer,” he says. Where he doesn’t want it to show up is in his barrel-aged stouts and other clean barrel beers. Extra care is taken while brewing and when packaging those beers because Sawyer says he doesn’t want to lose sleep for three months “worrying about a recall.”
Still, there’s a bit of romantic charm in having causal vibe on wild strains in the brewery, especially with the safety net of a lab on premise.
Following Your Own Compass
“People think I’m crazy because we’re not production-focused,” Sawyer says. “To each his own, right? Everyone has his/her own way of approaching a business and of addressing styles and puts his/her own twist on everything. That’s what makes beer special and unique.”
To the brewers just starting off who might be thinking in a similar vein, who might be put off on growing larger or joining a rat race, Sawyer says to relax and do what feels right for you. The customers will sense and see that authenticity and will find their way to you.
“Being different is one of the most beautiful things there is. If you want to achieve your dream, you have to follow your dream. Just put realistic goals on it.”