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Puesto Cervecería: How a Mexican Restaurant Is Reviving One of San Diego’s Top Lager Breweries

San Diego lamented the loss of Gordon Biersch’s consistently stellar lagers—until, about $8 million later, Puesto Cervecería opened in the same spot, with a new look, bright Mexican fare, and the same brewer and brewhouse as before.

Beth Demmon Jan 25, 2021 - 13 min read

Puesto Cervecería: How a Mexican Restaurant Is Reviving One of San Diego’s Top Lager Breweries Primary Image

Photo: Anne Watson

Walking into Puesto Cervecería’s opulent dining room can be a bit jarring for anyone who visited during its previous life as a Gordon Biersch brewpub. For more than 20 years, the sprawling space was an anomaly in San Diego’s teeming craft-beer scene. The location is central but congested—in the strip mall–laden Mission Valley area, tucked among businesses such as Marshalls, Trader Joe’s, and a Jared jewelry store. It’s hardly a destination for hardcore beer enthusiasts. People came more for the mozzarella sticks than the mӓrzen.

However, despite the location and the relatively outdated brewpub concept, savvier local beer drinkers kept coming. In the local sea of hop-heavy brews, the region’s best lagers flowed from the tanks of longtime Gordon Biersch head brewer Doug Hasker.

It’s hard to imagine it now, but when Gordon Biersch opened there in late 1998, San Diego was home to fewer than a dozen breweries. Today there are more than 150, despite some recent pandemic-related closures. Even so, few of those brewers focus on lagers to the extent that Hasker does. That goes back to Gordon Biersch cofounder Dan Gordon, who was the first American in more than four decades to graduate from the prestigious five-year brewing program at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan, Germany. Traditional, Reinheitsgebot-compliant beers have been Gordon’s dedication and obsession. Gordon Biersch is known for technical precision and consistency, not flamboyance.

Hasker’s approach is compatible with that discipline. He says he’s always been focused on quality first. At Gordon Biersch, “we considered ourselves ‘real beer,’” he says, even during the heady ’80s and ’90s when “microbrewery” was sometimes a slur from longtime macro drinkers. “We always thought our beers were better than everybody else’s.… Clean beers—some worthy of competition in Munich, even.”

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Sharing that space with a towering tequila bar, mango margaritas, and tacos-of-the-month hasn’t diluted Hasker’s dedication—even if it’s given it a more colorful context.

A Strange Path to Lagers

Hasker, now 63, started his professional brewing career at Gordon Biersch about 30 years ago—but his early interest bloomed during an inauspicious South Dakota summer. “When I was a sophomore in high school, I wasn’t having a very good year,” he says. He spent the summer before his junior year on his uncle’s pig farm, “out in the middle of nowhere,” learning how to bale hay, feed pigs, and do other chores that seemed dismal to the 16-year-old.

By chance, his aunt’s father also visited that summer from Florida, and he happened to be a homebrewer. Hasker decided to help out, making beer in a farrowing barn with baker’s yeast and canned malt. “I don’t even think we used hops in those days,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “That’s sort of a silly story, but that’s when I was first exposed [to beer]: on a farm in South Dakota, castrating pigs.”

Once back home in Sunnyvale, California, Hasker casually dabbled in brewing. But it wasn’t until he started at Gordon Biersch’s San Jose location in the early ’90s that his professional career began. He started as a bartender and eventually moved to brewing on the night shift. He then helped open the next string of brewpubs across the West Coast and in Hawaii and within just a few years had become head brewer.

“Over all those years, I learned a lot about making lagers, and even more so down here in San Diego, where I became sort of the go-to guy for people brewing lagers,” Hasker says. Becoming that expert took years.

“When we came into town, we were the big bad corporate brewery coming in,” he says, laughing. “They didn’t know what to make of us.” But his relationships with San Diego brewing pioneers such as Tomme Arthur (The Lost Abbey/Port), Chuck Silva (Silva Brewing, formerly of Green Flash), and Paul Segura (Karl Strauss, formerly of Hang Ten) helped to garner the credibility his skills deserved. Even brewpub-chain skeptics held Hasker’s beers in high esteem.

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Doug Hasker

Transforming into Puesto

As the San Diego beer scene skyrocketed in both quantity and quality, eventually “the charm went away” from Gordon Biersch, Hasker says. “It wasn’t what it used to be.”

On the same phone call where he learned that his working home for two decades was on the corporate chopping block, he also learned that there was an interested buyer for both the restaurant and the brewhouse. The morning after losing his job at Gordon Biersch, Hasker sat down with the owners of Puesto—a small chain of high-end Mexican restaurants based in San Diego.

“They made me an offer right then,” he says.

Puesto opened its first restaurant in 2012, emphasizing elevated Mexican American cuisine. Street tacos with handmade, organic, blue-corn tortillas, stuffed with filet mignon and paired with specialty tequila or mezcal meant that prices were higher than those of any of San Diego’s numerous taco shops. The concept is to use premium ingredients to provide familiar flavors with a modern spin. Eric Adler, Puesto’s cofounder and managing partner, says that although their restaurants are primarily cocktail-forward, the ownership team had always imagined incorporating craft beer into their operation.

“When we started in 2012, craft beer in San Diego was exploding, but we never felt like the beer really tied into our cuisine very well,” Adler says. Puesto already had been offering several craft beers on its menu, but when Adler heard of Gordon Biersch’s imminent closure—leaving behind an established restaurant location with a fully operational brewhouse in the heart of central San Diego—it looked to him like fate.

“When I came along, they already had an excellent reputation,” Hasker says of Puesto. “They have award-winning margaritas and award-winning food, so eventually we’d like to say award-winning beers as well.”

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Despite the pandemic’s destructive effect on the hospitality industry, Hasker has been taking the time to tinker with his beer recipes, using mainstream Mexican beers as a jumping off point. During a Mexican lager tasting and brainstorming session with Puesto owners, one of them asked Hasker to “make a cross between Pacifico and Stella Artois.”

“I said, ‘Absolutely’, because, of course!” he says. “I had a couple of months off between jobs, and it was among some of the most anxious moments of my life. How the hell am I going to make a Pacifico better than Pacifico? It’s a very stressful conundrum.… I think we’ve succeeded.”

“Doug was able to take our vision and create a better beer than we could have imagined, honestly,” Adler says. “We gave him direction on what we wanted, and he hit it on the first batches. We got kind of lucky there, but you have to hire the best and trust them.”

From Europe to Mexico

Pivoting the brewhouse from European-centric lagers to Mexican ones was straightforward enough. The existing 20-barrel system—designed by Steve Hambly, who went on to found Global Stainless Systems—has four 40-barrel fermentors and two 40-barrel bright tanks. It was designed specifically for German-style beers and allows brewers to manage step infusions, decoctions, and cereal mashes.

“We do the step infusion similar to the German program, and then we transfer all that mash to the lauter tun to separate the liquid out of it … and that’s really how Mexican lagers are made as well,” he says. In his experience, Mexican lagers aren’t terribly different from German ones: They get corn, and the yeast has less propensity for sulfur, and so on, but the process itself is largely the same. (Hasker did include a full decoction step with the recent holiday release Navidad, an 8.3 percent ABV dark doppelbock.)

The vast majority of the $8 million spent on renovating the space went to the customer-facing dining room—with the exception of a brand-new “bulletproof” floor for the brewhouse—thanks to the system’s good bones already in place. “We went through every single millimeter of this brewery and cleaned it and rebuilt it with new gaskets, new valves, all of that,” Hasker says. He credits much of the ease of the transition to one thing: trust. “When I got hired, the owners fully trusted whatever I was going to do, and they trusted in me.… I’ve been blessed. These owners know that they don’t know this [brewing] component, but they know what they want, and they trust me.”

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Adler agrees. He says that hiring the veteran brewer was the right move. “Our brewmaster is perfect—he’s well versed and probably the best person we could have hired, regardless of the type of beer we wanted to brew,” he says. “We weren’t a beer-first place… I think it would be a lot more challenging if you had to put up all the equipment from scratch and go find the right brewmaster.”

Incorporating a brewery into the restaurant, he says, “has to be a big part of your long-term plan. You can't just do it unless your restaurant is very beer-focused, which ours wasn’t.”

Puesto’s three core lagers—pale Clara, Amber, and dark Negra—are directly inspired by familiar Mexican brands (Pacifico, Dos Equis Amber, and Negra Modelo, respectively). So far, the lighter Clara is far and away the bestseller, Hasker says—clean and crisp, it pairs well with pretty much everything on Puesto’s menu. “It’s probably two-to-one over the second best–selling beer, which would be the Negra beer, which I think is a really nice dark beer. It drinks real light, has a really light texture, and is very approachable.”

Puesto Interior

A Post-COVID Future

Opening amid a global pandemic has led to some challenges, to say the least. “We haven’t been open in a non-COVID environment, so we really don’t know what we’re going to do, what’s going to happen,” says Hasker. “We have downtime with COVID—it’s such a struggle—but it is offering us a little bit of time to experiment with a couple of things. We’d love to get into a Puesto hard seltzer… maybe focus a little bit more on whatever our selection is for a hoppy beer.”

Adler echoes the uncertainty. Puesto currently has two other restaurants under construction in Southern California, eventually bringing the total number of locations to nine. As of now, Puesto Cervecería in Mission Valley is the only brewery-slash-restaurant planned for the group. “Our plan is to supply all of our restaurants with that beer,” Adler says. “If we need more, if we go outside our restaurants to supply other places or sell at retail, we’ll build a facility for that. I doubt we’ll put brewing into any other restaurant.”

In the meantime, Hasker says they hope to package in cans in the near future. And once the pandemic’s disruption to on-premise drinking and dining is resolved, they’ll have more meaningful sales numbers to help direct future beer releases.

Until then, he’ll keep tweaking his recipes in a constant quest toward perfection. “It’s just an odd time,” he says. “If we revisited this in a year or two—because nobody knows how long COVID’s going to last—it would be fun.

“Ask the same questions, and let’s see where we are.”

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Beth Demmon is an award-winning beer journalist and certified beer judge based in San Diego. Her work has appeared in Good Beer Hunting, CraftBeer.com, and VICE Munchies, among others.

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