From the outside looking in, this could be the front of any of the countless light industrial office suites in the Grantville neighborhood of San Diego. Here, there’s an autosports company, a small commercial printer, and an orthotics office. But at the top of the otherwise ignorable marquee is a very important, if unassuming green sign: “SUITE G, BENCHMARK BREWING.”
Past this numbing exterior, you’ll find a clever, if unexpected interior built for drinking: a tasting room full of picnic tables, benches, and plenty of space for neighboring around some world-class beers. Low in alcohol but full of flavor, Benchmark’s beers are the kind that you’ll want to—and can—drink a lot of. No three ounce pours here, fill up a dimpled mug and wrap your fist around a handle.
Benchmark Brewing is a family in the literal sense. Husband and wife, Matt and Rachael Akin, and Matt’s parents, Jim and Margaret Akin. You probably don’t know who Matt Akin is, and he sort of likes it that way. He’s the archetype of so many of America’s newest wave of homebrewers-turned-pro who started making beer in his impressively early, if not questionable, teenage years.
Matt discovered on the internet that you could brew beer at home. “I really liked chemistry, and to me, brewing beer just seemed like the coolest thing ever.” At age 16, Matt couldn’t legally brew beer, and incidentally, he grew up in a very conservative household. So while he was seeking out every scrap of knowledge about brewing, it was his mom’s edict that he’d have to wait until his 21st birthday to brew his first batch. At least that’s how the official story goes, all the way through his chemistry studies at the University of California San Diego. His mom probably even still remembers the story this way.
The day Matt turned 21, as the legend goes, he marched into Ballast Point’s Homebrew Mart, purchased a home brew kit and the ingredients for a recipe, and brewed his first batch of beer. That day was the beginning.
It gets better. Matt graduated from UCSD in 2003 and on the same afternoon of his graduation, he showed up at AleSmith Brewing Company and he started scrubbing kegs. By 2006, he was the head brewer. And by 2008, and with Matt at the head of the AleSmith Brewing Team, AleSmith won the Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival. Winning medal after medal for beers like Old Numbskull, Wee Heavy, and of course, Speedway Stout, Matt arguably had the dream gig at not only one of the best breweries in San Diego, but one of the best breweries in the world.
But the inherent focus on high-alcohol beers at AleSmith was challenging in its own way for Matt. “These weren’t the beers that I liked drinking. The beer that I took home was the beers that no one cared about. My fridge was full of the small guys, Anvil ESB, X, and Nut Brown Ale.” All the while, Matt continued to homebrew, creating his own recipes based upon the type of beer that he liked drinking. Undoubtedly, all of the AleSmith beers—both big and small—are some of the best beers in the world, but he had the strong desire to be a “steward of change,” as he says it, to put his own spin on the types of beers that AleSmith was producing. In 2011, in order to implement the change he wanted, Matt walked away to craft something that was all his own.
Like many small businesses, Benchmark Brewing Company is a family-driven operation that is run by the people who live the day-to-day, side-by-side, in an intimate setting. Matt’s parents, Jim and Margaret Akin, are co-founders and partners in the company; but it is Matt and his wife Rachael who are the face of the brewery. Matt is head of production, while Rachael is the design force. Rachael’s background began with theater. She started as an apprentice to a professional stage manager when she was 16 years old, and by age 19 she was running her own shows. “It was an all-encompassing labor, to put an amazing and beautiful show up, only to have to tear it all back down to nothing.”
Long hours working nights and weekends ultimately lead Rachael to seek an education in interior design, and to this day she maintains her certification as a licensed interior designer. She found her niche doing interior design work for children’s hospitals. “I did it all, it was inclusive design, everything on the walls I touched.” But she ran into the same frustrations here. She would invest an incredible amount of time and work in the design of a building, only to hand over the keys to someone else. When Matt wanted to start up the brewery, she saw the potential for something different, something ownable. Her grand show would be Benchmark Brewing Company, and it would be something that she would never have to tear down or hand over the keys to.
Together, the couple operates inseparably and complimentary. The line isn’t clear and neither one is a stronger driver. “You can’t have a brand without an amazing product, and you cannot have a successful product without a solid brand,” Rachael says.
Matt and Rachael opened Benchmark in order to concentrate on the “not glamorous side of brewing.” The brewery focuses on small beers, low in alcohol, and sessionable in nature. In a town known for big, assertive West Coast IPAs, Benchmark makes its name with a 4.8% ABV Oatmeal Stout and a 4.0% ABV Table Beer. Every beer nerd has that six-pack of Sierra Nevada in the fridge: we are talking about beer that is a part of your life, beer that you can have a few of with your friends, beer that is reliable.
“Beer that is an event is very popular right now; but beer doesn’t need to be an event. We want to normalize beer. I’d rather be known for something different, proving that small beer can be satisfying,” Matt says.
Table Beer was born from Matt’s rabid obsession with small Belgian ales. After testing fourteen or fifteen different recipes, the result is a showcase of the passion that Matt has for the style. Oatmeal Stout, on the other hand, was a “knee-jerk reaction,” as he calls it, to brewing Speedway Stout, “a 12% imperial, coffee, everything stout.” “I wanted to brew a big, bold flavorful beer that you can drink all day, a six-pack-beer and not a split-a-750-with-three-people-beer,” explains Matt. Oatmeal Stout is just that, and it won a Gold Medal in the Session Beer category at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival.
Although Table Beer and Oatmeal Stout are the beers that Benchmark is brewing on a regular basis, Matt also recognizes that he’s brewing in San Diego. “I love IPAs, I drink a lot of IPAs. There are some fantastic, hoppy, amazing IPAs in San Diego. I just don’t want to live in a world that’s only IPA.” To that end, Matt brews a small IPA (he doesn’t call it a session) that comes in around 5.1% ABV, but is still American-hopped and West Coast in character. Benchmark also brews a few hopped-up, West Coast Double IPAs. One such beer was the first special release that the brewery ever did, a beer called “71” for the brewery’s first Anniversary. 71 is brewed every June and it pays homage to the fact that Benchmark was the seventy-first brewery to open in San Diego County (according to the publication “WestCoaster SD”). It’s probably the closest thing to an “event beer” that Benchmark brews.
San Diego is a young beer community with a new wave of breweries like Benchmark, all while the old guard like AleSmith stands by. There are more new-beer drinkers than there are longtime beer drinkers in this town, and that means there’s still plenty of education needed for both consumers and brewers alike. Matt acknowledges, “I am afraid of people starting up here with the ‘I can do that’ mentality. It’s a lot harder than it looks. It’s a profession. It’s a trade.”
The Brewers Association defines a “craft brewer” as being small, independent, and traditional. But that definition is attainable to anyone, on day-one of their so-called career in craft brewing. The craft brewer definition should seemingly encompass something more. “You cannot leave out apprenticeship,” says Rachael. “This industry needs apprenticeship. You need the people who have been doing this, who have been making clean, quality beer for a long, long time, to educate and pass on their knowledge to the people who are coming in new. That is the hallmark of a ‘craft,’ be it a blacksmith, a cheese-maker, a tailor, or a brewer.”
What’s next for Benchmark? “We sure as hell aren’t going to be opening another brewery in, I don’t know…Maine,” Matt jokes. “Bruges, on the other hand. Maybe a brewery or a satellite tasting room in Bruges.” Matt smiles. No, instead, Matt and Rachael intend to keep communicating the craft to the next generation of beer drinkers. They’ll continue to focus on building community over that next pint in the tasting room. They’ll be standing up new tanks, bringing in a canning line, taking over space next door and installing an outdoor beer garden. They’ll be expanding their distribution in a tight radius around San Diego, and they don’t envision making the jump to markets like Seattle or Boston anytime soon. But the most important thing on their mind is their relationship to an industry they value: “We want to be a good steward for craft beer in San Diego.”