Unrated

Unrated — The Improbable Tale of a Beer Called Sculpin

Ballast Point is one of the largest, most powerful, and ubiquitous brands in craft beer today, but it didn’t start that way, of course. Jack White opened Home Brew Mart in 1992 as a stand alone homebrew supply shop. And in the ensuing 20 years, he helped build the San Diego beer community with the opening of Ballast Point’s brewery at Home Brew Mart, then Scripps Ranch, then Little Italy, then Miramar.

At first, their beers were only available in San Diego County on draft—and in very limited supply at that. Now, they’ve ramped up production exponentially. Expect the ramping to continue in light of last fall’s $1 billion acquisition by Constellation Brands. Ballast Point beers are available in bottles and cans on shelves all across the country—and they’ll be in all 50 states by the end of this year.

There are myriad factors at play contributing to this meteoric rise, but a major part of what this company has accomplished can be traced back and attributed to a beer called Sculpin. To tell its story, we rounded up a few of the people who created the beer, got them together in a room drinking, and asked some questions. Then we called some folks who have sold the beer over the years, and emailed some others. At least one of the interviewees was very drunk when he talked to us. It was fun, which is why we’re mostly staying out of the way below, letting the people involved tell the story as they remember it, a pseudo-oral-history of one of the best beers ever made.

Paul Elder: staff artist, Ballast Point
Colby Chandler: vice president and specialty brewer, Ballast Point
Doug Duffield: lead specialty brewer, Ballast Point
George Cataulin: senior homebrew advisor, Ballast Point
Tom Nickel: owner, O’Brien’s Pub
Geoi Bachoua: owner, Bine & Vine
Chris Quinn: owner, The Beer Temple
Alex Tweet: former Ballast Point employee, current head brewer at Field Work Brewing Company

Left to right: Colby Chandler, Doug Duffield, and George Catalin

Left to right: Colby Chandler, Doug Duffield, and George Catalin

“I was sitting here one day at Home Brew Mart, and someone handed me a glass saying, ‘Check this beer out,’” recalls Paul Elder, the man behind all the artwork and illustration for Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits. “I believe it was called Northstar IPA. It was the best beer I had ever had. It’s the only Ballast Point beer that I’ve had the privilege to help name. I’m sure as hell glad that it was Sculpin.”

“Northstar IPA,” smirks Colby Chandler, vice president and specialty brewer at Ballast Point. “Rock Bottom La Jolla actually already had the name. I had that beer at a San Diego Brewers Guild meeting there, right after we brewed our beer. They had had the name for a long time, and they had just started using it again. I thought, ‘Damn, what timing. What do we call our beer?’”

“Ballast was on a fish naming track—they’d already done Calico, Yellowtail, and Big Eye,” Elder says. “These are all local game fish that are massive and powerful, really exciting to fish for. Well, there’s this little fish called the Sculpin that eats crabs, and they’re delicious. But don’t fuck with it. They’re spiny and they will mess you up. Like the beer, it’s 7%, but you would never know.”

“I did some primitive sketching and painting of the fish,” Elder continues. “They liked it. The beer is easy to drink, and the name is easy to say. Sculpin: it has a good ring to it.”

 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. And sometimes, it takes an entire brewing team to create a beer. With Sculpin, Ballast Point’s brewers, marketing teams, sales representatives, distribution arms, and the leadership team—an entire organization of people—came together to create one of craft beer’s most popular India Pale Ales of all time.

“Before working at Ballast Point, I was a homebrewer.” Like so many other beer makers, so begins the story of Doug Duffield, the company’s lead specialty brewer. He’s been with Ballast Point since June 2005. But he’s just one piece of the beer that is Sculpin.

“As a homebrewer, I entered into a lot of competitions as a member of Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity (QUAFF),” he remembers. “Now, I didn’t know George, but we’d always get the competition results and I would see his name among the winners. George Cataulin… Who is this guy? Who is George Cataulin? We didn’t know each other, and we were in the same homebrew club.”

“We finally met, and we became friends over beer,” Cataulin says. He’s now the senior homebrew advisor at Ballast Point’s Home Brew Mart location, one of the oldest homebrew shops in the county. The facility is also home to the original Ballast Point brewhouse. It’s the place that started it all in 1996. And the place that first brewed Sculpin.

“I met George at a BJCP class,” Chandler says. “I interviewed him right as he was getting his BJCP certification.”

“Through QUAFF, I got signed up for the BJCP judging class that Colby also happened to be attending,” Cataulin says. “He came up to me one night, like, ‘I saw your application. You mind if we talk?’ And I said, ‘Are you serious!?’ He interviewed me during class break, and the job was mine if I wanted it.”

And so Cataulin joined the retail side of Home Brew Mart in October 2004. Still very active in the homebrew community, he now served that community from the supplier side. Cataulin maintained his friendship with Duffield, a friendship that would continue when Duffield started working at Ballast Point as well, bringing Cataulin, and Duffield, and Chandler together professionally every day.

“Doug and I would talk together a lot about beer and brewing,” Cataulin recalls. “We’d talk about things like first wort hopping—whether or not to do that. Mash hopping. Distinct things we would pick out of hoppy beers that we liked to drink. One day, Colby asked us if we wanted to do a homebrew recipe together.”

“He was serious, and he meant on the Ballast Point brewhouse,” Duffield says.

 

Each year, the American Homebrewers Association, the nonprofit organization originally founded by Charlie Papazian in 1978 and now a division of the increasingly powerful Brewers Association, organizes the world’s largest homebrew contest: The National Homebrew Competition (NHC). It’s so large, with so many beers entered, that judging is organized into rounds, including regionals and finals. Points are awarded for each beer that medals in a round, and the club with the most points wins Club of the Year.

In 2004, QUAFF took home that honor—Cataulin and Duffield’s first success at the national level. “When we got the results from the NHC, both George and Doug were working here at Home Brew Mart,” Chandler explains. “Since they both won, I wanted to stoke them out. No other non-brewer employee had brewed on the system at Ballast. I wanted to give both of them that chance. It was essentially the first Roots-to-Boots brew without us knowing. It started the idea for Ballast Point Little Italy.”

The Roots-to-Boots program would later officially launch in 2013—Ballast Point’s Research & Development operation. Sculpin, Calico (now, California Amber), and Yellowtail (now, California Kolsch) were all beers to come out of early R&D, and are all now huge commercial successes. The program gives Ballast Point employees the opportunity to brew on the “lab” system at Little Italy. And it lets the company experiment with new or experimental flavors, ingredients, and styles in beer.

This program at Ballast Point is invaluable, even today. Take Grunion Pale Ale, a recent and immense commercial success for the brewery. It was first brewed by Doug Pominville, a specialty brewer at Ballast, in a company-wide homebrew competition. And it's another homebrew scaled up through Little Italy and the Roots-to-Boots program. This program and this ethos is a baked-in way for Ballast Point to always keep it possible for a homebrewed beer to grow up.

Back in 2004 at NHC, Cataulin won a gold for his Hop Addict IPA, and Duffield won a gold for his unnamed Double IPA. “When we first looked at the recipes and compared the beers, it was surprising how similar they were,” Duffield recalls. “It was nearly the same hops, same base malts—very few minor differences. I think the specialty malts were different. He liked to use domestic crystal malt whereas I was in favor of Belgian malts.”

“Take a look,” Chandler says as he pulls up the recipes on his laptop. “Here, you see what ingredients were George’s, what ingredients were Doug’s, and what ingredients and ideas were mine.”

The final Sculpin recipe is a mash-up—two very similar homebrew IPA recipes, overlaid on each other and scaled way up. “We were sort of brewing under the radar at Home Brew Mart with the Scripps Ranch production brewery just coming online,” Chandler says. “It was easier for me to get new recipes on the smaller system, and it was important for me to give back to the employees that were such hard workers.”

 

It seems impossible, formulating a recipe that way. But making deliberate decisions and relying on the intimate knowledge and awareness that Duffield and Cataulin had for their recipes, Chandler was able to create a beer that was one-of-its-kind for the time. It was one of the first commercial batches of IPA with juicy hops. It was a departure from astringent bitterness. It was Simcoe and Amarillo. It was fruity, tropical, and dry.

“We were beyond happy with the taste of that first batch,” Duffield recalls. “That was right around July 2005 when it debuted.”

“I think we screwed up the mash temp,” Chandler remembers. “George and Doug were running around and freaking out about the temps and the numbers. They were stressing. I kept saying, ‘It’s okay, man. It will taste like beer.’ And it did. And it was great to drink it with people out in public.”

There wasn’t much of a chance to drink it with people. The first batch was 6 barrels, and we never intended to re-brew it.

“There wasn’t much of a chance for that,” Duffield says. “The first batch was 6 barrels, and we never intended to re-brew it. Those kegs flew at accounts, too.”

“You saw the fish hook catch in the mouths of the drinkers at O’Brien’s when they first tasted it,” Chandler laughs.

“That first keg blew in 25 minutes at O’Briens,” Cataulin says.

“When Sculpin first came out, you know, Ballast had Big Eye, so Sculpin was almost like a double IPA,” says O’Brien’s Pub owner Tom Nickel. O’Brien’s is one of the oldest and most respected beer bars in San Diego. “It was full of flavors, full of different flavors, and I think that’s part of why people went crazy for it.”

“We quickly realized after O’Brien’s and the reception in San Diego that the hook was set in the local IPA drinkers," Chandler says. "Unfortunately, fermenter space and raw ingredients for a beer like this were in short supply. We re-evaluated production levels of our California Kolsch. That beer sold well locally, but the rest of the country isn’t 72 and sunny year round. Our new distribution partners were itching for some hoppy San Diego beers, and not necessarily a summer weather beer like California Kolsch. Sculpin fit the bill, so we shifted production there.”

 

Sculpin’s instant and overwhelming popularity set the tone for the future. Plus, it was a new take on an old beer style for San Diego. In its own way, Sculpin is the quintessential IPA for the beach city—it’s tropical, fruity, dry, light, easy to drink, but packs a sufficient punch at 7% ABV. After ramping up production levels, it was a runaway commercial success.

Ramping up a beer like Sculpin is no easy feat. You need to pay attention to fermentation, for starters. Hydrostatic pressure on yeast is vastly different when you’ve got 7 barrels of liquid versus 750 barrels. You need to get the hops right, between extraction and utilization. You need to nail process. You need to nail equipment. You need to nail QC in a well-stocked lab, with a talented team that can spit out real-time analysis.

“Better hop extraction, in the right places, is always the goal no matter what size the recipe,” Chandler says. “Validation of how your in-house yeast survives in large fermenters with inhospitable environments is a big step as well. Having the ability to source the right equipment and tools to get the job done right, that’s the priority on the hot side and cold side when scaling up.”

“I drank a lot of Sculpin when it was draft-only,” says Geoi Bachoua, owner of Bine & Vine, a specialty bottle shop in North Park, San Diego. “When I learned they’d be packaging it, I hyped it up immensely. I ordered 30 cases from the distributor. Crest [Ballast Point’s San Diego distributor] was astonished and asked me, ‘What is this stuff?’ Sculpin in the bottle definitely changed the IPA game in San Diego at the time. It set the standard as to what was offered in the package.”

“This beer was the first IPA to get out of the IBU race that we were seeing in San Diego,” Chandler says. “It was one of the first beers with the Amarillo and Simcoe combination that is replicated so often now. Back then, it was a new type of IPA. Extremely polarizing, people either loved it or hated it.”

“The other thing is approachability to the IPA style,” Cataulin explains. “It is a beer that has always been popular with more experienced beer drinkers, and its popularity increased as more and more of the population got into craft beer. It’s an IPA for people who don’t like IPA. I pour Sculpin for people who say that all the time. Turns out, they just hadn’t had the right IPA yet.”

“It’s a beer that has seen categorical success in the International Pale Ale category, or the Australasian-whatever category,” Chandler says. “Sculpin hits all of the numbers of an IPA, but drinks like a Pale Ale. It’s got a lightness to the body, with just enough bitterness.”

It’s an IPA for people who don’t like IPA. I pour Sculpin for people who say that all the time. Turns out, they just hadn’t had the right IPA yet.

“I think BeerAdvocate definitely helped Sculpin’s success,” Duffield says. “The beer came out right when BeerAdvocate was becoming a thing. Sculpin was so limited, so ‘rare,’ that the beer became a national entity even though you could only get it in San Diego. The beer traders on BeerAdvocate blew it up, making it even more popular, even more in demand.”

“There are some beers that are rare, and first come out, and people go crazy for them. And then the beer is everywhere and it loses its luster and rarity and appeal, and people stop caring,” Nickel says. “But that hasn’t been true of Sculpin. People aren’t going ga-ga and screaming, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to have a Sculpin!’ But, they’re stoked to be drinking a Sculpin, even in a highly competitive IPA market. In the land of the new, and the next big thing in hoppy beers, Sculpin has maintained a huge level of consistency.”

 

A runaway success like Sculpin comes with a downside, of course. Like a teenager who’s maturing too fast, there are growing pains—you have to buy bigger clothes. Facing the demand for Sculpin, Ballast Point had to grow. But how?

“In more ways than one, Sculpin is that gateway beer,” Chandler says. “When we were finally able to brew more beer at Scripps Ranch, and with the expansion of the brewery there, we had more Sculpin available. But we didn’t open markets outside of San Diego if we didn’t have enough Sculpin to supply. We lead in a market with Sculpin.”

“That was the deliberate plan,” Duffield says. “You lead with Sculpin. It all starts with Sculpin, and then you see demand for Ballast’s other beers all across the board.”

“Sculpin is my favorite West Coast IPA,” says Chris Quinn, owner of Chicago’s Beer Temple. “When it came to Chicago, I was so excited to share a beer that had been such an enjoyable part of my life. Sure, it loses some luster as no longer being a ‘destination beer,’ but now I am able to get what I consider to be the best IPA in the world whenever I want.”

“In some markets, Big Eye catches on,” Cataulin says. “It’s a regional thing, with Big Eye being more of a Pacific Northwest style of IPA. Sculpin answered the question, ‘Can a brewery have two IPAs?’ The answer was definitely yes. Now the question is, ‘Can a brewery have too many IPAs?' Seems like the answer is no—we can’t brew enough.”

Sculpin answered the question, ‘Can a brewery have two IPAs?’ The answer was definitely yes. Now the question is, ‘Can a brewery have too many IPAs?’ Seems like the answer is no—we can’t brew enough.

“It’s amazing the way they ramped this beer up,” Nickel says. “Sculpin’s gone through four different brewhouses, all the same brewing company, but still. From six-barrel batches to 300-barrel batches, going into 1500-barrel fermenters, and it’s got the same quality and consistency. It’s freaking incredible.”

 

Hops aren’t cheap. Beers today are more expensive than ever. Sculpin has always been an expensive beer, and it remains one. Although $20 six packs are not uncommon today, Sculpin was a leader of sorts when it was priced at $15 or more. And people paid it. People still pay it.

“Amarillo and Simcoe are proprietary hop varietals,” Chandler says. “There is not an insignificant cost associated with these hops. There is huge demand for specific types of raw ingredients used in making beer, and procuring those ingredients may be the biggest hurdle and cost for any brewery in the future.”

The demand for specific hop varietals—Amarillo, Simcoe, Citra, Nelson—are only going to increase as IPA continues to trend. It’s harder and harder for a brewery to scale up a consistent “flagship IPA” that uses these popular hops. It might be impossible in the future, and it surely won’t be cheap.

“Raw ingredient contracts that go out 3-10 years, those take a huge capital investment and will be tougher for any small, mid-sized, or regional brewery to forecast, write-up, and fund,” Chandler explains. “It’s a horrible situation for any manufacturer when you have a killer product that strikes and you can’t get the ingredients to make it. Building a new brewery off the back of an IPA could be a very challenging business plan in the near future, but it could happen. We sort of did that with Sculpin.”

“We brewed a beer we loved to drink and we built the cost into it,” he continues. “Sculpin has always been $15 a six-pack. I can’t remember us ever not selling it for $15 a six pack. When it first came out it was priced like that, and we’ve never really raised the price on Sculpin six packs. That’s not a fact that today’s 21-year-olds would know. They were eleven when we first started making the beer.”

“At the time, $7.99 for a single 22-ounce bottle of non-Double IPA was absurd,” Bachoua says. “But it would still sell well despite this higher price point. Then it jumped into six packs and sales took off again despite the higher price point of $14.99. People would often ask me, ‘What tastes like Sculpin in a six pack but is cheaper?’ and my reply was, ‘Nothing.’ That’s why it sells so well. It was the first of its kind, and it gave a lot of other breweries the confidence to price their IPAs similarly.”

“It’s been an insanely successful beer for us, and I think even that might be an understatement,” Duffield says.

“We ripped through a lot of Sculpin when it came in,” Quinn says. “About 15 or so cases per week, and that’s an amazing clip for my store considering that at $14.99 a six-pack it was about 50% more expensive than the majority of the six packs that I carried at the time.”

“Sculpin has resonated so well with today’s beer drinker,” Chandler says. “There are 900 Sculpin handles in San Diego county alone. The beer will be available in all 50 states by the end of the year. In San Diego, it is Crest’s number two selling beer, just behind Coors Light. That’s pretty phenomenal to think about.”

 

Ballast Point’s focus on innovation naturally lead to the next stage of Sculpin. More specifically, their experimentation with flavors and adjuncts would lead to a diversification of an already-popular brand. Ballast would go on and develop many variants of Sculpin, and a handful of those would go on to be commercialized and packaged alongside the original. All of which is to say: you don’t just have the billboard effect of Ballast Point six packs lined up on the shelf—you have a Sculpin billboard. It started with grapefruit.

“I was working at Ballast Point, leading the cask program at the time,” Alex Tweet says. (He’s now the head brewer at Field Work Brewing Company in Berkeley, California.) “I was asked by one of our accounts to make a hangover beer that would sell well on New Year’s Day. The first thing I thought of was a beer mimosa. I wanted something that hungover people would drink the shit out of. To me, that’s Sculpin. Sculpin and then grapefruit sounded really refreshing to me, almost like a mimosa. And mimosa is the hangover drink for humankind.”

“It was an obvious pairing, because Sculpin has some Amarillo, and Amarillo kicks off not just grapefruit character, but ruby red grapefruit,” Tweets says. “It’s got this juicy grapefruit character that you cannot get in any other hop. And so that’s why I thought [we should] throw in some grapefruit. So, I went to the grocery store, peeled a bag of grapefruit, started stuffing it into a bung-sided keg.”

“People would drink it and go, ‘Holy shit, how did you get that much grapefruit character into that beer?’” Tweet continues. “I don’t know how fast it kicked, but it kicked that day. It kicked really fast for being a half-barrel.”

“There are several variations on the beer now—habenero, grapefruit, pineapple, nitro, coffee, tons of variations,” Chandler says. “All really going back to the talented team of brewers running our cask program.”

“Adding flavors or adjuncts just for the sake of it is a red flag,” Cataulin says. “Especially if the base beer isn’t that good. With Sculpin, you have a great base beer, and all the variations that we’ve commercialized contain bridges to flavors and aromas in original Sculpin. The purpose is to highlight these flavors and aromas, focally make something specific pop.”

“The flavored Sculpin thing, it’s never been gimmicky,” Nickel says. “Each different flavor of Sculpin is pulling different flavors out of the beer. It’s fun to watch people at the bar talk about it. ‘Oh, did you try the pineapple? How does it compare to the grapefruit?’ It’s expanding the brand without doing it just to be popular.”

 

Last November, Ballast Point became a billion dollar company. Sculpin was a prominent part of this valuation, of course. It’s too soon to know all the ramifications of a major transaction like that one, but the sale naturally caused waves in San Diego and beyond.

“We no longer carry Ballast Point at Bine & Vine since the ownership change,” Bachoua says. “It was a difficult decision. Ballast Point was the number one selling brand in the shop and a lot of that was Sculpin. It wasn’t easy. I’m not angry that they sold. One billion dollars is a lot of money to turn down, and I still have friends who work there. Not selling Sculpin in my shop is a business decision based on my belief that ownership matters.”

“You must realize that Constellation is not investing in the demise of craft beer,” Chandler counters. “They are very clearly investing in craft. They are investing in Sculpin. This deal guarantees that all of us will be drinking Sculpin until we die. This beer is going to be around a very long time.”

“I’ll be drinking this beer 20 years from now,” Duffield says. “It’s pretty cool to think about that.”

“The more they make it, the more people drink it,” Nickel says. “That’s not true of most beers. Especially in their home market, especially in San Diego. This beer will always be a big seller here.”

“People still come into the store and they’re asking for Sculpin,” Bachoua says.

“Between the three of us, we left something,” Chandler says. “Ballast Point Sculpin: that’s what I’m proud of.”

Words by Mike Sardina
Photos by Matthew Rogers

Mike Sardina

Mike is a GBH storyteller who reports on the West Coast, most specifically his hometown of San Diego and his home state of California. Mike is the "Ruler of the Underworld" at Societe Brewing Company, where he does a little bit of everything for the brewery. Mike also currently serves as the President of the San Diego Brewers Guild.

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