Signifiers

You Think It's Crowded Now? — Societe Brewing Company in San Diego, CA

Way back before it seemed like everyone was brewing an IPA (or three), back before hazy juice bombs started taking over the east coast, before Mitch Steele left the city to set up a new, hoppy empire in Atlanta, there was San Diego. California’s second largest city has been partial to beer for a while, and in the early ‘90s, craft—but especially IPAs—took hold in Southern California like it hadn’t anywhere else in the country at the time. It was this city that would eventually birth the West Coast IPA style and continue to push and influence beer trends worldwide for decades to come. Whether the beer was perfect for washing down fish tacos or just a nice complement to surfboards and sun, IPA has flourished in San Diego to this day in a way it hasn’t anywhere else in the world.

“Beer fits this lifestyle,” Societe Brewing Company co-owner Doug Constantiner says. “It's not like you're drinking a Manhattan wearing a suit in a swanky downtown bar. It's unpretentious. If you're into wine, and you're blue collar, good luck. If you're into food, good luck. Cheese, whatever it is? Usually the better it is, the more it costs. Not beer. It's fucking awesome, it fires me up. You've got the guy that could be a $30,000 a year blue-collar guy sitting next to a 7-figure lawyer—if they love beer equally, everything is a level playing field.”

Constantiner and co-owner Travis Smith aren’t part of that group of veteran San Diego brewers. They joined the city’s scene in 2011 when it was seemingly crowded—more than 50 breweries were already in operation. Since then, that number has nearly tripled, growing to more than 135 breweries—and its expected to top 150 by the end of 2017. In their relatively young history, Societe has become a San Diego staple, a must-stop for local beer drinkers and vacationers seeking out the best craft beer the city has to offer. 

Constantiner says they could’ve gone to “any other great beer city,” but chose San Diego simply because they loved the beer and wanted to perform on the biggest stage. The lead characters—Stone, Karl Strauss, Ale Smith, Green Flash, and Ballast Point—were a major part of the reason why they wanted to join the cast, so to speak.

“I kind of looked at it like the ‘Hollywood of brewing’” he says. “I got a lot of comments like, ‘There’s already a lot of great beer here.’ And our answer was, ‘Oh, you think it’s crowded now?’”

Constantiner fell in love with San Diego’s beer long before he moved there. He recalls visiting a friend in college, going to a “cool surfer sandwich shop,” and being amazed by the 45-year-old dads ordering local beer like Stone IPA. He remembers thinking he had to be a part of that culture. His own mind had been opened at the age of 16 when he drank a Rogue Chocolate Stout. Not long after that, he started homebrewing on a kit his mom purchased for him while back-to-school shopping during college. He dreamt of owning a brewery one day.

After finishing up at the University of Arizona, he moved to New York City to start a career in investment banking. After two taxing years of that, and with craft beer regularly on his mind, Constantiner re-examined his life and decided to refocus on the latter. He saved up enough money to move to San Diego and pursue internships in beer, landing at Oggi’s Pizza & Brewing Co., interning under Joe Lisica, now brewmaster at Little Miss Brewing. Lisica introduced Constantiner to Chuck Silva, and that connection eventually developed into a bottling job at Green Flash. From there, Constantiner spent time working in the bottle shop of Pizza Port before securing his first full-time brewing gig: cellarman at The Bruery.

Smith also made his way into craft beer world through homebrewing. After falling in love with beer in Northern California, his mind started wandering. “I’ve always had this tendency to take things too far,” Smith explains. And after a few batches, he was hooked. “Fuck all that college education I had—let’s start brewing beer professionally.”

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Eventually, Smith was hired on at Russian River Brewing Co., serving as their pub brewer for five years. It was there he developed a deep love and passion for IPA, quickly learning how to brew some of the best hoppy beers in the world like Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig.

After five years at Russian River, Smith moved from Santa Rosa down to Orange County to become lead brewer at The Bruery—a move that brought him and his wife closer to their families. After learning that, perhaps, Orange County was a little too close to home, while still working at The Bruery, Smith and his family moved to northern San Diego County. At The Bruery, Smith met Constantiner, who also happened to be living in northern San Diego County at the time. 

“That’s how we originally met—we would carpool,” Constantiner says. “It was more of us just being friends, but I always asked him beer questions. I would say to myself, ‘I’m right next to Travis Smith, and he’s got so much knowledge that I don’t have—I’m in this to learn. I’m in a captive environment. Now’s the time to ask questions’.” 

During those carpools, Smith and Constantiner realized they were two very different people—polar opposites, even. An example: Constantiner loves death metal, Travis prefers folk music. “Everyone always thinks [Smith] is the death metal guy,” Constantiner says. “Everyone thinks Travis is this psycho, serial killer because he's got this…psychopathic stare.”

The pair also have different personalities. Smith is very reserved and quiet. Constantiner is friendly, extroverted, and talkative. But their philosophies about beer and running a brewery match extremely well. 

“[Constantiner] is the human equivalent of a golden retriever,” explains Patrick Rue, founder and CEO of The Bruery. “He’s the nicest, most genuinely enthusiastic guy you’ll ever meet… Doug is the guy who eagerly starts out at the bottom, and within a few years, you’d trust him to run the place.”

“I have a great deal of regard for [Smith], particularly as a brewer,” continues Rue. “He’s a stoic, intuitive brewer who has a lot of passion and puts a lot of attention into his craft. He also has a wonderful, perverse sense of humor, which kept life in the brewery interesting.”

On their 90-minute commute to The Bruery each day, Constantiner absorbed and learned as much from Smith as he could. Once the two got to know each other, the conversation soon shifted from music and brewing education to opening their own place.

Smith left The Bruery at the end of August 2010 to take a brewing job at La Jolla Brew House in San Diego. Although he’s happy he left The Bruery, he isn’t too fond of the few months directly after that—he won’t even speak the name of his employer at that time. After establishing himself as an accomplished brewer at Russian River and The Bruery, La Jolla Brew House was a malignant workplace that went out of business shortly after Smith’s short stint there. It was a time that would be easier forgotten than dwelled on.

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“I thought it was better advancement than it actually was,” Smith explains of that time.

As it turned out, Smith leaving La Jolla was a blessing in disguise—it forced Smith and Constantiner’s hands to start their own venture. Within a month or two of Smith joining La Jolla, he and Constantiner were planning their startup. By Jan. 1, 2011, Smith was a full-time employee of Societe.

Smith and Constantiner came out of the gate with a focus on hop-forward IPAs and old-world styles such as Belgian Pales. Their very first beer, a Belgian Extra called The Harlot, combines a light, refreshing body, floral hop character, and their house Belgian yeast. The result is a balanced, sessionable beer—one that was particularly unusual for San Diego at the time. Since then, The Harlot has become a non-IPA San Diego staple.

I think if we were to sign with a distributor, we could grow a lot, and most people wouldn’t notice the difference in our beer. But we would know the difference.
— Doug Constantiner

But in this city, you’re judged by your IPAs. “When we opened, we started out with two IPAs, both 7.5%—Pupil and Apprentice,” Constantiner says. “Totally different flavor profiles, drinking experiences. Pupil is way more aromatic hop-wise, a lot softer bitterness, softer mouthfeel. Apprentice is way more of the pungent, citrusy, piney hops you're used to, more lingering bitterness that you taste more after you swallow it,” 

The idea was to show the possibilities. 

“When we opened, we wanted the guy running a small brewery in a small town that brews an IPA to come in and go, ‘Why do you have two IPAs?’” Constantiner says. “Look at how different they are. Hops are so versatile.”

Perhaps because of that versatility, the pair isn’t interested in adding fruits to its hoppy beers. It’s one of the hottest trends in craft beer in recent years, one attributed to many of Societe’s brewing neighbors such as Ballast Point and Green Flash. But Smith and Constantiner have never been ones to jump on trends. 

“We got into this because we like the flavor of beer,” Constantiner says. “I like shit that tastes like beer. I’m not opposed to putting that stuff in, it just shouldn't attract the non-beer drinker into it.”

"I read a metal magazine every month called Decibel, and there’s a guy who writes a column every month called Brewtal Truth,” he continues. “It gives the metal people some craft beer insight. [Recently] he was talking about fruited IPAs. He's like, 'IPAs were never meant to be the crowd pleaser. That's what Blondes are for, or even like a Pale Ale—something you can drink that's not too aggressive. These fruited IPAs are the hair metal of the beer world. This is the shit that's on MTV.' And it blew my mind—that is a great analogy."

For years now, Societe has been meticulously working away on their wild ales—what they call their Feral Series. Since Societe opened their doors, they’ve been telling eager beer nerds, patrons, and friends that the Feral Series would be coming soon.

“We wanted to keep everything separate under one roof,” Constantiner says, explaining why it took so long. “We were waiting for money to get [the bottling line]. Once we got it, there were delays with the tanks. They probably could have been out in year three, but by the time we got everything in and then did all our bottling conditioning testing and all that stuff, it was four years.”

If you’re into wine, and you’re blue collar, good luck. If you’re into food, good luck. Cheese, whatever it is, all that shit—usually the better it is, the more it costs. Not beer. It’s fucking awesome, it fires me up.
— Doug Constantiner

In June of last year, Societe released the first bottle of the series, The Swindler, a blended Blonde Ale aged in wine barrels.

"It's not just the acidity,” Constantiner says. “That’s why we call it ‘feral,’ not sour—sour is one dimensional. Would you ever call your hoppy beers bitter? It's ridiculous. There's more to it. So we call them feral because it's funky, wild, all of that untamed stuff. I look for the flavors, ones that stick in my mind the most, things like Orval, Drie Fonteinen—they have that funk, the stinky cheese of the beer world. That's what I want.”

Since The Swindler, Societe has released four more beers in their Feral series—all fruited sours featuring cranberries, cherries, and raspberries. Their latest, The Highbinder, is an amber-colored, barrel-aged sour with raspberries. Constantiner notes that the fruit still takes a back seat to the beer—The Highbinder is a delicious melody of funky, oaky, fruity, and sour packed into a single beer.

“Doug and Travis know the patience needed for sour beer, and their first beers out of the Feral program have been delightful,” says The Rare Barrel’s Jay Goodwin. “Societe’s Feral series has certainly been worth the wait! The Highbinder is my personal favorite.”

“Some breweries start in an area begging for great beer,” Goodwin says. “Societe started in an area flush with wonderful breweries and immediately stood out from the crowd as one of the best breweries not only in San Diego, but the world.”

Societe may seem like the poster child for how to enter and succeed in the “Hollywood of beer,” but Smith and Constantiner will be the first ones to tell you times have changed. It’s a lot harder for young breweries to enter crowded markets like San Diego.

It’s worse if you try and start a place, and you don’t contribute. That’s worse than being around for 25 years and selling.
— Doug Constantiner

“When we got in, it was like Indiana Jones sliding under the door,” Constantiner says. “We're only five years old. The guys that have been around forever, Bagby, Tomme, Greg Koch, Steve Wagner, Karl Strauss, Pizza Port guys, they don't [think of us as having been] around forever. But everyone who started in the past five years, which is 150% of what used to be when we started, think we're established. We're not established. I don't want to say good luck, because people can do it.”

To put a finer point on it, there are more than 120 breweries in San Diego County alone. If you’re not making good beer, you won’t succeed in a market like that. Especially because that kind of saturation brings a new level of beer drinker.

“Gone are the days when you can open, and everyone's going to buy your beer,” Constantiner says. “The customer is getting a lot smarter."

He and Smith also contend that young brewers need to engage others in the scene and be willing to lend a helping hand whenever another brewer needs it. 

”When Travis and I started, we went around to every single brewery that we could,” Constantiner says. “We said, 'Hey guys, look, we're not from here, but we're going to start here—nice to meet you, we're your neighbors.’ We want to be a part of this community, we want to help out. And I think that went a long way in terms of getting advice. Someone was asking how's it been in San Diego between [Ballast Point] and us? No hard feelings. I can still call them and ask for a favor, back and forth. It's worse if you try and start a place, and you don't contribute. That's worse than being around for 25 years and selling."

Much of Societe’s success and stability in the market can be attributed to their organic growth. Since starting, they have increased production from 1,000 barrels in year one to 5,000 BBLs this year. This isn’t a business stretching itself thin to have its beer in every bar in town. It’s also not a business trying to open up multiple facilities all over the region.

"It's very, what I like to call, no frills,” Constantiner says. “We're not going through a sexy expansion and massive growth, but a lot of things that we do you might not notice.”

One of those investments is a 120-BBL hot liquor tank, which they use for the sole purpose of purging their brite tank. Typically, breweries purge their brites with carbon dioxide before transferring into them from fermenters or barrels. Before transferring the fermented beer, Societe fills their brite tanks with hot liquor until they overflow and then pushes it back into the hot liquor tank, ensuring the brite tank is air (and oxygen) free. This allows the brewery to both save carbon dioxide and achieve low-single-digit parts per billion levels of dissolved oxygen (DO).

Installed, this hot liquor tank was a $90,000 project—for that single purpose. Since DO is the single greatest factor affecting the freshness of a beer, this upgrade to a seemingly small part of their packaging process ensures Societe’s beers maintain as low as possible DO levels, and the end result is a fresher product.

“When we were doing 3,000-BBLs a year, we bought a $25,000 DO [dissolved oxygen] meter,” Constantiner says of another, similar purchase. “We weren't even bottling then. It’s things like that which go so overlooked.”

Societe also displays their stringency in terms of freshness by not bottling any beers aside from their Feral series—everything else is draft-only. They want to ensure they have maximum control over where their beer goes and who handles it.

“We self-distribute in San Diego only to have control over our beer,” Constantiner says. “I think if we were to sign with a distributor, we could grow a lot, and most people wouldn’t notice the difference in our beer. But we would know the difference. I love beer so goddamn much. This is my everything, and it kills me if there's a bad experience with my beer.”

Currently, Societe has 350 draft accounts in San Diego County managed by a sales team of four people. When planning the brewery, Smith and Constantiner chose their location to specifically fit their self-distribution, draft-only business model. They are centrally located in San Diego with five nearby highways. Based on volume, 85% of their beer now goes out the door to draft accounts.

"I don't want to make it seem like what we're doing is better than somebody else,” Constantiner says. “Two of the three breweries that I respect most in the world, one is the second-largest craft brewery, Sierra Nevada, and the other is Firestone Walker. They grow a lot, they sell their beer everywhere, but as they grow, their beer gets better. So it's not that we have to be small because that's cool or so that it's hard to get—this is just the way we like to do it. They say people come in different shapes and sizes, so do businesses.”

Even with organic growth, most successful breweries are forced to give up self-distribution at some point. If things keep escalating, at some level, the business will outgrow where its own hands can reach. But if Constantiner has it his way, that day will never come for Societe. In his eyes, in order to succeed on one of brewing’s biggest stages, Societe must maintain complete control of their beer, from brew day to the point it hits the consumer’s lips.

"I want to say forever.” Constantiner says of his plans for self-distro. “I will make this work. I'm not going to be running a logistics company. You have to be a lot smarter than I am to do it. But for our size, it's doable, and I want to make it work. I never want to give up that self-distribution."

Words + Photos by
Matthew Sampson