20 years of beer

Picture it - the late 1980s. A young college grad named Chris Cramer wanders into an inauspicious eatery in Freemantle, Australia, where he stumbles upon what he declares the best beer of his life and is stunned to discover it was brewed on the premises.

Impressed and inspired, he returns to San Diego and regales his roommate, Matt Rattner, with his tale of discovery and the big idea it spawned. This pivotal moment led to the establishment of San Diego's first craft brewing operation since the Prohibition.

On Feb. 2, 1989, the duo, with the assistance of Cramer's cousin - a 45-year veteran master brewer named Karl - opened the doors of Karl Strauss Brewing Co.'s first brewpub downtown. This year, the company is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

"We're really celebrating 20 years of craft beer in San Diego," said Melody Daversa, Karl Strauss' marketing events manager. "20 years ago, no one was doing craft beer."

Being the first to deliver such a concept to San Diego, Cramer and Rattner were skeptical as to how successful they would be. But the sight of customers lining up around the block to join in their grand opening quelled their worries.

Patrons became enamored with "San Diego's original local beer" (the company's initial slogan). For most, it was the first time they'd ever tasted truly fresh beer. It wasn't long before the company grew and that growth has been both immense and constant.

Today, Karl Strauss operates six Southern California brewery-restaurants, its distribution has grown to include more than 2,500 bars, restaurants and retail accounts, their brewing portfolio includes more than 30 beers and the company just completed a massive expansion of its brewery in Pacific Beach, which provides the means to bottle their beers in San Diego while increasing their production from 31,000 barrels a year to 60,000 barrels.

"They will now have the distinction of joining the dozen or so San Diego breweries that are brewing and bottling their beers here in the county, and to that I say, 'Welcome!'

There's a great brewing scene here," said Greg Koch, CEO of Escondido's Stone Brewing Co., which just this month was named by Beer Advocate as the best brewery in the country.

"Our city has become a beer Mecca and we're still right in the thick of San Diego's craft beer renaissance," Daversa said.

Karl Strauss' relevance is a testament to the company's refusal to rest on its laurels. Later this year, they will introduce new packaging for their commercially available beers, one of which is a new brew named Tower 10 IPA after the lifeguard tower visible from Chris and Matt's old Mission Beach apartment.

"We're refreshing ourselves in a way that is very authentic," Daversa said.

Part of that authenticity includes being active members of the community. Last year, Karl Strauss donated products and manpower to more than 280 philanthropic events.

Additionally, their Beach To Brewery and Karlfest events benefit charities such as The Surfrider Foundation and the Karl Strauss Brewers Education Fund.

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