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.
While other breweries work to establish a national presence, Karl Strauss' efforts are grass roots in nature. From the start, their primary goal has been (and continues to be) to craft a product that, like the company, is 100 percent San Diegan.
"We want to focus on our home town before we take over the world," Daversa said.
Karl Strauss' anniversary will provide many opportunities for fans of the company, like San Diego resident Dave Luce, to raise a celebratory pint.
"When I taste a sampler there, it reminds me of good times I've had with friends," Luce said.
"It tastes like home."
A timeline chronicling toast-worthy milestones in Karl Strauss Brewing Co.'s evolution:
1989: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. opens San Diego's first craft brewery since the Prohibition downtown
1990: The company starts distributing its beers to other local bars and restaurants
1991: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. builds San Diego County's first distributing brewery
1993: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. opens its Brewery Gardens in Sorrento Mesa
1995: The company bottles its first beer, Karl Strauss Amber Lager, and distributes to its first retail customer (Costco)
1996: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. brews 10,000 barrels in a year for the first time, moves main brewing operation to full-scale Pacific Beach brewery and opens third brewery-restaurant location in La Jolla
1999: The company expands beer distribution into Orange and Los Angeles counties and opens fourth brewery-restaurant location in Carlsbad
2000: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. opens fifth brewery-restaurant at Universal CityWalk in Hollywood
2002: 20,000 barrel production mark eclipsed and sixth brewery-restaurant is opened in Costa Mesa
2004: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. hosts first incarnations of its Beach to Brewery and Karlfest events
2006: 30,000 barrel production mark eclipsed and Karl Strauss passes away (Dec. 21)
2008: Imperial Amber Lager brewed in memory of Karl Strauss; proceeds benefit Karl Strauss Brewers Education Fund
2009: Grand scale brewery expansion and bottling line installation completed
Roll Out the Barrel
A rundown of events planned to commemorate 20 years in the brew biz
20th Anniversary Cask Night: On Feb. 5, special casks of limited edition Karl Strauss 20th Anniversary Bourbon Aged Trippel will be tapped at all six brewery-restaurant locations and once it's gone, it's gone.
Commemorative Beers: Karl Strauss Brewing Co. will brew several special beers throughout the year, all of which will be on tap at all six brewery-
restaurant locations, starting with its 20th Anniversary Dunkel in mid-February.
Beer Dinners: Throughout 2009, Karl Strauss Brewing Co. will hold a four-course beer-paired brewmaster dinner at each of its brewery restaurant locations. Dates and information will be posted at www.karlstrauss.com.
Beach To Brewery: The sixth edition of this annual event will be held May 9 at the Karl Strauss brewery at 5985 Santa Fe Road in Pacific Beach and will feature a reserved batch of the 20th Anniversary Bourbon Aged Trippel plus other specialty beers and an anniversary toast by head brewer Paul Segura.
Karlfest: Karl Strauss will take its annual Oktoberfest-esque event on the road, holding it outside its Costa Mesa brewery-restaurant on Oct. 3.
Internal Homebrew Competition: In December, the company will hold an internal contest to see which of its closet home brewers can come up with the most innovative recipe. The winner's concoction will be put on tap at all of the brewery restaurants.
For more information: