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Des de Moor
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Des de Moor

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Beer sellers: Best Damn Beer Shop, San Diego

San Diego, California, USA: Best Damn Beer Shop and no bull.

San Diego, California, USA: and no bull.

You have to have a huge amount of self confidence – or possibly hubris – to name your business the best damn anything. But Sid and Omar Mikhail clearly have the knowledge, youthful enthusiasm and determination to set false modesty aside and ensure that their flourishing specialist retailer, the Best Damn Beer Shop, stands a chance of living up to the claim in its name.

It helps that the shop is sited in downtown San Diego, with around 50 craft breweries close at hand, including internationally renowned heavy hitters like AleSmith, Green Flash, Port/Lost Abbey and Stone. The city is one of the brightest stars of the rapidly expanding galaxy of US craft brewing, emerging in the past few years as the centre of one of the world’s most exciting beer regions.

Basking in the sunshine of the Pacific coast, San Diego occupies the far southwestern corner of the United States. Take the tram, or trolley as it’s known locally, from round the corner from the shop to the end of the line and you can cross the border on foot from what was once known as Alta (upper) California to Tijuana in the Mexican state of Baja (lower) California.

Inside this unassuming San Diego 7th avenue grocery store hide thousands of beery delights.

This unassuming San Diego 7th avenue grocery storefront conceals thousands of beery delights.

With a big university, a naval base, the inevitable cross cultural influences of a border town and a long tradition of civic pride and culture, it’s a city of considerable interest. Balboa Park, one of the oldest public parks in the US, occupies almost 500 magnificently verdant hectares in the heart of the city, replete with a bundle of museums, theatres and historic gardens. It’s perhaps not surprising that this richly textured urban fabric has provided such a keen customer base for craft beer.

As the second biggest city in California, San Diego is industrial too and was once a major beer producer: it even recovered sufficiently from the calamity of Prohibition to the extent that it supplied a quarter of the beer output of the whole state by the late 1940s. But in a handful of years the big national groups decimated the local industry and the last old school brewer closed in 1953. The current renaissance dates back to 1989 when the Karl Strauss brewery became San Diego’s first new wave brewpub.

This a city of local neighbourhoods more vibrant and alluring than the rather low density downtown area, which seems curiously lacking in a satisfactory focus other than the historic Gaslamp Quarter with its specialist shops and venues. That might be why, despite the steady growth of the local beer culture over the last decade, it lacked a decent bottle shop until 2008 when the Mikhail brothers first turned their passion into a business.

Sid (left) and Omar Mikhail displaying some of the hidden treasures of their cellar.

Sid (left) and Omar Mikhail displaying some of the hidden treasures of their cellar.

Sid and younger brother Omar have an interesting cross cultural history themselves. Sid was born in Baghdad and Omar in Manchester. Their family are Iraqi Christians educated in the UK, who fled their home country in 1989 when things started getting sticky for religious minorities, and settled in San Diego where the brothers grew up.

The unit that now hosts Best Damn Beer Shop was originally a family owned grocery store known as Super Junior Market, only a few steps from the Gaslamp, which Sid started managing in 2002 after leaving education. “I studied physical therapy,” he says, “so I didn’t plan on sticking around for very long.” What changed all that was his passion for beer.

“I just loved craft beer,” he recounts. “I was on the forums and the blogs way before the big revolution in craft brewing when everything took off. Back then we only sold the big commercial beer brands. I wanted to start letting my customers know about the beers I enjoyed, so after a while we started getting in the usual suspects like Port, Sierra Nevada and Stone.

"Massive walls of beer" at Best Damn Beer Shop, San Diego.

“Massive walls of beer” at Best Damn Beer Shop, San Diego.

“At first we’d end up having to discount unsold stock so we could ensure the IPAs were properly fresh – not something you’ll find in every shop in town. We opened the Best Damn Beer Shop as a feature inside the store in 2008, and business started to build. Then suddenly about three years ago things really took off and even the regular Budweiser drinkers started to ask about IPAs. It’s a different world now.”

That different world includes a selection of over 1,000 different beers – a truly dazzling choice that nonetheless shows evidence of being lovingly hand picked. 70% of the range is local or Californian.

“We’ll give any new local brewery a shot if it does bottles,” Sid explains, “and any limited release of a local beer will always sell out no matter how many cases we buy. But we’re also blessed in San Diego in getting deliveries from great breweries across the country, and if it comes here, we try to grab some of it.” The Mikhails also research new beers and follow up customer requests, often contacting breweries directly to source supplies.

Tempting specialities from the US and Europe.

Tempting specialities from the US and Europe.

So as well as extensive ranges from some of the local stars – including less well known names like Coronado, Iron Fist and Mad Lab – there are other serious Californians from Bear Republic, The Bruery, Drake’s, Firestone Walker, Knee Deep, Lagunitas, North Coast,  Russian River and Upright. Out of state brewers include Alaskan, Allagash, Dogfish Head, Grand Teton, Jester King, Logsdon, Pretty Things and Shipyard.

Then there are the imports – mainly from Belgium, with a few from Germany and the UK (Buxton, Meantime, Harviestoun) and international craft producers like Emelisse, Evil Twin, Haand, Mikkeller and De Molen. A display of sour beers stretches to various Cantillons, Rodenbach Grand Cru and bottles from Italy’s Lover Beer alongside domestic offerings; a similarly extensive barley wine selection includes offerings from Great Divide and Telegraph alongside Manchester’s Marble.

Behind the scenes there are even more delights to set a beer geek’s eyes boggling. Sid has been collecting beers since 2006, hunting down rarities and setting aside a case in his own cellar. This is where he keeps the limited edition Cantillons, the Lost Abbey rarities and the New Belgium Lips of Faith, though most of them are not on regular sale.

“At first it was for own consumption,” he explains, “but I ended up overwhelming myself, and thought I ought to share it and do something more creative with it. So I ran a special event called Sid’s Cellar Release during San Diego Beer Week where I put some of it on sale. We had lines around the block and it was all gone in an hour.” Bottles from the collection also surface at the tastings Sid hosts on an occasional basis at various around town, attracting crowds of hundreds.

Specialist malts from Best Damn Beer Shop's homebrew section.

Specialist malts from Best Damn Beer Shop’s homebrew section.

Then there’s the comprehensive homebrew supplies section, added in 2011, presided over by brewer Damien Binder. It’s an obvious way of connecting with the longstanding and still flourishing local homebrew scene that cradled so many of today’s admired professional brewers.

“If you’re a homebrewer,” observes Sid, “you drink craft beer, and there are plenty of craft beer drinkers who might get interested in brewing, so we do starter kits. We’re very hands on with our customers – we’ll even give feedback on beers that went wrong.”

In August 2012, the whole store got a revamp, rebranding as Krisp Market and bringing the overall stocking policy more in line with the craft beer side by focusing on natural, artisanal, local and organic food and other specialities. The fine wine range is expanding, and a well chosen selection of specialist spirits, notably whiskies and bourbons, complements the beer offer.

Such initiatives have helped build up a loyal following including some who are daily or near-daily visitors. But the beer tourists who flock to San Diego in increasing numbers are calling in too after seeking out the place online. The Mikhails have also noticed more women discovering craft beer, particularly sour beers and stouts. “The old association with beer bellies is going at last,” says Omar.

There’s a recognition too that what the brothers call their “massive wall of beer” can be intimidating to the newcomer, and they or their equally well informed staff are always on hand to offer recommendations and advice.

Indeed this is a major part of the job satisfaction. “One of the best feelings you have is introducing someone to craft beer,” says Omar, with obvious evangelical zeal. “You’re saying try this and this, and you can see how excited they’re getting, and six months later you see them come back with a list, and it’s such a cool feeling because you helped them, you were a part of it. That’s why we love doing this.”

Researched October 2012.

Jazz-inspired brewing genius at Best Damn Beer Shop.

Jazz-inspired brewing genius at Best Damn Beer Shop.

Fact file

Address: 1036 7th Avenue, San Diego CA 92101 (inside Krisp Market)
Phone: +1 619 232 6367
Web: bestdamnbeershop.com
Hours: 0700 (0800 Sat-Sun)-2400
Drink in? No
Mail order: No

Manager’s favourites: Lambics particularly Girardin Gueuze 1882 Black Label (“my first sour beer”) and Cantillon, sours from Cascade (Portland OR) and Russian River, anything from AleSmith.

Beer picks

All from San Diego and surroundings, California, USA.

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