The rise of Vista’s booming beer scene

Economic Development Director shares how his City benefitted by welcoming and accommodating local breweries

Early entrants to San Diego’s brewing industry largely set up shop downtown or in coastal communities, but it wasn’t long before craft-beer entrepreneurs sought to site their businesses all throughout the county. Nowadays, having a thriving brew scene is a means of civic pride, a lure for new would-be citizens and visitors, and stimulant for business, residential and economic development, but it wasn’t always that way. Many municipal governments—and the people they represented—were scared off by the alcohol’s historic stigma. But not the City of Vista, which saw the stellar reputation local brewers were building for themselves and next-level potential for the industry on multiple fronts. Rather than make brewery owners jump through hoops to become a part of the community, the City invited breweries in with open arms, going so far as to ease regulations so those businesses would have better chances for success. The results is a municipality that’s now home to well over 20 breweries (second only to the much-larger City of San Diego). The City’s Director of Economic Development, Kevin Ham, has been there through it all and continues to count breweries as valuable mechanisms for growth and opportunity in Vista. Enough that he has penned a guest article for San Diego Beer News readers, complete with insights from the mayor and brewery owners, both new and old.

The rise of Vista’s booming beer scene

The country’s craft-beer revival over the last few years has breathed new life into communities in the form of tourism and economic development. One of those communities is Vista, which is home to one of the most successful and concentrated brewery districts in the U.S. by numerous accounts. In fact, Vista has the most breweries per-capita of any other U.S. City—20-plus and counting—from its historic downtown to populated business parks. There are several reasons why the City of Vista, known as the center of the “Hops Highway”, has become a catalyst for the craft-brewing industry. 

For the past decade, the City of Vista has included breweries in its Economic Development Plan, which has paid off in a big way in terms of increased tourism, jobs and more. Vista’s cluster of breweries draws a younger crowd and create a more vibrant community where families can plant roots and small businesses can thrive.

Many local craft brewers cite Vista as having plenty of space, reasonable rents, and friendly and supportive City staff. The City even worked with local brewery owners to create the Vista Brewers Guild, the mission of which is to foster a better working relationship between the City and the growing number of local breweries.

In 2019, the City of Vista won an Award of Merit from the California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED) for spurring economic growth through its support of local craft breweries. CALED’s “Gamechanger” Award is awarded to economic development projects that have a positive, transformative effect on communities and local economies. 

“We have worked to create a welcoming environment for local brewing entrepreneurs. By doing that, we believe that Vista’s brewery district has been a boon for residents, visitors and the overall business community and the region,” says Vista Mayor Judy Ritter. “As our craft breweries, wineries, distilleries and craft-kombucha makers continue to thrive, so will our community.”

It appears beer aficionados also love Vista beer. We were honored and excited to learn local beer fans recently voted Vista as San Diego County’s “Best Craft Beer Community” as part of the recent San Diego Beer News Awards (SDBNA). Vista also took second place in that competition’s companion beer-industry poll. Meanwhile, Vista’s Eppig Brewing brought home the most SDBNA wins with 15 (nine of which were gold), including being named the best brewery in the northern region in both the industry and fan polls.

Vista is working to bring beer fans even more options. In fact, the City recently welcomed Co-Lab Vista, a first-of-its-kind shared brewery, winery and restaurant facility, which opened amidst the pandemic this year. Another local brewery, Pure Project Brewing, just debuted its outdoor patio after moving its headquarters from Miramar to the 13,850 square-foot facility formerly operated by Iron Fist Brewing. Their indoor tasting room is on pace to open to the public this summer.

“The City of Vista has been very accommodating to work with thus far and we look forward to a prosperous and mutually beneficial long-term relationship with the City,” says Pure Project co-founder Jesse Pine. Pure Project  joins the ranks of other Vista-based sustainability-focused companies, including Dr. Bronner’s and Misadventure Vodka

“We’re excited to be another place in Vista where people can come to relax and have a thoughtfully crafted beer,” says Pure Project co-founder Mat Robar. “Hopefully, we can also spark conversation with our customers and neighbors about our sustainability initiatives, like how we partner with local, biodynamic and sustainable farms, offset our carbon and plastic use, and work hand-in-hand with environmental non-profits. We’re really excited about the ways we’ve been able to reduce our brewery’s environmental impact and hope that inspires others to take action, both personally and professionally.”

Vista’s carefully crafted plan to attract such companies and breweries is what sets the city apart from others. So says one of the partners behind Booze Brothers Brewing, which opened in Vista in 2013.

I think Vista saw an opportunity that many other cities later realized. Plenty of other cities were very apprehensive and unsure of what the brewery industry would bring to their area.”

Kris Anacleto, CEO, Booze Brothers Brewing

Rather than meet interested brewery entrepreneurs with tentativeness or trepidation, Anacleto says officials at the City of Vista took the time to get to know the industry and its members and, in doing so, discovered the many positives associated with local brewing companies. As a result, they worked closely with the breweries in their backyard to make allowances for tasting rooms, longer hours, live entertainment and accommodations for mobile food vendors.

“A lot of people might not know that the City of Vista took more time to understand the industry’s needs and how it might accommodate them,” says Anacleto. “As a business owner there are far fewer headaches to deal with in Vista. That has attracted so many businesses to open up shop here, which then makes our smaller city a destination for patrons. Weekday patrons are usually more of the ‘regulars’, but on weekends you tend to see a lot of brewery tours and what not.”

Like many of his fellow brewery owners, Anacleto and his Booze Brothers partners have felt the negative impacts of the pandemic, but he says thanks to the support of the City and their patrons, the brewery has managed to weather the storm. 

“Obviously we’ve had a rough time with the constantly changing conditions, but we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Our private-event side of the brewery took a massive blow, but we spent our available time getting our food concept, Pizza Bros., off the ground, and that’s been huge for our brewery during this.”

It’s evident that craft beer’s impact has been a positive one on Vista and the San Diego region. In addition to economic benefits and establishing a sense of place, successful breweries are a huge draw for what we call “tourism on tap”. As California continues to open up post-pandemic, Vista is sure to welcome more craft-beer aficionados as the City continues to grow its award-winning brewery cluster.

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