San Marcos, California
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Refusing to chase trends, Tomme Arthur, co-founder and director of brewery operations, continues his crusade to create imaginative and flavorful Belgian-style beers.
As any brewery founder will tell you, successfully building and sustaining a craft beer brand is challenging. Not only does it require weathering the ups and downs of an oft-tumultuous market, it also necessitates attracting and retaining a loyal customer base despite the ebb and flow of fad styles and evolving palates. But Arthur, along with Vince and Gina Marsaglia, the brother-and-sister team behind the Pizza Port brewpub empire, have done exactly that -- times two.
When the three founders launched Port Brewing LLC in 2006, they established two distinct brands beneath it, both of which continue to epitomize the trio's flavor-first brewing philosophy. While Port Brewing focuses on aggressive San Diego and West Coast styles, The Lost Abbey has made its name crafting high-quality Belgian-inspired beers and regularly lands near the top of "best of" lists like RateBeer's Top 100 Breweries for 2018.
"Vince came up with the [Lost Abbey] name, but I had been a huge fan of Belgian-style brewing and Belgian beers," Arthur recalls. "We thought it made a lot of sense to position some of the beers we wanted to make under that label and branding moniker. It gave us a chance to separate the really hoppy West Coast-style beers of Port Brewing from the super-premium monastic and farmhouse-style beers of Belgium that we wanted to put under The Lost Abbey umbrella."
Both brands are brewed on the original 30-barrel brewing system the trio acquired when they purchased the San Marcos production facility that was once occupied by Stone Brewing Co. Arthur says that in 2018, the operation produced a little over 13,500 barrels.
"We probably released in the neighborhood of 25 different beers last year under The Lost Abbey," Arthur says. Among those, Farmhouse Lager and Devotion, a Belgian blonde ale, were best sellers. "We have a lot of seasonal specialty barrel-aged beers that are some of our better sellers with respect to packaged beers," he adds.
New beers are developed though staff collaboration with unique ingredients and flavors. "One of the things that we're pretty hardline on is that we don't chase trends," Arthur says. "For example, there has been a real movement in the craft brewing world for pastry-style beers that mimic flavors you might find in desserts. They require a heavy hand with respect to residual sugar. We like to make unique flavored beers, but we aren't going to do it with a dense level of sugar."
One uniquely flavored beer is the soon-to-be-released For Zinners and Zaints, a blended sour blonde aged in oak with zinfandel grapes added. "We're really excited about this one," Arthur says. "We're also going to have another limited release beer called Oude Testament, which is a blend of beer aged in bourbon and French oak barrels with sour cherries and some blackberries."
While locals are the only ones likely to have access to either aforementioned limited release, Arthur says that Ghosts in the Forests, a blended blonde sour with guava, will be distributed to all of The Lost Abbey's retail markets. The Lost Abbey works with 13 wholesale partners to distribute to bigger U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.
The brewery's production facility is home to a 26-tap tasting room. In 2015, The Lost Abbey opened a second tasting room, this one with 23 taps and 50 seats, in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. "It had become a little more difficult to tell our story farther from home," Arthur explains. "Cardiff-by-the-Sea is a nearby coastal community without a big craft beer footprint. It gives us the chance to go into a territory, tell our story, and really connect with consumers through meaningful conversations."
What will 2019 hold for Port Brewing LLC and its brands? Arthur says that he expects tax-paid volume growth between 5 and 10 percent. "We have some beers coming online on the Port Brewing side including Wipeout IPA, a beer we've made since we opened our doors but are now going to can in six-packs," he adds.
Favorite beers: Arthur says he drinks a lot of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. "I believe in what the Grossman family built in Northern California. Their ethos and everything has been fantastic, and I love the way that beer tastes," he explains. "If I'm drinking a beer, it's usually incredibly well-made and typically has great balance. At the end of the day, I choose a beer you can have more than one of."
Challenges: "I think we, and most breweries, are definitely dealing with a level of consumerism that prizes new beers over traditional, long-term flagships," Arthur says. "We are being forced to innovate at a very high rate with respect to 'new,' not necessarily with respect to interesting ingredients or premises. A lot of breweries are continually making new beers to keep the consumers' attention. But that is causing flagship fatigue and issues with respect to being able to create predictable sales."
Opportunities: "I think that people who develop very solid business and marketing plans for their brands will be successful," Artur says. "There are a lot of people interested in being in this business, but they need to understand what they can excel at for the long-term. For me, really defining a brewery is exciting. So is working on the nitty-gritty. We spent the last year combing through our finances to really understand how we are going to participate in craft beer as a small brewery, because there is a lot to be said for the inefficiencies of being our size."
Needs: "We're still looking for a flagship home run, something that creates its own velocity and has its own market pull," Arthur says. "Lots of breweries want that thing. They want to be able to make a beer that the consumer is pulling off the shelf because it gives you lift and the ability to program and pencil in dollars predictably for sales and marketing. I think every brewery right now wants stability. You typically find stability through a beer that creates its own space."