Toronado. Small Bar. Ritual Tavern. Tiger!Tiger! All legendary beer bars that have closed their doors. COVID-19 isn’t the only culprit—former owners like Small Bar’s Karen Barnett cite factors like increased competition and a changing craft beer culture as additional tolls on today’s beer bar.
“There is a culture, ambience, and soul inside any bar,” she explains. “If you treat people like they’re not cool enough or smart enough to be in that room, they won’t come back.”
Beer bars didn’t just help shape craft beer into the powerhouse industry it is today. Blind Lady Ale House co-owner Jeff Motch says they also help bring together communities by offering a place to eat, drink, and mingle with friends and neighbors. “When you look at restaurants and bars that stand the test of time, they’re the ones that are supported by their community, not by a trend,” says Motch, who also ran Tiger!Tiger! In short, it was less about the beer and more about the brotherhood.
But the beer still mattered. Motch estimates that when Blind Lady opened their doors in Normal Heights in 2009, there were around 30 breweries across San Diego, with very few in or around Mid-City. Now there are over 150 breweries with countless satellite tasting rooms, many within walking distance of Blind Lady.
That increased competition drastically affected the old model of craft-beer-centric bars, which used to be some of the only places consumers could find certain exclusive brews. Now “everybody has access to them,” Motch says, explaining that while he understands breweries’ bottom lines, it’s been a difficult transition to watch. “Pun intended, the beer industry has watered down the beer industry.”
Barnett says the proliferation of tasting rooms started around ten years ago, when loosened restrictions allowed breweries to serve beer without the same health and safety regulations as restaurants. “San Diego beer bars were hit with competition they didn’t see coming,” she says. “Essentially overnight, they became direct competitors in our neighborhoods, sharing customers and directly affecting revenue.” After 11 years in business, Small Bar closed in 2020, and Barnett cited this competition (as well as COVID) as a few of the culprits.
But there are some elements that set beer bars apart from breweries. Motch says one of the biggest is having the ability to offer a wider variety of styles without the investment of brewing each batch. “We can buy great beers from the great people who produce them,” he says, pointing to timeless (but not trendy) styles like Hefeweizen. “I can order Craftsman’s Heavenly Hefe—which is great—and put it on tap, or I could brew one and sell maybe one keg every two weeks.” Breweries just don’t have that same variety. “That’s why people come to us.”
Another advantage beer bars have is a direct line to the neighborhood. Opened in 2015, Machete Beer House in National City is South Bay’s oldest beer bar and remains one of the only craft beer bars in the area. Co-owner Joann Cornejo says that lack of nearby competition has helped them thrive, but their success is also thanks to loyal locals from the largely Latino city who come for the community just as much as the beer. “We don’t just celebrate beer—we celebrate our culture and that is representative of our patrons,” she explains.
During the pandemic, that same long-built loyalty helped keep Blind Lady’s lights on. “You could tell that we had the community’s support during COVID just from curbside orders,” Motch says. “The majority of people are from right here and didn’t want to see their neighborhood place not make it. People who didn’t need anything picked up a four-pack just to keep us going.”
Despite their deep connections with regulars, Motch says the future of beer bars is muddled. “It is not a good business to open here in San Diego,” he laughs, adding that although there’s a lot of competition, they’re much more than a beer bar, as they’ve always elevated local craft beer and food to the same level. With that emphasis on quality in every aspect of drinking and dining, he thinks they have a good shot at sticking around. “Pizza and beer is pretty damn timeless. I think it’s here to stay.”