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Is San Diego Craft Beer Creating A Beer Culture?

Lightning Brewery Talks About Making Better Beer Through Science

Dr. James Crute of Lightning Brewery pouring locally sourced honey to make a ...

Above: Dr. James Crute of Lightning Brewery pouring locally sourced honey to make a seasonal fig honey beer available only at the Poway Brewery this month.

San Diego is something of a beer mecca drawing people from around the world with nearly 70 licensed breweries making an exceptionally diverse array of craft beers. So the question I explored for KPBS Arts Spectrum is, are San Diego craft breweries creating a beer culture?

That's a difficult question... for me. I may live in one of the most vibrant cities in the U.S. for craft beer but I can't much appreciate that when I’ve never developed a taste for beer. To make matters worse one of my friends, Dr. James Crute, owns a brewery and keeps pressing a point about beer and culture.

"There’s a type of culture in beer and that is to say that there is obviously yeast in beer and that’s the culture, and there’s obviously a type of scene in San Diego associated with beer enthusiasts that constitute I think their own subsection of US culture however I always do wonder whether arts and culture reporters recognize that there is culture in beer, true American culture in beer," Crute said.

There's Culture in Beer But is There Beer Culture?

Beth Accomando takes a visit to her friend's brewery to find out if there's beer culture.

Biochemistry and Beer

Well that sounds like a challenge so I decided to head on over to the Lightning Brewery to see if I could develop an appreciation for beer and its culture. Crute started Lightning Brewery in 2005. His breakout beer, Thunderweizen Ale, has won gold ribbons at the California State Fair two years in a row, and his Tempestuous Ale won Best in Show. Lightning is located in a Poway business park and has 8 employees. His beers are now distributed as far north as La and as far east as Arizona. Crute comes to beer from a background in biochemistry

"Oh, biochemistry and beer," Crute said with a smile, "Well of course biochemistry was founded in the beer trade, and was founded in the fermentation sciences. Louis Pasteur was the first biochemist, he actually reconstituted the first cell free biochemical system. So being a biochemist, beer comes naturally to me and I’ve been brewing beer since I was a young graduate student, over half a lifetime ago now."

Better Beer Through Science

That’s why Crute chose “Better Beer Through Science” as his slogan: "And what better beer through science means is not that we add chemicals to the beer or that we have extraneous things added to the beer other than the 4 basic ingredients of water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. Many of the mainstream, very large, and now non-American owned breweries have gotten legislation through Congress to have approximately 200 additives that can be put into beer other than those four ingredients that don’t need to be listed on the label for beer to be called beer. We use basic scientific thinking in order to figure out how to not add everything else on top of that."


"What I decided this year was that I would start making some small scale, hand crafted truly hand-crafted, beers that I would make and that we would only sell at the brewery," Crute explained, "This is the way science works, you have an idea and then the idea gets tested by an experiment or you make a hypothesis based on your idea and then the hypothesis gets tested by an experiment. So the honey fig beer started with we had made a honey wheat beer previously in the year. We had found that that beer was a really great tasting, complex wheat style ale, and I thought to make it better, and making it better I thought could be achieved by using locally sourced figs to match our locally sourced honey and then also to ferment in an oak barrel instead of fermenting in a stainless steel container. So like these types of containers [pointing to steel tanks at the brewery] for fermentation, they don’t impart any character one way or the other to the beer."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

Looking down into a Chardonnay barrel being topped off after figs and honey were added at Lightning Brewery.

The Process of Making Lightning's Inaugural Fig Honey Beer

"In contrast," Crute continued, "When you ferment in a barrel, there’s a lot of barrel interactions with the beer and so I decided to use Chardonnay barrels sourced from Central California and then as a base beer many breweries will use a base beer or a beer very similar to a beer that they make for starting with the specialty beer and we use our wheat beer as the starting beer and then I sanitized the honey by diluting it in water and warming it up to kill any native yeast that’s in there, and then I did the same thing with the figs in order to dilute all the sugar from the figs and also to sanitize the figs, and then we took rapidly fermenting wheat beer added it to the barrel, poured in the honey, added some more beer to kind of mix that up into the fermenting beer, added the figs, added more beer to mix that up in the fermenting beer and then we had a lot of foam on top of the barrel from all that transfer so we waited till the foam collapsed and then filled the barrel the rest of the way, and then we fermented for about a month further or so. And then we’re taking the beer out of that and then we’re using a trick that many breweries do and that is for carbonation we’re back blending that beer with about 20% of well carbonated wheat beer and that gives a little life to the beer so that the beer has a little more pizzazz so to speak so with carbonation it brings out aromas from the beer, it gives kind of a better mouth feel, and those are the ideas that we had associated with honey fig wheat beer."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

The locally sourced figs and honey that went into the Lightning Brewery first-ever seasonal fig-honey beer.

Crute added, "It’s part of an experiment that keeps interest in our brand with our enthusiasts and that people really enjoy. People work incredibly hard in the microbrewery trade, however, at the end of the day you feel like you got something done. And I think that is part and parcel of what the beer culture is, there’s a beer culture from the side of the consumer, and there is a beer culture from the side of working at a brewery that makes this sort of unique type of culture in the U.S."

Crute makes a convincing argument. If you want to test his theory or his experimental fig honey beer you can do both this month at the Lightning Brewery in Poway.

Home Brewing

If you are interested in home brewing, Dr. Crute provides some information on his website including "Ask a beer question and get a beer science answer" section.

The Homebrewer

Home Brew Mart

American Home Brewing Supply

Best Damn Home Brew Shop

Beer Events

The Museum of Man currently has a Beerology Exhibit.

Lightning Brewery will be featured at the KPBS Producers Club event Bugs and Beer on September 25 at the Digital Gym Cinema.

The San Diego Brewer's Guild Festival is coming up November 1 and 2.

And Of Course Some Beer Movies

"Strange Brew"

"Beer Wars"

"Beer Hunter"


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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