I visited Societe in 2012 several times after it first opened. The offerings then were tasty and few: maybe 4 or 5 beers on tap, at best. I’ve watched Societe gain a cult following in San Diego, spreading slowly but steadily through the craft beer lovers hop-vine in town. The BREWSTORMERS events group decided it was time to take a tour and witness the growth.
The founders of Societe, Travis Smith and Doug Constantiner, who had independently worked at various breweries in California, met while working together at the Bruery. With their experience brewing sour beer there (and for Travis, at Russian River), they formed Societe with the desire to brew Belgian-styled sour ales. Quickly realizing that this goal had a several year pipeline they, in the meantime, developed some beer to put on tap in the interim.
Societe currently offers three types of beer: Out West (hop-forward styles from the West Coast), Old World (brewed with Belgian-ale yeast strain, light to strong, golden to dark), and Stygian (roasted malt dark beer). The fourth style, Feral (barrel-aged sours), has just begun to be put on tap in the tasting room at unannounced times.
Parking is a cinch in the industrial office park complex that houses the brewery. When you enter the relatively nondescript building you are immediately plunged into vintage Americana. There are display boxes of old tools and instruments, wooden bench type tables front the brewing equipment, and every beer has a social “character” name like The Dandy or The Widow. Some of these characters (reputed to be owners and staff members) are in silhouette on two framed pictures on the wall. The bar is an easily accessed open area with at least two staff members pouring beer.
I order from a list of about 15 beers The Pupil, one of the earliest Societe beers. Although it is not to my taste, with a unfocused palate that never quite fishes out the tropical notes, it is still well crafted and obviously, given its endurance, appealing to many. There is something on the beer list for everyone so I know I’ll be back for another try after the tour. With easy-on-the-wallet pricing ($4 for a 12 ounce pour / $2 for a half / and $1.25 for a taster) there is certainly no reason not to return.
Seated and waiting for the tour, I peruse the busy setting. The tables are filled by a genuine cross-mix of society: business groups, contractors, grad students working on their thesis, bikers of both the Cannondale and road hog varieties, birthday partiers. In a small attached outside area, the Grillfellas food truck has a small lineup.
The tour manager, Jade, picks up our group to show us around the brewery. We view a typical array of brewing equipment, seemingly added at every step of the expansion game. The careful strategy of quality over quantity is apparent here. The owners want to get it right and create a reputation before slamming the shelves with product. A highlight is viewing the barrel room from the inside where we are instructed to NOT take photos of the labeling. The sour releases at this point, as mentioned earlier, are top secret stuff. One can stand here and dream of the brewer’s beauties inside these wine barrels. Owner Travis trails our group and informs us that this room will NEVER see a whiskey barrel.
On our return to the tasting room, I order The Bellowsman, a smoked stout. The high craftsmanship of this beer, an outstanding drinker, makes me want to run around the room, yelling “Eureka!” Instead, I sit down to take notes for a review. I hope this character stokes the creative forge of Societe for years to come.
I should mention, based on this and previous visits, one of the great fortes of Societe is the number of IPAs and DIPAs in their portfolio. Most are made in a delicate style that is the antithesis of Stone’s arrogance and palate punishers. Societe is a great place to introduce IPAs to those who shun them.
Societe has met the challenge of growing crowds with more staff and a fluent management of its tasting room. The vintage theme and creative naming system deserves more massaging. I’d love to stand behind one of these character “heroes” with a sticker or special coaster. The build-out in the tasting room could be tightened up and unified with some simple professional design touches. These tweaks might encourage more interaction between the disparate groups inside. Minor quibbles all, I’m really excited to witness this special brewery flourish at a high level of craft in less than 3 years.
The Neighborhood: Societe was the trendsetting first of what are now 5 breweries in the Kearny Mesa area. This is a great stop after you dine at one of the many Asian restaurants on Convoy or Clairemont Mesa.