At night and on the weekends, when he’s done with his day job, Jeff Gordon taps away at his computer, searching for ways to improve Tap Hunter, a startup he and his wife launched last year to catalogue what craft beers are on tap at local eateries, bars and breweries. There, in his downtown condo, he finds ways to connect it to Facebook and networks with bar owners and beer enthusiasts.
Across the county, in what seems like a different world, Ken Childs and his son-in-law Eric March string up hop plants in a field in Ramona not far from where buffalo roam. Before the harvest in August, they have to clear out the weeds and roll out their plans to attract local brewers to buy their crop.
The craft beer search engine and the hop farm started at the same basic point: San Diego is a burgeoning beer town. And where beer is made and cherished, there’s business for more than just brewers.
The two fledgling businesses both started last year and demonstrate how the success of one local industry can further encourage new business. In the 1990s, a cluster of craft beer breweries began forming in San Diego and over the past decade, the region’s reputation as a beer haven has grown. Men’s Journal named San Diego the new beer capital of the U.S. last fall.
It makes sense that local beer enthusiasts would recognize the potential to grab a slice of the market, said Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido.
“As things hit a certain critical mass it makes business models viable. Tap Hunter wouldn’t be a viable website that anybody would care about if there were two places in San Diego that had anything interesting on tap,” Koch said.
The idea for Tap Hunter came to Gordon, a longtime craft beer fan, as he tried to stay on top of what beer was on tap at local bars and breweries. Keeping up meant checking a variety of websites and newsletters every day. That became such a hassle that Gordon, who used to build websites at his day job, had a better idea.
The next month, he and his wife Melani launched Tap Hunter to a flurry of local buzz. Since then, Tap Hunter has caught attention from a big beer company and allowed the Gordons to travel to New York City and Vancouver to cover beer events as experts, Melani Gordon said.
A friend of theirs even made the Tap Hunter iPhone app for them for free he was so excited about it, Jeff Gordon said.
For the Gordons, Tap Hunter is still a side business, Gordon said, as Melani heads up her own internet marketing agency and Jeff manages the technology department for a local internet marketing company. But since there were virtually no costs, upgraded memberships and ads have allowed the couple to make a little bit of a profit so far, Jeff Gordon said.
They saw a way to be more involved in beer with their tech specialty.
“We were never in the service industry, so thinking about going and opening a craft beer bar, we don’t know the first thing about that,” Gordon said. “I do know the first thing about building a website. So I said ‘OK, this idea I have is a way for us to be tapped into that industry but still focus on what we know and what our professions are.’”
Beer made sense for Childs and March, too.
When their family were trying to decide how best they could use their 1,200 acre ranch in Ramona to make money after getting out of the large-scale commercial buffalo meat business, they kept coming back to beer. The success of the local craft beer industry beckoned the family of casual beer fans and for now, they’re commercially growing hops.
Hops are typically grown in the Pacific Northwest, so that’s where Childs and March made the trek to get the rhizomes they planted a little more than a year ago. The farmer who sold them to them was a little skeptical when he heard they were going to try growing hops in San Diego, March said.
“He almost laughed at us,” March said. “‘You sure you want to buy that many roots? Go ahead.’”
“We proved him wrong,” Childs said. “There’s no reason we can’t grow ’em down here.”
But it is unusual, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.
“I’ve heard about absolutely nobody else,” Larson said.
Local brewers are excited about the chance to pick local hops too. San Diego Brewing Co. plans on using hops from this year’s harvest in their annual fall beer, said brewer Dean Rouleau. Last year, Rouleau went out to the ranch when the hops were being harvested and he was struck by the sight.
“I was in hop heaven,” he said.