Beer has become a favorite son in San Diego.

Politicians make a point of being seen at local beer festivals. The local brewers’ guild gets tax dollars to promote its annual weeklong celebration. And the City Council’s land use committee is taking a look this week at a proposal to help local brewers continue to grow.

And the local beer scene isn’t just a facilitator of fun, it’s become a legitimate economic force: The National University System for Policy Research this week released a study pegging the industry’s net benefit to the local economy at nearly $300 million per year.

But San Diego isn’t alone. The industry as a whole is undergoing massive growth statewide and nationwide, and other markets are similarly carving out niches as hot beds for good beer.

For the local industry to remain competitive, said Vince Vasquez, author of the study, the city needs to address a series of land use-related constraints.

One is that new converts to good beer might be less willing to venture to industrial areas like Mira Mesa, home to many of the city’s first breweries, Vasquez said.

“I love the Spartan, grassroots feel to enjoying beer, where you’re not here for anything else but for the beer itself,” Vasquez said. “But someone like me five to 10 years from now might like something closer to work, more accommodating.”

That change is already taking place, as more breweries open in North Park and East Village, but current land use policies make a low ceiling for such expansion.

Breweries are currently considered “light manufacturing” by the city’s zoning ordinance.

Because of sound, smell and pollution concerns, light manufacturing companies usually can’t get too close to homes. And as far as the zoning ordinance is concerned, there’s no difference between a small batch brewery and one operating on a much larger scale.

But encouraging new breweries to open in the city’s urban core is possible with a change to land use policy.

One option, embraced by other cities, is introducing microbrewery-specific land use designations.

Doing so, however, would mean implementing the designation through the city’s various community plans, a time-intensive, costly and difficult process.

Instead, according to architect and planning expert Howard Blackson, the city should issue permits that give it more direct control over the operations that are most likely to result in neighborhood conflict.

“Our zoning treats everything as one-size-fits-all, so any brewery is seen as Anheuser-Busch, even though there are different levels of brewery,” he said. “We need something at a neighborhood scale, at a block scale, at a lot scale, so it’s based on how micro your microbrewery gets.”

The city should issue permits, he said, that carefully outline when a brewery can brew and how much beer it can produce, based on its lot’s size and proximity to housing.

He pointed to North Park’s Thorn Street Brewery, a small on-site brewing operation and tasting room located within a compact commercial area at the corner of Thorn and 32nd streets.

“We know the Thorn Street model works, so I’d hope instead of putting breweries through a horrible rezoning process, we could just manage it through a use-permit,” Blackson said.

The city’s land use and housing committee approved Wednesday a similar item. It’ll come before the full council in the coming months.

The amendment to the city’s land development code would allow breweries of 12,000 square feet, operating in industrial areas, to open tasting rooms or restaurants of more than 3,000 square feet, which is the current limitation.

The current limitation is meant to restrict restaurant-only operations within industrial areas, but it’s having an unintended effect on breweries in the same areas looking to allow for additional space to accommodate a growing customer base.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the City Council’s land use and housing committee was scheduled to consider a brewery-specific amendment to the land use code on Thursday, April 25. The committee approved the item on Wednesday, April 24.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter:

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Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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