By Brandon Hernández
Scot Blair is one of the most notorious characters in San Diego’s vibrant craft beer scene. Since opening Hamilton’s Tavern in 2007, he’s devoted his life to raising the bar—the craft beer bar, that is. His venues have helped to revitalize some of San Diego County’s most formerly lackluster neighborhoods, providing plenty of innovative ideas for other business owners along the way. Today, Blair’s beery empire totals four unique spots—the iconic Hamilton’s Tavern, a beer and spirit den called Small Bar, an epicenter for quality taps and live music dubbed Eleven and, his newest project, a brewpub by the name of Monkey Paw. We caught up with this trend-setting bar impresario to seek out his impressions about the thriving San Diego scene, then and now, and his part in helping make it all it’s become.
What inspired you to go into the beer bar biz?
I always wanted to own a bar. I traveled all around the world spending a lot of time in pubs and had always talked about the monumental importance of a good tavern in a community. It wasn’t until I spent time in San Diego’s O’Brien’s Pub and Liar’s Club (now closed) when I decided I wanted my offerings to be as important as my atmosphere. The area I lived in was an absolute desert and it was a shock anytime you could get something decent or surprising. I felt a desperate need to do it for our community and the men like myself who wanted better beer in a better environment.
You were notoriously highly confident going in—what inspired that?
Probably my naivety and youthful dreaming!
I figured if I came at it from my heart and created an atmosphere that I liked and served products I liked, folks would dig it. I had to commit to my concept and say, hey, the customer isn’t always right if they don’t have all the data to know right from wrong. I said to myself, if it fails, I will feel comfortable I did my best. The only thing I had to lose was money and money doesn’t control my soul or my motivations…my cause does.
How you see the evolution San Diego’s beer bar scene and your role in it.
I see our footprint on many levels all over this city during this mini craft beer renaissance, with installed beer brunches that never existed before Small Bar and the mass craze on the mega beer events that Hamilton’s is known for like our 2nd Saturdays. I’ve seen niche market bars expand their beer offerings because of what we’ve done in a certain area or district. I’ve been here and I remember how desolate it was and, now, each week something new is popping up and even the simple pizzeria now has craft beer options. That was sort of the goal.
Who are other San Diego bar owners who’ve also been influential in advancing the scene?
Jim O’Brien, the original owner of O’Brien’s Pub, and present owner Tom Nickel [who also owns and operates Julian Brewing Company, Bailey’s Wood-Pit BBQ and West Coast BBQ and Brew]; Scott Stamp and Lee Doxtader of Callahan’s and San Diego Brewing Company; Ivan Derezin of Churchill’s Pub; Vince and Gina Marsaglia from Pizza Port and Louis Mello of the defunct Liar’s Club.
What would you say are some big contributors to San Diego’s success story?
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Stone Brewing Co. and Home Brew Mart opening—I think, without those three, San Diego would still be far behind. Clearly Pizza Port and all the other notable breweries winning awards the last several years has shined a Batman-like spotlight onto our city. Definitely all of our wonderful and increasingly knowledgeable consumers who finally made a conscious decision to demand better beer and are becoming more excited about beer, festivals, San Diego Beer Week and the like. All of these are having the impact that makes me proud to be a part of this scene.
Do you see any negative developments associated with San Diego’s high profile craft beer city status?
The only bad thing I see coming out of the boom has been with retail. Now is the time all these entrepreneurs come out with smoke and mirrors, the large distributors start tailoring tap houses and you start seeing all these Disneyland beer bars. But the real craft beer fans will know the authentic places to go. At the root of it all, it’s all about the liquid. I hope to see you soon for a great pint of ale in our wonderful city!
On that note, tell us about your newest spot—Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery.
We have a new pub and small manufacturing brewery with a five-barrel brewhouse and five 10-barrel fermenters. Brewer Derek Freese, a good friend and a well-recognized homebrewer, took over the reins and has been working hard on creating styles he likes and things I’ve asked him to work on. Try our Oatmeal Pale Ale on cask with cacao.
Brandon Hernández is a San Diego-based freelance beer and food journalist. He has been featured numerous times on Food Network, is the San Diego correspondent for Celebrator Beer News and has contributed articles to various national and local magazines, newspapers and Web sites, including Wine Enthusiast, The Beer Connoisseur, Beer Magazine, West Coaster, San Diego Magazine, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The San Diego Reader, Riviera, Pacific San Diego and Edible San Diego. Follow him on Twitter or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.