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BEER WEEK: Lightning…In A Bottle

Lighting Brewery owner/head brewer Jim Crute.
Photo by Brandon Hernandez

San Diego is home to some of the most popular breweries in the county. From operations robust in size and production like Karl Strauss Brewing Company and Stone Brewing Company, to those with smaller output but big reputations like AleSmith, The Lost Abbey and Green Flash, there’s no shortage of competition. So, how does a smaller operation like Poway’s three-year old Lightning Brewery compete with the big boys in the most thriving beer city in the U.S.?

“Going in to work every morning, I think to myself, how can I make the best beer I can make and how can I do it better living in an area where craft brew is well known and appreciated,” says Lightning owner and head brewer Jim Crute.

The answer, for him, is two-fold: “My focus is on quality and differences.”

Though the craft brew quilt blanketing the county may, at first glance, look like a network of similarly-styled patches, each brewery—big or small—lends its own unique approach and character to the region. Step one for any aspiring brewing operation is determining how they will contribute to the overall scene and, as a result, stand out among their contemporaries.

“We’re not Stone,” notes Crute. “We’re not Ballast Point. We’re not AleSmith. We’re Lightning. We have our own approach and that’s to make beers that are uniformly highly-drinkable and interesting in category and style.”

To do that, Crute, a Ph.D.-equipped biochemist by training, employs the skills and knowledge from his previous vocation at the brewery. “Better beer through science” is his war cry. It translates to meticulous knowledge of and adherence to the finer details of every step of the brewing process, based on the belief that good beer does not happen by accident. This methodology has yielded a family of fine brews that are quite different from those produced throughout San Diego, thanks primarily to the absence of the county’s most trademark beer style—India pale ale.

“I’m not making an IPA—you can quote me on that,” says Crute, with a smile. Instead of displaying the hop-heavy hand prevalent among Southern California brewers, he aims at crafting timeless European-style ales and lagers that are intensely malty, yet balanced with hop character.

Food compatibility is also a key component of Crute’s master plan. “When folks reach for a beer with dinner, I hope they’ll reach for a Lightning beer,” says Crute. “If I can do that—make a good go-to beer for food—I’ll be getting somewhere.”

Pursuing such lofty goals with just three employees—versus the tens or hundreds employed by larger brewing companies—presents a number of challenges. Crute has found strength in numbers via the San Diego Brewers Guild, a cooperative organization made up of brewers at every level, from all of the region’s native breweries. In addition to simple advice from those who’ve been where he is now, Crute also benefits from Guild-organized events, the latest and grandest of which—San Diego Beer Week—recently wrapped up.

“San Diego Beer Week allowed us to interact with our ultimate clients,” says Crute, who lined up numerous events and interfaced with every level of beer drinker, local and tourist alike, from November 6-15. “We got to talk with people who had never heard of Lightning before but we hope will become Lightning enthusiasts.”

With quality, flavor and authenticity as the core values driving the business, it would seem San Diego’s chances for Lightning are quite high.

Details »
  • City: Poway
  • Phone: 858-513-8070
  • Name: Lightning Brewery
  • Address: 13200 Kirkham Way