Green Flash Brewing Co. was built as a love letter to Southern California. From the beer (its flagship is a West Coast–style IPA) to its branding (all surfboards and sunsets), the brewery has, for nearly two decades, been as thoroughly associated with San Diego as fish tacos and palm trees. Today, its IPA-heavy lineup is sold in seven Western states, with beer recipes and graphic design that scream SoCal. Yet since last year, Green Flash beers haven’t been brewed in San Diego at all, but roughly 1,100 miles away in Fort Collins, Colorado. That’s because in late 2021, global cannabis and consumer packaged goods company Tilray—the parent company of Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewing—bought Green Flash and its sibling beer brand, Alpine, from an investor group for $5.1 million and moved production to Colorado.
Such acquisitions are increasingly common in craft beer. The industry’s national sales have slowed since the explosive years of double-digit growth in the mid-2010s, leading breweries of all sizes to sell or merge with each other to boost efficiency and market share. Sometimes, that means that a beer company no longer makes beer in the city or state where it built its reputation. This poses the question: What happens when a beloved local beer is no longer local?
Flying Dog is a recent case study for this phenomenon. The Frederick, Maryland–based brewery was acquired earlier this year by F.X. Matt, the brewery that makes Saranac beer and has contract-brewed roughly 20 percent of Flying Dog’s beer for the past decade. As part of the acquisition, all Flying Dog beers are now made at F.X. Matt’s facility in Utica, New York. In fact, that was the reason for the deal: Flying Dog’s Maryland brewery either needed an estimated $15 million in upgrades and new equipment—or it could move all of its production to F.X. Matt, which already had the canning line, pasteurizer and other machinery that Flying Dog required.
“We’ve had to tell the correct story, which is that we’re going to remain a Maryland brand,” says Ben Savage, president of Flying Dog Brewery. “We’re going to have roots here and we’re going to have partnerships here and we’re going to brew beer here again eventually.”
The plan is to open a Flying Dog innovation brewery and taproom in Frederick County, and to continue to work with Maryland-based partners, such as the Orioles baseball team and the University of Maryland. As a lifelong resident of the state, Savage says maintaining his company’s status as one of the craft breweries most associated with Maryland is important to him personally and professionally.
“We’re going to brew beer down here as soon as we get things off the ground. That’s going to be meaningful to people,” he says. “To turn our back on that wouldn’t feel right and it doesn’t feel advantageous to the brand either.”
But Fred Matt, CEO of F.X. Matt, says that Flying Dog will need to take concrete steps to maintain its Maryland presence. The parent company has retained 16 Flying Dog employees, many of whom will continue to live and work in the state. “I hope people look back on this day and say, ‘I was kind of grumpy about [the acquisition] when it happened, but boy, have they done everything they said they were going to do,’” Matt says.
“It’s a bit like buying Hollister shirts outside of California. You think it’s what all Californians wear but there’s no one buying Hollister in California.”
Moving production out of state is a loss for some local fans of Flying Dog, particularly those whose interest in craft beer grew alongside the brewery. Matthew Drew of Rockville, Maryland, is one such drinker: He became interested in craft beer around the time that Flying Dog moved its company from Colorado to Maryland, in 2006. He calls Flying Dog “probably the most popular Maryland craft brewery,” and says he’ll miss the brewery’s concert series, brewery tours and taproom-exclusive beers. “Because they were a midsize brewery, they could cater to every taste, whereas other, smaller breweries are trying to get the most people in the door, so they’re going to brew three types of IPAs,” Drew adds.
Most important to Drew is what happens after this sale to F.X. Matt. If Flying Dog follows through on its plan to open a small-batch brewery in Frederick County, it would still feel local and relevant to him. “That would make me happy, to cater back to the local crowd,” Drew says. “Most people didn’t go to Flying Dog and get Gonzo Porter and Raging Bitch,” which are commercial hits with broad national distribution. “We went for whatever fun thing they were brewing next.”
Keeping sales strong in Maryland and nearby states is important for Flying Dog and its parent company alike. F.X. Matt sells 77 percent of its beer in New York state, and is counting on Flying Dog to help it expand its presence in the mid-Atlantic. Matt acknowledges that craft beer is increasingly localized, and drinkers and retailers alike want to see that a brewery has employees and partnerships with local groups in the places where it’s trying to sell beer.
It’s why Green Flash and Alpine’s six marketing employees still live in Southern California (four live in San Diego proper) even though SweetWater’s marketing department is in Atlanta. “It’s important to have people still immersed in this culture being able to communicate with a marketing team in Atlanta,” says Aaron Grossman, creative director for Green Flash. “Those are the faces of the company who are making relationships with bartenders or handing out shirts at the gas station.”
Continuity is critical on the brewing side as well. Flying Dog will continue to brew Dead Rise, a beer made with Maryland-famous Old Bay, and Green Flash will continue to use hops from the Pacific Northwest. Former Green Flash head brewer Ashley Devonshire traveled to Fort Collins twice to work with the brewing team there to tweak existing beer recipes on new equipment. The goal was to make them precisely match the beers that had been brewed in San Diego.
“The only way to really get those recipes dialed on a totally different facility, different size, different equipment, is to have somebody with the knowledge there,” Grossman says.
He also acknowledges that while brewing occurs elsewhere, these brands need to have “feet on the street” in their hometown. Green Flash has a bar inside Petco Park, where the San Diego Padres play, and for the past three years, Green Flash and Alpine have both had branded bars inside the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ events center in northern San Diego County.
Yet some San Diego beer fans wonder whether Green Flash represents San Diego more strongly to outsiders than it does to locals. Chris Leguizamon, a beer educator and member of the board of directors of the San Diego Brewers Guild, remembers finding a bottle of Green Flash West Coast IPA in his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, around 2012 and immediately buying it to get a taste of an iconic California beer. After he moved to San Diego, he found that many locals thought of Green Flash and Alpine as revered parts of California beer history—not necessarily brands that they continued to buy regularly. “It’s a bit like buying Hollister shirts outside of California. You think it’s what all Californians wear but there’s no one buying Hollister in California,” Leguizamon says.
He doesn’t blame the Tilray acquisition, though. He thinks the departure of Green Flash and Alpine’s original brewers, Chuck Silva and Pat Mcilhenney, respectively, was a point of disconnect for San Diego beer fans. (Green Flash acquired Alpine in 2014; Silva left Green Flash in 2015, and Mcilhenney’s son, Shawn, continued to brew at Alpine until 2020.) Today, Silva brews at Silva Brewing in Paso Robles, California, and Pat and Shawn Mcilhenney brew at Mcilhenney Brewing, located in the former Alpine Beer Co. space.
“The loyal beer fans who thought these brewers were making incredible beers went where the brewmasters went,” says Leguizamon.
What’s not in doubt is the role both breweries played in building San Diego’s beer culture into one that’s revered across the U.S. San Diego beer fans feel ambivalent about the breweries today, especially as they’ve moved production out of state. But Green Flash and Alpine are still widely associated with that city, albeit as trailblazers of the early craft beer movement rather than as its torchbearers into the future. “They pioneered and pushed San Diego’s name across the entire United States,” Leguizamon says. “That’s powerful.”