When Ballast Point opened its fifth location in Long Beach two weeks ago, I don’t think anybody was prepared for how quickly it was welcomed by the community. I would say it was an overnight success but it didn’t even take one night. I made my visit about three hours after they first opened their doors (which was 11:00 AM on a Thursday) and it was already packed wall to wall. As far as I could tell, the only advertising for the opening was two Facebook posts and word of mouth, but somehow the news quickly reached the entire East Long Beach and Seal Beach communities. When I first walked in, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of the design of the space–it’s open with large windows that look out to Alamitos Bay and the Pacific Ocean. You can see the the water from every table in the building (I checked) and it’s nearly unfathomable to think how much the space has changed since it was Khoury’s Restaurant. While I admit I didn’t come for the design and views, they will be what brings me back in the future, because I’m not confident the beer always will.
Since Ballast Point sold the brewery to Constellation Brands, I have been drinking less of their beer for several reasons. The main one is that corporate-owned beer seeks to expand its market share and the only way to do that is to squeeze smaller or up-and-coming breweries off the shelves, which is not a practice I want to regularly support. The second reason is that the direction Ballast Point is taking most of their beer doesn’t jell with my taste. A few years ago, when they added habañero peppers to Sculpin IPA, it was a virtually unheard of move that was so novel it didn’t feel gimmicky. Now each main production beer has at least one fruit and/or pepper variant and they seem to show no signs of slowing. In my few visits, I’ve heard the bartenders pushing beers like Watermelon Dorado and Red Velvet Cake oatmeal stout. At the opening day, I tasted a few sips of Orange Vanilla Fathom India Pale Lager and it was clear what their intentions for the beer were. If we rate beer drinkers on a 1-5 scale with one being Bud Light drinkers and 5 being people who won’t imbibe anything that’s not either barrel aged or less than a week old, Ballast Point has shifted their focus from the 4s and 5s to the 2s and 3s. With beers like Orange Vanilla Fathom, they aren’t trying to impress craft beer drinkers with unique twists in familiar beers, they’re trying to convert people who don’t like beer or heretofore did not care about flavor to start drinking Ballast Point beers that taste like Popsicles.
That probably sounds harsher than my intention really is, and if they’re able to bring macro beer drinkers into the realm of craft, I think that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, if people start to identify with the Ballast Point brand specifically instead of craft as a whole, it’s a missed opportunity, because their dollars aren’t going to the craft beer market. Whatever they are doing, it’s working extremely well, at least for now, in their first LA area expansion. I’ve been three times (and attempted to go a fourth but the line to get in was 45 minutes) and both times I’ve seen at least a half dozen people I know. I’ve ran into friends from high school I hadn’t seen in nine years, locals normally seen around Seal Beach, and beer geeks recognizable from beer festivals and special bottle releases. It’s definitely the hottest spot in town right now, filling my Instagram and Snapchat feeds, particularly among my non-beer geek friends. It’s a fun place to hang out and drink a beer, and I imagine the food is good based on my experiences at the Little Italy location. And though people have made this gripe about Sculpin, there seems to have been no perceived dip in quality for Victory at Sea, the Imperial Porter that will always hold a spot on my favorite beers list. So while I won’t be lining up to try the next berry-flavored lager or blonde ale they produce, I’m sure I’ll be back at Ballast Point Long Beach in the future, sipping a Victory at Sea, and enjoying the view–inside and out.