It’s not really surprising that Chris Cramer chose to pursue a career in beer. His distant cousin was Karl Strauss, a brewer who fled Nazi Germany as a teenager and worked at Pabst Brewing Company for 44 years — more than half of that as vice president of production.
“Some people think he was just a made-up marketing character,” Cramer says of Strauss, whose achievements at Pabst include helping reformulate its recipe for PBR. “He was one of the greatest brewers who ever lived. He was also this warm, generous, humorous human being.”
In 1989, Cramer and Matt Rattner drew on the expertise and experience of Strauss to open San Diego’s first brewery since Prohibition, which proudly bears their mentor’s name. Starting with styles like amber lager and brown ale, the company introduced the idea of flavor-forward beers produced locally to the county, which is now one of the country’s major brewing centers, home to over 130 beer makers. But at the time, “It was a Miller Lite and Coors Light town,” Cramer says.
Strauss remained an integral part of his namesake brewery until his passing in 2006 — not only contributing behind the scenes by creating recipes and training brewers, but also serving as the public face of the brand in ads. “He was so passionate,” Cramer recalls. “It was his focus on quality that really made our brewery stand out and succeed.”
Today, Karl Strauss has expanded to 11 locations across California, including its main facility in Pacific Beach, San Diego. By sales volume, it’s the 40th-largest craft brewing company in the U.S., and the 50th-largest brewing company overall, a mark even more impressive when you consider it is only distributed in the Golden State.
So what’s Cramer’s favorite Karl Strauss beer? Right now, it’s the barrel-aged Scotch ale the brewery created to celebrate its 31st anniversary last month. “I’ve been enjoying sharing it with friends and fans as we all toast to another year brewing San Diego’s finest beer,” he says. He’s also digging Boat Shoes, a new hazy IPA that’s available year round. “It’s a perfectly balanced version, capturing all the juicy, pillowy qualities that make the style so popular without being too over the top,” he says.
Here, Cramer tells us about the best and worst beers in his fridge, and more.
1. What’s your desert-island beer?
Karl Strauss Mosaic Session IPA. It’s packed with tropical aroma and flavor, yet light bodied enough to still be thirst quenching. I can’t think of a better way to waste a few months with Wilson, waiting for a passing ship to catch your signal flare.
2. What’s the beer that made you fall in love with beer?
Watneys Red Barrel, while studying overseas in London during college. It was the first time I’d tasted a beer with that much flavor, and it was my first experience with beer served via cask.
3. FMK (F*ck, Marry, Kill) three beer types: IPA, Pilsner, Sour?
I would not kill any of these types. I would, however, kill unbalanced, ridiculously over-hopped, and disgustingly bitter beers.
4. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper beer?
Our IPA, Aurora Hoppyalis. For many of the same reasons I love our Mosaic, it’s about the tropical aromas and grapefruit flavors in Aurora. But with the higher ABV, it would help pass the time a lot faster.
5. You can only drink one beer for the rest of your life. What is it?
Augustiner Helles is the perfect German lager, exquisitely brewed and consistently rewarding. I know I could drink it for the rest of my life because I’ve been drinking it for many, many years and have yet to have a glass that I haven’t loved.
6. What’s the best and worst beer in your fridge right now?
Best: Karl Strauss Queen of Tarts.
Worst: A can of two-year-old Natty Light that was left by one of our kids’ friends in our downstairs kitchenette fridge. They obviously didn’t know they left it, or that I would find it!
7. If you could no longer drink beer, what would be your beverage of choice?
I know I’d find solace in a bottle of California Cabernet. Beer may be my first love but there are stories in wine and a joy in sharing a bottle with friends that is so unique and delightful that it’s a close second for my affections.