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By Mike Shess. Photography by Kristina Yamamoto

t’s tough to mention San Diego Beer without bringing up Hamilton’s, Small Bar, or Eleven. Each of the three bars is very different from the other, and each boasts a phenomenal, meticu- lous, and frequently updated draft and bottle list. This is why West Coaster had to sit down with the people that run among the hottest brew bars in town. “We have a standard for craft beer,” says Scot Blair, proprietor of the brew trinity, “we are going to serve fresh, delicious beer at all costs.”


While the beard is indeed formidable, it does nothing to shield you from the intensity of his eyes. Buffered by medium-gauge black-frame glasses they make a hawk’s stare look sleepy.

A Marine who served in Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and numer- ous humanitarian missions, Scot has set foot on every continent save Antarctica. Born in Illinois, it was the service that brought him West, and it was San Diego he fell in love with after his tour of duty ended at age 22. Following the Marines, Scot settled in North Park 15 years ago. He landed a job with the NSA and worked as a software engineer who telecommuted from his home – a job he held until 2008 (alongside running Small Bar & Hamilton’s). He is infa- mous for running a tight operation: “Every army needs a general,” he says with a smirk.

Scot Blair, Karen Blair, and Dennis Borlek at Small Bar

And that smirk is tough to see, because it’s behind a mountain-man beard. While the beard is indeed formidable, it does nothing to shield you from the intensity of his eyes, which although covered by medium-gauge black-frame glasses, make a hawk’s gaze look sleepy. He speaks at a normal pace until you hit a topic of interest, and then the words compound with excitement like a wave building momentum on its way towards a break. “He’s a passionate person – that’s why I fell in love with him,” says Karen Blair – Scot’s wife and business partner.

Karen was introduced to Scot at The Ritual, and then they met again at Hamilton’s the day after Halloween in 2008. Karen came in, blatantly hung-over, and Scot took pity on her. They planned to meet later that night at the Red Fox Room. Not long after, he hired her to work at Small Bar. Scot popped the question at The Field following the Small Bar employee appreciation party at Karl Strauss Downtown. Karen, who was a new Small Bar employee, felt “very appreciated.”

“I don’t know if we can separate work and play, but it’s worth it.” - Karen Blair

Scot & Karen Blair, aka Blairen, in it together

Marriage is difficult enough as it is. When mixed with business, the risk is even greater. Karen elaborates, “I don’t know if we can separate work and play, but it’s worth it. It can be hard sometimes working with a Marine-husband-boss on a daily basis,” she says with a tilted smile and eye to Scot. “It is easy, though, because while he is tough, he always makes sense.” The couple currently resides in North Park with four dogs. When out together socially, they are known as Blairen. This is not only because of the cutesy name com- bination but also because, according to Karen, “we get really loud when we talk, and especially when we talk over four yappy dogs.”

The hierarchy of the bars is simple, but fluid. Karen explains “Scot runs all, but we attack business as a team and delegate as a team.” Scot focuses on event planning, such as the famous Hamilton’s “2nd Saturday”. The most recent “2nd” hosted Big Sky Brewing Com- pany from Missoula, Montana with a free feast consisting of fresh game that Big Sky staff hunted days prior. Most importantly, he is responsible for choosing the beer for Small Bar & Hamilton’s. A certified Cicerone (beer’s version of a Sommelier) and homebrewer, Scot spends much of his time hunting down beer. Through relent- less phone calls, Internet research, and interaction with brewers Blair builds and rebuilds the Small Bar & Hamilton’s beer selection. Louis Mello, of Liar’s Club fame, capably controls Eleven opera- tions, drafts and bottles. Dennis Borlek and Karen oversee manage- ment of Hamilton’s & Small Bar.

GM Dennis Borlek, checking in on his KISS-stylized elephants 6-

I inquired about the mindset that went into designing the bars. There is a unifying theme between all three of the very distinct watering

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