I returned to the US at the beginning of July after a month of visiting family and working on brewing related matters in Cape Town, South Africa. The visit left me inspired to explore different interpretations of craft beer – specifically US West Coast interpretations. My longing for such exploration was met with liquid salvation from world renowned San Diego County craft brewers when I spent the 4th of July weekend based in Carlsbad, California for a family reunion.
Carlsbad is a smallish Southern California seaside village situated at the north end of San Diego County. I actually lived there and in neighboring Oceanside as a kid in the mid- to late-seventies. My memories here are dominated by highlights of queuing for hours for the release of the original Star Wars in 1977, John Trovalta, Olivia Newton John, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees, Kiss, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Disco Inferno, The Village People, ABBA, ocean smells, and lagoons, to name a few. Little did I know Carlsbad would become home to Pizza Port, an award winning brew pub made famous by brew master extraordinaire, Tomme Aurthur.
I was last at Pizza Port well over 10 years ago at another family reunion, so I was super psyched to be staying a few minutes’ walk from it at the Surfer Motel. After settling into our room, we strolled over and were unpleasantly surprised that it was closed – WTF, on a Wednesday?! Anyway, one misfortune opened the door for a pleasant surprise just down the street at 83
83 Degrees hosts nearly 50 quality draught beers from San Diego County brewers and beyond. Playing things a bit out of order due to pure excitement, I started off with a Sculpin IPA from Ballast Point Brewing Co. For those not familiar with this brew, it is one of the highest rated IPAs on the planet – who knows, maybe even in the universe?!
It has a huge fruity, piney hop aroma and taste with a dry and balanced bitter finish. Next up in counter clockwise fashion was the Hop Odyssey Citra Session Ale from Green Flash Brewing Co. It had the typical inviting Citra aroma, sort of like an IPA-Light, the mouthfeel was thin with grassy hop character and a firm bitterness. At 5% ABV, one can certainly chug a lot it.
The next day we set out first for Lost Abbey/Port Brewing Co. in San Marcos. Lost Abbey/Port Brewing Co. was co-founded in 2006 by Tomme Arthur I gather after leaving Pizza Port as its director of brewing operations. Apparently Stone Brewing Co. was moving to bigger premises in nearby Escondido and this opened the door for the owners of Pizza Port and Tomme Arthur when they took over Stone’s old facility.
The Port Brewing brand handles more of the traditional US hop-forward beers, while the Lost Abbey brand handles Belgian-inspired, barrel-aged, and specialty beers. The lineup of beers on both sides of the chalkboard was pretty extensive. 3oz (90ml) tasters were $1 each, so I quickly lined up six – wow, eyes definitely bigger than my liver!
I tried Road to Helles (helles lager), SPA (summer pale ale with a heavy hand of Amarillo hops), Mel Dorado (an Eldorado single hop pale ale), Avant Garde (a 7% bier de gard), Red Barn (a 6.8% spiced saison), and Judgment Day (a 10.5% Belgian quad). All of the beers were solid, but as this was the first stop of four breweries that day, I needed to pace myself and sadly wasn’t able to really drink as much of each sample as I wanted.
The bonus of this visit is that I was fortunate to buy bottles of three special beers from Lost Abbey – Cuvee de Tomme, Deliverance, and Angle’s Share. Apparently Cuvee de Tomme is only available for very limited times of the year. I’m looking forward to drinking these beers this winter! Here are descriptions of each of these beers from the brewery:
"Cuvee de Tomme: A massive brown ale base that is made from four fermentable sugars including Malted Barley, Raisins, Candi Sugar and Sour Cherries, this beer is fully fermented before being placed in Bourbon barrels where the beer ages for one year with the Sour Cherries and the wild Brettanomyces yeast that we inoculate the barrels with. One of the most complex and unique beers we make each year. ABV: 11.0%.”
Ablend of bourbon barrel-aged Serpent’s Stout and brandy barrel-aged Angels Share, Deliverance is the epic battle being waged between heaven and hell for the souls of mortal men… and your enjoyment in a glass. ABV: 12.5%.”
“Angle’s Share: This striking Strong Ale is brewed with copious amounts of Caramel malt to emphasize the vanilla and oak flavors found in freshly emptied bourbon or brandy barrels. The beer spends a year in oak before it is packaged for release. ABV: 12.5%.”
All in all, the Port Brewing/Lost Abbey brewery has a fun, rough-around-the-edges, laid back atmosphere where patrons can enjoy their great beers.
Next we were off to AleSmith in Mira Mesa. AleSmith, as well as many of the other craft breweries in the area, is situated in a warehouse business district that is reminiscent of perhaps a place where you go to buy tile for your latest DIY project. But behind the tilt-up concrete panel façade, lies home to a world class brewery. The Ale Smith tasting room has a more refined ambience compared to Port Brewing’s, albeit a bit smaller. It’s quite amazing that
such a small tasting room can house such big beers!
Not wasting any time, I lined up their ESB (5.5% English version), IPA (7% West Coast style), Yule Smith – Summer (9.5% double IPA), Grand Cru (10.5% Belgian strong dark), Wee Heavy (10.0% Scotch ale), Speedway Stout (12.5% imperial stout) and proceeded to further my midday buzz.
Although AleSmith’s flagship beer is their ESB, I believe they are best known for their IPA and Speedway Stout. Their IPA consistently is rated as one of the top IPAs around the globe, and is incredibly balanced at 7% ABV. While the hop character has a bit of new school flair with Simcoe and Amarillo in the mix, the firm malt backbone sets AleSmith apart from a lot of new school IPAs where malt is used primarily as a vehicle to deliver hops (for the record, I love both approaches). The Speedway Stout is a coffee infused beast of a stout. This is definitely not a session beer! This beer fresh at the brewery is very aggressive with strong alcohol, but will undoubtedly age extremely well. Well aged versions offer a much more rounded mouthfeel where the complexities of the coffee, chocolate, roast, and caramel notes become sublime. I have one of these babies in my “cellar” waiting to be drank on a cold winters’ day hanging out by the fire!
This was the first time I had had their Grand Cru and Wee Heavy. Both of these beers have an incredible, full bodied mouthfeel that somehow comes off dry and leaves me wanting to drink a pint of a 10% beer. I would love to have taken a bottle of each of these beers back with me, but I went for the Wee Heavy as it’s not a style that gets a lot of representation in my neck of the woods.
After enjoying the exceptional beers at AleSmith, we headed off for Ballast Point a short drive away on the east side of I-15. Of the five breweries visited on our beer tour, Ballast Point was second only to Stone in terms of production. Aside from Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA and Calico Amber Ale, I wasn’t familiar with any of their other beers. So I was quite surprised to see 25 or so tap handles and even a couple cask-fed goose necks. So many beers, so little liver!
I got samples of the Longfin Lager (5% helles lager), Calico Amber Ale (5.5% West Coast version), Big Eye IPA (7% West Coast style), Sculpin IPA, Dorado Double IPA (10% imperial IPA), and Indra Kunindra (7% export stout with spices).
Calico Amber Ale is one of my favorite ambers alongside Bear Republic’s Red Rocket. It has loads of crystal malt character but tons of US hops to cut through it and balance it out. The Big Eye is a full bodied, resinous IPA. I quite prefer the Sculpin with its complex, new school hop nose and bitter dry finish (this beer finishes at 1.008!), and apparently a lot of other folks do too with its well deserved fame. The Dorado Double IPA felt more like an imperial IPA at 10% with a lot of noticeable alcohol alongside some incredible hop character. The Indra Kunindra was a different take on spiced beers using curry, cumin, cayenne, toasted coconut, and kaffir lime. While it certainly was a sensory explosion, it wasn’t my cup of tea, or beer that is. It might have left a different impression if the stout had a solid, dextrinous body to balance out the hot, sharp spices. Nonetheless, the idea of this beer showcases Ballast Point’s mission to experiment and break craft beer boundaries.
Our next stop only resulted from the advice of a San Diego County resident and beer enthusiast Tim Taylor (@timtaylor22); otherwise I would have missed this gem – Societe Brewing Co. Societe, located in Kearny Mesa, has only been open for one year, but is already making waves in the San Diego County craft beer scene.
Societe was founded by Travis Smith and Doug Constantiner. Travis brewed for Russian River and lastly The Bruery, where he met Doug. Not surprising from the caliber of beers produced at their former employers’ breweries, they are now brewing super solid beers of their own. They have a new 20bbl brew house in a large warehouse – complete with a huge barrel room and tasting room – that is perfect for the multiple expansions that will surely take place in the near future. They currently only serve draught and have a bustling growler business rolling.
Their current lineup comprises a pale ale, IPAs, Belgians, and an imperial stout, but barrel-aged, and funk beers are busy maturing. I sampled The Pupil (7.5% West Coast IPA), The Apprentice (7.5% West Coast IPA), The Harlot (6% Belgian “Extra”), The Debutante (6.9% Belgian “Amber”), The Widow (9.2% Belgian Strong Dark), and The Butcher (9.8% Imperial Stout).
I have to admit that at this point in the day, I was suffering from a bit of hop-induced pallet fatigue. This was very unfortunate as I couldn’t fully appreciate the hoppy offerings of The Pupil and The Apprentice. All I could subjectively assess was they both had a great mouthfeel, finished dry, and went down like a pale ale despite 7.5% ABV. I do recall the hop noses being of new school order. But judging by how
these beers are being rated, they are world-class.
Luckily, my pallet was able to thoroughly enjoy the other beers. The Belgian styles all had a brilliant body with what felt like the best water profile I’ve ever experienced in a Belgian. Travis confirmed that he indeed pays very much attention to his water chemistry. By the taste of it, I reckon Travis must have got an A+ in chemistry! As with the IPAs, the alcohol was well hidden in all, and they all finished dry enough to make me want to drink more….a lot more.
The Butcher for me really stood out to me, particularly because of my wife. My wife is not a stout fan, well, at least before visiting Societe. She loved it and insistently had me try it. The beer was filled with chocolate, coffee, and had a very balanced roast character. And, of course, the alcohol was again expertly hidden; 6% would have been a much better guess than nearly 10%. But as with all of their other beers, it was all about the incredible mouthfeel – full, creamy, but somehow dry enough to want to keep drinking.
Societe is without a doubt going places. I look forward to visiting again next year and to one day being able to buy their bottled beers in my local bottle store.
After four breweries, spent palates, and a great buzz rolling, we decided to save the king of San Diego County craft beer, Stone Brewing Co., for the next day. If you’ve been following me on Twitter(@furthurbrewing), you’ve probably surmised that I’m a big fan of Stone. I’ve been a fan since the first time I had them back in 1996 or 1997. So it was quite a pleasure to finally visit their brewery, and not only that, their “new” brewery and Stone World Bistro.
Stone is located in Escondido up on a hill and is a stand-alone facility. It appears extremely large compared to the other breweries we visited the day prior. (Stone continues to experience exponential growth, year after year, so I’m sure they will be expanding in their “new” already-huge-facility.) Stone also has the best looking brewery, tasting facilities, “pro-shop”, and grounds. It truly is a tourist destination. It is also rumored that they are planning to develop a full, one-stop tourist destination by building a hotel directly across the street from their brewery. I would be happy to spend a weekend eating and drinking breakfast, lunch, and diner there!
Aside from the aesthetics, there is the world-class beer. One of the coolest things about Stone is that they don’t just serve their beers. They serve beers from other breweries from the US to the EU on a combination of 36 different draught selections and over 60 different bottled selections. Unfortunately my liver is too small to make much damage to such an extensive beer list, but I did manage to get 8 offerings under my belt. From Stone, I had Stone IPA (7% ABV), Arrogant Bastard (7.2% American strong ale), Enjoy By 08.02.13 IPA (9.4% double IPA), Angry and Wit, and Delicious IPA. Angry and Wit and Delicious IPA were brewed for Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens Liberty Station. I also had Cave Art from Craftsman, Guillotine Flemish Red from Ladyface Alehouse, and Red Flag Double IPA from Rip Current.
Though I’ve had Stone IPA and Arrogant Bastard far too many times to count, I was psyched to try these beers brewery fresh. Stone IPA, as expected, had a much bigger hop nose than what is typically found in out-of-state bottles – Centennial and Chinook are the signature hops. While it is a true old school IPA, it is still a solid beer and a pleasure to drink.
Arrogant Bastard is a full-on beer, sort of like an imperial red, or at least a big red. The hop character is very aggressive, but more in taste than nose. To me this beer is a good showcasing of Chinook hops and how well they can work in darker beers, or any beer for that matter. I first had Arrogant Bastard back in 1997 and I think it still remains a beer that challenges peoples’ taste buds and attitudes toward beer.
I already had “enjoyed” a few bottles of Enjoy By 08.02.13 IPA, so having it on draught brewery fresh was a real bonus. For me, each Enjoy By seems to be the best double IPA I’ve had! Stone has figured out a way to capture serious hop aromatics like nobody’s business. It literally seems to jump right out of the glass. The hop character in each of the Enjoy By is extremely complex and the bitterness, even at the 100IBU level, bites and falls away. Stone has also mastered the key to this style of beer – drinkability. The beer finishes perfectly dry and completely hides the drunkard’s dream of 9.4% ABV. Calling it only an “IPA” doesn’t seem too far off the mark when your taste buds are deceived by the apparent lack of alcohol. Honestly, the Enjoy By IPAs I’ve had thus far are pretty much the perfect hoppy beer for me. Thank you, Stone!
As with most holidays, I wish I had had more time to visit more breweries, but I was grateful for the five I got to see. The conciliation prize was the beer stash I had amassed along the way – 34 beers and 5 beer glasses! I look forward to coming back next year for more beer adventures in San Diego County.
If any of you are looking to have a craft beer holiday, San Diego County delivers! Next up - Colorado bound!