Written by Tom Becham
My wife and I recently visited two of the many icons of San Diego’s lively beer community.
The first is the semi-legendary Port/Lost Abbey Brewing Company. While Port/Lost Abbey was started in 2006, it has its roots in the Pizza Port brewpub chain, which has been a fixture of the San Diego County beach scene for more than 20 years. The brewery’s brewmaster, Tomme Arthur has impeccable brewing credentials and multiple awards to his credit.
Port/Lost Abbey is actually in the town of San Marcos, an inland community in northern San Diego County. In fact, in a bit of trivia of interest to beer geeks, Port/Lost Abbey is located in the building formerly occupied by Stone Brewing before they moved into their new digs in Escondido.
Of course, calling the Port/Lost Abbey HQ a “building” may be charitable. It’s pretty much just a small warehouse in an extremely non-descript industrial tract. But don’t let that put you off. When you go inside it is still basically just a warehouse, with a bar along one wall, and wooden barrels of aging beer everywhere else. The “chairs” at the bar are old kegs with large barley sacks on the top of them for “seats.” Don’t be fooled. It only adds to the fun.
Another level of fun in the tasting room is added by the two ladies at the bar. (Ladies, if you read this article, forgive me for not remembering your names. You were a bit too generous on the pours for sampling!) They tell you they “won’t be gentle” and indeed, they give all the patrons some great sarcastic banter.
Finally, the brewery website has a “beer cam” which shows the activities going on at the tasting room bar. They’ve also set up a monitor so you can watch yourself on the webcam while you sit and drink at the bar!
Now to the important part: What is the beer like?
Port/Lost Abbey seems a bit like a person with Multiple Personality Disorder, but I mean that only in the best of ways. The company maintains two completely different lines of product.
The first is the Port Brewing line of beers, derived from the brewpub days. These beers are the traditional styles typically found in an American alehouse (pale, amber, IPA, etc.). Just keep in mind that Port has traditionally catered to the local surfer community, which likes good beer but also wants the quickest buzz for the buck. So the beers are not only yummy and distinctive for their styles, they are also uncommonly strong. My particular favorite is the Old Viscosity Ale. While Port declines to state exactly what style it is, Old Viscosity is an English Old Ale with a strength of 10% ABV. It is just as thick as its name would imply, and it is a warming, semi-sweet malt-bomb of a beer.
The Belgian-inspired beers of the Lost Abbey line have acquired a cult-like following among beer geeks and rightly so. They range from very good to some of the best in the world and are always interesting. Tomme Arthur likes to use wild yeasts (Brettanomyces) in brewing them, which tends to lend a slightly funky, spicy taste. The line is too big to thoroughly describe each of them, so I will give brief, thumbnail sketches of my impressions:
Avant Garde “Biere de Garde.” A classic of its style, but with a bit more of a twang, due to the yeast. Malty, with spicy hop accents.
Devotion “Belgian Blonde Ale” Probably the most run-of-the-mill of Lost Abbey’s offerings. Still, very drinkable and good for what it is.
Judgement Day “Quadrupel” A huge, dark, thick Belgian quad. May almost be a bit too sweet for some. Masks its 10% ABV well. The raisins used in the brew are obvious on the palate.
Lost & Found “Generic Abbey.” I think they tried to copy Orval with this one. A good effort, and very tasty brew, but they didn’t quite capture the unique qualities of Orval.
Red Barn “Saison.” Probably the best of the American attempts at a Saison. Has much of the “barnyard” qualities to the aroma that good saisons have, as well as the spicy hops and thirst quenching capacities.
Carnevale “Saison” An unusual twist to a Saison. Not quite sure what the “secret ingredient” is, but it’s a bit odd, in a good way.
Inferno “Strong Belgian Gold Ale ” An obvious attempt at cloning Duvel. And damn near as tasty. They mastered the balance of sweet maltiness and flowery hop bitterness of the original.
“Angel’s Share Barleywine.” One of the best barleywines I’ve ever had. Comes in two varieties: aged in old bourbon barrels, or brandy barrels. Both are incredibly complex, aromatic, and change continuously on the palate. Describing them would be like trying to describe why Mozart’s music is so amazing; you simply have to experience it for yourself.
We also purchased a bottle of Cuvee de Tomme on the way out. We have not cracked that open as yet, as it is a “special occasion” beer and should be saved the way one would save a bottle of Dom Perignon.
In all, I highly recommend the Port/Lost Abbey experience. Whether you can actually go there, or can find the beer on your local retail shelves (a rare and singular occurrence outside of California), it is definitely worth the time and effort.
Our second experience of the San Diego beer scene was a bit more mainstream and I mean that in several ways. We went to the Karl Strauss brewpub for dinner one evening.
Okay, yes, Karl Strauss is a Southern California chain. Yes, they specialize in very mainstream ale and lager styles. Still, what they do, they do superbly. I also like to think of Karl Strauss beers as “gateway beers” for our friends who have yet to delve into the world of beer geekdom. Strauss may well lead them to “the Dark Side” and persuade them to experiment with
The Karl Strauss restaurant my wife and I visited was the one in downtown San Diego. Right away, we noticed a classic pub-style interior with plenty of wood and polished brass. And despite the large windows looking out on the street, the pub still conveyed a cozy, small-time atmosphere reminiscent of Cheers.
Let me also say that the service there was excellent, and the food superb. From the pork medallions, to the grilled veggies to the desserts (their Red Trolley Amber Ale is a great base for a dessert topping, amazingly enough) I cannot say enough good things about Strauss’ food.
In fact, the food tended to overshadow the beer.
Strauss does things like basic ales and lagers very well. In fact, to taste their Oktoberfest is to taste an amazing, perfectly-balanced effort of bready maltiness and mildly spicy hops. It is when they try to do “extreme” brewing that they get into trouble.
My wife tried some of their Belgian Trippel, and I had a glass of Imperial Amber Lager. The Trippel was, at best, mediocre. The Imperial Lager was way too “hot” and alcoholic in the palate for a beer of only 7.5% ABV.
My suggestion is that if you go to a Karl Strauss brewpub, or buy their beers from the store, that you stick with their Amber Lager, Red Trolley Ale or Oktoberfest Lager. They are not big, exciting, unusual beers, but they are excellent for their market niche, and far better than similar efforts by the macro-swill manufacturers. If interested, visit their website at www.karlstrauss.com
Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.org.