Pilgrimage to a Beer Mecca

San Diego Cornado bridge

Written by Tom Becham for professorgoodales.net

My wife and I recently made another short trip to San Diego – or as I call it, “a pilgrimage to Beer Mecca.” I am fortunate to have a spouse who is almost as appreciative of good craft beer as I am. This is all the more amazing when one realizes she was raised in a Coors-drinking household, and thus believed all beer to be equally vile until just a couple years ago.

The original purpose of this trip was to return to Port/Lost Abbey Brewery for the release of their Red Poppy Ale, a Flemish-style sour ale. Flemish sour is my wife’s favorite beer style, and Red Poppy is an uncompromising example, probably the best American-made sour, and laced with sour cherries. Indeed, Red Poppy is very reminiscent of Verhaege’s Echte Kriek. Red Poppy is a very small batch beer, and generally only available at the brewery door. If you like very acetic, shockingly sour beers, or are a fan of lambic-type beers (the real ones, not the sweet,syrupy, ersatz-lambics), you’ll love Red Poppy.

Another of the justifiably big names in the San Diego beer world is AleSmith. Indeed, AleSmith’s Speedway Stout is regularly mentioned on Beer Advocate’s annual list of Best Beers of All Time. I am always eager to try an Alesmith brew, and had never encountered a bad one before. Unfortunately, Alesmith has narrow hours for its tasting room, so we had to try their beers at establishments that might not have had the proper respect for their brews.

The first one we tried was AleSmith’s Nautical Nut Brown Ale. Since we drank this in a restaurant, it was naturally served far too cold. It was a very dark brown in color, closer to a porter in appearance than a conventional brown ale. It had a small and very short-lived head, but the aroma was amazing; caramel malt, tobacco and tea, with hints of sandalwood. The taste also did not disappoint, with the emphasis being toffee-flavored malts with an earthy hop bite on the back end. As the beer warmed, a distinct hazelnut aftertaste also settled in. This is a classic example of the dryer style of brown ale. The beer paired perfectly with our crème brulee’ dessert.

Our second AleSmith encounter was during lunch at the Stone Brewing Bistro and World Gardens in Escondido (more on the Stone experience later on). Unfortunately, this resulted in my tasting the first AleSmith beer I didn’t like. It was a red/amber ale of about 6% ABV called My Bloody Valentine, but it should have been called “My, What a Bloody Mess”. The first hint of trouble was the beer’s appearance. While it was the proper hue of red for its style, it had a cloudy, turbid look that was disturbing, and absolutely no head. It had a very strong grapefruit hop aroma. The mouthfeel was like mud, and quite off-putting. The flavor had a decent malt backbone, with resiny, grassy hops dominating the aftertaste. All in all, it was a thoroughly unpleasant drinking experience. I would like to give AleSmith the benefit of the doubt on this one, and attribute the faults with this beer to Stone’s shoddy keg maintenance. At some point, I shall have to give My Bloody Valentine a second chance.

As I promised, I will now discuss the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens.

Stone, while still deserving of the label of craft beer, no longer can truthfully be called a micro. Their new facility in Escondido is far too large for that. The bistro itself is a handsome but stark affair, decorated in the un-carved namesake stones and utilizing iron re-bar for railings. The garden areas seem lush but desert-friendly. The food is also fairly perfect for the brews Stone offers; they have very strongly flavored menu selections that play well with the intensely hoppy experience of most of their beers. My wife and I dined on boar baby-back ribs in a smoked porter barbecue sauce, prime rib melt and pale ale 3-cheese macaroni and cheese. We’ll have to return at a future date, because who can resist having a crack at duck tacos?

As I had tasted most of Stone’s beers already, I went straight for a couple of their more obscure, less available brews. The first was their 2010 Old Guardian Belgo-Barley Wine. Supposedly, this was brewed in a more Belgian style than their standard Old Guardian. It was a very dark, ruby-colored beer, with small, short-lived head. The aroma was atrocious, and was reminiscent of an old medicated band-aid. I had heard about such things happening to beer before, but this was my first experience with it. Luckily, the taste was better than the aroma would indicate and featured an acidic fruitiness up front, but from mid-palate onward was all piney hops. (This was actually mildly hoppy for Stone, as their Arrogant Bastard Ale not only assaults your taste buds and slaps you upside the head with hops, but also insults your parentage and ridicules the way you dress. ) If they could fix the flaw that resulted in the awful nose, Stone could have a winner in this brew. On the other hand, it could have also been a bad batch.

Image courtesy The Full Pint.com

A very pleasant surprise was Stone’s relatively new brew, Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. Stone bills this as a “Double Black IPA”, but Stone really doesn’t believe too much in adhering to style in any case. I would actually be more tempted to classify this as an exceptional hoppy Imperial Porter. Indeed, I think Stone probably used their Smoked Porter (without the smoked malt) as a base for this beer. It poured black, with a licorice and coffee nose. It was dark and roasty at the front of the palate, with a very strong grassy hop dominating the finish. It hides its alcohol (8.7%) quite well. A nice product, and it will definitely appeal to Stone’s base, as well as a wider audience.

Stone’s bar is extremely well-stocked, both with their own brews, and an astonishing variety of others. They had over 30 beers on tap, and twice that many on the bottle list. Selections including many American micros and foreign classics. It would be a great place to spend a day if you have a pocket full of major cash, and a cab to drive you home.

My wife and I sample several of the non-Stone offerings. The first we tried was from Lagunitas, and is a barley wine called Brown Shugga. Brown Shugga is that typically dark coppery color of many barley wines, with a short-lived, small head. The nose had a small whiff of malt, but was dominated by citrusy hop smells. The palate was quite interesting, with a sweet, honey-like note up front, and medicinal hop bitterness in the finish. Oddly enough, Brown Shugga actually got less hoppy as it warmed, fading into a marmalade-like bitterness that balances the malt very well. A nice effort from Lagunitas.

The last two beers my wife and I sampled at Stone were from a tiny microbrewer in Pasadena, California called Craftsman. The website for the brewer was particularly unenlightening, and resembles nothing so much as an abandoned Yahoo! Group. One hopes that this is because they are too busy filling an expanding order sheet rather than giving up on site maintenance. Especially since their beers were truly amazing.

Craftsman Brewmaster Mark Jilg. No, that’s probably not a glass of Honesty in his hand. Picture courtesy LAist.com

The first was a sour ale that they call Honesty. This was a fairly mild sour, which was not all that acidic. It would make a great “starter sour”. It was somewhat gueuze-like on the nose, with some definite tart, fruity notes on the tongue. I believe Craftsman might have used some wheat in the brew due to the lightness, and some hints of apricot appeared in the palate, too. I do not know if this was due to the yeast used, or if actual apricot was in the brew. Information on Craftsman’s beers is limited.

I was only able to find one reference in all of my beer books to Craftsman, and fortunately, mention was made of the second of their beers my wife and I tried that day. This is an entry called Cabernale. They do, in fact, use grapes in this ale. My impression is that Cabernale uses a pale ale base to which grapes are added. Cabernale looks in fact like a Cabernet, dark reddish-purple and opaque. There is much fruit (mostly cherry and raspberry, with very little discernible grape) on the nose. The palate has all the above-mentioned fruits, with a bit more of the grape coming to the fore. In all, the overall impression is that one is drinking sangria. Very dangerous at 8.5 ABV!

Picture glass of Cabernale courtesy eatingla.blogspot.com


Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.org.

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