A mini-vacation in San Diego? Why not!
There are over 25 breweries in San Diego County alone. A beer festival was approaching. And Petco Park was still on our to-do list of stadiums.
So, in September we headed out for a week of California sunshine, catching the still-in-contention Padres at their new ballpark and, of course, some mighty fine beer.
Our biggest challenge was deciding what brewery to visit first. Yes, we agree—life should be this complicated all of the time.
We headed north. Our first stop was the brand new digs of the Stone Brewing Co. (1999 Citracado Parkway) in Escondido. A beautiful stone bar (what else?) and a gargoyle, the brewery’s icon, catch your eye as you enter the tasting room. If your tastes run toward hoppy beer, you may never want to leave.
Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale is the stuff that legends are made of. Trivia lovers will be interested to know that each beer has its own gargoyle and that Stone has its own font. The same artist, Thomas K. Matthews, created both. Fate couldn’t have been nicer to us that day, because Matthews stopped by the brewery with several of his friends. They took the same tour that we did and we learned first hand about his work and his long time business relationship with Stone’s CEO, Greg Koch.
Stone is thinking big. The new brewery’s capacity is 250,000 barrels a year. The brewhouse is built around a 150 hectoliter Rolec system from Bavaria and 360-barrel capacity fermenters. It’s computerized, state-of-the-art, and fortunately for the brewery staff, self-cleaning, and Stone’s cold room, we were told, is larger than the old brewery. Stone sends spent grains to local cattle farms—which presumably feed those happy cows you see on California cheese ads.
The tour lasts about 45 minutes. The friendly staff will offer you a few samples afterwards, and an outstanding collection of their brews “to go” is available as well.
The restaurant, which adjoins the brewery, has opened since we visited. Our tour guide, Ken, promised that, just like Stone’s beer lineup, the food menu has “something to offend everyone.” We chuckled at the “stinky cheese plate” and the “really stinky cheese plate.”
So Much More Than Pizza
No beer trip to San Diego could be complete without a stop at Pizza Port, where we sampled the award winning brews of Tomme Arthur. There are four locations: the old Stone facility in San Marcos where Pizza Port brews for distribution, and three restaurants, located in Solana Beach, San Clemente and Carlsbad. We chose the Carlsbad location (571 Carlsbad Village) because it happens to be the where they hold their Real Ale, Belgian and Strong Ale festivals.
As Pizza Port’s name suggests, this is, in addition to a brewery, a pizzeria. The menu is filled with interesting topping choices, as well as a “build your own” variety.
The decor is best described as “contemporary surfer” with boards hanging from the ceiling. It’s as informal as an establishment can get: you have to stand in line to place your food order and get your own plates and utensils. Seating is at shared picnic tables, or at a few booths along the wall.
“What about the beer?” you ask. Well frankly, you can’t go wrong with any of the house beers; they’re just that good. There were more than a dozen on the menu, including our favorite, Amiga, a Vienna style lager. Most of the other selections were ales, including Bombardier IPA, Warm Waters Wheat, Old Viscosity Imperial Stout, and Carlsbad Cream. There is also a rotating selection of guest ales and ciders.
We decided that we had to pay a visit to AleSmith after we noticed that Speedway Stout had cracked the top five favorites on one beer-enthusiast site. The brewery is located inside an industrial complex (9368 Cabot Drive, San Diego). The tiny tasting area is located in the back, near the loading door. Taps are mounted on the outside of the cooler.
AleSmith’s annual production is close to its 1,000 barrel capacity. Although the brewery offers a range of beers to suit every taste, it specializes in bourbon-aged beers. The steady stream of customers we saw pulling up for a growler refill tells us this is a brewery to keep an eye on.
It’s amazing that a brewery tucked away in a strip mall, and located behind a homebrew supply store, can turn out 5,000 to 6,000 barrels a year. But that’s what Ballast Point Brewing Co. (5401 Linda Vista Rd., San Diego) has managed to accomplish. It opened as a homebrew shop in 1992, and began brewing commercially in 1996. In 2005, it opened a second location in Scripps Ranch.
Ballast Point’s name comes from a spit of land on the Point Loma Peninsula, which was once the gateway to San Diego’s harbor. Many years ago, stones from the area were loaded onto sailing ships bound for the East Coast—as ballast, of course—and many New England streets are lined with those stones today.
We sampled Ballast Point’s beers at an itzy-bitzy tasting area just beyond the homebrew supplies and underneath a chalk board telling visitors what’s on tap. It’s here that we met Colby Chandler, the head brewer and newly-elected president of the Brewers Guild. Colby was a homebrewer—most of San Diego’s commercial brewers started that way, he told us—and is a certified beer judge, who chucked corporate life to go into brewing. He was kind enough to recommend other “hop spots,” including O’Brien’s (4646 Convoy St., San Diego), a beer bar that you ought to include in your itinerary. Colby told us that San Diego’s guild is so strong because the homebrewers’ spirit of cooperation carried over into commercial brewing.
The Karl Strauss Brewing Co. started in 1989 on the beach and fittingly, the Web site has a “surf cam.” Today, it has expanded to a mini-chain of six brewery restaurants. We stopped in at the downtown location (1157 Columbia St., San Diego). Once you’re inside, check out the ceiling. It reminded us of an inverted Viking ship, even though the rest of the decor is sleek and modern. With a name like Karl Strauss you’d expect a lager, or three, on the menu, and yes, they have them, right along with a full range of ales.
On a perfect Friday evening, we attended the San Diego Festival of Beer. The festival has been held for 12 years, and it’s for a good cause: raising funds for the fight against cancer.
Each year, several downtown city blocks are cordoned off to allow 4,500 people to sample the microbrews of over 50 breweries. One of the breweries we visited earlier in the week gave us a “heads up” that the Brewers Guild booth offers special release beers that aren’t available at the individual brewery booths. The locals were friendly and we enjoyed chatting about beer and politics at the picnic table we managed to snag.
And the baseball? It didn’t disappoint us either. We caught two games—at one of them, the final home game of the season, we saw Trevor Hoffman break the record for most career saves at 479. Sweet.
Speaking of baseball, by the time you read this, pitchers and catchers will already have reported and a new season will be right around the corner. St. Louis, here we come!
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.