"I like my beers like I like my women," says the guy on the stool next to me. "Bitter and strong."
Chris Dunn’s in the military. He’s here with Betsy and Clementine. Uh, they’re not his women. They’re his Bassett hounds, sprawled around the legs of his stool. He’s joshing, of course, though when it comes to beer, he’s dead serious. Keeps notes on everything he drinks. In a beer journal.
We’re both drinking O.B. Pizza Port Jetty IPA, tapped from a cask. IPA? India Pale Ale. Brits invented it for their troops in India, back in the day. Me, I’m looking through my glass, darkly. Looks like the Colorado River. Brown, flat, cloudy. And to drink, it’s sort of slimy, if you want to know the truth. Yet it may be the best beer I have ever drunk. Hoppy? Yes. Malty? Somewhat. Warm-flavored? Without a doubt. Strong? It feels awful high up on this stool.
This is the usual crowded Friday night at Hamilton’s. Most Fridays, they open a cask from some exotic brewery, which, more and more, ends up being somewhere in San Diego County. Coming from a cask is different: the only fizz is what the yeast burps. It’s not sterilized. It’s not pasteurized. It’s certainly not clear. But, hey, this is how the monks drank it in Medieval Europe. And look what cathedrals they built. Yes, the barstool experts around me all say Pizza Port, the Solana Beach–based micro-pub-whatever-brewery, does much better brews than this Jetty IPA of theirs. And now somebody mentions Duet, from Alpine. But as the battle rages, I’m a happy hopper.
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When you think about it, this is a great time to be a beer drinker. It’s like the Berlin Wall just came down. Choices of brewpubs, choices of beer. It’s an explosion. From Blind Lady to Small Bar to Toronado to, oh, say, Breakwater Brewing in Oceanside, craft beer-pubs and brewpubs are spreading through the county like measles. Just look at today’s beer choices. It’s, like, “Would sir prefer a Bud Light, or a pint of, uh, Ballast Point Smoked Chipotle Cocoa Nib Black Marlin Porter?”
The interesting thing is that maybe more than anyplace in the nation (though the jury’s out on Denver and Portland), San Diego is the engine driving a big push back to traditional, strong, fresh ales, and to crazy new ones, too. San Diego County seems to be turning itself over, hop, bock, and barrel to beer, that no-longer-wussy yellow stuff for working stiffs. We boast at least 38 breweries, more than in Milwaukee, more than Chicago, more than any other county in the nation. Men’s Journal has named us the “new beer capital of the U.S.” Thirtieth Street is “easily the nation’s best beer boulevard.” Food & Wine magazine called highway 78 between Oceanside and Escondido a “near-mystical route for visiting breweries.”
Of course, these 38 breweries are by no means mega-operations like the Big Three — Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch), MillerCoors, and Pabst. But, the effect they’re having on the beer scene nationally, and internationally, is nothing short of eye-popping. Yeah, yeah, yeah: Bud-MillerCoors-Pabst still have 95 percent of the market, and Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada have a third of that remaining 5 percent. So craft-breweries are still just a drop in the national beer bucket. They produce maybe 10 million barrels out of the 200 million barrels we glug annually nationwide. But while mainstream beer sales are dropping 2 percent a year, craft micro breweries’ sales are growing at around 11 percent per year. Breweries are reproducing here like rabbits, and they’re producing ale that actually has a flavor and living yeasts swimming ’round in it. Plus, we’ve got brewers who aren’t afraid to try fresh ideas, like tossing in herbs and lots of hops. The result is like discovering Thai and Italian and French and vegetarian Indian food all at once after a lifetime living on fries from McDonald’s.
See? These are the kind of dangerous, subversive thoughts you get when you’re sipping a cask ale. And an aggressively hoppy, bitter, strong-tasting ale at that. In fact, San Diego’s becoming known as the home of hoppy. Tom Nickel’s Kearny Mesa pub, O’Brien’s, calls itself “the hoppiest place on Earth.” And Stone Brewing Company up in Escondido creates maybe the hoppiest beer on Earth. Their Arrogant Bastard Ale is beyond IPA. They call it an American strong ale, which doesn’t even begin to describe its hop punch. You don’t forget the first gulp. Greg Koch, their cofounder (with Steve Wagner) says he makes “angry” beers. He’s only half kidding.
Beer is probably the oldest alcoholic drink in the world. It’s known to go back nearly 12,000 years. Okay, maybe mead (the honey concoction) is older, but beer is by far the most widespread, perhaps because it’s so simple: a mix of water, a grain like barley, that rampaging weed, the hop plant, and the essential alchemy of yeast, mankind’s magic friend.
Today, beer is the world’s third most popular drink, after water and tea. It can have as little as 1 percent alcohol or an unbelievable 55 percent (for a renegade Scottish brewery, BrewDog’s 2010 concoction called “End of History” — naturally, Stone is teaming up with them). Usual alcohol levels, like Budweiser’s, hover around 5 percent. Craft beers can go up to around 11 percent. This Jetty IPA is 6.5 percent, low for San Diego ales.
“I used to be your typical Budweiser/Coors Light guy,” says Chris Dunn, my counter-buddy with the Bassett hounds curled round his ankles. “And then one day, I was in the Navy exchange, and I saw this Arrogant Bastard Ale. I had to try it. ’Specially because under the name on the bottle it says ‘You’re Not Worthy.’”
It says more on the back: “This is an aggressive ale. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory — maybe something with a multi-million-dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beverage will give you more sex appeal. Perhaps you think multi-million-dollar ad campaigns make things taste better. Perhaps you’re mouthing your words as you read this…. At Stone Brewing, we believe that pandering to the lowest common denominator represents the height of tyranny — a virtual form of keeping the consumer barefoot and stupid.”