“So, naturally, I bought it,” says Dunn. “And when I tasted it, it was, like, Wow! This is very good beer. Originally, I’m from Arkansas. Grew up drinking the Budweisers of this world. Now, I won’t drink a Budweiser even if it’s free. I tell my friends, ‘I would rather spend two dollars more to enjoy a good beer than to have a crappy one.”
He says, yes, his buddies look at him a little sideways over this. But Chris lives in South Park now. He’s a regular at Hamilton’s, and there’s no going back. “When I first came into this bar, I knew right away I’d moved into the right neighborhood. You do not see Budweiser. You do not see Coors. Plus, they let me bring my dogs in. This is my favorite bar of any I’ve ever been to in my life.”
I ask what he’ll put in his journal about the Jetty IPA.
“I would say the color, cloudy. Not a lot of bubbles. The head wasn’t too much. But the taste, bitter, which I like. On a scale of ten, I’d give this a five. I am going to be picky about my IPAs.”
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So, what is this India Pale Ale (though everybody just calls it IPA) thing going on with San Diego brewers? Why have “big, hop-forward,” bitter beers — way hoppier than Europe ever dared try — taken off here, while also starting to take off worldwide? Free-thinking California is not bound by hidebound traditions from back East or across the pond. And the adventurousness seems to have struck a chord. Recently, Beer Advocate magazine’s many thousands of international readers voted “Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company, which makes Arrogant Bastard,” the “all-time top brewery on Planet Earth.” Or check out Ballast Point (which started off in 1992 as a home-brew joint in a modest strip mall in Linda Vista): Last year, the Brewers Association named it “best small brewery” in their World Beer Cup annual competition, which they claim is the world’s largest. (Ballast Point is still in the strip mall.)
A good buddy of mine — I’ll hold his name to protect him from the hophead hordes — thinks it’s all a con. Nothing more than a craze everyone’s pretending to like, just to be cool. He thinks Stone’s IPA “tastes like horse piss,” and that these San Diego microbreweries are just trying to “get noticed by making out-of-balance hop-bomb beer.”
Whatever, San Diego’s “hop-bomb” brewers are helping the country’s small beer-makers rejoin a world that has shut them out since Prohibition. And that’s the tradition of brewing local, regionally different beers in small breweries.
IPAs started life as a British export to their troops stationed out in India back in the 1800s. British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops and alcohol in the beers they were sending out, the strong beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa. The alcohol and the hops acted as preservatives. ’Course, then a few India-bound beer ships wrecked on the coast of Scotland, which gave locals the chance to sample the cargo. The secret was out, and IPA has been a staple in the UK, as well as India, ever since.
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But not in the U.S. The next Friday afternoon, I learn why. I’m standing at the Washington Street trolley stop, looking up at the beautiful old brick Mission Brewery building, which made beers for San Diego from 1913 until Prohibition closed it down in 1920. In fact, only the largest of the nation’s 1568 breweries active in 1910 survived Prohibition, and they did so by making “near beer” and soft drinks. Even after the repeal in 1933, with the shortage of grains during the Great Depression, and then the dearth of almost everything during WWII, only the largest breweries survived. They lived to dominate the market for 50 years. It was a case of the bland leading the bland, until President Jimmy Carter, in 1979, finally passed a law decriminalizing home-brewing — and 90 percent of microbreweries develop from home-brewing.
Even then, it took the country another 15 to 20 years to wake up and realize this was doable. Only in 2009, after an entire century, did the nation climb back up to the number of breweries it boasted in 1910. San Diego started its road back in the mid-1980s when native-born Chris Cramer, who had just graduated from college, was so inspired by a brewpub he’d visited in Australia that he decided to start one up here in his home city. He and his friend and fellow-graduate Matt Rattner came up with the idea of reintroducing locally brewed beer to San Diego. Cramer contacted his cousin, Karl Strauss, and on February 2, 1989, a little piece of history happened: they opened their first Karl Strauss brewpub on Columbia Street. Was San Diego ready for actual fresh beer? On that first day, the line of people went clear around the block.
Twenty-two years later, I walk up Washington and turn into the renovated space of Mission Brewery Plaza. Offices fill the main building, but at a glassed-in extension jutting out into the courtyard, I spot a cluster of stainless-steel fermenting tanks. At the bottom of a sloping path, right by the tanks, two women sit at a makeshift tap counter, taking money for beers. They’re selling taster-size glasses from New English Brewery and Five Points Brewing Company. Five Points is brewing for New English under contract. At $4 for 5 tasters, my choices include an ESB — “Extra Special Bitter” — an IPA, a brown, and a pilsner. I lay them out on the single three-stool counter, where the fermentation tanks bulge out toward me.
It strikes me: we’re back to the future here, back to mom and pop. My New English Brewery’s pilsner has traveled exactly 15 feet from where it was made to my mouth. And no far-off boardroom is telling these guys how to make it.