135 N. Coast Highway 101, Solana Beach
4026 30th Street, North Park
I write about beer and food. As anyone who's really invested in these mediums might guess — hell, as anyone who has ever had any good beer and/or food would suppose — I am privy to taste occurrences that inspire me to go straight from plate and glass to my trusty laptop to share the glories of extraordinary sensory experiences with my readers. It’s rare. As anybody who reads my column (or leaves diatribes in the comments section about what a tough SOB I can be), I am not easily won over, which makes glowing reviews from yours truly all the more worth vesting stock in. So, know that what you are about to read is as legit as it gets — a recount of brews so exceptional, after quaffing them, I spent a couple hours getting my head around them, then rushed right to my keyboard to pound out much deserved accolades for their crafter, Devon Randall of Pizza Port.
Randall took over the Pizza Port chain’s oldest brewpub in Solana Beach (135 North Highway 101, Solana Beach) early last year. People make a big deal out of the fact she has two X chromosomes, and yes, it’s fantastic to see more women ascending the ladder within the brewing industry, but as a journalist and consumer, gender matters little to me. Good beer, on the other hand, means everything, and this brewer is putting out exceptional product, as was evidenced in the septet of ales she presented during a brunch last Sunday at Toronado in North Park.
When presented with beers in a multi-course tasting format, the first thing I do is snatch up the menu and mar it with inky notations on the composition of the beers to my personal opinions on everything from flavor and mouthfeel to highlights and shortcomings. I also affix a score ranging from one to ten for each beer (needless to say, I keep the menus out of sight so as not to tip off on-hand brewmasters and fellow patrons). Yesterday was no different in that I adhered to my typical system, but for the first time in the nearly decade I’ve been doing this, every beer scored over eight and an unprecedented three beers scored near perfect, each hitting 9.5. For a guy deemed perhaps the toughest judging beer journalist in a town rife with quality beer, this is something worth sharing. So, without further ado, here I go.
The first of the near-max-scorers will come as no surprise for those familiar with Pizza Port’s hoppy legacy. An imperial India pale ale (IPA) called Citra-R-Ama, it harnesses the orangey, grapefruit properties of Citra hops, along with some Amarillo, to produce a juicy IPA that’s beefy on the front end and dry as a bone on the finish. Powerful, yet refreshing, it is everything the modern-day hophead is looking for and, bonus, it’s not some limited edition wonder. According to Randall, it’s an everyday offering at her coastal post.
Next up was Beer Hunter, a sour that was collaboratively brewed by Randall with Pizza Port Ocean Beach head brewer Ignacio Cervantes and Lee Chase, the owner of Automatic Brewing Company (as well as Blind Lady Ale House and Tiger! Tiger! Tavern). Randall provided a “preview” of her version, which was aged for nine months on Rainier cherries in wine barrels from Palumbo Family Vineyards (in my opinion, one of the few decent wineries in Temecula). It was soft and creamily coating with a nice lacto character, a subtle lemony tartness on the front end and a balancing nip of earthy bitterness in the finish. To hear that it still had room to grow blew me away, as it was more than fine in its early state.
The last standout took several sips to fully win me over. An imperial porter called May the Port be with You, it was Randall’s contribution to Pizza Port’s Star Wars Day, wherein each of its five brewpubs offers up one beer based on the movie franchise. The beer was extremely chocolaty, accentuated by a bit of coffee-like bitterness. This is standard, but what wasn’t was the drinkability of this eight percent alcohol-by-volume ale. It was so easygoing and enjoyable that, after more complicated brews, it seemed too simple in its enjoyableness. And that’s when it hit me. Most imperial porters are over the top in their sugariness and blatant alcohol, but not this one. I asked myself, “what more could I really want out of this beer,” and aside from just the slightest decrease in residual sugar (I’m talking splitting hairs here), decided not a damn thing. Next thing I knew, there it was, the unprecedented third 9.5 in a single sitting.
Even before I started scrawling scores on my menu, I was happily surprised with the sheer variety of beers Randall brought. There were two IPAs, which is expected from a Pizza Port venue (or any San Diego brewery for that matter), plus the sour, imperial porter, a fruited wheat, a smoked beer, and a Belgian-style ale. That’s some serious diversity, made all the more impressive by the fact they were all so good.
The Belgian, a golden strong ale coming in at a whopping 13.3% alcohol-by-volume (the target ABV was 12%, but the yeast was particularly famished) and tasted almost exactly like Horny Devil, a fruity, full-bodied brew of the same ilk from Miramar’s AleSmith. The smoked beer was an augmented version of Pizza Port’s popular amber, Chronic, that had gently applied, soft-yet-meaty character. Even the wheat, rendered peach in hue and like sparkling wedding punch in flavor courtesy of cranberries, was better than most companies’ takes on what can be a style so dull the majority of beer geeks steer clear of them.
Bottom line, the beers coming out of Pizza Port Solana Beach are worthy of this long-vaunted brand. As I have said before, good beer has always come out of this link in the chain, but the addition of Randall’s talent, creativity, and young-but-developed brewing sensibilities has this brewpub on par with San Diego’s finest brewing destinations.