Matthew Lickona 3 p.m., Sept. 30
Beer Touring: Helm's Brewing
Dark side of the equation is brightest at Kearny Mesa newbie
The first time I had a beer from Helm’s Brewing Company (5640 Kearny Mesa Road, Suite C/N, Kearny Mesa) was at a Japanese craft beer tasting event at downtown sushi den, Ogawashi. It was the only local product provided that evening, and appeared as a bonus “dessert” of sorts, which Helm’s brewmaster Brian Mitchell, who attended the dinner, brought with him to share.
That brew was an imperial stout made with Ghirardelli cocoa powder called Chocolate Night. Poured from a freshly filled growler, it was silky, coating, and decadent in its heavy chocolate character. It made me sad that I’d spent so much time at Helm’s before they had any beer on tap, interviewing Mitchell and the business owners before they opened their doors, but had failed to return since their beer went up for sale. I immediately made plans to rectify that.
Fast forward a few weeks and several industry experts and I were bellied up at the Helm's tasting bar ordering a pour of each of the eight beers on tap. It was a broad assortment made up mostly of English styles served up in quantities more substantial (five-to-six ounces each) than many tasting rooms. One flight was enough for several of us to get a good feel for each of the beers.
We started with the lighter end of the spectrum with Olfaction Extra Pale Ale and Captain’s Pale. The Captain’s was passable if not necessarily desirable. I could see it fitting in as a low-hop gateway beer, an alternative to macrobeers enjoyed over several hours of watching sports. The Olfaction on the other hand, was a bit of a dud. It was heavy in mouthfeel and a bit ashy in the finish.
From there, it was on to Goosefoot Ginger, a Belgian amber ale that tastes like a wit and looks like a dunkelwiezen. Both of those are wheat beers, but a Belgian amber is not, so go figure on that one. Made with crystallized ginger, candied beet sugar, raisins, and quinoa, then spiked with a bit of Brettanomyces, it sounds extremely interesting, but tastes pretty mild given all that went into it. The ginger is hard to detect as the beer is devoid of the spiciness that ingredient brings on, and the beer isn’t as dry as one would expect from a Brett beer. Still, it was drinkable and an interesting concept if nothing else.
On advice of counsel (i.e., a very friendly bartender who didn’t have quite as much beer knowledge as I’d hoped but made up for it by being extremely pleasant and accommodating), we made our way through the darker beers next, saving IPAs for last. This turned out to be the best segment of the tasting experience. Batten Down Brown was easygoing and unimposing, probably the most drinkable of the octet. Beeruccino, the brew I’d heard the most positive notes about coming in, was pleasant but not nearly as coffee-ish as I’d have expected. Still, it went down nicely, as did Chocolate Night, which tasted much drier and less chocolaty than the first time around.
The red IPA (cleverly dubbed “Hop the RIPA”) and Wicked as Sin IPA led with hops, coming across more earthy than piney or fruity and exhibiting the full body more typical of a British-style India pale ale than a West Coast iteration. Both had their charms, but tasted like they could use a little more work. As it turns out, that’s the plan.
During a chat with Mitchell, he stated that the beers aren’t yet exactly where he or his bosses (a quartet of long-time friends sharing a common vocation outside the brewing industry) want them, and that he’s tweaking the recipes so that future batches hit the taste and stylistic standards they are going for. A follow-up visit is clearly in order down the road. But for now, chocolate, coffee and nutty browns are the way to go. The darker the better.