Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Beer's birthplaces vs. home sweet home
A post-European perspective on San Diego's beer scene
For years, I stowed away as much extra money as I could muster, storing it in the bank and fighting the urge to spend it on big-screen TVs, musical instruments, or bottle after bottle of high-priced craft beer. Truth be told, it wasn’t that tough. I was on a mission with a brilliant light at the end of my frugal tunnel. I was saving my money so that I could go to Europe. But this wouldn't be just any trip. It was a two-week trek centered around visiting the best brewing destinations London and Belgium had to offer, a trip I returned from just before Christmas.
Once I’d secured the large chunk of change required to embark on this journey, I started reading up on the aforementioned regions. I was so deeply entrenched in texts on the U.K., Belgium, and both countries’ brews that I could almost taste the lemony witbiers, the peppery saisons, the biscuity pale ales, and the roasty porters. So, by the time I arrived, I was beyond parched and ready to experience them all firsthand.
I spent the next 14 days, touring breweries including Fuller’s, Meantime, The Kernel, Westvleteren, Malheur, and Cantillon; hitting up beer bars; and crawling to pub after pub, many of which are regarded by locals and visitors alike as European beer industry forerunners. I was about three-and-a-half days into the London leg of the trip when I was gripped by an intense craving for a myriad of things—more hops, more defined flavors, more alcohol, more innovation, and more than anything, something different!
By the time we arrived in Belgium, I was clamoring for something made with a fruitier yeast strain and registering above five-percent ABV. I didn’t have to look far to find hundreds of beers that fit that dual bill. The country was my oyster. Whether you’re in the industrialized metropolis of Brussels or the medieval storybook town of Bruges, you can nary go a block without stumbling on a purveyor of singels, dubbels, tripels, quads, lambics, gueuzes, krieks, or saisons. Therein lies the glory and the letdown. That’s about all you’re bound to find.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Though I am spoiled from a craft beer perspective, I’m not bagging on London or Belgium. I in no way tired of the lovely Belgian beers I tasted while in-country, but by the time I departed, I was more than ready to head home. Now, if I lived in, say, Helena, Montana; Augusta, Maine; Topeka, Kansas; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; or any city lacking San Diego's advanced craft brewing culture, I’d have probably been quite sad to leave, finding it hard to disengage my death-grip on a champagne bottle of Malheur Dark Brut.
But because I live in America’s Finest City—a place where almost every single style of beer the world over is not only represented, but crafted either well or exceptional to the point of being named the best in the entire world—frankly, I was headed to a better place. Plus, you try finding innovative things like a nectarine quadrupel, Vietnamese coffee imperial stout, fruitcake beer, or habañero IPA on the other side of The Pond. It ain’t happening, but all of these and so many other examples of innovation are on-tap on a near daily basis in San Diego.
It’s awesome to get back to beer’s roots and, even more than that, experience different surroundings and different cultures. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with my fellow San Diegans, just how fortunate we are thanks to the determined, learned, and talented artisans manning (and womanning) our county’s brewhouses. The world is our oyster every day (we even have many of the beers I came across on my trip in bottles at our beer bars and bottle shops). I’ve seen the other side of the mountain, and it’s beautiful…but it ain’t San Diego. It’s good to be home!