"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.
∗ ∗ ∗
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.”
“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.”
∗ ∗ ∗
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.
∗ ∗ ∗
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.
Today the local brewer who’s taken the name “Mission Brewery” doesn’t have access to this namesake building. But don’t worry: Mission Brewery, the beer-makers, have moved into the old Wonder Bread bakery near the ballpark, after starting out in Chula Vista. Which tells you how crazy it’s getting in this here beer town.
∗ ∗ ∗
“That’s the thing about the San Diego brewing scene,” says Tom Nickel, the owner of O’Brien’s pub (also honored as one of the “Top 25 Beer Bars on Planet Earth” by Beer Advocate). “There’s a generosity here among brewers. We figure it’s us against the world, converting the unenlightened to real ale. So, we help each other out. Supplies, ideas, facilities. We compete, but it’s not cutthroat.”
Nickel and I are sitting at one of the patio tables outside O’Brien’s, his Irish-looking “beer pub” on Convoy. I’ve been here a couple of times before. It always seems to be crowded. He and his wife have been running it since 2003. Nickel not only sells craft beers but sometimes brews them himself, with buddies at places like Ballast Brewing. And they’re pretty darned good brews. At the World Beer Cup held in Chicago last year, O’Brien’s IPA won gold for “American-style strong pale ale,” in a field of 59 entries. That was also the year San Diego County breweries won more Best Beer medals than Germany or Belgium or the UK. “You can see how well we were getting rated on beeradvocate.com,” says Nickel. “Stone, Lost Abbey, Pizza Port, Green Flash, Ballast Point have all ranked very highly for a number of years. They’ve consistently ranked as five of the top ten breweries in the country. So, the brewing community caught on, the beer-geek community nationwide caught on, and now I feel like, in the last two or three years, people in San Diego have caught on.”
The story of Tom Nickel is pretty much the story of San Diego beer. “I started in the beer scene at 18, when I went to school back East (at Yale, studying Medieval history). I played football my freshman year. I was a big guy, and I knew if I walked into the local liquor store wearing my freshman football jacket, they were going to sell me beer. Sure enough, they did. And in New Haven there was a local brewery. I was just fascinated by that. A local brewery was like a totally new concept to me. I started trying ales and beers I had never had before. Every week I’d buy a bottle, and after trying 30 or 40 beers, I realized that this is something I really like. Then I came back out here [to California] and I couldn’t buy beer, and a friend was, like, ‘Well you know you can make your own beer.’ I was, like, ‘No you can’t!’ He said, ‘There’s a place down El Cajon Boulevard,’ the old Beer and Wine Crafts. So, we went down there, and we started making beer. And then, after college, I thought I should just do something fun for a bit before making a serious career move, and I got a job at Home Brew Mart. That was 1995.”
He spent a couple of years at Home Brew Mart (which grew into Ballast Point Brewing — they share the premises). “I was trying to sell home-brew ingredients five days a week, teaching home-brew classes, and when things were slow I was just, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to brew a batch of beer.’ It was cool. The customers would walk in, and I’m brewing, and they’re, ‘Oh, what are you making?’ It was a great sales pitch. And I literally got to brew with every ingredient that we had. Every grain, every yeast strain, every hop variety. So, by the time I left there in 1997 I’d used hundreds of ingredients. Home Brew Mart gave me my beer education.”
Nickel went on (with fellow brewer Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port in Solana Beach) to start the Strong Ale Festival in 1997, and the Real Ale Festival (for cask beers) in 1998. And Ballast Point went on to be named best microbrewery in the world last year.
“I worked at Pizza Port from November 1997 to June of 1998, then I went to brew at Stuft Pizza in Del Mar (now Oggi’s). And Tomme and Jeff Bagby, his assistant brewer [now head brewer at Pizza Port Carlsbad], and I would travel a lot together, to the Great Arizona Beer Festival or the Boonville Beer Festival in Northern California. We’d share hotel rooms at the Great American Beer Festival. We were always together. The Three Amigos. We were missionaries, spreading the gospel of San Diego beer.”
But there was resistance. “People would be, like, ‘San Diego? There’s no good beer in San Diego!’... It was when I was working at Oggi’s that I realized this could be my career. But it wasn’t until years later, maybe 2001, 2002, that I got over the jitters. I mean, when you’re starting to meet people who’ve been in the industry for 10, 15 years, like brewers at Sierra Nevada — ohmygod! Such a huge brewery — it takes you awhile to accept that, ‘Okay, we are on the same level.’ The confidence built up over years, but these were still big people who owned big breweries and worked in big plants, and they had science backgrounds, which I don’t have. So, it took me awhile to feel like one of the guys.”
He says one of the biggest milestones was the day he went to a San Diego grocery store and was able to buy a bottle of local beer. “Stone were the pioneers in bottling, in 1997–’98. Karl Strauss had begun earlier, but that beer was made and bottled in Wisconsin. Others have followed. And it didn’t hurt brewpubs. My business at O’Brien’s has tripled since then.”
Now that local beer is cool, are carpetbaggers turning up to cash in?
“I don’t think that’s happening, because it’s a totally different marketplace than it was in the mid ’90s, when everybody thought they could make a quick buck on beer. The beer scene was so new that you didn’t have a marketplace of super-passionate beer fans. Now you have that, super-passionate beer fans who aren’t fooled by fancy labeling. Breweries that are opening up are opening because somebody loves beer.”
So why the silence about the pioneer, Karl Strauss?
“Some of the beer community still have a little bit of a grudge against Karl Strauss. They made very average beer for a long time. It wasn’t bad; it wasn’t outstanding. I feel like for years it was, ‘We’re Karl Strauss, and we started the San Diego beer scene, and we don’t really need the rest of [you].’ But, now they’re changing. They’re realizing the strength of community, the synergy that happens when we’re all working together. And they’re taking risks that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Like for their 22nd anniversary beer, they did a bourbon-barrel-aged vanilla imperial stout. That could never have existed ten years ago. They’ve come a long way.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Sayer the server hands me the chocolate-colored beer in a squat, stemmed glass. And then, wow, a big chunk of actual dark chocolate on a paper napkin.
It’s a Thursday night, packed, noisy, as usual. I’m at the Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights, one of the local brew-booster pubs. Folks jostle, sit, chow on pizza, shout mock insults across long, communal tables. Others stand in line to order food and drink. They face a wall of maybe two dozen draft-beer taps, with names of beers hand-scrawled on little steel plates above them. Familiar local names as well as regional craft-breweries are represented. I go for the AleSmith because it’s a stout.
“Man, that’s thick,” I say,
“It should be,” Sayer says, “they’ve added coffee into the mix. And be careful — it’s 12 percent alcohol. Double the normal.”
It’s called AleSmith Speedway Stout. AleSmith started when everybody started, around 1995. Their “special edition brewer’s reserve Speedway Stout, aged in bourbon barrels,” has been named the “#1 Best Beer in the World” at ratebeer.com. I’ve had this here at Blind Lady before, and I love it. Coffee flavor, and, yes, caramel, malty, dark chocolatey. This isn’t your usual slam-bam hop-punch you get to expect from San Diego beers, and, actually, it’s a beautiful change. It may be the best beer I’ve ever had.
∗ ∗ ∗
You walk into Ballast Point Brewing Company under a sign that reads “Home Brew Mart.” It’s in a little row of shops under the cliff that the University of San Diego dominates. The brewery’s kind of in the back, like an afterthought. The tasting room takes up half the shop, right in front of the kettles and mash tuns and vats of the brewery part. I notice a little gold cup with a sloping rim. That must be the World Beer Cup. Who’d ever know that this little strip-mall joint houses the brewery that last year won three gold medals and was named Small Brewer of the Year in the 2010 World Beer Cup? That cup was contested by 642 breweries from 44 countries, and, in the U.S., 47 states.
Inside’s like a clubhouse, with T-shirts and home-brew kits and yeasts for sale, and, at the back, a tasting-room counter with a huge chalkboard on the wall above it showing what beers are on tap. Names that Ballast Point has made famous, such as Sculpin IPA, Black Marlin Porter, Yellowtail Pale Ale.
Doug Duffield comes out. Like Tom Nickel, he’s big. I ask him the basic question: “If I buy a home-brewing kit from you today, how long before I can drink my first beer?”
“For the number-three kit, the $299.95?” he says. “One month till first sip.”
Pretty soon we’re talking about the Ballast Point saga. “This is exactly how we started,” he says, “as a home-brew supply store in 1992. Our owner, Jack White, set it up. Our head brewer, Yusef Cherney, was going to college and home-brewing at the same time. And I started home-brewing in 1984. Because I always enjoyed beer, and I wasn’t finding what I wanted, domestically.”
Does he think craft-breweries are changing people’s drinking habits?
“I do think so. If you look at the average craft-beer drinker, because there’s more flavor in that beer — and often it’s higher alcohol — they’ll drink fewer glasses. Here, you get pleasure just putting up a glass of aromatic beer to your nose and smelling it.”
But what about an actual San Diego beer, made of ingredients from here?
Duffield says his boss, Colby Chandler, wanted to try a beer you could have made 450 years ago, when Cabrillo landed. This from a Chandler blog: “We were able to track down ingredients like corn, pine nuts, agave, elder flower, white sage, manzanita berries, curaçao, and local sage honey.” Of course, it couldn’t be 100 percent local. “The malt bill consisted of Belgian pale malt, caramunich, biscuit, wheat and corn.” But the result, he says, was a “brown beer that really has to be tasted to be understood. It tastes like the San Diego countryside.”
∗ ∗ ∗
But could success compromise craft-breweries such as Ballast Point or Stone Brewing?
“Well, Stone Brewing is completely automated,” says Duffield. “Their brewers don’t seem to do a lot. From my perspective, that loses them something. Our system’s not automated at all. We’ve got a big timer on the wall back there, and when it buzzes, we have to do something.”
Hmm...need to check that out. I track down Greg Koch, Stone Brewing’s CEO and co-founder of the “All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth. The most popular and highest-rated brewery…ever,” according to BeerAdvocate.
Koch is Stone’s spiky, razor-sharp, and somewhat cerebral CEO and cofounder. When I catch him (by phone) he’s in Minnesota to celebrate Stone’s launch in that state. He says he’s just done a round of speechifying, handshaking, and bottle-autographing. More recently, he was signing and schmoozing in South Park, opening their first off-base retail outlet, the Stone Company Store.
Is he losing his North County roots? And how about automation of his beer production? Isn’t that stepping away from craft beer-making tradition?
“Not in the slightest. Not even close,” says Koch. “You can find craft-brewers with some levels of automation at every stage of growth and size. The bottom line is that with our old system, the brewer could get from one valve to the next [in order to] actually throw the valve at the appropriate time. As we grew, our system just doesn’t physically allow that. What is automation? It’s the triggering of a solenoid, the triggering of a valve. And you can either twist it by hand or you can have it done by a solenoid. So to apply a big emotional component to that mechanical process makes me shrug a little bit. Because I understand: craft-brewers, us included, are a little bit feisty. And, hey, even though Stone is 0.01 percent — whatever our share of the [beer] market is — we’ve been around for 15 years, and we’re still larger than some.”
He says their number-one priority is to be true to themselves. “We launched Arrogant Bastard on November 1, 1997, about a year and four months into our young lives. We didn’t release it for so long because we really thought the people weren’t going to like it, and it wasn’t going to be accepted, other than by a few of our über-geek friends who liked the strong stuff.”
And the insult-your-customer approach on the labels? “It was up to me to decide what the tone was all about. Many people read the front label’s words, ‘You’re Not Worthy,’ as ‘That means me,’ but I’d say Arrogant Bastard Ale drinkers read it as meaning, ‘That means everybody but me.’ Initially, the response was quite strong. Quite frankly, it surprised me. I thought that we might brew 100 cases and a number of kegs and that would be it.”
Koch says that the tone Stone set has been important for the development of San Diego beers. “I’m the first to say that I think this has been a group effort, and it’s because of the collective talent of brewers in San Diego that we’re all so successful. But if Stone did anything, we demonstrated that we were making beers the way that we wanted them.”
He quotes H.L. Mencken, the famous critic from Baltimore. “Mencken said, ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.’ That may or may not be true. However, when we started Stone, as part of our underlying philosophy, I said, ‘That person who is willing to be underestimated? Not our customer. I’m not going to lift a finger for them.’”
He says Arrogant Bastard didn’t have a category when it was launched. “At the time it was released, there was nothing else on the market like that, nothing even close. Now it is widely considered to be the progenitor of the American Strong Ale category.”
Does he think San Diego beers are being taken seriously out there? “Absolutely. We have the eyes of the world on us. We have people traveling from all over the U.S., and the world, coming to San Diego to visit specifically for beer tourism. Our brewery is the third-largest tourist destination in North County behind the Wild Animal Park and Legoland.”
I have to ask him, as I asked Duffield, if he thought the pseudo-brewers were moving in to capitalize on San Diego’s craft-brewers’ success. “One of the reasons San Diego has become so well known is not just the sheer numbers, it’s the overall quality and creativity,” he says. “But it doesn’t escape the radar when our bigger brethren [giant breweries like Coors] do forays into our world. They haven’t been successful in getting away with it, usually. Although sometimes the populace at large is fooled by a ‘Blue Moon’ [which is actually owned by Coors] or a ‘Shock Top’[Anheuser-Busch].”
The one thing that makes him really mad is local San Diego beer-purveying establishments who won’t welcome San Diego beers into their line-up.
Like Qualcomm. “Here we are, San Diego, one of the most famous brewing cultures in the entire world, and no local beer at Qualcomm Stadium? Instead, it’s corporate facsimiles. Tell me whether you think that’s the result of local demand or corporate machinations behind the scenes? It infuriates me. It should infuriate a beer enthusiast. It should infuriate a San Diegan.”
He says that when Stone started in 1996, no wholesalers would distribute their beers. “We had to self-distribute. And after a few years of self-distributing, we said, ‘We’re actually getting pretty good at this’ — not that we had a choice — ‘so let’s be a wholesaler, and let’s work with other brands that we respect. So, now we distribute for 32 other craft-beer brands, and we have the best portfolio, and we’re the company that takes them to the pubs and the restaurants, which they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We distribute local brands such as AleSmith, Port Brewing, and Lost Abbey.”
The biggest talk swirling around Stone Brewing is that they’re about to set up a brewery in Europe. True?
“Hopefully,” Koch says, cautiously. “We have visited 75 sites in 9 countries and narrowed it down to two: Berlin, in Germany, or Bruges, in Belgium. Actually, nobody’s asking for us in Germany. But nobody was asking for Arrogant Bastard in San Diego in 1997.”
And buyouts? Isn’t Stone Brewing becoming a tempting target for acquisition by someone like Anheuser-Busch? “Someone tweeted me on Monday asking what would we say to a buy-out offer, and my polite answer there is somewhere between ‘No’ and ‘Hell, no.’”
∗ ∗ ∗
Tom Nickel reckons that whatever happens, “San Diego, Beer City U.S.A.” is on the launch pad. “There’s a lot of respect in town, and out of town. We’re being added to the list of great beer-brewing cities. You think about Munich, London, Portland, Antwerp. San Diego is going to be on that list now.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The rest of my journey through Beer City is a blur. Not because of the beers I met along the way, but because there was so much, so soon. Like, I wanted to know how difficult it was to make beer.
I called up Tim Sexton. He’s a student at SDSU, bike-rider, bus-catcher, beer-brewer. Met him at Critical Mass. He was riding in his “Beer Man” superhero tunic. Said he brewed at home “all the time.”
His “brewery” turns out to be various crannies in the condo he lives in with his parents near the bayfront in Coronado. On a balcony with a million-dollar harbor view, he shows me stainless steel “mash tuns” and “brew kettles” and tubes and siphons and thermometers and barley mash and “sparge” (the rinse-off of the last sugars to be soaked from the barley mash) and “wort” (the unfermented beer juice) and the 17 pounds of British pale barley malt he’s going to cook up in the next batch in the tun. He’s got spirals of copper-tubing heat exchanger to cool his wort down and, hidden in bedroom closets he exposes carboys (big, watercooler-sized glass bottles where the beer ferments for up to a month). I suddenly realize that what we have here is a form of cooking. Following an exact recipe, exact temperatures, pretty exact timing. We’re using grains (barley), weeds (hops), and live fungi (yeast) in a slow dance of creation. I pity Tim’s parents. Actually, he says, his parents are pretty grateful, once he’s cleaned up his messes. “Dad used to have MGD [Miller Genuine Draft] in the fridge. But I started working on them, and by the time I was 16, I’d changed them over to good beer. Now Dad drinks IPAs, Mom likes stouts. They wouldn’t touch an MGD now.”
Where Tim drinks, when he’s between batches of his own stuff, is at Coronado Brewing Company, the restaurant-bar-brewpub two minutes from where he lives. Two brothers, Ron and Rick Chapman, run the company, and it’s running them off their feet. In the last two years, partly as San Diego’s hoppy fame has spread far and wide, their orders have skyrocketed. They can’t keep up with the orders, from as far away as Florida, the Carolinas, and Japan. “It’s really happening,” says Ron, when we meet on Orange Avenue. “Last year we sold 2600 barrels, this year it’ll be 5000. I’m about making money and having fun. Right now, we’re doing both.” Which is why, for extra capacity, they’re contracting out the brewing of a small portion of their beers like their Islander IPAs to Five Points Brewing at the old Mission Brewery.
Next morning at the crack of 6:30, I find myself climbing up vats with Sean Farrell, Coronado Brewing’s head brewer, watching how it’s done in a brewpub situation. What strikes me is that this is just a bigger version of what Tim’s doing. But it’s still human, something drinkers can watch as they sip. This is small-scale manufacturing such as you’d imagine back in the 1800s: pouring barley mash that looks like oatmeal into a big, round copper-and-brass tank of hot water, emptying it out after a while into another huge kettle, opening the tun’s door to rake out sacks full of damp barley malt, to be trucked off to feed lucky chickens on a farm in Lakeside…and out back, guys bottling beers six at a time, looks like, and tossing boxes, filling them up with the bottles, wheeling them out onto the alley yard.
“Of course, we’ll spend the other half of our day inside these vessels, cleaning,” says Sean. “That’s the pain-in-the-butt part. But that’s how important it is. Nothing can contaminate the flavor.”
∗ ∗ ∗
One Wednesday, I’m riding my bike through the alleys — somewhere in San Diego; they don’t want me to say where — when I come across a beer club: men and women, bikes, kids, dogs, grandpas who come together every Wednesday around sunset over a keg of some craft-brew. They enjoying a couple of hours sitting around outside this garage, talking beers, mostly, because there’s something new every week to talk about. To join the club, you bring a peace offering: a keg. A guy named Pat nails me. “Now, if you had brought an Idiot IPA from CBC you’d be very popular round here. That’s one helluva libation, son. Great for digestion.”
So, next chance I get, I hit the bar in Coronado Brewing’s Orange Avenue eatery and order up that Idiot IPA. It comes much in the Stone tradition of insult-your-customer humor. “Brewed with over three pounds of hops per barrel,” says the blurb. “Watch out. This unfiltered ‘San Diego IPA’ has been known to reduce even the most intelligent to a blithering ‘idiot.’”
Ron Chapman sees what I’m ordering. “Take care with that one,” he says. “It’s 8.5 percent.”
But one slurp and I know I’ve got a keeper. It’s hefty, yes, bites back, check. But there’s something warm and rosy about it. Heck, this might be the best beer I’ve ever drunk.
Or did I say that before?