Long-time homebrewer Ken Schmidt poses with his mint chocolate imperial stout, brewed and bottled at Vista's Iron Fist Brewing Company
In a county flush with domestic fermentation talent, Ken Schmidt is kind of a big deal. A homebrewer since 1966, he’s concocted inventive beer recipes for decades. Many are laced with flavorful adjuncts evocative of his favorite place, the Hawaiian islands. Though San Diegan and proud of it, Schmidt’s been to the isles roughly 50 times, drawn by a love of the water (he’s both a diver and a fisher), the fertility of the land and unique geographic features (he enjoys growing things and gazing down on landscapes from the pilot’s seat of a helicopter), and the Hawaiian peoples’ deep sense of family. It was respect for familial closeness and commitment that also keeps him coming back to another favorite place—Iron Fist Brewing Company (1305 Hot Springs Way, Vista).
Schmidt was first introduced to the Sieminski family before they opened their Vista brewery. After tasting early drafts he was impressed. That positivity leapt to a new level when he found out the brewer who’d produced them, Brandon Sieminski, was barely of legal drinking age. Schmidt began brewing when he was 18 — before it was even legal to cook up beers on the home front — and instantly sized Sieminski up as one to watch. Subsequent Iron Fist beer offerings confirmed his beliefs, to the point where, when Schmidt won Stone’s annual homebrewing competition in 2012 and was awarded the chance to brew his champion recipe on the company’s big brewing system, he brought Sieminski in as a third collaborator on what became known as Ken Schmidt/Iron Fist/Stone Mint Chocolate Imperial Stout. Two years later, the duo reunited to bring that recipe back to life along with five more of Schmidt’s Hawaiian-inspired brews, all of which will be available during an “Aloha Party” this Saturday, September 27 at Iron Fist’s tasting room.
I met with Schmidt earlier this week to taste through some of the beers. It wasn’t the first time I’d sampled his handiwork, having been impressed in the past by that mint-infused stout and “Aloha Plenty,” a Kona coffee, coconut, and macadamia nut porter. The latter also won the blue ribbon and was brewed at Stone back in 2010, and is one of the other recipes he and Sieminski brewed on the company’s one-barrel system. Schmidt says this is closer to the homebrew version than the Stone iteration. An initial sniff brings on assertive coffee notes. Go back in for another whiff and you get coconuty essence of German chocolate cake, which is delightful. On the palate, it’s only lightly sweet, bringing on plenty of coffee and coconut upfront, leaving a lingering nuttiness on the back palate.
Similarly, capsaicin heat dominates the finish of Pele’s Breath (Pele being the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes), an American wheat ale brewed with serrano peppers, which provide a pleasantly vegetal aroma and clean heat that sticks around about 30 seconds before almost dropping off completely. Cooler on the taste buds and even more flavorful is Maui Sunset, a 5.2% alcohol-by-volume Belgian-style witbier brewed with hibiscus, chamomile, and tangerine. That last one comes through in spades while the tartness and spice from the other two come together like intertwined fingers.
All of these beers will be available along with two Russian imperial stouts, the straightforward Black Sand Beach and Big Kahuna, a RIS brewed with a blend of Kona, Ethiopian, French, and New Guinean coffee beans. Traditional Hawaiian slack key music (a favorite of Schmidt, who plays this and other styles of music...quite the renaissance man) will provide a sonic backdrop for some seriously ono pia (delicious beer in Hawaiian).