Having so many breweries here in my home county, it’s tough building up the gumption to drive outside San Diego for beer. Throw in the workload of reporting on all those breweries and it's no wonder it took me four months to drive to Orange County to get my first look at and taste of Barley Forge Brewing Co. (2957 Randolph Avenue, Costa Mesa). This new restaurant-equipped brewery is manned by Kevin Buckley, who most recently headed Vista's rebranded Latitude 33 Brewing Company (after brewing at Back Street Brewery and Alpine Beer Co.). Though he now works beyond the "Orange Curtain" (a slang name he bestowed on Barley Forge’s India pale ale), he still lives in Vista, making for a lengthy commute, the inconvenience of which communicates how much he believes in his new interest.
Business-related drama and irreconcilable differences with his former partners at Latitude 33 led Buckley to move on with his career, and he is happy to now be able to channel more of his energy into the task of brewing beer. His line-up the day I visited featured ales and lagers. Some reminded me of beers he brewed while in San Diego, while others were rather unexpected. Chief among the surprises was Grandpa Tractor, a crisp, golden Dortmunder-style export lager of German origin that’s rarely seen in Southern California, but is a part of Barley Forge’s year-round offerings (which are already available in four- and six-packs — it usually takes a company much longer to begin packaging). Straightforward and refreshing, it was enjoyable, making for a nice differentiator for a young brand seeking an identity and recognition.
Other lighter-bodied offerings included a hefeweizen that tasted primarily of lemony citrus versus the banana-clove profile accompanying weissbeers brewed in the Bavarian style (with high levels of isoamyl acetate) and a Belgian-style witbier brewed with cinnamon to give it a flavor similar to horchata. Beers flavored to match that Mexican rice-based quaff have become very popular of late. It’s an interesting and tasty idea, but Barley Forge’s recipe needs some tweaking, something Buckley admits. On the other hand, that hefe, Der Biersal, is just right and will go over nicely as the summer sun becomes a more regular sight in the SoCal sky.
Barley Forge’s dark beers are adventurous and include a dark Belgian-style strong ale and coconut-rye stout. Dubbed “The Patsy,” that last one reminds me of a brew Buckley created at Latitude 33 back in 2013. Pleasantly sweet with plenty of coconut flavor and aroma, it’s served from standard and nitro taps. In both forms, it’s a hit. The dark strong is both dark and strong, but lacks cohesion, coming across as a beer that’s all over the place, taste-wise, and a bit too boozy overall. Other core beers include an amber ale called El Paisano, an IPA and a double IPA by the name of One Louder, which has been Barley Forge’s best-seller (read: they were out of it when I was there).
Though small, Barley Forge is smartly laid out, with a sizable tasting room, a bar long and well-staffed enough to handle a good amount of patronage, and food that’s good enough to keep visitors from having to depart in search of stomach-lining provisions (charcuterie all week long, sandwiches and salads on weeknights, barbecued items on weekends). Despite being located in an industrial space, the company’s branding is consistent and the tasting room is colorful and illuminated enough to keep it from feeling like some poorly executed pop-up venture in a rented space. It would seem Buckley’s calculated yet somewhat risky move has paid off well thus far.