San Diego is on pace to add more than 20 new breweries in 2016, for the second year in a row, and there will likely be 135 by year’s end. Ten years ago there were less than 30.
While thousands of beers pour from San Diego taps, highlighting just a few hardly seems fair. So we talked to beer buyers in bars and bottle shops, and to experts in beer and food pairings to help dig down through the craft beer subculture to identify those breweries that have stood out in 2016, and their beers.
And cans. There are a lot of beers in cans this year.
Breweries of Note in 2016
Karl Strauss Brewing Company
Home base: Bay Ho
5985 Santa Fe Street, Pacific Beach
Verging on 28 years in business, it looks like the venerable Karl Strauss just might be hitting its stride. It’s working on its tenth (active) brewpub, and happens to have just been named Mid-Sized Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival. The brewers of Team Karl work together at its production brewery, and alternately head off a couple days a week to pilot batch beers in the pubs — a model that promotes brewer — and new beer — development. Aside from its own great brews, San Diego’s original craft brewery has had a massive impact on the local beer landscape. Cofounder Chris Cramer notes three of Karl’s opening-day employees went on to found breweries of their own: San Diego Brewing Company, Pizza Port, and Ballast Point.
1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido
Stone Brewing Company
Home Base: Escondido
Heading into its 20th year, Stone produced enough beer to rank the tenth largest independently owned craft brewery in the nation — actually down a spot from the year before. Then it became the first American craft beer maker to open a brewery in Europe, followed by a bigger one in Virginia, and plans for a Napa brewpub next. Despite recent layoffs, it’s safe to say Stone will not drop out of the top ten any time soon. Though it declines to commit to a number, San Diego’s largest brewery looks on pace to reach a half a million barrels annually within the next couple years.
2055 Thibodo Road, Suite H, Vista
Mother Earth Brew Co.
Home base: Vista
Stone wasn’t the only North County beer company to open a brewery outside the state this year. Mother Earth recently launched a production brewery in Nampa, Idaho — a unique choice intended to expand distribution of its popular bombers and cans throughout the Northwest, the mountain states, and eastward. The new facility is much bigger than its Vista brewery, which in turn is much bigger than when it started out. Mother Earth has gotten busy doing what many of the 70 breweries to open in the past three years are hoping to do.
3725 Greenwood Street, Midway District
Home base: Point Loma
According to Modern Times founder Jacob McKean, the Tuesday morning after Labor Day was the first time the three-year-old company didn’t have an open construction permit with the city since the day it opened. And three new ones would be filed by end of day.
Expansion has been nonstop for Modern Times — whether it’s increased brewing capacity, a new bottling line, a café in the tasting room, or additional warehouse space to make room for its thousand or so barrels filled with the beer company’s eclectic variety of styles. Next up is a Los Angeles pilot brewery and restaurant, and beyond that all we know for sure is demand for Modern Times keeps rising, and the original brewhouse is running out of room to add more tanks.
805 16th Street, East Village
Home base: East Village
It didn’t greatly expand production or distribution, but this East Village indie brewery caught unexpected attention this year when a big beer subsidiary from out of state decided to plan a glittering and controversial brewpub only a block away. Amid the ensuing controversy, head brewer Cosimo Sorrentino stepped up in the brewing community to lead a dialogue on how to best preserve and promote the San Diego beer brand, and always outspoken owner Scot Blair had plenty to say about its appropriation.
16990 Via Tazon, Rancho Bernardo
Abnormal Beer Co.
Home Base: Rancho Bernardo
Six months was all it took for the guys behind Abnormal to decide to invest another million dollars in the company, expanding to the tune of 550 percent increased production capacity. The suddenly much larger brewhouse has been pumping since August, and Abnormal has lived up to its pledge to “experiment with a wider variety of styles on a larger scale.” The beers turning up on taps around town have kept to the front end of international brewing trends, engaging in the big-picture dialogue in craft beer about how palates grow and evolve, and provoking curiosity about each beer’s ingredients and brewing process.
New breweries off to a fast start
Being one of twenty new breweries in a county that already had over a hundred of them makes it easy to get lost in the mix. These four have already managed to stand out.
9030 Kenamar Drive #308, Miramar
Home Base: Miramar
Does the turnkey brewery business model work? Ask these guys. After fighting an uphill battle trying to operate a brewery in the wilds of Costa Rica, the Pure Project partners slid right into a brewhouse-for-lease and skipped the usual growing pains of a long build-out and planning phase. It didn’t hurt that they tapped a talented young out-of-town brewer in Winslow Sawyer, who applies their no-extract ethos with a healthy balance of creativity and (more surprising) restraint, turning out interesting and very drinkable beers across the board.
Burning Beard Brewing
Home Base: El Cajon
When homebrewing pals Mike Maass and Jeff Wiederkehr launched a brewery together, they didn’t go the trial-and-error, learn-as-you-go, do-it-yourself route. They hired the craft beer architect to design their brewery, the craft beer attorney to handle their paperwork, worked with a brewing consultant to scale their recipes for commercial production, and hired an experienced head brewer to ensure everything ran smoothly. As a result they served delicious beer in an engaging space from day one, making a great first impression and giving validation to QUAFF (Quality Ale & Fermentation Fraternity) homebrew friends who encouraged them to go pro.
3038 University Avenue, North Park
North Park Beer Co.
Home base: North Park
The Quality Ale & Fermentation Fraternity also gave a big boost to one of their most successful members. Kelsey McNair’s litany of homebrewing medals created a lot of buzz around the opening of his own brewery, and therefore a lot of pressure for it to turn out right. It took a few years, but he wound up meeting expectations, opening a gorgeously designed urban brewery in the thick of North Park in which to serve his award-winning Hop Fu IPA, possibly the most famous homebrew in San Diego history. And when McNair invited his fraternity brothers to attend a private premiere party of his new spot, every one showed up, filling the place to capacity its first night.
9368 Cabot Drive, Miramar
Mikkeller San Diego
Home Base: Miramar
Okay, when Europe’s best known brewer partners with one of San Diego’s best known brewers to open a brewery, it’s probably unfair to call it new. Gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and AleSmith owner Peter Zien give Mikkeller San Diego almost instant credibility among devoted beer geeks. The thing to remember is that this Mikkeller employs a team of accomplished San Diego brewing vets to recreate classic Mikkeller brands that were too expensive to buy on import from Copenhagen, encourages an exploration of experimental beers, and provides an opportunity for Bjergsø to draw up SoCal-inspired recipes for America’s Finest beer audience.
Breweries in Memoriam
Though San Diego will finish 2016 with more than 130 active breweries, and more on the way, this year’s growth included a few losses. Say goodbye to the breweries that closed shop in the past year.
URBN St. Brewing Co.
El Cajon’s first craft brewery operated out of the back of a downtown pizza restaurant about a year and a half before shutting down. The URBN Pizza chain kept the restaurant open but nixed the house beer, citing the cost of production as the reason. Apparently beer money doesn’t compare to that sweet pizza dough.
Twisted Manzanita never responded to Reader inquiries regarding its abrupt decision to cease brewing operations in March, though former employees have suggested the company’s management may have been less than savvy. Though reported at the time that the company’s spirits production would remain intact, earlier this month West Coaster magazine reported Grantville’s Groundswell Brewing Company had purchased Manzanita’s entire Santee operation, still and all.
Pacific Brewing Company
In a case of business partners going separate ways, Pacific Brewing closed in July. The nano-brewery made it about two years as a collaboration between former Stone brewers Andrew Heino and Chris Chalmers. Going forward, Heino will remain to open a new brewery at Pacific’s Miralani Drive location in Miramar. Chalmers has moved on to be head brewer at Tallgrass Taphouse in Kansas.
Valley Center Brewery
Valley Center’s only brewery closed this summer with barely a whisper, giving cause to wonder whether the agricultural region was too far out of town to attract much business. We won’t have to wonder long, though — Harrah’s casino in Valley Center — even further out — opened the SR76 Brewery earlier this fall.
Year of the Can
Craft beer retail used to be all about glass bottles. Aluminum cans were considered the domain of Bud Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and those mountains that turn blue when the Coors was cold enough to drink. The association with cheap swill was tough to shake. But cans are cheaper to ship than bottles and they keep beer fresher longer, so it was only a matter of time before aluminum became not only accepted, but seen as desirable.
Monkey Paw became the first San Diego brewery to can its beer — albeit briefly — back in 2012. Mission Brewery went big with 32-ounce cans back in 2013, and that same year both Modern Times and Saint Archer launched with cans — 16 and 12 ounces, respectively. Both brands achieved unheard-of first-year sales. In 2014, Pizza Port and Mike Hess got into the canning game.
But it was late 2015 when the number really started to climb, and now no fewer than 20 local breweries issue cans, with more on the way. Most telling — San Diego’s old guard have started canning: Ballast Point, Green Flash, Coronado Brewing, Karl Strauss, Stone, and AleSmith.
Coming off of big beer-festival wins last year, both BNS and Rip Current are capitalizing on the success by pursuing can distribution. Rip Current cofounder Paul Sangster points out that its tasting rooms have a policy against filling glass growlers because it's not as stable an environment for beer as aluminum. Meanwhile, Council Brewing credits customer demand with the decision to offer its first canned release in October.
Alex Holmes, manager of Bottlecraft’s Little Italy shop, points out that a few beer customers are still leery of aluminum packaging, but that hasn’t stopped cans from selling well. Some, like him, even prefer them, especially for outdoor activities. “I’m definitely biased towards cans,” he says. “I think we sell a lot more cans because we’re close to downtown, closer to the park.”
Bine & Vine bottle shop owner Geoi Bachoua calls it a factor in the brands Pizza Port, Modern Times, and Mother Earth having become his top sellers.
With this in mind, here’s a look at some of San Diego’s top beers that are now available in cans.
Swami’s IPA — 6.8% | 6 pack 16oz — $13
San Diego loves a classic. Next year, Swami’s will have been in production a quarter century, and its tough to tell which is more popular, the beer or its namesake Encinitas surf break. Despite shifting trends in hops and beer styles, several bottle-shop buyers point to the unfiltered IPA as consistently among their top sellers since it went into tallboy cans in 2014. Most of us became hopheads on the joy of Centennial and Cascade hops, so its spicy, citrusy hoppiness resonates as nostalgic, and like all of Pizza Port’s affordable six-packs, it’s best bang-for-your-buck delicious.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company
Mosaic Session IPA — 5.5% | 6 pack 12oz — $12
Before newly cultivated hops become popular enough to have cool names, the botanists working with them assign coded numbers. Such was the case when Karl Strauss brewers first got ahold of the uncannily fruity hop that would come to be known as Mosaic. They put together this beautiful expression of the hop’s potential, and it’s worked out well, ranking among its best selling beers and picking up a handful of medals along the way. Somehow, HBC 369 Session IPA wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.
Benchmark Brewing Beaten Path Extra
Pale Ale 5.0% | 4 pack 16oz — $13.50
Speaking of finding the perfect expression of a delicious hop, Benchmark recently added this fantastic Citra-hopped release to its Parks Collection series. Originally called Get on the Bus Extra Pale Ale, the beer was titled by brewer Matt Akin, who was asked to produce an anniversary beer for the Drinkabout! beer shuttle. It turned out good enough to warrant keeping a four-pack in your fridge at all times. The Grantville brewery’s got a growing variety of 16-ounce cans, each of them clean, flavorful, and true to its unbeatable tag line: “beer-flavored beer.”
Second Chance Beer Company Seize the Coffee
IPA — 6.5% | 4 pack 16oz — $12.50
Objectively, this probably isn’t as tasty as Second Chance’s Tabula Rasa toasted porter, nor Seize the IPA, the seven-hop ale brewer Marty Mendiola based this coffee version on. But successfully pairing coffee and hops in a beer is an arguably greater accomplishment, and Seize the Coffee turned out so well that in a short time customer demand turned what was initially a tasting-room novelty into a core beer distributed in cans. The key here is incredibly subtle use of the coffee so that it sits back under the hops rather than trying to compete with them.
Mother Earth Brew Co.
Sweet Spot IPA — 7.2% | 6 pack 12oz — $13
You’d have to look to cans of Mother Earth’s sweet Cali Creamin’ ale or its marvelous Mosaic-rich Boo Koo IPA to see why its cans have become top sellers. But I like to point to a seasonal that debuted in cans earlier this year. Sweet Spot showed off an interesting combo of Cascade, Magnum, and Galaxy hops — the latter an Australian variety with vibrantly fruity aromatics. It had sweetness, bitterness, and limitless appeal, and will return in April 2017 under a new name: Power of Love IPA.
Coronado Brewing Company
Stingray IPA — 7.9% | 6 pack 12oz — $13
New Zealand hops lend a memorable zip to this tropical IPA that debuted globally in bottles in January, and soon after in cans. It’s not tough to see why Stingray became Coronado’s first new core beer in four years. It smells like a tiki cocktail and gets its sting from Kiwi Southern Cross hops, which cut through with a winy, stonefruit acidity. Ironically, in New Zealand, they appreciate it for having favored hops like Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe, which are pricy for brewers to get over there.
Latitude 33 Brewing Company
Blood Orange IPA — 7.3% | 6 pack 12oz — $13.50
Many have tried, few have succeeded to make a fruited IPA that doesn’t ruin a perfectly good IPA. Latitude’s Blood Orange proves grapefruit isn’t the only fruit that can thrive in a West Coast IPA setting. Thanks to the popularity of its “beermosa,” the Vista brewery has made this a core beer, issued in both bottles and cans. Kendell Manion of Chula Vista’s Third Avenue Ale House calls it one of the locals-only shop’s best sellers.
Novo Brazil Brewing Co.
Chula Pils — 5.0% | 4 pack 16oz — $11
Based in the Eastlake, this Brazilian-owned brewery didn’t win fans with early runs of this pilsner. But by the time Chula Pils appeared in cans earlier this year, Novo had cleaned things up admirably. It doesn’t read like a classic pilsner — it boasts more pronounced fruitiness and doesn’t drink as dry. But its pleasant underlying sweetness makes it an easy choice on a warm day, which they definitely experience a few of in east Chula Vista.
Mike Hess Brewing
Claritas Kölsch — 5.8% | 6 pack 16oz — $11
If they handed out gold medals for consistency, Mike Hess Brewing would win often. As it stands, the World Beer Cup did award gold this year to the North Park brewery’s take on this refreshing German style beer that drinks like a dry blonde ale. The winning batch wasn’t brewed just for competition, either. Hess offers Claritas in cans year round, and merely pulled some off the line to send in for judging. And it tasted perfect, like always.
Modern Times Beer Co. Attack Frequency
IPA — 7.0% | 4 pack 16oz — $18
Much of Modern Times’ early success may be attributed to its launching with 16-ounce cans of its core beers at a time bottles still ruled. The cans stood out on store shelves thanks to a beautiful, minimalist, and already-iconic-in-the-beer-world label design. Those are now available in just about every liquor store in town, but not Attack Frequency. This release signified a new stage of can releases — and not just because it ditched the classic can design for something more art-deco. This juicy, cloudy, Northeast style IPA sold in limited supply through online pre-order only — usually the domain of barrel-aged bottle releases. Four-packs sold out immediately, of course, as did its conceptual follow-ups, Mage Hands and Underworld Dreams. In other words: Modern Times has successfully found a way to market whales in a can.
Winners on Tap
Local bars and restaurants increasingly focus on San Diego breweries, and rightfully so — it’s what customers ask their bartenders for — and not just San Diegans. Drew Murphy, buyer for the Gaslamp’s Quad Alehouse, sees it all the time. “Being downtown,” he says, “having so much beer tourism, local stuff is definitely what sells the most.” He always features local brews on his 28 taps, and though he jokes nobody would complain if he put on 28 IPAs, he encourages customers to try a variety of styles.
And that variety keeps rising. While IPA may still be number one, when it came to draft beers that stood out this year, things started to get a little more interesting.
The Pupil — 7.5% ABV
This IPA may be the local beer scene’s top pint of 2016. Bottlecraft Little Italy manager Alex Holmes estimates he sold 3000 pints of it in the past year — the equivalent of 12 barrels in one shop alone. And he’s not alone. When asked to name some of their bars’ top sellers, beer buyers around the county all mentioned the Pupil. The dry-hopped West Coast IPA showcases a tropical meets white wine combo of Citra and Nelson Sauvin hops, so the fact it’s known to enthusiasts is no surprise. That the Pupil has caught the attention of a wider drinking audience is remarkable, considering it’s neither available in bottles nor cans.
Whammy Bar Wheat — 5.0%
This small Pacific Beach brewery grew into a larger Miramar brewhouse this year, which happened to included a water-filtration system. It promptly won its first World Beer Cup medal. Brewer Cy Henley already made tasty beers, including its fantastic Electrocution IPA, but with the addition of brewer Jeff Campbell to help dial in water profiles, Amplified began to excel. These guys weren’t even planning to make this American-style wheat on the regular, but winning gold earned it a promotion. The refreshingly crisp beer doesn’t show clove or banana the way European wheat beers do, but these guys amped up the wheat presence to give it body similar to a hef, highlighting a soft citrus touch for a beautifully drinkable beer.
Banditos Yanquis — 5.5%
However counterintuitive it seems, the Mexican lager trend in craft beer is actually bigger outside of San Diego. Fortunately, a growing number of local breweries have started to offer takes on the pre-beach ban favorite, and Breakwater takes it a step further by adding a little Key lime to the recipe so you don’t have to. This gives the crisp lager a light zing in stride with its light bitterness. Until it sells in a can, it’s unlikely to replace Tecate in sandy hearts and minds, but it’s a solid reason for light-beer drinkers to find their summer refreshment through a local brewery.
Mikkeller San Diego
Amøbe Brett IPA — 5.9%
Most likely you’ll find this beer called by its English name — Amoeba — but seeing as it comes from our own little slice of Copenhagen, going with the Danish spelling seems more fun. Several IPAs fermented with Brettanomyces appeared throughout San Diego this year, and given the results, we can hope there are more to come. This particularly crushable take was on hand when Mikkeller debuted in April, bursting with juicy pineapple notes to complement the dry funk of wild yeast. It’s quite a different experience from the West Coast IPAs that made San Diego famous, but then, Mikkeller has always been a different kind of brewery.
Monkey Paw Brewing with Bill Batten
Ashes from the Grave — 6.66%
A bit has changed since AleSmith brewer Batten brewed this intriguing seasonal with Monkey Paw last Halloween. This year he’s Mikeller head brewer, and the collaboration won World Beer Cup gold for smoked beer. They call it a brown ale, but rather than notice the hint of sweetness in the malt, the thing that jumps out is the sensation of ashes — the smoked grain pops with the carbonation to help this one live up to its name. Describing won’t do it justice, but finding the roasty flavors within the beer makes your palate demand another sip, and as its subtleties unfold you’ll be hooked.
Abnormal Beer Co. with Nacho Cervantes
Boys to the Yard — 6.5%
This “strawberry milkshake” IPA is exemplary of Abnormal’s willingness to explore emerging beer styles, this time carried out with the help of Pizza Port O.B. brewer Cervantes. Fruity hops of the El Dorado and fairly new Idaho 7 variety would be enough to bring the boys to the bar, but the milkshake part comes by way of adding lactose — more common in milk stouts than IPAs. The resulting shakey texture is another New England IPA variation that’s yet to be wholly embraced in beer circles. It won’t be the best beer either of the brewers involved will make this year but might be the most interesting.
Thorn Street Brewery
OG (High)PA — 4.20%
You don’t need to smoke pot to appreciate this first-of-its-kind marijuana-flavored beer. Goofy name notwithstanding, it will not in any way get you high. At only 4.20% ABV, it won’t even get you all that drunk. But it will appeal to your palate. Thing is, it’s no accident the word dank is used to describe both cannabis and hops — the two weeds are related, botanically speaking, and this sessionable pale ale smoothly marries the floral and fruity notes of each, resulting in a smooth balance that smells like Colorado but tastes like San Diego brewing prowess.
Resident Brewing Co.
Vacation Coconut IPA — 7.0%
Another beer in the I-can’t-believe-it-works category, this coconut IPA defied expectation three years ago to win a Stone homebrewing contest. One of the winning homebrewers, Robert Masterson, took the head brewer position when Resident opened this year and brought the recipe with him. The key here is its pineapple hop profile, which cuts through the toasted coconut that dominates the aroma and rounds out with the malts. It doesn’t drink like a novelty beer — this is no piña colada gimmick — it drinks like a fruity IPA with a hint of sweetness to highlight the hops.
Cans are hot right now, but of course bottles haven’t gone anywhere and won’t. For example, currently bottles are the only packaging used to retail barrel-aged beers, and next year San Diego breweries are going to release a lot of barrel-aged beers.
Here are a few bottled beers of note we saw this year.
Toolbox Brewing Co.
Bramble on Rose — 6.5% ABV
Toolbox gained international recognition when this stunning red sour earned a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup in April. A few sour fans savvy enough to keep an eye on Toolbox beforehand picked up limited bottles online in January. Bramble on Rose is a wild ale named after a Grateful Dead song and aged in oak wine barrels with organic local blackberries. Its gemlike appearance in a tall glass is mesmerizing and its pristinely balanced flavors even better. Toolbox expanded its barrel production this year, and it won’t be long before we see a lot more like this American beauty.
Green Flash Cellar 3
Lustrous Fermento — 13.1% ABV
What will that barreling landscape look like in a couple years? Witness this first release of Cellar 3’s Barrelmaster’s Reserve series, which aged a potent double stout black ale 30 months in Old Forrester bourbon barrels. Given the time and resources, barrelmaster Pat Korn nurtured the oaky and vanilla brew into unheard-of depths of flavor, then blended with fresh Mostra cold-brew coffee to resonate with the roasted malts in the original beer’s base. As all of San Diego’s barrel programs mature, we can hope to have more like this to look forward to.
ChuckAlek Independent Brewers
Paper Machete — 6.0%
Made in collaboration with National City taproom Machete Beer House, this lacto sour was brewed to celebrate the bar’s first anniversary and turned out so well that it’s likely to return. The great idea behind the beer is its use of tamarind in a sour setting, which seems so obvious in retrospect that it’s a wonder everybody’s not doing it. Credit brewer Grant Fraley’s delicate handling of the tamarind’s tangy sweetness — Paper Machete starts bright and tart, warming on the tongue with a malty of dried fruit, yet remains delicate to the finish. ChuckAlek released limited bottles of this beer through its bottle club, its Ramona tasting room, and its North Park beer garden.
Saint Archer Brewing Co.
Tusk & Grain Barrel Aged Coconut Stout — 13.4%
Last year’s sale to SAB Miller didn’t keep Saint Archer from achieving whale status with the sophomore release of its barrel-blending sub-label, Tusk & Grain. The deeply satisfying marriage of toasted coconut and oak helped fans rushing to buy the huge blended stout overcome any concerns about the marriage of corporate and craft beer. Cellar master Greg Peters’s work lent credence to the argument that what the craft-beer market cares about most is quality.
Plenty for All Pilsner — 4.8%
Since most of the macro options cater so effortlessly to their tastes, pilsner drinkers may be the toughest to convert to craft beer. Falls has managed to carve a niche in this market with its adherent to classic ingredients: pilsner malt, lager yeast, and noble hops. The crisp drinker’s grassy and citrusy notes have made it a popular light option at bars and restaurants, and now that Fall Brewing is selling 12-ounce bottles out of its 30th Street tasting room, San Diego has a worthy replacement for that six-pack you bring to your friend’s house to watch football.
Alpine Beer Company
Hoppy Birthday — 5.25%
If any brewery is likely to cram six kinds of hops into a session IPA, it’s Alpine. Since being acquired by Green Flash, Alpine’s beers have gone from being cult brewery rarities to nationwide mainstays. Bottle shops report a great demand for its entire hoppy lineup, and behind its flagship Duet IPA, this low-alcohol pale gets notice for being hop-forward and crisp, loaded with grassy, citrus, and floral notes. Brothers Provisions beer buyer Justen Berge makes it simple to understand where the appeal comes from for the former cult brewery, pointing out, “People are happy to finally be able to get their hands on these beers without having to make the trek to Alpine.” Of course, in 2017 they’ll be able to get it in cans.
Xocoveza Mocha Stout — 8.1%
The winner of Stone’s homebrewer pro-am contest in 2014, Xocoveza’s Mexican hot chocolate profile got rave reviews, so they brought it back as a seasonal late last year. It sold out immediately, prompting Stone to rush through another batch to keep up with demand, then make it one of the first beers made in its new brewery in Berlin. This year they brought back the holiday-spiced mocha stout early — it’s already hit the shelves here and should also be easy to find should you decide to spend New Year’s Eve in Europe.
Societe Brewing Company
The Butcher Imperial Stout — 6.66%
Societe finished off its 666th batch of beer with a rare bottling run, as the company is fanatical about serving its beer as fresh as possible. The Butcher is a deep expression of roastiness that lists malt, barley, oats, hops, and death metal as ingredients. There’s no chocolate or coffee added to this one, and it’s not technically as potent as many imperial stouts. Nevertheless, it is bold, chocolaty, and bursting with rich coffee aromas. In essence they’ve captured the complexity of coffee with a healthy dose of brewing prowess, and maybe a skosh of dark magic.
Beers to dine for
Beer-pairing dinners (and brunches) have taken off throughout San Diego, with more restaurants offering events to highlight their beers, and a rising number of chefs viewing beer with the same high regard once reserved for wine. Breweries are also doing their part — some, such as Mike Hess and Burning Beard, offer food-pairing suggestions for their beers via their websites.
A lot of factors may play into the choice of beer to drink alongside a dish. With this in mind, we tapped a few beermakers who focus on the ways beer and food work together in order to elevate the experience of both, and asked them to recommend a few food-friendly beers, how they might pair them, and why. Consider some of these ideas the next time you order that beer with dinner (or dessert!).
Rey Knight, owner and brewmaster of Finest Made Ales
This year, Knight rebranded his three-year-old Santee beer company, Butcher’s Brewing, and adopted a new name, Finest Made Ales. The reasons behind the change were twofold. First, he upgraded his brewing system to reduce oxidization and improve efficiency so he can deliver higher quality beer to his customers. Second, Knight is a Culinary Institute of America–trained chef and wants to turn people on to the ways beer integrates with our food culture.
“There are three areas I focus on when I pair the beers with food,” Knight explains. “The complement, things that work together; the contrast, things that offset each other and enhance a single component; and the cut, which is something that cuts the flavor or cleanses the palate.” Here are three beers he suggests go well with dinner.
Alpine Beer Company
McIlhenney’s Irish Red — 6.0%, paired with a bacon cheeseburger
Knight chooses Alpine’s red ale to go with a dish served by his also-fine Santee neighbor, Anny’s Fine Burgers. He chose the beer for its complementary flavors — toffee and toasted bread malts, and light herbal hop aromas. He points out the maltiness of the beer works with both the nuttiness of the cheddar and caramelization of the beef patty. Meanwhile, the toasted-bread flavor and hop aromas pair well with the smokiness of the bacon.
Groundswell Brewing Company
The Full Ginger — 6.9%, paired with steamed mussels
Groundswell’s dry, effervescent saison offers a nose of Belgian spice complemented by fresh ginger. Along with the ginger, it shows light fruit flavor and notes of bread and biscuit. Knight likes this with a dish of steamed black mussels from North Park’s Urban Solace, which is prepared with potatoes, bacon lardon, herbs, and a touch of cream. He likes how the beer’s spices and saison yeast complement the herbs, earthy potatoes, and briny mussels. But here he’s also going for the cut, adding, “The high effervescence of the beer cleanses the palate after each bite, cutting the fat from the bacon and cream.”
Finest Made Ales
Hoppy Pilsner #22 — 6.0%, paired with Korean barbecue
To highlight his own approach to crafting beer that pairs with food, Knight chooses a short-rib dish by Buga Korean Barbecue in Clairemont, made with raw garlic, toasted sesame oil, and romaine lettuce. While the crackery malts of his crisp pilsner complement the beef and toasted sesame, he likes the way the beer’s Mosaic-hop finish contrasts with the same ingredients, noting “the carbonation of the beer enhances the spice of the raw garlic that dances with hoppy floral notes on the palate.”
Derek Gallanosa, head brewer, Abnormal Beer Co.
As beer curator for Cork & Craft, Gallanosa collaborates with some of the city’s best chefs and breweries to host monthly beer-pairing dinners at the restaurant (which is also home to the Abnormal brewhouse). Describing his approach to pairing, Gallanosa explains he and his chef partners select beer and food that work together without overpowering one another yet bring out favorable characteristics. “We try to produce flavor interactions that you can only experience when trying the pairing,” he notes, “versus just each component separately.”
Here, he describes the thought process behind a few pairings from these dinners, with specific dishes prepared by outgoing Cork & Craft chef Phil Esteban and rotating guest chefs.
The Lost Abbey
Framboise de Amarosa — 7.0%, paired with ice cream
This stellar sour ale by Lost Abbey gets three infusions of raspberry over the course of a year spent aging in red-wine barrels. For a dinner prepared with Nine-Ten chef Jason Knibb, Amarosa paired with a rhubarb and rosemary ice cream topped by vadouvan curry granola and basil blossoms. “The sweetness of the ice cream works to calm down the acidity of the beer,” Gallanosa explains, “to expose the flavor combinations of raspberries from the beer with the herbs and spices of the dish.”
Alpine Beer Company
Mostra the Great — 14%, paired with panna cotta
Chef and Mostra Coffee roaster Mike Arquines collaborated with the Cork & Craft kitchen for a dinner pairing with Alpine. He also worked with the brewery to fashion this hefty beer for the event. The English barleywine was aged 20 months in bourbon oak barrels, then blended with Mostra cold brew. Gallanosa paired the beer with a dessert by pastry chef Brenda Gonzales, a chocolate coconut panna cotta served with blackberries and black sesame powder. “We decided a complementary flavor would be chocolate and coconut,” Gallanosa explains. “Those flavors were very subtle in the beer and we felt we could use the food to emphasize those characteristics.”
Abnormal Beer Company
5pm Session IPA — 5.2%, paired with fish tacos
Gallanosa points out beer pairings for the same dish may change based on how the dish is prepared, due to variations in seasoning, or even relative fat content. However, when we asked him to name one of his own beers to pair with a common San Diego meal, he chose Abnormal’s session IPA with a regional classic — Baja-style fried-fish tacos in a corn tortilla with cabbage, cream sauce, and salsa. “This beer will not overpower the delicate flaky fish,” he says, “but has enough bitterness to cut through the cream sauce.” He also notes the moderate hops will enhance the chili spice of the salsa. “Our goal is for people to taste the beer, then the food, then the beer again, to see how the two play off each other.”
Carli Smith, head brewer, Rock Bottom La Jolla
While Rock Bottom hosts beer-pairing dinners for occasions like Beer Week, it serves food and beer to guests every night. Smith says that, in a brewpub environment, a brewer always has food-friendliness in mind when making a new beer, so many of her beers will match up to dishes on the restaurant’s menu. She also has a few intriguing ideas about a couple of classic San Diego brews.
Alesmith Brewing Company
Nut Brown — 5.0%, paired with butternut squash soup
Originally called Nautical Nut Brown Ale, this English-style ale has been delivering chocolate and flavors to AleSmith fans over two decades now. “This pairing is perfect for the Fall season,” Smith points out. “The light body of the beer will help wash down the moderate heaviness of the soup.” She adds that the roasty malts prevalent in the brown ale will pay nice complement to the soup’s seasonings.
Ruination Double IPA — 8.5%, paired with Key lime pie
Getting into desserts, Smith goes an unlikely direction with the palate-crushing beer Stone made the world’s first West Coast–style double IPA served in bottles. “This pairing may seem a little out of left field,” Smith starts, “but the malty sweetness, resin, and hop character in the double IPA are a perfect earthy balance for the tart sweetness of the Key lime pie.” She specifies the pie needs to be made with actual Key limes for this pairing to work.
Rock Bottom La Jolla
Angry Cricket Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Porter — 9.5%, paired with chocolate and caramel bread pudding
For second dessert, Smith also goes for a big barrel-aged beer, this one a porter that’s done some time in Woodford Reserve barrels. “This pairing is a good example of using multiple complementary flavors in the same dish,” she says. “The chocolate in the bread pudding goes well with the chocolate and roasted malts.” Meanwhile, she adds, “the caramel is a perfect match for the spices imparted to the beer from the bourbon barrel.”
The Least Most Successful Beers of the Year
We saved the worst for last. Depending who you ask, the following beers are either unpalatable or — if the market has spoken — worth throwing money at. One or two of these beers may still exist two years from now, but if all three are still being served we may need to start questioning how discerning San Diego beer drinkers are.
Ballast Point Brewing
Adding watermelon flavor to a double IPA probably seemed like a good idea on paper — if you’re talking about the cotton-linen blend used to print paper currency. Ballast Point’s attempted follow-up to Grapefruit Sculpin sold more than a few novelty six-packs, but its unfortunate taste didn’t impress drinkers. You know it’s bad when people are landing watermelon Jolly Rancher jokes all over town without even having to mention the beer’s name.
I don’t imagine anyone in the world was clamoring for a coffee IPA, and I wouldn’t have tried this beer with any raised expectations had I not seen it done well elsewhere. While both the coffee and the hops are bitter, they’re not bitter in harmony, and that’s a problem when neither of them hit a sweet note. I’m tempted to chalk up this rare Stone miss to a year of upheaval, but when the company chose to retire its smoked porter the same year it introduced this…? Maybe they’ll love it in Virginia.
Peanut Butter Cup Porter — 5.6%
You win some, you lose some. Technically, this beer has also been a winner for Karl, as demand has been such that it’s tripled production on its Beer Week special release each year since 2012. The brewery proudly takes the credit/blame for kicking off the peanut-butter beer trend in San Diego, which has also seen Belching Beaver achieve great success with its Peanut Butter stout. That’s all fine if you like your adjunct beers served with the cloying taste of extract. For those who don’t — author included — this beer proves tough to swallow. As much as we like to think the best beers will find the greatest success, it doesn’t always work that way. Profit doesn’t equate beer quality, but if it subsidizes the next great beer out of the city’s original craft-beer company, let’s hope peanut-butter fans buy more beer again this year.