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So how's the beer?

Visiting 10 Barrel a year later. Was it worth the fuss?

At 10 Barrel, a fixed taster flight offers 10 beers for 10 dollars.
At 10 Barrel, a fixed taster flight offers 10 beers for 10 dollars.

It’s been a year since Anheuser-Busch subsidiary 10 Barrel Brewing Co. opened its controversial, multimillion dollar, East Village brewpub amid an epic troll battle with local craft breweries, beer media, and fans.

Place

10 Barrel Brewing

1501 E Street, San Diego

That made me overdue a visit to the shiny venue, so I dropped by on a Tuesday night — trivia night — to try a flight of beer. I found a crowd any small brewery in San Diego would envy. The brewpub’s rooftop patio, where I had been hoping to drink, was closed for a private event, so the entire ground floor was especially packed, from dining room to taproom.

A multimillion dollar brewpub in East Village

The taproom is backed by a 20-barrel brewhouse, leaving a narrow bar space fronted by high-top tables where guests drink five-dollar pints and eat pizza. It might feel cozy, except the bar’s draft system creates a tall fence of tap handles at the front of the bar, creating a physical barrier between bartenders and guests.

Of the twenty beers on tap, I spotted a handful I wanted to try, but that’s not how flights work here: you don’t get to pick which beers you sample, nor how many. Every flight is the same: ten four-ounce tasters of house beer for 10 bucks. I had to order a little food to go with that much beer, which might be the point.

The ten small glasses fit into two rows of a long metal rack, numbered 1 to 10. Each number corresponded to a beer featured on the menu, but not in any sequential order. Trying to keep track which beer I was drinking felt like looking up footnoted citations for a term paper.

I waded through styles ranging from a Canadian style lager to a roasty porter, with plenty of hoppy ales in between. None of these brews drank particularly crisp, several didn’t taste fresh, and a Calypso single hop IPA was undrinkable, tainted by the funky cheese aroma of hops well past their prime.

That sounds snarky, and I don’t enjoy saying it. I honestly looked forward to commending these beers. The 10 Barrel folks have comported themselves well in the face of an unwelcoming San Diego craft beer scene, insisting from the outset they would let the quality of the beer do the talking. Frankly, I think it makes for a better story if their beer tastes great.

However, I couldn’t shake the impression beer is the least of the reasons people visit, after food, atmosphere, and location. A first-time visitor at the bar told me he found the place by Googling the word brewery, and choosing the search result with the nicest photos.

Meanwhile, the beers aren’t saying much on their own behalf, unless you count the menu’s polished, professionally written product descriptions. I don’t know whether it’s a deliberate provocation, but either way, 10 Barrel certainly won’t win over any dedicated San Diego beer drinkers by calling its Randy Shagwell’s English pale ale, “the true mark of an ale smith.”

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At 10 Barrel, a fixed taster flight offers 10 beers for 10 dollars.
At 10 Barrel, a fixed taster flight offers 10 beers for 10 dollars.

It’s been a year since Anheuser-Busch subsidiary 10 Barrel Brewing Co. opened its controversial, multimillion dollar, East Village brewpub amid an epic troll battle with local craft breweries, beer media, and fans.

Place

10 Barrel Brewing

1501 E Street, San Diego

That made me overdue a visit to the shiny venue, so I dropped by on a Tuesday night — trivia night — to try a flight of beer. I found a crowd any small brewery in San Diego would envy. The brewpub’s rooftop patio, where I had been hoping to drink, was closed for a private event, so the entire ground floor was especially packed, from dining room to taproom.

A multimillion dollar brewpub in East Village

The taproom is backed by a 20-barrel brewhouse, leaving a narrow bar space fronted by high-top tables where guests drink five-dollar pints and eat pizza. It might feel cozy, except the bar’s draft system creates a tall fence of tap handles at the front of the bar, creating a physical barrier between bartenders and guests.

Of the twenty beers on tap, I spotted a handful I wanted to try, but that’s not how flights work here: you don’t get to pick which beers you sample, nor how many. Every flight is the same: ten four-ounce tasters of house beer for 10 bucks. I had to order a little food to go with that much beer, which might be the point.

The ten small glasses fit into two rows of a long metal rack, numbered 1 to 10. Each number corresponded to a beer featured on the menu, but not in any sequential order. Trying to keep track which beer I was drinking felt like looking up footnoted citations for a term paper.

I waded through styles ranging from a Canadian style lager to a roasty porter, with plenty of hoppy ales in between. None of these brews drank particularly crisp, several didn’t taste fresh, and a Calypso single hop IPA was undrinkable, tainted by the funky cheese aroma of hops well past their prime.

That sounds snarky, and I don’t enjoy saying it. I honestly looked forward to commending these beers. The 10 Barrel folks have comported themselves well in the face of an unwelcoming San Diego craft beer scene, insisting from the outset they would let the quality of the beer do the talking. Frankly, I think it makes for a better story if their beer tastes great.

However, I couldn’t shake the impression beer is the least of the reasons people visit, after food, atmosphere, and location. A first-time visitor at the bar told me he found the place by Googling the word brewery, and choosing the search result with the nicest photos.

Meanwhile, the beers aren’t saying much on their own behalf, unless you count the menu’s polished, professionally written product descriptions. I don’t know whether it’s a deliberate provocation, but either way, 10 Barrel certainly won’t win over any dedicated San Diego beer drinkers by calling its Randy Shagwell’s English pale ale, “the true mark of an ale smith.”

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Comments
2

Ian, you say you "honestly looked forward to commending these beers." Really? This is the biggest of the Big Beer purveyors, and some how you thought they would have really decent craft beers? Ya' gotta be kiddin'. The flagship product of Anheuser Busch, Budweiser, is a strange product. They say is it beer, but it tastes like no other beer; it is hard to describe it. Yet, it is still the nation's largest selling "beer." Howcum? The massive advertising campaign, now at least sixty years old, keeps telling everyone how good it is. Spend enough on the big lie, and it takes on a momentum that seems unstoppable.

This experiment in trying to imitate the new age of brewing is likely to fail. Even if the place in San Diego succeeds, will it transfer to Peoria? Or Honolulu? Or Seattle? They sell beer with imagery, not taste, not anything genuine. Craft beer is just the opposite; who cares about the slogan, the label, the name? How it goes down is what the drinkers care about.

I'm not the slightest bit surprised at your impressions. If anything, I would have expected worse.

May 28, 2018

While there's clearly a correlation between corporate ownership and low beer quality, it's not a scientific absolute. When I met with these guys last year they seemed determined to justify their presence in SD by making quality beer. Making good beer isn't magic, and doesn't require any divine secret knowledge, so I assumed they were capable, and would be motivated to prove the naysayers wrong by furnishing above-average product. Some of these beers might have been decent served fresh. If I had to speculate, I'd say a 20-barrel system servicing a single brewpub (that also serves the brand's flagship beers, made off-site) might leave them with too much perishable inventory, which they effectively dump at below market rate by formulating this 10 for $10 taster flight. Or I'm totally wrong, and beers came out of the tank simply fall well below the standard set by most SD breweries.

May 29, 2018

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