Saturday, March 31, 2012

Beer Tripping, Volume 1: San Diego, Part II

Stone Brewery was only one part of the beer adventure, and with as many options as there are in the area (there are literally dozens, as I previously mentioned; they call themselves the San Diego Brewers Guild, and they make San Diego a beer lover's heaven) it was difficult to call it a day at just one. So we didn't.

While Stone was certainly the crown jewel of the brewery collection, the scattered "little guys," while maybe being sans an outdoor bistro and beer garden,  were still every bit as appealing.

Lost Abbey Brewery 
Escondido, CA
Beers Encountered: Avant Garde, Devotion, Judgment Day, Red Barn

Running a brewery of any scale is not a condensed operation. One fermentation tank can range from 10 to 100 hl (that's hectoliters, as in, 100 liters). A site will obviously vary in the size and quantity of their tanks depending on the size of the brewery but as a general theme it's not exactly something you can run out of your bedroom.

Still, if there is such a thing as a "hole-in-the-wall" brewery, Lost Abbey is most certainly it. The space is more or less a warehouse and it makes no efforts to hide it. While we didn't tour the actual brewery (I believe they offered a tour but we arrived well past the time in which that was an option), it was easily visible in the open air environment of the brewery, and appeared to be fairly standard. In fact, it used to be Stone's house before they moved shop up the road, and they still utilize some of their old equipment while adding some new of their own.

I would happily accept some brewery's hand-me-downs. 

 The more appealing part, though, was the ragtag bar they had set up in the front. Utilitarian to an extreme, Lost Abbey's bar relishes in its bare-bones feel, but that's really part of its charm: concrete floors, an open loading bay door for natural light, barrels as tables, and seats that are, no exaggeration - bags of barley. It's not exactly comfortable but it's still pretty cool - I kind of imagine it's what a shipyard bar feels like. And over a couple of beers, you really don't mind. It's just fun.

Shabby chic is awesome when you have a buzz 
The bar itself offered samples of pints of Lost Abbey's impressively extensive beer list. Ranging from their hallmark Red Barn Ale (a very tasty ale with a flavor profile of summer, including citrus and ginger notes) to their version of the strong 10.5% beer wallop called, what else, Judgment Day (See? Remember what I said about over the top names?), there's plenty to try. Originally a local Californian brew, Lost Abbey has been spreading across the US at a pretty impressive rate - it should actually be easily available in the Northeast according to their handy website map - So, in short, yes, if you stumble upon a Lost Abbey six pack it's very much worth a try.

The only disappointing aspect of Lost Abbey was an apparent lack of...well, passion, from the girls running the bar. There was no denying that someone was putting love into their delicious beers - a banner hung overhead exclaiming, "In Illa Brettanomyces Nos Fides" - In the Wild Yeast We Believe, after all, but this passion was decidedly absent in the ladies running the front of the house. There was no interest in conversation at all, let alone any discussion about the beers they were serving me. I was certainly fine with entertaining myself with my parents, but it would have been nice to hear what they liked, which beers were their favorites, just anything. But instead I sort of felt like an inconvenience to them. Whatever, at least I had beer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beer Tripping, Volume 1: San Diego, Part I

So, uh...there's a lot of beer out there. The craft beer phenomenon has truly exploded (perhaps too much so, but that's an essay for another time...), and the selection has become nothing short of intimidating. For those brewphiles out there, seeking out new beers to experience sort of becomes second nature. Some of it is readily available at your local generic sports bar (or, you know, grocer, CVS or book store if you're in California...). Or maybe you'll go to your local beer bar for a wider, more interesting selection. Or sometimes, if you're a bit adventurous, you go to the source. 

Brew Tours 101 

Brewery tours, for the uninitiated, are an absolutely fantastic way to spend an afternoon. Of all of the tours I have been on, this gist is largely the same: sign up for a time slot, go through a tour of the brewery, and then, as the grand finale, sample free beer. The limits of what and how much they give you tend to differ from brewery to brewery, but the general abstract remains the same: free beer. 

In general, it's most likely that you'll be able to check out a tour on a weekend, which means that a lot of people have the same exact idea. As such, weekends are obviously the busiest times for tours, and they tend to fill up quickly. So, check out the respective brewer's website and pick a tour time - there's usually anywhere from five to seven tours a day, depending on the size of the brewery - and show up an hour or two in advance.

Critics of brew tours (if they even exist, the jaded hypothetical bastards) might complain that every tour is more or less the same - "this is barley, these are hops, this is where the yeast ferments...," - and in many ways, that's true. It's definitely a How It's Made crash course that covers the bare basics of beer crafting- the basics never change. But, without fail, there are subtitles that you discern between breweries, whether it be the methods of brewing, ingredients, ideology, or a subtly different corporate spin, brew tours always manage to be a different trip.

So, then, allow me to share with one of such tours I had the excellent opportunity to experience.

Stone Ale Brewing
Escondido, CA
Beers encountered:
Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine, Stone Levitation Ale, Stone Pale Ale, Stone Smoked Porter, Stone IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale

The entrance lobby. "Stone" gives the interior decorator people a pretty solid direction to head in. 

Situated just a bit outside of San Diego, Stone Ale Brewery is sort of miraculous. A shining bastion of beer, a paradise of pale ale, a haven of hops, a...well, you get the point. Not to mention it was named one of the top breweries to visit in the US by Forbes. (

The place is pretty stellar.

Stone has a unique, devil-may-care branding that it completely owns. One of it's more potent concoctions - their tour-du-hops called Ruination- was briefly mentioned in my last post for adhering to a "we'll name it whatever the hell we want to" vibe. And it's only one such example. One of its staples and arguable calling cards is christened Arrogant Bastard, and the entire brewery exists without a marketing budget. That it subsists entirely on word of mouth is a grand testament to the quality of its beer. Or merely an interesting statement on how many people think it's HILARIOUS to tell people they bought you a beer "that totally fits your personality."


Taking what constitutes a typical brew tour and eclipsing it a few times over, Stone Ale Brewery is more of a Brew Resort (literally, actually...they're in the process of building of a hotel). Most breweries are relatively humble in their scale: a small bar with a host of the brewery's beer, a gift shop, and of course the admittedly expansive set up required to produce a national beer. Stone has all of that on top of a complete restaurant, terrace bar and garden.

What they don't tell you is that you actually have to hunt and kill the beer in its natural habitat. 

I embarked on this epic journey with my beloved and increasingly beer loving parents (a wondrous and valuable contribution to their lives if I may be so bold). We arrived two hours in advance, as per recommended by the website, and signed up for the 3 o' clock tour. That gave us plenty of time to develop a healthy buzz on the beautiful (stone) terrace. I had their Old Guardian barley wine - a high proof sipping beer that drank far easier than it should have and some pretty tasty soft pretzels to sop up a bit of the alcohol.

And by healthy buzz I mean, "I'm not sure I can handle a free beer tour after this"

From there the actual tour began. Stone keeps things tame by keeping the groups small - 25 people per tour - and arms their tour guide with a microphone. Ours is a short guy rocking Christ chic, and his passion and the thoroughness of his knowledge is undeniable. Hailing from a record store, he found the position on a Craigslist posting and was an absolutely perfect guide.

From there everything proceeds largely as planned, with a passing of the ingredients of a typical beer, a peek at the fermentation tanks, and an impressive explanations of the perils of pressing the emergency stop button. But, as I mentioned, things are different no matter where you go and Stone has its own manifesto it adheres to. Namely, "MORE HOPS."

Their reverence of the good plant is almost, well, arrogant - they pack more hops into their brews than almost anyone, but manage to do so in unique ways for each beer, so none of their selection taste particularly similar. They may exist on different levels (Levitation could be considered a beginner's version of Ruination, for example), but each is its own beer. In fact, at the tour's end, the samples given to us were given in order of increasing amount of hops. Still, even those avoid IPAs and the like the the floral grenades that they can be, could find something to like here (Mom, who regards hops as the source of that "glue taste" made it through 2 of the beers before bowing out). The beers are more sophisticated than others of the sort, and are certainly work experiencing. Arrogant Bastard is my personal favorite - a brazen amber color ale that bites pretty hard but has such a great flavor that you don't mind. 

Insert "Beer Jesus" joke here - the tour group certainly did. 
So, please. 
Go to San Diego area. It's phenomenal in its own right. But when you do, go to Stone Brewery. No matter what level of a beer fan you are, Stone Brewery is a gorgeous testament to the growing significance of beer in our culture. And I can't wait to experience it again.