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. 

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