San Diego: Only here for the beerEntertainment Feature Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Exploring America’s craft beer capital
“I like a good beer buzz early in the morning.” — Sheryl Crow
I feel you, Sheryl. I occasionally enjoy a beer for breakfast, too. Because there’s a bagel in every bottle, or, if you prefer, a croissant in every can. So imagine my eagerness when the editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a feature article about craft beer! In all honesty, he said “Oktoberfest”, but all I heard was “beer”. I couldn’t begin my field research soon enough.
San Diego is considered the craft beer capital of the U.S., and with good reason. Economically speaking, craft beer is bigger than San Diego Comic-Con. Metaphorically speaking, craft beer is King Kong.
Currently, there are more than 90 breweries in San Diego County. In 2011, the industry made $680.8 million in sales and sustained, or created, 2,796 jobs. That same year, brewers and brew pubs generated a $299.5 million direct economic impact in San Diego County. That’s one and a half times greater than the economic impact of that wildly costumed celebration of the popular arts.
You might be wondering, what is “craft beer”? Craft brewers must use traditional ingredients and are limited to producing only six million barrels per year (a barrel of beer is 31 gallons), but there are no limitations to their imagination and creativity. The basic ingredients of beer are water; a starch source that can be converted to sugars then fermented, such as malted barley, wheat or rye; a brewer’s yeast to produce fermentation; and a flavoring, such as hops. A word about hops: they’re closely related to the marijuana plant which might be one reason why consuming beer imparts a sense of euphoria. But, I digress. In general, mass-produced commercial beers are between 3 and 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), whereas craft beers can achieve an ABV of 18 to 20 percent. The challenge for the brewer becomes one of combining the basic ingredients in remarkably flavorful ways and producing a memorable beer. Hence, the “craft”.
I’m pleased to report the challenge has been accepted and answered by our local breweries. Four beer pantheons within the greater gayborhood were visited over the course of several sultry days. Despite the relentless heat and humidity, there was no shortage of volunteers eager to assist with my research. We ordered “flights” at every establishment to provide the greatest spectrum of sampling. There are many factors to consider when drinking beer. One must consider the beverage’s bitterness (the relative bitterness is rated according to the international bitterness units (IBU) scale), flavor, intensity, alcohol content, and color. Exhausting work.
My first destination, Thorn Street Brewery, 3176 Thorn St., is a small festive space with lots of hard surfaces; concrete floors and wood paneled walls. There’s also a large patio with ample seating which was inaccessible on the day of our visit however, the mood was merry and everybody was friendly and conversant. Patrons build their own flight of beers and choose up to eight selections from the menu. Each five ounce pour costs only $2.
Reward yourself with the Tropic Daze India Pale Ale (IPA) (6.2 ABV). A judicious blend of Topaz and Mosaic hops infuses the medium-bodied brew with playful overtones of pineapple and orange zest. Also, the Dark Tsar (10.5 ABV) is impossible to ignore. The Russian Imperial Stout is a big strong dark beer with a creamy head, and malty notes of molasses, raisin, chocolate and roast coffee, which makes it suitable for a dessert beverage. My assistant suggested making a float by combining the beer with cookie dough ice cream. I like the way he thinks.
I entered my second port of call, Mike Hess Brewing, 3812 Grim Ave., and crossed a bridge to the elevated tasting area. Walking through and above the massive stainless steel tanks reminded my wide-eyed assistant of waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland, except, instead of a roller coaster, there’s beer. Really good beer. We perched at one of numerous three-seat tables found beneath an exposed steel beam and corrugated metal ceiling, and admired the gorgeous wood grain of the lacquered tabletops, which, we noted, reflected every color of the beer rainbow. The $15 flight provides five 4.5 ounce samples.
Our favorite pours were two award winners, the Claritas Kölsch and the Habitus Rye IPA. The delightfully refreshing Kölsch (5.8 ABV, 30 IBU), is light to medium in body with a pale buttery color, a medium to slightly assertive bitterness, and muted fruity malts, which explains why the concoction won the 2014 AmeriCAN Canned Craft Beer Gold Medal for Blonds and Light Ales. The astounding Rye IPA (8.0 ABV, 85 IBU), a copper-colored, satiny medium-bodied ale, begins with overtones of apricot and mango, moves toward malty, and then finishes with a dry hoppy bitterness. Deservedly so, the sublime and masterful brew brought home the 2014 World Beer Cup Gold award.
My next stopover, Poor House Brewing Company, 4494 30th St., is a work in progress. With good bones. We entered through the swinging saloon doors and found ourselves in the middle of a construction zone. The hunky well-muscled carpenter, sporting tattoos and a heavy five o’clock shadow, informed us the renovations would be completed by years end. When finished, the relaxed neighborhood brewery will offer a full kitchen in addition to the tasting room. I, with fingers crossed, look forward to seeing the finishing touches on this cozy alehouse.
The $11 flight includes seven 3 ounce servings. The two brews with the most appeal were the Cluster Fukk Double IPA and the Nutted Brown Ale. Cluster Fukk Double IPA (8.1 ABV) is a unique medium-bodied beverage with a deep bronze color. The complex beer incorporates 30 different hops for a satisfying yet indescribable flavor. No single note stands out and the fruity aroma belies the draft’s smoky undertones. The silky Nutted Brown Ale (5.9 ABV), is a medium-bodied henna-hued beer revealing hints of caramel, vanilla bean and figs, with a smooth clean finish. An engaging and enjoyable beverage from beginning to end.
Finally, I arrived at Hillcrest Brewing Company, 1548 University Ave., America’s first openly out and proud gay brewery. The beer hall is roomy inside and out, with plenty of seating on the patio, or at the bar and long communal tables in the high-ceilinged light-filled tasting room.
A great use of space with large tanks prominently displayed and a massive eye-catching chandelier made of bottles. They also serve fresh salads, tender chicken wings and delicious piping-hot pizza, but I was only there for the beer.
The flight features up to eight 4 ounce pours, $2 each. The brews that tickled our taste buds were the U-Hawle Hefeweizen and the Perle Necklace Pale Ale. U-Hawle (5.0 ABV, 21 IBU), is a cloudy, tawny light-bodied wheat beer. Notes of clove and citrus with undertones of banana are introduced by the fruity yeasts, then finished with a dry tart edge. A very crisp thirst-quenching beverage. Perle Necklace (6.0 ABV, 37 IBU), is a flaxen light-bodied ale. The sweet lemony citrus notes behind the floral aroma culminate with a sharp clean finish.
Whereas hefeweizens are traditionally hazy in appearance, surprisingly, the Pale Ale was also a bit cloudy. Austin, HBC’s brewmaster, attributed the cloudiness of their beers to the fact that they’re unfiltered; there “simply wasn’t room” for the large devices. As a result, the clarity of the beer is diminished, but not so the flavor. He also spoke about the variety of yeasts and malts used in the production of their craft beer, and I was thankful for his time and professional insights.
You might be wondering, “What the heck is a hefeweizen, or a kölsch, or a stout?” A great resource, but by no means a beer style bible, can be found at beeradvocate.com. They do a good job of describing the variations in styles without being overly geeky and technical. They also offer food pairings, glassware and cellaring/serving recommendations.
I hope this tour of local microbreweries whetted your thirst. A special thanks to my assistants: Moose, Wingman, Pussy Cat and Father Guido. I am grateful for their tireless efforts, sophisticated palates and unfailing friendships. I intentionally limited my field research to only on premise beer-making locations, but there are other options where parched readers can grab a cold pint. There are tasting rooms, such as Belching Beaver, 4223 30th St., which serves only their off premise brewed craft beer, and taprooms, such as Toronado, 4026 30th St., which pour libations from several different local microbreweries. In honor of Oktoberfest, I encourage you to pull on your lederhosen and grab a stein – there’s beer to be consumed. Polka music optional. As always, San Diego LGBT Weekly reminds our readers to drink responsibly, and never drink and drive.
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