Wow. I thought Portland Oregon was America's best beer city. San Diego might have surpassed it.
The 2015 National Homebrewers Conference was held in San Diego, and since this city was on my bucket list, I figured why not kill two birds with one stone? Or drink two beers with one mug?
Sunday June 7. As I chose my seat on the plane (Southwest does not have assigned seating), it occurred to me that I'm getting older. I used to prefer window seats in order to get good views. Now I choose aisle seats so it's easier to get to the bathroom.
After landing I shuttled to E-Z Rent-A-Car to rent a vehicle, then immediately headed to Port Brewing, eating food along the way that I'd packed in order to lay a base (because when you want to slow alcohol absorption, it's all about that base, 'bout that base, 'bout that base...) It was a gorgeous sunny day with temperatures in the 70s. I'd heard that Californians are more laid-back than East Coasters. That might be true, but when it comes to driving, there are just as many crazies out there as there are back east.
Port Brewing is more commonly known as Lost Abbey. The actual brewery name is Port Brewing, and they use that as the brand name for their American and West Coast-style ales. They use the brand name Lost Abbey to refer to their Belgian, high-octane, and barrel-aged beers. Like many San Diego-area breweries, it's tucked away in a nondescript industrial park. I arrived at 2:00 p.m. hoping to get a tour (their website says that they give tours on Sunday afternoons), but the brewers were doing some catch-up work that day and they are not allowed to give tours while brewers are working. On the plus side, this would get me back on the road sooner so I'd have more time for brewery hopping.
Most of their 5-ounce tasters were only $1 apiece, which was the best deal I would find on my entire trip. I tried their:
Great 70s music played while dozens of customers drank world-class beer. After sampling I bought to-go bottles of Mongo, Wipeout, and a triple called Inferno.
Just a few minutes away is Rip Current Brewing. It's a nice place with good beer and atmosphere. I only got 2 samples because I was driving and had more places to hit:
On a tip from someone at Rip Current I went to nearby Stumblefoot Brewing, which was supposed to have a nice sour ale. (I was glad to have brought my GPS because I hadn't mapped this place out.) The sour ale, called Questhaven, was aged in a barrel with apricots. It was great. I also tried the Stumble Double (made with raisins) and San Elijo (a semi-sour ale).
The place opened in March 2012. It's well hidden in a small industrial area, and you'd never find it unless you knew where it is. The brewery logo used to be a footprint, but it got a cease-and-desist from Barefoot Wines, who already uses a footprint for their logo, so as of this writing Stumblefoot is working on another logo. What I want to know is, how do you copyright a body part? Is there a government office that assigns body parts to businesses? One company gets a hand. Another gets a lung. Another gets a butt cheek.
Toolbox Brewing, located a few minutes away in a small strip mall, opened in October 2014. All the parking spaces in front of it are handicapped spots. Or is that physically challenged spots? They played punk music. Their tap handles are various tools and tool handles (saw, chisel, hammer, wrench, etc). They make several sours. I tried:
They bottle a small percentage of their beer. In order to buy some you have to go to http://brownpaperticket.com and order it right when it goes on sale because it sells out quickly. Other breweries also sell beer through this site.
Latitude 33° Brewing is walking distance from Toolbox. It's one of the many garage-type places with a roll-up door. I tried their 33 IPA, which was great, so I bought a bottle to go.
Next stop: Iron Fist Brewing. This place opened in 2010. They had a guy playing live music when I got there. The ambience wasn't much but they made a few good beers. I tried:
My last stop of the day was Pizza Port Carlsbad, one of Pizza Port's 6 locations. It had a festive atmosphere with over 100 customers, many kinds of pizza, 35 beer taps (20 of their own beer plus 15 guest), some video games, and an outdoor biergarten that had about a dozen more taps. In addition to beer they sold a lot of wine. It was the only brewpub I visited that day; all the others were breweries (no food). Inside the pub I tried the following (all but the last were Pizza Port beers):
In the biergarten I tried their:
Adjacent to the biergarten is a bottle shop that sells beers from many breweries. I bought a few cans before heading down to the Best Western Seven Seas to check in and get some much-needed sleep.
Incidentally, Port Brewing spun off from Pizza Port. Two of Port Brewing's founders are the owners of Pizza Port, and a third founder (Tomme Arthur, who is very well known in the beer world) used to be Pizza Port's head brewer.
It might also interest you to know that I started Pizza Port's Wikipedia page in October 2006. If you go to the page and click "View history" at the top, you can trace the page's history.
Monday June 8. I normally wake up around 5 a.m. EST, so I was up before 2 a.m. PST. This gave me several hours to write, upload photos, and add places to my itinerary using the San Diego Brewers Guild Craft Beer Guide that I'd picked up the previous day. It's a great beer map. After a nice shower with water that came out of the shower head with force the likes of which I hadn't seen since the 1960s riots, I went to a supermarket called Von's to pick up some food for the room and the car. The place had a lot of beer, wine and liquor for sale. The citrus fruit was kind of expensive considering it's grown in California. I also stopped at nearby Del Mesa Liquor to peruse their beer selection.
The first stop of the day was Coronado Brewing. This is one of three locations. It opened at 10:30 a.m. None of the other places I visited opened before 11:00. This gave me an extra half hour to visit places. I was the first customer of the day. Shortly thereafter a customer came in with 4 dogs. I tried samples of Idiot IPA and Silver Strand Saison. The former was quite good so a bought a bottle to go. They were bottling so I took a short video of the bottling line in operation.
Next was Ballast Point's Little Italy location (they have 4 locations, and I would hit 3 of them). According to their website they give tours but there was some construction going on (I think they were putting in a patio or something), so they weren't giving tours. This brewery, which opened in September 2013, is their 3-barrel research and development (R&D) brewery; they try out their new recipes here before stepping up to one of their bigger breweries. I tried the following experimental beers:
Then it was on to Stone Brewing at Liberty Station, one of Stone's several locations. Liberty Station is an old naval training area that has been converted to retail shops and housing. I was at my third brewery of the day and it wasn't even noon yet, so I spent some time taking photos. They use a lot of stone (mainly granite) in their décor. Both the restaurant and the biergarten are beautiful, the latter of which has many large stones, a few small waterfalls and ponds, some koi or goldfish (I can't tell the difference), and a 30-tap bar. There is also a courtyard for bocce.
The 10-barrel system is the smallest of Stone's breweries (they have two 120-barrel systems in Escondido). This is where they make their R&D beers. For example, their Go To IPA was developed here. As of this writing they are planning to open new breweries in Richmond VA and Berlin Germany in spring 2016, with restaurants to be added the following year.
On a tip from a friend back home I drove to nearby Ocean Beach to a restaurant called South Beach Bar and Grill, which isn't a pub but is supposed to make great tacos. Unfortunately they were closed that day because they were doing some work inside. Fortunately there is a brewery just a few blocks away called Culture Brewing, which opened in November 2014. (Their beer isn't actually made here - it's made at their Solana Beach location, which opened in February 2013.) The décor consists mainly of skateboards, some of which date back to the 1960s, that were attached to the wall by a local artist. I tried two of their beers, both of which I liked a lot:
Ocean Beach is a classic example of a California beach area: hippies, tattoos, surfboards, skateboards, old crappy cars, motorcycles, palm trees, bike shops, tattoo/piercing shops, and a lot of restaurants. It was almost like being on a 1960s movie set. It was a cloudy, windy day, but nevertheless people were at the beach, surfing or lying on towels. The lack of sun is a frequent occurrence caused by the marine layer that comes in from the ocean, while just a few miles inland it's sunny.
I sallied forth to Modern Times's "Lomaland Fermentorium", one of its two locations. There were shelving units with lots of old books and the place smelled like coffee (they roast their own and use some of it in their beer). Their beer samples are 7 ounces, so I got just one: Hooloomooloo, a nice, hoppy, malty double IPA.
A few minutes away is Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment, a cozy place with a relaxing atmosphere. I sampled a double IPA called Run for the Hills and a triple IPA called Hop Way to the Danger Zone. Both were good.
Drove in sucky rush-hour traffic to Modern Times's other location, the "Flavordome", which opened in summer 2013. Lots of lampshades hang from the ceiling, the walls have what look like old encyclopedia articles, the front of the bar is decorated with hundreds of VHS tapes, and the coasters are 3½-inch floppy disks. Like their other location, samples are 7 ounces, so I got only one: Booming Rollers, a good IPA with Citra hops.
Less than a mile up the street is one of the two Belching Beaver locations (this is only a tasting room; the beer is brewed in Vista). I tried their:
A couple at Belching Beaver told me about a nearby brewery that's not on the brewery map called Fall Brewing, so I went. It opened in November 2014. The atmosphere was festive. There were posters, made by one of the brewery owners, of ads for old alternative/punk bands. Their pint glasses are oversized and have a fill line, which allows for foam while not short-changing customers. Don't you hate when you order a pint and there's an inch of foam on top? I've done the math: if you get short-filled by just one inch in a standard tapered pint glass, you're losing 25% of your beer. You can see my calculations in this Word document. Anyway, I tried two of their beers: Spirit of 77 and Green Hat, which were both good IPAs. I picked up a "passport" that, if you got it stamped by the breweries Fall, Benchmark, and Societe by the end of the month, would get you a pair of drinking socks.
Less than a block away I found another brewery, also not on the brewery map, called Poor House Brewing, which opened in 2012. Their gimmick is that they give you felt-tip markers with which you decorate a dollar bill. Hundreds of decorated bills hang on the wall. I tried their Sterling Belgian Pale and their Experimental Batch #10 IPA.
Next I went to Blind Lady Ale House / Automatic Brewing. Normally they are closed on Mondays but since the FIFA Women's World Cup was going on, they were open so customers could watch there. Most of the taps had guest beers. Only one of their own beers was on tap: Beyond Mars, a so-so Belgian amber. I also got tastes of Mother Earth Big Mother, a good triple IPA; and Port Anniversary Ale, which was good. They don't sell beer samples; the smallest size they sell is half-pours. However, the bartendress let my try small tastes.
I came back to the motel room, and since it was still early, I looked up Benchmark Brewing (I was already planning to go to Societe the next day, so I would need to add Benchmark to my itinerary in order to get my "passport" completed). Benchmark was only a few minutes away, so I went. They opened in 2013. The owner/brewer used to brew at AleSmith. I tried their Talking Tree Saison, which was good. Afterward I picked up some healthful food at Trader Joe's, then returned to the motel. 12 breweries in one day. That's a record for me.
Tuesday June 9. After paying $3.72 per gallon to fill the tank, I drove to San Diego Brewing. This brewpub, located in a strip mall, opened in 1993. I sampled:
Next stop: Ballast Point's Miramar location. The inside is very nice, with different décors in different areas. There is a big outdoor patio, as well as a cornhole court. I tried their:
My friends Rob and Craig, who are fellow CRABS members, flew in from Baltimore. They taxiied to my motel and I picked them up. The first thing they wanted to do was go to an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain that a lot of people had told us makes great burgers. Our burgers were good and not too greasy, but I can't say that they lived up to the hype. This was the first burger I had eaten in probably 20 years.
We visited White Labs, a yeast company that supplies many breweries and homebrew shops. They don't sell beer in stores but they experiment with their yeasts and make beer that's sold for on-premise consumption. They had 25 beers on tap. We got 12 samples: several saisons, English brown ales, and Belgian strong ales; and 2 stouts called Frankenstout, one a regular stout and the other made with coffee, both brewed with 96 strains of yeast.
One of our servers told us that AleSmith Brewing had just opened a new facility the previous day, so naturally we had to visit. When we got to the building there was no indication that it was a brewery; there was just a sign that said, "Observation room." The tasting room was rather characterless and had that "new place" smell, but we didn't mind because we were just after beer. They had 12 selections on tap. We tried:
The "old" AleSmith brewery, located just blocks away, was still operating. Mikkeller was slated to take over the place after AleSmith shut down. This place had all the beers the new place had, plus some others. The ambience was nice and homey and there were close to 40 customers. We got samples of:
We arrived at Green Flash Brewing just in time for the 5 p.m. tour. It was a great deal: $5 got us a one-hour tour and 4 beer samples, which were:
After the tour we bellied up to the bar and sampled three of their beers. The one with the Alpine moniker refers to Alpine Beer Company, which Green Flash acquired in late 2014. Alpine doesn't have enough capacity to meet demand, so Green Flash brews some of it.
Next we hit Societe Brewing. First we sampled some of their beers:
This was the final place where I needed to get my "passport" stamped in order to get my drinking socks.
Our last stop of the day was Council Brewing. It had a friendly, down-to-earth atmosphere. All the tap handles were gavels. We arrived shortly before last call and got samples of:
Wednesday June 10. A somewhat cool, cloudy morning. We stopped at Trader Joe's to pick up some traveling food, then drove to Stone Brewing's Escondido location at 10:30 a.m. to purchase tickets for a 2:00 p.m. tour (in order to ensure that it wouldn't be sold out when we showed up at 2:00). They have 10-minute "growler fill" and 20-minute "keg pick-up" parking spots. The building is not marked with any sort of identification, so you'll miss the place unless you know exactly where it is. There is a nice path leading to the back door, but since they don't open til 11:00 it was locked. We went around to the front door, which was open even though it wasn't 11:00 yet, and looked around. Both the inside and the outside are nice. Outside there is a big, beautiful garden and seating area, with grass, trees, water, and koi/goldfish. I thought it was prettier than their Liberty Station biergarten.
At 11:00 we bought our tickets and drove to Pizza Port Bressi Ranch. Tucked away in an industrial park, it wasn't as crowded as the other Pizza Port I'd been to. There were video games, surfboards hanging from the ceiling, and what looked like a conical fermenter being used as an aquarium. Just like at the other location, there is one area to order pizza, and a separate bar to order beer. We ordered their Pizza Carlsbad, made with pesto, mesquite grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and feta. It was delicious. The beers we sampled were:
We headed toward Port / Lost Abbey, and since it didn't open til 1:00, we had time to stop somewhere. There were about a half dozen breweries on our way, but only one was open at that particular time: San Marcos Brewery & Grill. It's one of those places that seem to cater more to the masses than beer geeks, but it was convenient, open, and a way to pass some time. We sampled four of their pedestrian offerings:
When we arrived at Port Brewing right at 1:00 there were already about 20 customers. We bellied up to the bar and got samples of:
At Stone a lot of people were getting growlers filled. Stone had recently started selling 32-ounce can growlers ("crowlers"), which are large cans that they fill and then seal with a special machine.
The 2:00 tour was sold out, so we were smart to buy our tickets early. Stone was established in 1996, and they originally started brewing where Port / Lost Abbey is now. They've been at their current location since 2005. They claim to be the largest craft brewer in the nation; in 2014 they made 280,000 barrels of beer, and their production increases every year. As I mentioned earlier, they have plans to build breweries in Richmond VA and Berlin Germany. They use their own proprietary yeast strain from White Labs (who keeps proprietary strains for several breweries). They make 120 barrels per batch on each of their 2 systems. They have 400-barrel fermenters, and a separate building with a barrel room. They brew 24/7 and they've made as many as 80 batches in a single week. At the time of our visit, their best-selling beer was their IPA, followed by Arrogant Bastard, then Go To IPA; and Arrogant Bastard was the best-selling bomber in the United States.
After the tour they gave us samples of:
We ran into Steve and Keith again, as well as Keith's mom (who lived in the area and was their designated driver), and we joined them for lunch outside. We sampled 5 more Stone beers and 3 guest beers:
Once again we had to cut our time with them short in order to visit our next brewery: Green Flash Cellar 3, which had just opened about 3 week earlier. It is a barrel house, with all the beer being brewed at their brewery in Mira Mesa, then transported here to be aged in foeders and barrels. We tried many of their offerings:
The last stop on our whirlwind tour was Ballast Point's Scripps Ranch location. We sampled their:
Thus ended the brewery portion of the trip. If you're looking for lots of breweries in a small geographic area, you can't beat San Diego. There are more than 100 breweries within an hour of each other, and every place has something good, whether it's the beer, the ambience, or the waitstaff. They all do a healthy business. They allow dogs (at least in the places that don't serve food). They also allow kids. Many of them have water coolers by the door. Lots of them are just minutes from each other, so you can easily visit 8-10 places in a single day and hit all 100+ breweries in just 2 weeks. That is, if you survive.
Thursday June 11. Another somewhat cool, cloudy morning. Picked up some food at Trader Joe's to keep in the motel room, returned the rental car, and Ubered to the Town and Country Resort to sign in for the National Homebrewers Conference. The homebrew expo had the usual plethora of brewing-related stuff such as kettles, jockey boxes, burners, chillers, hoses, bottle labels, yeast, sanitization chemicals, fermenters, etc etc etc. Several breweries had beer on tap, and since I was no longer driving, I didn't have to watch how much I drank, so I sampled the following in addition to many homebrewed beers, meads, and ciders:
After a much-needed nap and food I returned to the conference for the welcome reception, which featured more than 40 breweries. There was some food and a live band. I sampled the following. The beers marked with an asterisk were commemorative beers made for the conference.
Wil Wheaton was there. You know, the guy from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He has been a homebrewer for years, and even partnered with a homebrew supply company to create recipe kits.
Friday June 12. Cloudy and drizzly. Went to the homebrew expo. Looked at several of the product demonstrations and talked to some of the vendors. Sampled homebrews and commercial brews, including:
Club Night featured about 40 clubs, many with their own décor and/or costume theme, such as Star Trek, Legos, etc. The Maltose Falcons had a bunch of randalls with all sorts of flavorings such as cocoa nibs, hops, berries, raisins, and pineapple. Société du Lambic (which seems to be associated with Society of Barley Engineers) had more than a dozen sour ales, and hundreds of people lined up for their offerings. One club had a photo booth and props where people could dress silly and take photos. After the event a bunch of us Marylanders and others partied til the wee hours. The lighting at the event wasn't very good so some of my photos came out a bit dark.
Saturday June 13. My tongue was burned from all the sour ale. So of course my first beer of the day was Red-Eared Slider Berliner Weisse from Ballast Point. I walked around the expo one last time while drinking a number of homebrewed and professionally brewed beers. I looked at triclover ball valves, which are a lot easier to clean than the old-style ball valves my fermenters had, so I bought one. You should never have a dirty ball valve.
In the late afternoon jillions of people lined up for the banquet. Many folks brought beer with them and shared them in line. Some of the selections that graced my palate were AleSmith 394 Pale Ale, Russian River Blind Pig, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Russian River Sanctification, and Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.
Lagunitas was the featured brewery at the banquet. Each course was paired with a different Lagunitas beer:
Sunday June 14. Got up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a shuttle to the airport. I had packed a bunch of beers wrapped in clothing and bubble wrap in an old knapsack, but they wouldn't accept that sort of packaging. I had to buy bottle bags for $5 each and cram two bottles into each one. The good news is that none of my beers broke, and the bags are reusable.
What a great trip. I visited 31 breweries (if you count White Labs), had a great time at the conference, and sampled well over 200 beers. The 2016 conference is going to be in Baltimore! Woohoo!