Teeing it up in North America’s craft beer capital
By Ted McIntyre
How fast is the craft beer movement growing in San Diego County? It’s overtaken linear time! Yep, San Diego Beer Week actually lasts 10 days.
The annual extravaganza (the 2016 version runs Nov. 4-13) seeks to inspire people to drink local craft beer and to promote San Diego’s thriving brewing culture with events across the county. Home to an estimated 130 breweries in an area of just 3.25 million people, this, after all, is North America’s capital of craft brewing. And lest you respond, “It’s about quality, not quantity,” well then, there is an even stronger case to mount. Take, for example, the fact that San Diego County breweries brought home more medals at the 2010 World Beer Cup than the traditional beer powers of England, Germany and Belgium…combined, and that it amassed a whopping 19 medals at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.
There are also just under 100 golf courses in sun-drenched San Diego County, not to mention the home bases for manufacturers Callaway, TaylorMade and Cobra. But, seriously, who knew about all this beer?
My introduction to the local craft movement was Rip Current Brewery in San Marcos, the four-and-a-half-year-old amalgamation of two avid home-brewing buddies, Guy Shobe and Paul Sangster.
Winners of the Great American Beer Festival’s Brewery of the Year in the “Very Small Brewers” category, Rip Current also claimed top honours for its malty, toasty Break Line Traditional Bock. They have 18 beers on the menu for visitors, most of them as provocative as server Bri behind the counter, with tasters ranging from $2 to $2.50 apiece for hefty 5.5 ounce pours in smallish cognac glasses, the style of which brings out the aromatics and character infinitely better than traditional pint glasses, Shobe assures. Picking up on its surfing-theme name, Rip Current’s beer flights are mounted on a mini surfboard.
While the region’s warm, dry weather is not conducive to growing hops, which are better suited to the wetter, cooler climes of the U.S. Northwest, the local water helps impart the distinctive characteristic of San Diego County beers, says Shobe. “Hard and full of sulphites, it helps bring out the hoppiness of the beers, which is why we have such great IPAs (India Pale Ales) here.”
Part of the holy trinity of beer ingredients (water and malted barley being the other two), hops, apart from being a natural preservative—something the German monks discovered more than a millennium ago—provide a bitterness that balances out the softer, sweeter notes of a beer’s malts and combine just enough with the underlying deep fruit flavours of the region to make this a haven of IPA award-winners, including Rip Current’s hopping-mad top-seller, Lupelin Lust.
It’s a pretty laidback atmosphere, where even the 15-barrel, three-vessel steam‐heated brewhouse sees its smattering of employees tending to their duties with snifters of beer in hand.
If Rip Current is an intimate glass of a craft brewery, then Stone Brewing Co. in nearby Escondido is a keg. Having experienced a staggering annual growth of 40% since its founding in 1996, Stone is currently building in Richmond, Va. and Germany, while expanding its distribution to 15 countries.
“It’s like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” says Ken Wright, Stone’s Minister of Evangelism and Indoctrination. Yes, it says that on his business card, and it’s an apt title for the droll Wright, whose effervescence makes Donald Trump seem positively timid by comparison.
The ninth-largest craft brewery in the U.S., and ranked “the No. 1 All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth” by the readers of Beer Advocate, Stone is home to some very hop-forward labels. Stone’s hop-forward recipes can be acquired taste, Wright concedes. “But if you try our beers and you don’t like them, my advice is to try harder.”
Making your way through the sprawling facility during the 45-minute public tour (just $3 per person, the tours include a souvenir tasting glass and four 4oz samples!), one spots some of the ingredients Stone uses to impart distinctive flavours in its concoctions, including coffee, spices, candied sugar, chili pepper…even peanut butter!
How confident are they about the quality of the final product? One of Stone’s popular brews is entitled Arrogant Bastard, and the slogan on the side of its delivery trucks reads, “It’s not too expensive. You’re too cheap.”
Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens is sort of like a theme park for beer-lovers, housing an outstanding restaurant, bar and patio, with 36 craft and specialty beers on tap, not to mention the distillery itself, which churns out 350,000 barrels annually
All in all, it’s a pretty cool place, with marble boulders quarried five miles away lining the entrance, and a solar-panel-covered water treatment plant that recycles all runoff to the point that the water that comes out the other end is actually cleaner than the local municipal water.
Maderas Golf Club, a well-deserved inclusion among Golf Digest’s Top 100 U.S. Public Courses, played host to the final chapter in my assimilation into the San Diego Country craft beer scene. In a private dining room just off the main restaurant, where Maderas’ traditional Wednesday Gourmet Burger Night and its elaborate burger fixings bar were commanding patrons’ full attention, we were introduced to a sampling from Green Flash Brewing Company.
While the 14-year-old establishment is led by its award-winning flagship West Coast IPA, as with most breweries Green Flash prides itself on variety. And it has done so successfully, a testament being the opening of a second home in Virginia Beach, Va., later this year. Noted for its Cellar 3 barrelhouse, a specialty artisan-brewing arm of the company where they have been experimenting with aging in everything from chardonnay to whisky barrels, Green Flash was named for a rare, fleeting moment at sunset where the proper atmospheric conditions produce a green flash in the sky.
But there is nothing quick about our sampling, we delve into everything from its citrusy Saison Diego farmhouse ale to motor-oil-thick Double Stout, with its aroma of bakers chocolate and dry roast barley and taste of bittersweet chocolate truffle and notes of roasted coffee beans. To keep its fans thirsting for more, Green Flash, like many of the region’s craft brewers, adds limited-edition and seasonal offerings to its annual lineup, such as the Palate Wrecker, a January release that weighs in at a whopping six pounds of hops per barrel, making it “the hoppiest heavyweight in the ring,” according to Green Flash.
As I look upon my fifth and final tasting, I realize the green flash of sunset has long since passed. A Kobe beef burger is in my immediate future and there’s still the intriguing titled Le Freak to go, a hybrid of Belgian Trippel and American Imperial IPA—not to mention whatever I’m planning on drinking with dinner.
I exhale deeply, stare at my watch for a moment and begin to wonder whether San Diego County should seriously consider introducing 30-hour beer days to go along with its 10-day beer weeks.
San Diego Beer Week: sdbw.org
Rip Current Brewing: ripcurrentbrewing.com
Stone Brewing Co.: stonebrewing.com
Green Flash Brewing Co.: greenflashbrew.com