In which we explore Craft Beers in San Diego

San Diego, capital of the West Coast Craft Brewery movement.

February 2020

We’ve been on the USS Midway, the WW2 Aircraft Carrier Museum and are now trying to get to 30th St, North Park, which is perhaps the centre of Craft Brewing in the city, thus perhaps the centre of Craft Brewing on the West Coast, thus in the USA etc etc…. Problem is, no taxis and we don’t do Uber, (part of our luddite boycott of big-tec, Amazon & co).

It’s after midday, we’re on holiday AND we walk past a bar. Lynette points this fact out and that it’s illegal under our holiday rules. Actually, I point out, it’s not a bar, but a brewery….

It’s the Bolt Brewery, which is on our list, so in we go.

Very friendly, very helpful – golly my first San Diego brewery.

I choose ‘Party On’ IPA. It’s mid-weight, light amber, very seriously hoppy and slightly orangey. Very drinkable, yes I’d have another please….. The hoppiness was, as I said serious, (almost OTT). Our food turns up. San Diego grub takes its cue from South of the Border and we have decent Shrimp Tacos and Cilantro Shrimps.

I try a sample of Bolt’s Anniversary Ale, which is thicker textured, higher ABV and bigger and less subtle than the ‘Party On’ IPA.  Ultimately, I find it less satisfactory; it’s a bit gloopy. Lynette tries the Pilsner, which is OK and kind of ordinary larger-like, rather than being definitively Pilsner-ey, which to my mind would be very dry and very fresh.

Interesting that the IPA is lower alcohol than other ales on the list, I would expect India Pale Ale to be a higher alcohol beer….. All of the beers are good though, these gripes are just definition issues. And the barman was super helpful about other good places to go and called a taxi to take us to 30th St, Northpark.

There are 150 odd breweries in town, so I suppose we might be back in a year or so’s time if we lived here…..

A Diversion

We’d already had a couple of craft beers from larger scale outfits on the commercial edge of ‘craft’. Pizza Port ‘Chronic Amber Ale’ and Ballast Point IPA.

Pizza Port Chronic Amber is a mid-weight amber, it’s supposed to be a bit ‘English’ but also some hemp seeds that well known ingredient in English Real Ale are added to the brew. Well, you wouldn’t know it was supposed to be ‘English’, nor would you know it was laced with dope….. It just wasn’t that special, and really was only one up from mass produced American beer. No, I’d rather have had an Anchor Steam or even a Coors, but not a ‘Coors lite’ or anything with ‘lite’ in its name.

The Ballast Point was heavily hopped and just didn’t have a fresh or pleasant aroma. Ballast Point is the granddaddy of San Diego Craft Breweries, so we may have been unlucky, then again, hard-core craft drinkers view them as a sell-out. Whatever, on another visit to San Diego I’d like to go their Home Brew Mart, which was seminal in the rise of Craft Brewing here.

It’s over 30 years since I took that much notice of the West Coast Craft Brewery scene, or Micro-Brewery scene as it was called then. That was 1989, and we weren’t really exploring beer, it was just collateral damage when we were setting up our first California Wine Tour.

At the time, Arblaster & Clarke had been running the Campaign for Real Ale Travel Club. We ran beer tours to Belgium, Düsseldorf, East Germany, Poland, various parts of the UK. So, I started planning a West Coast Micro-brewery tour. The CAMRA beer tours fizzled out, which I regretted somewhat and the West Coast Micro-brewery tour never happened, though I got to visit a few micro-breweries and even spent an evening in the San Francisco Anchor Steam Brewery.

1989 CAMRA Tour at Poperings.                                 (Us looking young at the top)

However, Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours kept on the ground-breaking Belgian Beer tour, which I seem to remember was called “Trappists and Tripels”. There was something just so EXCITING about these weird brews, which including spontaneous fermentation beers, beers made with added cherries and spices and yes, sour beers.

Of course, since then, we’ve seen those spontaneous fermentation Lambic beers debased and flavoured with syrups. We’ve had alcopops and now cider has come to mean a hideous sweet fruit drink…… so I find it almost difficult to recapture that innocent excitement of the first time one tasted a Kriek Lambic.

Tim with a flight of famous Belgians!

News of what the Belgians were doing arrived here on the West Coast, where anything is possible. There are now many hundreds or possibly thousands of small breweries in the USA and innovation and experimentation is the name of the game. Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law that allows only water, barley, hops and yeast as beer ingredients, (yeast was late addition), came to be viewed as a 400 year aberration.  

Hops, Cherries, Limes, Honey, Raspberry, Strawberry, Hibiscus, Coriander, Apples, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Apricot, Peach, Pineapple, Oranges (of various types), Orange rind, Guava, Coconut, Watermelon, Agave, Grapes (of various varieties), Coffee, Peanut Butter…… In fact, just about anything that might conceivably be fermentable (or indeed not) could go in the brew kettle.

The fruit beers that fire people up here aren’t ‘girly’ sweet fruit infusions, they are ‘sours’. They are made with lactic ferments, perhaps using cultures taken from the sediments of Belgian Lambic bottles, and perhaps infected by Brettanomyces yeasts too. The hazy or unfiltered beers that 25 years ago were viewed as extreme are now considered tame or worse mainstream and commercial.  (Our natural winemakers have nothing on these extremist craft brewers).

Diversion even further….

There is something in this ‘ferment anything’ trend, really there is. In his “Ancient Wine” Patrick McGovern postulated that early wine was often not made just from grapes, a drink he describes as “Grog”, seems according to the evidence, to have been concocted from a mix of fermentables including grapes, malt and honey.

Ancient Brews by Patrick McGovern

Ancient Brews by P McGovern

Since then, he has developed the thesis that this ‘Grog’ wasn’t an accidental or improvised beverage, but a drink made to recipes with the mix of fermentable ingredients, herbs and spices, maximising the inebriating effect and having particular flavours. In his more recent “Ancient Brews. Ancient Brews rediscovered and re-created” he explored these brews from the dawn of history to come up with viable drinks. And yes indeed, McGovern worked on these with Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the leading US Craft Breweries, albeit not a San Diego one.

Reaching back into the past is one way to search for the truly profound.  Yes, I confess, I too am a natural ancient-booze maker, but I stopped short of going back to the neolithic and stuck with the Romans (or maybe the era of the Archaic Greek poet Hesiod). I also stuck with grapes and clean flavours. But why not reach back further or go closer to the edge? When you’ve been faced with a diet of Miller lite and Bud, who can blame people for wanting something extreme?

Our taxi to 30th St turns up; the brewery corridor, the epi-centre.

First to Belching Beaver

The Belching Beaver

‘Dam good times’ they promise and have another very helpful barman. Peanut Butter Milk Stout is the iconic beer here.

However, I feel I should try a yardstick beer first. A bit like when I’m weighing up Sicilian Gelaterias I go for the lemon water ice, here in San Diego I opt to try the IPA, specifically the ‘Mosaic Double IPA’. Lynette goes for ‘Here comes Mango’…. I was very happy with the IPA, a bit extreme perhaps, but good. Lynette was OK with the ‘Here comes Mango’; but compared to the best Belgian fruit beers, it was just OK. However it didn’t have the intensity and she didn’t think mango and beer were a match made in heaven.

‘Peanut Butter Milk Stout’ – delicious. Rich, slightly sweet and delicious. Apparently, this is based on the English Milk Stout style. I can’t remember if peanut butter in an ingredient in Milk Stout, but it’s been a while since I had one, maybe 30 years.

30th St San Diego, Fall Brewing

Still we had to move on, aiming vaguely for Fall Brewing.

I’d tangled with Fall Brewing’s Crystal Mess IPA the night before. It’s a first rate West Coast IPA with a massive bitter dry hit of Crystal hops and a name that’s just maybe a pun on ‘Crystal Meth’, another dangerous and potentially addictive substance. Fall Brewing, which looks more like a showroom, warehouse or garage than a bar is about 15 to 20 minutes up the road from the burping Beaver and it brews on site.. 

At the Bar, Fall Brewing

We lined up a ‘flight’ as follows:

Industrial Accident, (great name!),

Your Pretty,

Magic and Delicious,

Watermelon Sour,

Googoo Muck IPA.

‘Industrial Accident’ – Very hazy, complex nose with obvious hoppiness and scent of apricots. Fairly bitter-hoppy on palate with a nice sour tang bringing freshness and interest. Loved the name! Yes I would reorder it too.

‘Your Pretty’ – Fresh, pretty, lively hoppiness. On second look not that clean and a bit lacking excitement. OK though.

‘Magic and Delicious  Pale Ale’ – Seriously hoppy nose. Mid-weight and a bit exotic but with its feet on the ground. Long citrussy finish. The more we tasted it, the more we liked it.

‘Watermelon Sour’. – This beer stank. The predominant aroma was old socks, hmmm and a bit of vomit. Surprisingly then, we tasted it and the palate was refreshing with a sweet / tart balance – but then I caught a whiff of god knows what again. I’ve never come across a beer that has a whiff of buteric acid while still in the glass…. I’ve looked up this beer and it gets really good reviews. For me though, it is comes from where ‘natural’ and ‘faulty’ collide. My notes add “clothes peg job”.  Lynette hated it from the start. I gave it a fairly low mark then downgraded it…

‘Googoo Muck Unfiltered IPA’. – Hazy, very hazy golden liquid. Fruity, complex hoppy nose – dried fruit, pine, hay. Fresh palate – Fall Brewing seems good at “fresh”. Not excessively bitter for the hoppiness (so maybe dry hopped?). Fruity tart-apple finish. Really, a wonderful summer drink, this beer got our highest scores of the day.

This small brewery seemed to sum it all up, some stunning beers and a couple that for us were misfires. Is this experimentation? If so, then great (!) all oddities forgiven OR, alarming prospect, were some of the weirder flavours just what the local craft beer drinker is looking for? I have a feeling that it’s both.

Fall Brewery: “This is not my beautiful Wife Pale Ale”

And here’s the thing, if you don’t just bin Reinheitsgebot, but declare it to be heresy, what are we to make of beers that have aromas of pine and citrus? Do we think that these characters come from sophisticated use of hops or from armfuls of pine-needles, lemon zest or, god forbid, aroma concentrates?  As long as the Craft Breweries are run by fanatics and craftsmen this may not matter, but once Private Equity or the Big Brewers get involved, you know what will happen.

Hmmm. So that was that, just a walk back to our hotel. Yes indeed, San Diego is a city you can walk in!  Then, oh dear, another brewery, so we blunder in…

This was Poor House
Poor House Brewing

Poor House Brewing

A brewery, not just a tasting room it is, complete with fermentation tanks on the edge of the drinking area.  There are a couple of pool tables (but no one is playing) and several large screen TVs showing basketball, which no-one is watching.

I’m trying to decipher my notes, which are written on a beer mat. Darned thing has a lot of print on the front and is near black on the back. Don’t they know that beermats are for writing things on, like to do lists, poems, business plans, beer notes.….  My scrawl goes round and round the beermat in circles, which is nothing to do with this being the 4th brewery of course. A couple of weeks later, it could be enigma code.

It’s difficult to get attention, the barmaid is chatting to friends or bikers or regulars, but eventually we’re served (in an off-hand kind of way). This is certainly unlike any of the other breweries. Everywhere else the staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful, telling us lots of stuff about the beers with great enthusiasm, soliciting our opinions and freely giving advice. Maybe we’re too old or something for the crowd here.

We decided to go Belgian and order ‘Dying Midwestern’, which advertised itself as a “Belgian-style Blond Ale” and ‘Dead Man’s Dubbel’. The Dying Midwestern was OK, but a ‘Duvel’ or a ‘Hapkin’ or an ‘Arabier’, it was not.

By the bar, Poor House on 30th

More problematic was ‘Dead Man’s Dubbel’ which was wildly over-hopped; in Belgium surely only the ‘Poperings Hommelbier’, an exhibition beer that was designed to show off Belgian hops, has anything like this level of hopping. Certainly, no Dubbel is like this. However, if you forget it’s supposed to be a “Dubbel style”, it’s enjoyable enough. There’s some Belgian-ness to it in its aroma and weight and there was a good after-taste.

After this I have an ‘OG’, which is billed as a “Belgian Strong Golden Ale”, (not “Belgian-style” note). Yes, it is kind of Belgian-style and reasonably decent too and the hoppiness is under control and again the aftertaste was good.  Of course, it was too cold.

Dubbel, Saison, Amber, Death, Belgian. Words thrown around as though they are no more than a collection of letters.

And then it struck me, and then we realised the problem, (and it wasn’t just about the Poor House beers), ALL of them were served too COLD. Reinheitsgebot might have been binned as a concept but the American First Amendment of Beer, that it should be COLD, remains inviolate.

And perhaps, because the beers are going to be served so cold, they have to be exaggerated in order to taste of much. But maybe in the end this was our problem, not the beers’ problem. After all, I don’t whinge that German beer is too cold and I’m happy to accept even Retsina for what it is. So maybe there’s something in us and we just can’t take the New World for itself. I have the same issue with the likes of Screaming Eagle and other Californian wines.

After this little flash of self-knowledge, there seemed little point in asking anything about the beers or the outfit, so we slip out without paying the service charge and go off into the night in search of something to eat. “Middle-aged Brit skinflints” the bar-girl might have thought.

Champagnes tasted on the Kirker Champagne Tour

Now this was a pretty spectacular line up of Champagnes by any stretch of the imagination.

First evening tasting:

Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve

G. H. Mumm “Mumm de Cramant”

Brut Alain Mercier “Cuvée Emile” Blanc de Noirs Brut

Jacquesson “Cuvée 742” Extra Brut

Gosset Grand Millésime 2006 Brut

Louis Roederer Rosé 2012 Brut

We started by comparing a couple of the most respectable NVs on the market and it was very surprising that the Charles Heidsieck seemed so much the better than the Billecart; but then it has a huge proportion reserve wines in the blend. Very classy.

I then threw in a special NV, different price point, a single Grand Cru village and pure Chardonnay – Mumm’s Cramant. Now, I’ll be frank, in the past I’ve loathed this wine, but it seemed pretty good and a well done rendition of the village which has a kind of paradoxical character; being being both ripe and ‘nervy’. Humph. Either it’s improved or I’ve mellowed. 

The Alain Mercier “Cuvée Emile” was pure Meunier and …… sorry no.

Jacquesson’s 742 – superb. Jacquesson don’t do NV, each year they recreate the house Champagne, making the best Cuvée they can. You never quite know what you are going to get, the blend varies quite a lot but there IS a style that springs from factors such as where the grapes are sourced, the use of foudres, lack of manipulation etc. Pretty uncompromising but great for aficionados.

However the star of the evening was Gosset’s Grand Millésime 2006. A soft rich flavour kind of honey on brioche and with tingling acidity going onto the finish. Few Champagnes could have followed this and Roederer Rosé 2012 tried. A bigger flavoured rosé, such as one from a grower in Bouzy or Aÿ might have got away with it. That’s not to say the Roederer Rosé 2012 was anything other than very good though.

At Pol Roger

Pol Roger Brut (Magnum)

Pol Roger Blanc de blancs Vintage 2012

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2008

This was the first visit and it’s always a privilege to visit Pol. We had already tasted the Brut NV the previous evening at our restaurant, so interesting to try the magnum, which was more profound with both more maturity and greater freshness that the bottle. Sir Winston was absolutely magnificent of course. This wine is always more elegant that I expect it to be. Preconceptions, preconceptions….

At Bollinger

Bollinger Grande Année Rosé 2007

Bollinger Grande Année 2008

Bollinger RD 2004

Bollinger Special Cuvée

A superb lunch at Bollinger with equally superb Champagnes. When tasted side by side, I often prefer the Grande Année to the RD. It’s a personal taste thing, the Grande Année is more taut, with more tension and potential…. Anyway, that wasn’t the case here; the RD was from the awesome 2004 vintage and was possibly the wine of the tour; certainly people went out to look for it in Reims. Telling that Bollinger are confident enough in the Special Cuvée to put it immediately after such a great wine.

Second evening tasting

Marguet Shaman 15

Georges Laval Brut Nature 15

Tarlant “Zéro” Brut Nature

De Sousa Reserve Grand Cru Extra Brut

Moutard “6 Cépages” 2008 Extra Brut

Marguet “Trepail 1er Cru” Blanc de Blancs 14

Henri Giraud “Dame Jane” Rosé Brut

So, here we have a collection of Champagnes by the Young Turks of the organic / bio-dynamic / natural / rare grape varieties / unusual methods persuasions.

Benoit Marguet I’ve known for many years – he has an outrageous sense of humour and I’m sure he’s got an unusual attitude to responsibility. About the things that really matter, such as honesty in wine and attitude to the environment he’s super-responsible. But yeah, he forgot my last appointment…. The wines were divisive, some loved them but for others they were just too edgy.

Georges Laval is a legend, founder of bio-dynamie in Champagne and his Cumières rouge, (tasted some years ago on one of the more bizarre wine nights of my life at an organic producers’ evening – yup astral plane discussions etc); sorry, I’ve digressed, anyway the Cumières rouge Coteaux Champenoise was far and away the best red I’ve ever had from Champagne. New generation; the Champagne an absolute stonker! Stole the show. Except that Talant’s Zero, following it, had a crystalline purity that was really lovely. The De Souza good too.

Then we had the Moutard; except we didn’t! Some plonker gave us Moutardier thinking that was close enough. What’s an “ier” between friends? So we had another a non-so good Meunier vintage, not MoutardIERS’s fascinating blend including the rare Arbanne and Petit Meslier grape varieties….

Henri Giraud “Dame Jane” Rosé – A Champagne from base wines fermented in amphora, or rather pithos. Yes, very good. A nice Rose from Aÿ, and what I like, bit of strawberry. No you couldn’t taste the amphora and to my mind that’s right.

It’s worth mentioning that the 14 and 15 are not misprints nor vintage dates. They are Cuvée dates, so non-vintages produced on those dates.

At Philipponnat

Philipponnat Royal Reserve Philipponnat

Philipponnat Royal Reserve Rosé

Philipponnat Blanc de Noirs Vintage 2008

I’m a big fan of Philipponnat, but I don’t think many in our group had heard of them and so there were a few converts! The Blanc de Noirs Vintage needs some explanation: It’s very much a wine of the Grand Vallée de la Marne wine, (where the house is based) and it showcases the lovely Pinot Noir of this area. As such it’s important wine in the portfolio delivering something very special from the house at a highish but not extremely expensive price point. Redfruits, cream, brioche intense, lively and scored at 90 to 92 points for those that like that kind of thing.

At Taittinger & La Marqueterie

Taittinger Brut Réserve

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2007

Taittinger Prelude Grand Cru

Taittinger Millesimé 2013

Taittinger Folies de la Marqueterie

Taittinger Préstige Rosé Brut NV

Comtes is one of the greatest of all blanc de blancs Champagnes and it’s more versatile and ‘user friendly’ that the other greats, such as say, Salon. I find that the Prelude has greater clarity, purity and depth than the Brut Réserve but the Millesimé is somehow more dynamic. The single vineyard Folies de la Marqueterie is great fun and a good meal wine. Really worth trying. The Rosé is much improved lately too. The NV, which has been on offer in the UK recently is pretty good, but it gains a lot from being well chilled and decanted… yes, decanted!

At Vilmart

Vilmart Cuvée Grande Réserve

Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier

Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier d’Or 2010

Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier d’Or Coeur de Cuvée Vintage (2008?)

The Vilmart Champagnes just keep getting better and better. Wonderful to taste the Coeur de Cuvée, shame I didn’t notice the vintage! Too busy thinking “this is fabulous!”. Vilmart Champagnes are really age-worthy. I’m still sitting on quite a few bottles from the 1990’s and a bootle of their special cuvee for the Millenium. It could be just about ready by now…..

At André Jacquart

André Jacquart Vertus Experience Blanc de Blanc 1er Cru

André Jacquart Mesnil Experience Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru

André Jacquart Rosé Expérience Rosé de Saignée Premier Cru

The Mesnil was very good. Shame they were out of stock of the Mesnil Vintage which, now that Salon is strictly for Billionaires, is one of your best chances to experience something extraordinary from the village. (Blimey, to think I used to pick up Salon Magnums in Reims for about the price of a big house Non-Vintage). I’ve followed André Jacquart since about 1991 when they were just another unknown Grower-Producer, albeit in the well known village of Le Mesnil sur Oger. (They are of course nothing to do with the Jacquart co-operative).

Round and about!

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Clos Saint Hélène Special Club 2012

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Cuvée Nature

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Rosé de Saignée

Sanchez-Le Guédard Cumières 1er Cru Grand Réserve

Sanchez-Le Guédard are a new discovery for me and newish entrants into the Special Club. Cumières is an interesting village with a great south facing slope with fairly deep soils. The style is powerful, almost brutal. Sanchez-Le Guédard are organic and work fairly naturally. Impressive, especially the Club and Rosé .

Pol Roger Brut (Bottle)

Lanson Vintage 2008
Lanson Green Label Bio

Over the past 30 or so years, Lanson have been consistently one of my least favourite houses, so I leapt at tasting these two. No really, I did. You see last summer at Wimbledon, there had been a monumental screw-up to do with the catering at the opening party of the new roof at Court no 1. Following a complaint, we were offered a bottle of Champagne. GREAT.  (Turned out to be Lanson, shit…) We duly collected aforementioned bottle and were offered this Green Labelled jobby. Hmm, why not? …. and it was lovely, fresh and profound. It’s also a Cumières, from the former Le Clerc-Briant bio-dynamic vineyards.

So, not a bad haul, 44 Champagne in 4 days and it was a great tour!