Category Archives: Tasting
Benchmark Brewing in the Grantville neighborhood of San Diego just released their first triple IPA, Hildegard IIIPA. While “triple IPA” is not an official beer category, think of it as a double IPA amped up that much more with hops (added at different stages of the brewing process) and elevated alcohol content. February turns out to be be a big month for triple IPAs, with the annual release of the much-coveted cult beer Pliny The Younger from Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California.
Benchmark’s Hildegard is heavy on the Citra hops, lending it a nice citrusy aroma and a bit of tropical fruit on the finish. Brewer Matt Akin brewed this to be the first of 20 San Diego beers created as fundraisers for the Lupus Foundation of Southern California, with a percent of all sales (liquid and t-shirt) going to this cause. The beer is tasty and seductive, but don’t let that fool you as it weighs in at 13.5% ABV. Get it now, get it fresh…this is a limited supply beer!
Benchmark Brewing Company
6190 Fairmount Ave, Suite G
San Diego, CA. 92120
Beer festivals and events are a dime a dozen these days in San Diego. Every seasonal occurrence seems to now have its accompanying beer festival, and non-profit and for-profit organizations seem eager to use San Diego’s craft beer culture to raise funds and visibility. Even the hardiest craft beer fan with endless time, wallet resources, and liver health couldn’t possibly attend all of these events. So which ones should you make the effort to attend? I’ve attempted to put together a list of the Top 5 San Diego beer festivals; however, as you will see this attempt is incomplete, and I invite your research and personal opinions to help make this more comprehensive!
Taking place each November during San Diego Beer Week, this is the place to be for celebrating the beauty and diversity of San Diego craft beer. Any brewer worth his or her salt is going to be representing at this festival, and you’re likely to discover the very newest breweries that have just opened their doors in time to be a part of this event. I attended the last 2 years, in 2011 at the park in Liberty Station in Point Loma and in 2012 at the Broadway Pier downtown. As more people turn onto this festival, the challenge for the guild will be to limit tickets in order to have a well-managed event as far as crowds and beer lines…that might mean moving again to a larger venue in next year or so, but we’ll see.
The mother of all beer festivals! Featuring an exhaustive array of beers from all over the world (many of which you’ll have trouble finding anywhere in retail stores), the San Diego International Beer Festival is the epicenter of hops and barley malt over the course of three days each June during the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar. General admission gets you 4 hours of unlimited 1-oz. pours of over 300 beers…sample everything from Finland to Belgium to New Zealand. There are a hefty number of breweries from San Diego and from across the United States, and while they are winning the awards the main focus here is really on the international selection.
You won’t be able to try everything, so go in with a mission of what you want to try. Remember to bring along a water bottle, and to take pictures of what you liked so you won’t forget the next day.
Each year in August, Stone holds their anniversary celebration on the grounds of Cal State University San Marcos. Many of your favorites from Stone will be available in limited-edition recipes, and you’ll be able to try their anniversary beer. The subtitle of the event is “Invitational Beer Festival” so it’s not just Stone beer…you’ll see beer from dozens of other breweries from San Diego County and beyond. You might get to try some of the regionally famous Mike’s Beer Cheese (if you’re into that sort of thing), and you’ll definitely get to hear one of Stone CEO Greg Koch’s evangelizing sermons about converting the tastes of the yellow fizzy swill-drinking masses. They don’t call him Beer Jesus for nothing!
The main event takes place with two sessions on Saturday, but if you get the chance spring the extra bucks for the more low-key Friday evening Brewers’ Reception, featuring complimentary gourmet food offerings and unlimited tastes. They offer lower-priced admission for Designated Drivers, who will get to enjoy everything except the beer, so remember to bring along your teetotaller friends or relatives for a good time and a a safe ride home. This year will be Stone’s 17th anniversary, and tickets just went on sale, so get on this soon if you have any intention of being there!
This festival’s been around longer than any of the others, and this September will be the 19th annual fund-raising event put on by San Diego Professionals Against Cancer. It’s situated in the streets and parking lots of downtown, a stone’s throw from the civic center to the east or the now-oldest San Diego brewery restaurant (Karl Strauss on Columbia Street) to the west. In years past, this could be considered an also-ran beer festival, but new local breweries are putting some new blood in the veins of this annual institution, and it’s always a good time to be out on a September night with so many beers for a good cause. This year’s festival will be held on Friday, September 20, 2013 and tickets are not yet on sale.
Okay…that’s four festivals. What else needs to go on this list? There was the Mission Valley Craft Beer Festival at the Handlery Hotel, which I could never quite afford to attend, and has recently announced this past festival would be the last…so I didn’t give them the consideration. The Epic Beer Festival (http://www.epicbeerfestival.com/)was held last month at the Convention Center, but they’re only one year into doing this and it seems to be more of a traveling festival with the same event held in other cities, so I’m withholding putting them on the short list until they get more…epic. I also just missed the (2nd annual?) Brew Classic that took place at Mission Bay along with the long-running Crew Classic. It doesn’t appear to be that large of an event, but maybe a very nice one given the occasion and the location. http://crewclassic.org/for-spectators/social-events/brew-classic/
I’ve enjoyed attending the Karl Strauss “Beach To Brewery” event in years past, but it hasn’t been held lately due to renovations at their main brewery in the Pacific Beach/Rose Canyon area, and it’s unannounced if they’ll be doing the event this year. I believe it’s only Karl Strauss beer on tap (with proceeds to the Surfrider Foundation), and by definition I tend to think that a beer festival should feature offerings from multiple breweries.
I haven’t gone to the CityBeat Festival of Beers, which is coming up April 20, but I feel that CityBeat mismanaged the beer festival they put on at the Adams Avenue Street Fair a few years ago. (It took them a full 45 minutes to move the line of ticketholders into the event area after starting time, promising they’d deliver what we paid for, then began allowing non-ticketholders to come in and purchase full pours and empty the kegs before it was over! Clue: This is NOT how to run a beer festival!) Maybe someone has an another opinion…. http://www.sandiegomusicfoundation.org/beerfest/
So that’s where I’m at. Does this list of 4 beer festivals hold? Did I miss something? What other event(s) should be included for a neat and definitive Top 5 list? This is where you come in.
It’s already been a full 12 months since Latitude 33 Brewing Company opened their doors in the Vista facility formerly occupied by Green Flash. I only get up to North County tasting rooms once every month or so, but Latitude 33 is a definite standout in an ever-growing cluster of breweries located in the Oceanside/Vista/San Marcos corridor. When I first visited, I found myself trying far more tasters than I had planned for, and bringing home a growler of their Dry Hump IPA. Latitude 33 has a really talented brewing staff, and every beer they put out is ready for prime-time. While a small number of their more “adventurous” beers venture into taste experiments that exceed my current palate, there isn’t a single one on the menu that that can be said to bland or mediocre. Their beers aren’t yet available in bottles or cans, so their success so far has a lot to do with a dedicated fan base of North County drinkers and keg sales to restaurants.
For their first anniversary party held March 9th, Lat33 went all out. There were plenty of craft beer events on the San Diego calendar for that weekend, but I made sure this was the one I was going to. They held two tasting sessions, one beginning at 12 pm and a later session at 4 pm.
I went to the later session (after a few stops at AleSmith and Rip Current along the way from central San Diego). It was a gorgeous Southern California day, with a sneak preview of springtime sun and breezes. A ticket got you a taster glass, 8 tasters, an anniversary t-shirt, good company and live music entertainment.
I started off my tasters right, going right to the new anniversary ale, “Biere de Mars”, described as a “fresh Alsatian-style beer brewed with coriander.” Mmmmm….tasty! Now this was a beer that immediately stood out as an original. I followed that with the Straw Horse Wheat Ale, a light and crisp beer in the German or Czech style…a departure from the hoppier or bolder beers I’d be venturing into, but definitely an enjoyable beer for a lazy summer afternoon. For the more adventurous, they had a side bar in the back where they poured a special edition of Biere de Mars brewed with sage and grains of paradise. That was absolutely incredible…while it lasted! They also offered limited pours of “Spicy Camel IPA” with smoked ghost chilies, “Toasted Pirate” rye stout with rum-soaked oak chips and coconut, and “Chili Brown” brewed with habañero peppers.
Lat33 also offered a taste of local music talent, and Big Shot Reub and the Reloaders did not disappoint as they tore into covers of The Doors, CCR, the Stones, and Santana, as well as a few of their originals that can be found on their CD Roundhouse Blues. If you get a chance to check out this band, do so! Some of the best local blues-rock guitar bands I’ve heard in awhile.
We caught up with Latitude 33 head brewmaster Kevin Buckley a few days after we had all recovered from the anniversary.
V&S: Happy anniversary! Tell us about the best and worst (or most challenging) moments of your first year:
Buckley: The worst had to be trudging through all of the paperwork and waiting to get our licenses to to get our doors open. So far the best was seeing the number of people that turned out for our first anniversary party. Now we get to look to this next year knowing that this crazy ride has only just begun.
V&S: What can we expect in the coming year for Latitude 33?
Buckley: This year we will start out bottling operations. Hopefully, placing the order for our bottling and labeling line in the next couple of weeks. 22 oz bottles on local shelves as well as Orange/LA County. We are also starting our barrel aging program. So far we have an imperial stout aging in bourbon barrel as well as a batch of Vanilla’s Tart ( sour porter aged in wine barrels with vanilla beans and tart cherries.)
V&S: I loved the 1st anniversary ale, Biere de Mars. Tell us about the ideas you had for this beer, and will we possibly be seeing more of it?
Buckley: Brewed each year to celebrate our anniversary, the Bière de Mars (French for “March Beer”) is a farmhouse ale closely related to Bière de Garde and Saisons. Native to Northern France, but not uncommon in Southern Belgium and Germany, this early spring brew is lighter and drier than its cousins. Our Bière de Mars makes a nod to the German Marzens with an addition of chocolate malt that gives it a red-amber color with a light, creamy off-white head. The aroma is sweet malts, dried fruit and spices with a hint of floral notes. Mouthfeel is light and the flavors are toasted malts, biscuit, tart apple and pear. The finish offers a note of spices and a crisp bitterness that does not linger. A very refreshing beer to enjoy on a sunny spring day.
V&S: Any last thoughts on the anniversary?
Buckley: It was really great to see so many people having a good time with friends, family and our brews.
All I gotta say is that Latitude 33 delivers, and I wish them the best as they continue to put out some really good beer in the ever-crowded market of San Diego craft breweries. Their anniversary ale was one of the best beers I’ve ever tried, and it’s still on tap at the brewery for the short term if you go visit their facility in Vista.
For more information about Latitude 33, visit their website: www.lat33brew.com.
(Make sure to click on “Beer Locator Map” for the nearest bars and restaurants carrying their brews).
You can find out more about Big Shot Reub and the Reloaders (and purchase their music) at the following links: www.cdbaby.com/cd/bigshotreub
Each February, Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California releases Pliny The Younger, a limited-release triple IPA that is probably the biggest cult beer in the world. Rated 100 out of 100 on RateBeer.com and currently placed as the #2 best beer in the world on BeerAdvocate , plenty of interest has gathered around Pliny The Younger’s release each year, motivating long-distance travel plans for a few of us extra-special beer geeks and just the willingness to stand in long lines for the rest of us “average” hopheads.
Although I have visited RRBC and frequently sip beers like Damnation strong golden ale and Pliny The Elder (double IPA), I have never made the necessary effort to get my hands on a glass of Pliny The Younger. I figured I can always get a pint of Pliny The Elder or any one of literally dozens of IPAs or Double IPAs from local San Diego breweries to satisfy my bitterness cravings. But this year was going to be different…I was not going to let the 2013 Pliny season pass without this rare assembly of hops and barley passing my lips.
Being the craft beer capital of America, we San Diegans are lucky to have several craft beer bars that will be carrying Pliny The Younger (dates and quantities will vary, as do prices, I discovered). Since O’Brien’s pub is located about a stone throw’s from my place and probably has as close a relationship with RRBC owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo as I can imagine, I knew this would be the spot to go to. I got the heads up that they would be tapping PtY this past Saturday, and made plans way ahead of time to be there.
The line at O’Brien’s started forming about an hour and forty minutes before tap time, and quickly increased to wrap around the block outside the Kearny Mesa strip mall. I was well within the first 30-35 people in line (well, I had to polish off my Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA inside the bar first…), so wasn’t worried about being left out on my fill. The line was filled with opinionated craft beer enthusiasts, so there was plenty of opportunity for idle chatter about one of our favorite topics…sure beats standing in line for the Matterhorn at Disneyland and trying to talk to the people in front of you about whatever changes were made to the ice monster a decade ago!
I checked in with a few of my fellow hops addicts in line for the promised fix of Pliny The Younger, to ask them both about the hype and the beer itself.
Jonathan Diaz was at the head of the line, determined to get his taste before anyone else.
V&S: Tell us why you’re here
Diaz: “I’m here to taste Pliny The Younger!–almost the number-one rated beer on Beer Advocate, great beer…”
Diaz: Nope, never had it before.
V&S: What are you expecting out of Pliny The Younger?
Diaz: “I’m expecting it to live up to the hype. I hear, “oh it’s the best beer ever, best beer ever“, and I’m a big Double IPA fan. I’ve never really liked triple IPAs like Exponential Hoppiness (Alpine Beer Co.), everyone says, “oh it’s super good, it’s super good“–I’ve tried it…it’s way too much alcohol for an IPA, you really don’t enjoy the hops much. So I’m seeing if Younger is as good as they say it is.”
Ismael Silva first tried Pliny The Younger last year (2012), and was back for more. “It’s just an extremely well made, well-balanced beer…very high alcohol but you can’t even taste how high it is; just exceptionally smooth. You can see the hop oils on it, just really hoppy…just the perfect beer, really.”
V&S: What would you rate it on a scale of 1 to 100?
Silva: “Ten thousand. It’s just amazing.”
Rob Binkley waxed philosophically about balance. “There’s four ingredients of beer, and pretty much the same four ingredients make every single type of beer. It’s the ratios that make beers interesting, tasty, beautiful, and different. And if you think of really hoppy beer, Pliny has one of the best balances with hops in it, it’s like GREAT… not too strong…, well it is pretty strong, but it’s hops that’s not overly bitter, not overly controlling, it’s just a great…smooth…pretty much the greatest beer ever!!!
V&S: “On a scale of 1 to 100, what would you give it?”
Binkley: ” Ummm…that’s a trick question, because it’s like millions, billions… (laughs)
All right, so there you have it…it’s apparent that many Pliny fans do not understand the limits of a scale ending at a mere 100. That’s just a small sampling of semi-organized thought about this beer that in just the past few years has become an obsession among craft beer drinkers whose tastes are geared toward the same end of the beer spectrum as myself (that is to say, hop-heavy American Pale Ales, India Pale Ales and Double/Imperial IPAs ranging from the bitter to the extreme bitter). But is Pliny The Younger all hype? What’s the deal? I was about to find out as it was nearing tap-time.
As tastings began, O’Brien’s skilled servers processed pours in an efficient “Soup Nazi” style….fork over your cash, hit the tip jar, grab your glass and step aside for the next guy in line! So I finally got my taste on…Like a lot of freshly brewed and poured IPAs, Pliny the Younger has a fresh and citrusy aroma. On first taste, you get pleasant hoppy bite on the mid-palate, but it was definitely not as astringent as many other “triple” IPAs and hop-bombs that I have tried; as aforementioned, this is an extremely well-balanced beer for the insane amount of hops that go into the recipe and being nearly 11% in alcohol (I think I was told this year’s batch was 10.8%); it tastes more like a 7% IPA. There was some fresh evergreen oil (yes, Pliny is piney), and some orange rind in the flavor profile. The finish was clean, and left some lingering hops bitterness…afterglow for beer geeks!
So how do I rank Pliny The Younger? I will give it a 96. It is an excellent beer that hits the spot for me with the qualities that I often look for in a beer. However, as a spoiled San Diegan craft beer drinker, I also know there are several other local beers that hit that same spot for me. This is something I pondered over a glass of The Roustabout double IPA at nearby Societe Brewing Company an hour later. I wouldn’t often think of standing in long lines and spending the kind of money that bars are charging for a small glass of Pliny, but this is once a year…and an opportunity for IPA enthusiasts from all over to meet and celebrate something special. And so the very next day I found myself doing it all over again, this time at Toronado in North Park. Why not?!
Purchased at the winery on a day trip to Ramona Valley wineries in Oct 2012. Lenora Winery was our first stop, and this was my favorite wine that we tasted. I unfortunately cannot recommend much of what we tasted that day, but I think we all agreed on this one.
Cabernet Franc is usually blended with other Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. This vintage of grapes (sourced from Santa Barbara County) warranted this wine to be bottled on its own (or as the primary varietal).
Opened to pair with a plate of whole wheat pasta, mushrooms, & marinara sauce. Wine pours a dark purple hue, nose was earthy, not getting much of a bouquet. Nice smooth mouthfeel, not too tannic. Flavors of berries, leather, and tobacco on the mid-palate. Finished smoothly, albeit with a bite of alcohol (perhaps due to the age of this bottling).
Overall, a very good wine for the value that had me refilling my glass. Another example of the many finds awaiting San Diegans who explore the wine regions in our own backyards.
” The Perfect Crime” is described as a Black Smoked Saison, and is yet another collaboration beer from Stone Brewing, this time with Evil Twin Brewing and Stillwater Artisanal Ales.
I picked up this bottle in early December, and it’s time to crack the cap and get down to investigating this criminal collaboration.
Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele joined with Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Denmark’s Evil Twin Brewing and Brian Strumke from Stillwater Artisanal Ales (of Baltimore) in scheming up a plot to hijack tastebuds and blow minds.
Saisons are traditional farmhouse ales from southern Belgium, and have gained tremendous growth as a popular style among U.S. craft brewers over the past 4 years or so. If you’ve ever had one, you can expect a golden-to-copper colored ale of a medium body, not too hoppy, not too high in alcohol, and usually not too “yeasty” although certainly distinctive in flavor from most beers.
As you can see, this one pours really dark, almost black, but not heavy like a stout. On first taste, immediately noticeable are the roasted/smoked coffeeish flavor and a hint of dark chocolate…but wait, there’s more! The hops kick in, just a small bite of bitterness, but the bark is bigger than the bite and in this case the bark is a lingering herbal/floral finish. Very nice, seems like a “big beer” for a saison but everything balances out. Wish I had picked up a few more of these bottles…I believe it has sold out by now but I’ll take a look around some of the local shops.
6.8% ABV, 60 IBUs
Hops used: East Kent Goldings, Chinook, and Cluster
Triple B Ranches is a small family-owned winery tucked away amidst the fields of Valley Center, near Escondido. Owners Gary and Sheila Broomell just entered the local winery business this past November, with three generations of family all involved in operation. They are dedicated to local, sustainable agriculture and all of the grapes for their Triple B Ranches label are estate-grown fruit. Their grandson, Chris Broomell, is the winemaker, started out working with Jaffurs Wine Cellars in Santa Barbara and doing a harvest stint in South Australia. In addition to Triple B Ranches, Chris puts out his own Vesper label, which are all sourced from single vineyards in various microclimates around San Diego County, including the McCormick Ranch near Mt. Palomar, and the Highland Hills Vineyard in the Ramona Valley AVA.
We pulled up to the old country house where tastings are available for the public Fridays through Sundays. This is not one of those touristy McMansion wineries you might find in places like Temecula….this is no place for tour buses and they don’t have a big retail shop full of those sparkly blouses reading “Got Wine?” (or other once-snarky wine-related puns). You’re likely to be among the few small groups visiting at any moment. We were greeted by Debbie Broomell (mother of winemaker Chris),who prepared some bites to go with our tastings, and was happy to talk about the family’s farming background. They don’t have a very extensive wine tasting list, since this is a small operation and many wines have sold out or very few bottles remain for sale.
All of the wines were solid and impressive–proof that San Diego County can rank right along better known wine regions if the varietals are selected carefully for the climate and given the right amount of attention in the winemaking process. We especially enjoyed the 2008 Triple B Ranches Cabernet Sauvignon–great, medium bodied food-friendly wine, the 2008 Merlot–fruit forward with notes of strawberry rhubarb pie, and the Vesper 2009 Alcalà (white Rhone-style wine, 55% Marsanne/45% Roussanne)–refreshing and crisp with notes of honeysuckle and apricot.
The next time you’re out on weekend in the backwoods of North County, stop by Triple B Ranches. When they have new vintages bottled and ready for sale, you might also catch them at the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.
15030 Vesper Road, Valley Center, CA 92082
CellarTracker review: Thumbprint Cellars 2010 Gewürztraminer, Russian River Valley, Sara Lee’s Vineyard
Gewürztraminer is a white wine grape, notably from Germany and the Alsace region of northeastern France. It’s usually done in an off-dry style that shows off its naturally higher sugar content, and fruity/floral aromas. Let me stress–this is not a “sweet wine” or dessert wine, but an off-dry wine that is a bit sweeter than what I would normally drink, and I usually go for dry reds. But I thought this would pair nicely with some Asian food I was preparing, and it didn’t disappoint.
Lots of honey, nectar, and roses right up front on the nose. Granny Smith apples, peach, and some citrus on the mid-palate. Minerality on the finish with some of that lingering honey sweetness we started with. Very fruit forward and crisp…this is not your average oaky Chardonnay!
Another very good to excellent wine that I received in a club shipment from one of my favorite wineries, Thumbprint Cellars in Healdsburg. Thumbprint is a small, independent boutique winery with an artsy lounge of a tasting room located right across from the Square. They purchase grapes from the best vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Knights Valley regions of northern Sonoma County–with a lot of single-vineyard and block-designated bottlings.
Their trademark thumbprint-painted bottles also make nice art…I save mine up for BottleHood, a local recycled glass artists in San Diego who makes tumblers and ashtrays out of beer and wine bottles with cool painted or screened logos and artwork on them.
CellarTracker review: 2008 Dutton Estate (Russian River Valley, Dutton Ranch) Karmen Isabella Pinot Noir
This was a highly anticipated bottle to uncork, and did not disappoint. Lush strawberry notes and a hint of spice (cardamom, cloves?) on the nose. Drinks nice, slightly darker than other Pinots I’ve enjoyed lately, firm but silky tannins showing off a well-balanced and varietally correct Pinot Noir. I got some dense cherry pie on the mid-palate. Not the most fruit-forward Pinot, but not as subdued or earthy as some French burgundies either. I would buy this again, and heartily recommend a visit to this winery when in Russian River Valley (northern Sonoma county).
“MixTape”, as a nod to those artfully and thoughtfully put-together music experiences of yore, is a unique blend concocted by Greg Koch and Laura Ulrich of Stone Brewing Co., and includes their Levitation, LeVariation, Sublimely Self-Righteous ales, Smoked Porter, Cali-Belgique, 2011 Imperial Russian Stout, and 2011 Belgo-Anise Imperial Russian Stout…they seemingly just put all those beers in the blender with some added peppers, sage, lemon thyme, and Citra hops (as if Stone beers need any ADDED hops!)…and voila! Pop this one in the tape deck of your ’91 hooptie for a trip into a zone forbidden to sippers of fizzy yellow beer !
As you can see, the MixTape pours dark, with a thick head of foam from all that ale and stout interaction. Surprisingly to me, it drinks quite well…this is not just some evil dare handed down from the Stone gods to college fraternity brothers looking for something new to push on recruits. A little on the smoky side, some of the character of those herbs and spices definitely coming through….reminds me a bit of the Stone 15th Anniversary Black IPA with a touch of Belgian malts….but there’s more going on here. Basically a complex dark ale, heavy but not overwhelming on the hops, with some spice. Something for the stout and porter drinkers (which I’m not particularly) and something for the hoppy ale and Belgian lovers (yeah, that’s me!). Nicely balanced, just like those TDK high bias 90-minute cassettes I used to fill up with my own patented blend of alt-college rock, punk, new wave, hip hop, funk, reggae, and Jerky Boys prank phone calls.
And for a limited time, you can also pick up this handsome pint glass with the saying of the week, “Don’t Bro Me If You Don’t Know Me”…a Neighborhood exclusive, and a quote which I shall not speculate upon since that’s already been done by fellow bloggers. Cheers, and keep mixing it up!