San Diego’s top beer festivals
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!
1. San Diego Brewers Guild Festival
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.
2. San Diego International Beer Festival
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.
3. Stone Brewing Company Anniversary Celebration
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.
Stone MixTape, Vol. 1: fill it up and turn it up to 11!
“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.
Right now (as far as I know) Stone MixTape is only available at the Neighborhood bar, located at G Street and Eighth Ave. in downtown San Diego.
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!
Rough Draft Brewing Co. grand opening party
So here we are at the grand opening of Rough Draft, the latest of a string of new breweries opening up during the past month here in San Diego. The tasting room is very spacious, with a long tasting bar and TVs already mounted, ready for you to pair up beer tastings with the sports game du jour.
Currently, Rough Draft has just four beers on tap: a Belgian-style blond ale, an amber ale, “What the Ale” American pale ale, and Eraser IPA. I’m told they will soon offer a double IPA, and plan to have a total of 12 beers on tap by the end of the year. The grand opening event includes tastings of all 4 aforementioned beers, plus a 64 oz. logo growler with a fill of your favorite, all for $20. It sold out last Sunday, so you’re not alone if you snoozed and missed out on your ticket to this one (Terry!)
The Belgian-style blond was nice and light, floral character. This was quite similar to some of my favorite blond ales imported from Belgium. A refreshing beer for a summer afternoon, a way to go light without being wimpy and selling your soul to the devil from St. Louis or Milwaukee. I also enjoyed the Amber ale–approaching a more medium to full body with a very malt-forward caramelish flavor, and packing 7.5% ABV although you wouldn’t know it from the taste. The “What The Ale?” American pale ale took us into hoppier territory, albeit on the lighter side of that style’s popular embodiment, Sierra Nevada P.A. Good clean citrusy finish. The Eraser IPA seemed to be a revved up version of the pale ale, but obviously with more hops–bold but not exactly knocking over any of the many other IPAs within this hop-friendly county. Being an IPA guy, I chose this as my growler fill and will be enjoying this tomorrow on my Sunday afternoon in the patio.
So cheers to Rough Draft! We’ll be back for more growler fills…best o’ luck in the increasingly crowded field of San Diego craft breweries!
Stone/Bear Republic/Fat Head’s Brewery collaboration beer: Texas Brown Ale
This latest Stone collaboration beer just came out last week, and I couldn’t wait to try it. I had hoped to fill up a growler at the 30th Street tasting room this past Friday, but things came up, and when I made it in Saturday afternoon the kegs had already been tapped out by my fellow beer enthusiasts. Luckily, they had some 12 oz. bottles sitting in the fridge!
This time Mitch Steele at Stone joined with co-conspirators Richard Norgrove, Jr. of Bear Republic Brewing and Matt Cole of Fat Head’s Brewery (out of Cleveland, OH) for what’s described as an “extra hoppy brown ale brewed with brown sugar and molasses.”. It seems Cole took the lead in the enthusiasm generating this project, with fond recollections of one of his first home brewing experiments from the early ’90s being in this style.
The result is a brown ale with a lower gravity than most, and a hops-forward flavor that will find immediate enjoyment by West Coast hopheads. Nicely balanced, easy drinking, and with an understated sweet finish that shows off the brown sugar and molasses that went into the recipe. This beer probably won’t be around too long, so seek it out and drink what you can before it goes dry like a sagebrush landscape in the Lone Star state! (Rating on a scale of 10…I was gonna go modest and say 8.75, but it’s a 9, solid! Now let me stop typing and enjoy this….)
Breakwater Brewing Co., Oceanside
Breakwater Brewing Company is the northernmost craft brewery in San Diego County, nestled a block away from the ocean on 101/North Coast Hwy.
I tried a taster set of 6 beers: Beach Honey Ale, Railside Red ale, Beachbreak Brown ale, Eric’s Quadrupel Belgian-style, Maverick’s Double IPA, and Walkabout IMP Stout.
The Beach Honey ale was light and refreshing, not too overpowered with honey and with a nice infusion of grapefruit for a citrusy finish. The Railside Red was okay, very drinkable but didn’t do much for me as far as a standout beer. Beachbreak Brown was a very nicely balanced ale made with Cacade hops, that hides the fact that it’s 7.8% ABV. Next up was is Eric’s Quadrupel….taking the ABV up to 9.6%, a dark Belgian-style with coriander and chamomile in the recipe by Eric Magruder, a local homebrewer who took home an award and then Breakwater picked it up and made it available to the North County masses. Maverick’s Double IPA was my type of beer, they bill it as a “hop monster” but I could handle more hops…good, but not particularly notable among hoppy IPAs and Double/Triple IPAs being put out by other brewers around the county. The Walkabout Stout was sweet with a delayed lingering finish of vanilla…tasting partner Terry says it was kinda flat overall (I’ve never been much of a stout guy). Also of note: Kali Kush, a medium-bodied special pale ale with a touch of local sagebrush, and Old Blue Eyes, a malty “Old Ale” style of beer that is extremely low on the hops while upping the ABV to 9.1% .
When in Oceanside, surf your way in to Breakwater for a wide selection of hand-crafted beer! Most recommended: Beachbreak Brown, Kali Kush.
Back to the old school: my starter brews
Tonight, I’m having a Red Trolley Ale from Karl Strauss brewery, the first of the several dozen breweries now populating the San Diego area. Takes me back….this was one of the first craft beers that caught my attention back in the mid-’90s. Here are the initial culprits behind my beer fandom:
1. Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale (nice caramel finish, a medium-bodied red ale that’s been around a long time now but just starting to win some big-time awards).
2. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (once and always, a consistently great beer and a standard-bearer for all American pale ales. I expect to hear a lot of people give a shout out to this classic from Chico, CA).
3. Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale (another medium-bodied ale, British style, the initial flagship offering from the Firestone guys back when they were still quasi-affiliated with their dad’s winery in Santa Barbara County. I think they’ve now moved the entire operation to Paso Robles).
Anyway….there ya go. Don’t blame me, blame these guys for packing some actual flavor and depth into something I used to think was just carbonated bottlings from the urinalysis lab! I try all kinds of beers nowadays, and I’ve kind of gravitated toward West Coast IPAs heavy on the IBUs (International Bitterness Units), and slowly getting into the Belgian and Cali-Belgian stuff.
But the question I have for my fellow quality beer drinking enthusiasts, hopheads, and pint glass collecting nerds is this:
I wanna know what craft beers (or even imports) got you interested in beer in the first place?