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?!