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.
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?!
Lagunitas Brewing Company, out of Petaluma in Sonoma County, I feel is often overlooked here in San Diego with all of our local brewers taking up (deservedly) so much of the spotlight. Yet Lagunitas has been growing by leaps and bounds, experiencing a 55% increase in the volume of beer sold over the last year alone, and is now the 11th largest craft brewer in the U.S. according to industry estimates put out by Beer Marketer’s Insights (http://www.beerinsights.com/).
And they’re putting out more and more specialty beers and limited releases, mostly in the 22 oz. format. Look for them in your local discriminating beer shops. I’ve been holding on to this limited release Bavarian-styled Doppel Weizen from Lagunitas for a few months now, and it’s time to pop the cap and see what’s going on here…
“Weizen” or “Weiss” is German for “wheat”, and this beer is a double-wheat with 55% wheat going into the malt, and fermented with a yeast strain that Lagunitas obtained straight from Bavaria. This beer pours a cloudy golden/orange color, with little carbonation and almost no head (unlike the picture on the label). Like a lot of wheat-based beers (check Karl Strauss’s hefeweizen) the aromas of cloves and bananas are abundant. On the first taste, again–a lot of cloves and bananas–but also some honey or nectar sweetness coming through and a hint of citrus. Medium-bodied, some light hops character just to add balance but not bitter at all This is an interesting release and would make a nice session beer for a warm springtime afternoon on your patio, if it weren’t for that meddling alcohol content (8.5 percent!)
Question for my readers: What limited release or seasonal beers have you tried lately? Do tell.
“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!