I have reviewed AleSmith's massive, beautiful brewery before, but I had never been to their "speakeasy-like" private-ish tasting room called the Anvil & Stave. It is inside the main brewery building so it isn't really a separate satellite tasting room, but I'm going to treat it like one for the sake of this post--its my blog, I can blog what I want to. Plus, it was my birthday, and birthday boys make the rules.
We ended up doing a brewery tour as well, which is becoming something of an annual tradition for me: Last year on my birthday we toured the Fuller's Griffon Brewery in London, England, home of London Pride and several other iconic English beers. It is hard to compete with that, but AleSmith did. What AleSmith doesn't have in hundreds of years of tradition and quirky old buildings, it makes up for with scale and modernity. The tour, which takes about 45 minutes and costs $10 per person, covers the entire brewing and packaging process. And, perhaps my favorite part, it includes a pint and a keeper glass. We happened to be the only two people on the 4pm tour, so we had a special time. Chris, our tour guide, was excellent: enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable, eager to answer questions and discuss beer.
New since my last review of AleSmith is the mezzanine/balcony overlooking the main tasting room. It adds a considerable amount of seating, which was needed in this very popular spot. I wish they had added a kitchen, but they have food trucks every weekend.
After visiting the loading dock, grain silos, neatly stacked bags of specialty malts, the ultramodern Krones brewing system, fermenters so large they had to increase the height of the ceiling, the canning and bottling areas (fun fact: a lot of the packaging is done by hand, including washing, drying and assembling the new 24-packs of .394 Pale Ale that will soon be gracing Costco shelves near you), the tour concludes with a stop in the Tony Gwynn museum (a must for baseball fans) and The Anvil & Stave.
Anvil & Stave is a surprisingly small space. The design is meant to remind you of being inside a barrel, with horizonal dark woods on two sides, dim lighting, and a round, ribbed, vaulted ceiling. It is pretty cool. There is hardly any seating, though: perhaps room for ten to sit and ten to stand. There are literally two seats at the bar, which were occupied for the entire time we were there by an older couple who didn't seem to be drinking much. Maybe it is just as well since, when I ordered, the bartender didn't seem very interested in talking about the beer.
The meu in Anvil & Stave is entirely different than what you can get out on the main floor, consisting of a selection of unusual beers and barrel-aged versions of core beers.
I decided on a flight of four 1.5oz pours of the Speedway Stout variants on offer. Each was aged for between 10 and 18 months in a barrel that had once held a different sort of liquor--bourbon, tequila, tequila plus Mexican hot-chocolate-like spices, and bourbon and sea salt. The regular BBA Speedway Stout was excellent as always. My second favorite was the sea salt variation, which gave an impression of coconut, fig, sweetness and the coffee has completely mellowed out. The chocolate and spice in the Mexican version was very muted--aging didn't seem to enhance those aspects. I'm not a huge tequila fan but I can only call tequila-barrel-aged variant a failure. I made a face I don't think I've ever made before, certainly not while drinking beer--I got black pepper, celery and cigarette ash notes. Maybe its just not a beer for me, since it has an average rating on Untappd of 4.13.
My birthday visit to AleSmith confirmed what I already knew: they are one of the best breweries in San Diego and provide an excellent experience for customers. I'll be back again to try some more of the barrel-aged beers in Anvil & Stave. Just maybe not the tequila ones.
I've been really looking forward to this place opening. I first saw it announced as "coming soon" in summer 2017. By winter when I asked them about progress, they told me that it might not happen because of permit complications. I was bummed--and I know they were, too, since they had committed a lot of time and resources. Fortunately, a couple of months ago I heard the project was again "on". Then, out of the blue in the second week of July, they posted to Instagram that they were finally set to open! They called it a squishy (not even a soft) opening for Friday, July 13.
I headed down to Bay Park around noon and saw through the windows that they were still feverishly getting things ready, so I took my laptop a couple doors down to an artisanal pizza and craft beer bar called The Poseidon Project. That was a fortunate choice: good pizza, good beer, good people. Keep them in mind for food when you are visiting Benchmark Bay Park.
A little before 3pm, I walked down to Benchmark and learned they were going to start pouring in just a few minutes. I would have been the first customer except that a minute before I was going to head in, three guys swooped in ahead of me. But that shows you how highly anticipated this tasting room has been.
The only strike against the location is that it is a bit difficult to drive in and out of Bay Park, and that it is difficult to find parking. Adding this tasting room (and a restaurant nearing completion a block south) is only going to put further pressure on parking. The folks at Poseidon told me people just park in the surrounding neighborhood. Maybe a Lyft is the best choice anyway.
The interior is clearly not finished--the old, rough concrete floors need treating, the walls are bare cinderblock, the lower bar front needs to be finished, and the large back room (where there will eventually be a lot of seating plus games) is just a bare shell with the roof open to the sky in places.
Despite the fact that things aren't quite finished (even after they opened, I saw beer podcaster/construction contractor Brian Beagle doing a last-second plumbing job to get a sink drain ready), it is a great space. The cool breeze off Mission Bay blows in through a kind of porch and the open front door. The proportions of the main space make it feel roomy and comfortable. The vibe is already great. Given how well-done the interior design is at the original Grantville location, I expect this spot will soon look beautiful, too. I'll post an update here when they have finished it out.
Given that they had only made a couple of posts to social media to announce the squishy opening, the fact that about 40 people flowed through in the two hours I was there is very good. The room buzzed with happy people, and you could see on owners Matt and Rachel Akin's faces how pleased and excited they were.
In honor of the occasion, they have created a new IPA called Bay Park. It was excellent. They recently released a DIPA called SD-71 that is also very good. Benchmark consistently live up to their slogan, "Beer Flavored Beer," creating standard styles executed extremely well, and that's why they are so well-liked. I am a particular fan of their Oatmeal Stout (winner of last year's Sore Eye Cup for the best beer in San Diego--not to mention two recent GABF medals). I really like their Brown Ale. Benchmark is also justly famous for their Table Beer, a light, sessionable Belgian style that is crisp and clean and delicious. One thing I really appreciate about Benchmark is that the vast majority of their beers are on the low end of ABV while delivering lots of flavor. That suits my preferred drinking style to a T.
I'll certainly be back--Benchmark's beer is so good, and this fun new Bay Park location is just 12 minutes from my house.
This attractive tasting room near the beach in the Leucadia neighborhood of Encinitas opened in June 2018. It is located on the 101, almost exactly halfway between Pizza Port Solana Beach and Pizza Port Carlsbad.
Though Encinitas has been reluctant to allow breweries and tasting rooms, this spot seems to be well received by locals and beach goers. When I dropped in with my buddy Rob (Instagram's @sdbeertour) for a flight of beer and a few quick photos, there were several other groups enjoying the light and breeze coming in the big open windows facing the street, despite it being the early afternoon on a random Tuesday.
Those of you who follow my blog know that Saint Archer and Ballast Point get included in my quest mainly because they are crafty, local beer, even though (because of their respective buy-outs by large beer conglomerates, MillerCoors in the case of Saint Archer) those San Diego breweries do not count as craft beer according to the Brewers Association definition. I also happen to quite like many of Ballast Point beers. Saint Archer has never really impressed me, but they do make some perfectly good beer--better, for sure, than the bottom third of San Diego County's 150 craft breweries. The flight I had on this occasion was decent to good; well-made beer with no flaws and good recipes. They had more than twenty beers on the menu, so just about anyone who comes in is bound to find something they like.
Service was good--again, better than you find at many craft breweries around town. The interior design is very nice--again, much better than you find at most craft breweries around town. I'd put it in the top 15%, as a rough guess.
So, as a pure experience--location, atmosphere, service, beer, price, etc.--the Saint Archer tasting room hits all the right notes, though perhaps without being truly outstanding in any particular area. However, if you prefer to spend your beer money supporting local, independent, CRAFT beer (rather than padding the already well-padded pockets of MillerCoors), try one of these nearby spots instead:
I had such a good experience here when I first visited, way back in December 2016, that I could only imagine that it would be a great experience this time, too. I was not disappointed. I visited at the end of May but haven't had a chance to post this write up until now. It turns out to be good timing, though, since now my post can include a mention of the fact that The Homebrewer (where Home Brewing is based) was awarded Homebrew Shop of the Year at the recent 2018 Annual Homebrew Competition. Congratulations, too, to the members of San Diego's QUAFF (Quality Ales and Fermentation Fraternity) for winning Homebrew Club of the Year for the third year in a row. San Diego really does have something special when it comes to beer.
The occasion of my visit to Home was a special can release, a collaboration with Lemon Jesse, Instagram's @thesherbertpervert, a swell guy known around the San Diego craft beer scene in part because of his work behind the bar (recently, at Eppig) and for his truly off-the-wall graphic design sensibilities. Lately his nearly-daily Instagram stories about the weird crap he finds in the belly of the AMC he also works at has been the best thing in my feed. (Yes, perhaps I do need to follow some more people.) My photographic portrait of Jesse taken at this event might be my favorite photo ever.
The can release was for a beer called, appropriately, The Sherbert Pervert, a lactose-loaded hazy IPA with a citrus creaminess that reminded me of a slightly bitter Creamsicle. In case you were wondering, yes, that is a good thing. At the same time as the can release, Jesse was selling branded milk bottle-shaped beer glasses to raise money for a dog rescue organization. The event was a big hit: Jesse and George (Home's owner) bring in great people, so the vibe was excellent.
I also sampled a few of Home Brewing's regular offerings poured on tap in the tasting room. Home started out as a homebrew shop, then expanded to include a tasting room to offer samples of the kinds of things they can help a homebrewer make, and then they built out the tasting room even farther. George, the owner, teaches in the Business of Craft Brewing certificate program at SDSU and he is a very skillful brewer. His knowledgeable head brewer is doing great work, too, having just medaled THREE TIMES at the San Diego International Beer Competition. As expected given these bona fides, all the Home beer I tried was very good.
The tasting room renovation looks good. It is an open, comfy space that integrates well with the homebrew shop. You can even sample a beer while you walk around and browse the shelves for homebrewing inspiration. Plans are afoot to put a patio out front, which will be a great addition.
I wish I lived closer to North Park; if I did, I'd go Home more often.
We had an awesome time at the new Bear Roots tasting room in Downtown Vista. So much so that Rob and I decided to stay there longer instead of moving on to the planned next location in our brewery tour. (That's Rob's photo above. You'll see more of his beertography skills on his Instagram feed, @sdbeertour: check him out and give him a follow.)
Back in September, I made the claim that Bear Roots's Bear Cookie is the best peanut butter stout in San Diego, or maybe anywhere--that's a bold claim given the excellent products of Bear Roots's Downtown Vista neighbors Belching Beaver (Peanut Butter Stout) and Mother Earth (Sin Tax). Now I'm going to double down on that claim: Bear Cookie is in contention to be my favorite beer overall, ever. The latest batch is even better than previous ones I've had. I rated it a 4.75/5. For perspective, I've only rated four of the 1100 beers I've logged on Untappd at 4.75 or higher. Bear Cookie is smooth, nearly black, and has a persistent tan head. The smooth, soft, medium mouthfeel from the lactose leads to a sweet but not overly sweet taste, with deep roasty malts set off and balanced by subtle bitterness, peanut butter and chocolate flavors. I'm drooling just thinking about it.
Speaking of batches, one of the things that makes Bear Roots great is batch-to-batch consistency. They do it amazingly well, especially considering that they have been brewing on a one-barrel system until just this week, when they had a new brew system delivered at their original location. This capacity increase is great news for beer lovers since there will be more Bear Roots beer out there in the world.
In addition to the eight beers on tap at this location (more beers are available at the original location), they offer food that is delivered from two nearby restaurants. We tried a cheese steak and chicken strips, both great. Delivery was very quick, and they don't charge a silly mark-up for delivery. It is a great example of small businesses working together to enhance things for themselves as well as customers.
I can't say enough about the great service we got from Joe and Vince on the bar. They were both friendly and enthusiastic about their product. That sort of thing really enhances a beer lover's experience at a tasting room, so I'm always really pleased when I see it.
Sticking with the theme of the brewery, the interior of the tasting room is decorated similarly to the original location. There are barrels, plants, thick wooden tables and bar tops, and rough wood paneling. The ceilings are low, giving the place a cozy, relaxed and comfortable feeling.
In short, Bear Roots Brewing is firing on all cylinders, and both locations are excellent in every respect you could hope for--beer, service, atmosphere, you name it.
The Bear Roots Downtown Vista tasting room is very close to the Belching Beaver Tavern and Grill, which in turn is right across the street from Wavelength Brewing and the Mother Earth Tap House. You can do all four in a 0.2 mile walk! Backstreet Brewing (inside Lamppost Pizza) is a mere 0.3 miles further. Guadalupe's tasting room will be going in nearby later this summer. Downtown Vista is becoming a genuine competitor with North Park as a beer tourist's Mecca--for brewery density, walkability, and beer quality.
You can catch the Sprinter from Oceanside or San Marcos if you want to avoid driving while drinking--there's a stop 0.2 miles from Mother Earth, 0.3 miles from Bear Roots Downtown. Speaking of nearby, the main Bear Roots location--the homebrew shop, brewery and original tasting room--is a mere 1.4 miles down the street.
Twelve San Diego breweries won fourteen medals at the 2017 Great American Beer Fest. That significant-but-manageable number gave me the idea of trying all of them and writing about it.
Things didn’t work out as I'd hoped. For one thing, a lot of the beer has been very hard to find. A lot of it must have been brewed in very small batches. Some of it seems not to have been re-brewed very often, or at all, since the GABF announcements--that strikes me as a weird lost opportunity for the brewers, but I suppose they must have reasons.
Anyway, the result is that after seven months I've only been able to find eleven of the fourteen beers.
You'll see from the descriptions below that there is no unifying theme among these beers, no "San Diego spin" that is what makes these beers particularly medal-worthy. What these beers mainly have in common is that they are very well made and they are brewed true to style--even though they are, in many cases at least, styles that today's consumers do not typically clamor for. Thatis largely an artifact of the competition's judging guidelines: only beers that are true to the style under which they were submitted stand a chance of winning. And, of course, winnering beers don't have any flaws. (Just like me.)
Preparing this post I noticed something I hadn't anticipated but which makes sense now that I think about it. Most of these beers do not have very high average ratings on Untappd. This partly reflects diverse personal tastes among beer drinkers, and perhaps a lack of beer rating expertise among some Untappd users, not to mention a lack of a standard for what star ratings are supposed to mean. But I think this is the main thing: An unflawed beer that is true to style is not necessarily considered a "great" beer by consumers if the style isn't great. Add to this the consideration of trends in beer preferences and you can see why even very well made beers (according to style guidelines) are not necessarily rated highly by the general run of beer drinkers.
What follows are descriptions of the eleven San Diego 2017 GABF Medal Winners that I have tried so far (plus a bonus beer); below, the three I have left to try.
Legally Red, Silver in American-style Amber/Red Ale: my rating 4/5 on Apr 12, 2017; 4/5 on Nov 16, 2017 in North Park; had it again in cans May 2018. I always like red IPAs. This one has nice balance and good flavor, with a caramel sweetness to the malt. It is pretty aggressively hopped. Unfortunately it is a hop that triggers a pretty bad nasal allergy for me, so after the first few sips my sinuses swell shut and I can hardly smell it any more. Thankfully, now that I'm not visiting breweries and tasting rooms at quite the pace I was (101 in the last twelve months), my allergic response to hops seems to be diminishing. This averages 3.62/5 on Untappd with 1252 ratings. (FYI, all these Untappd stats are current as of 6/25/2018.)
Tabula Rasa, Gold for Robust Porter: 4/5 in cans in Oct 17, again in cans March and June 2018. This is the beer that convinced me that Second Chance is one of the best breweries in San Diego. The deep roast on the malts in this porter gives it a nutty flavor, which is in turn nicely complemented by subtle cocoa. Deep and satisfying. Better warmer. Black with a thick but temporary head. I love the can design: elegant and alluring, like the beer itself. This averages 3.83/5 on Untappd with 2550 ratings. There's a version of this with coconut--Coco Rasa, so far only available on draft--that is even better than the two-golds-in-a-row base version (I rated it 4.5/5, one of the highest ratings I have ever given a beer, in the top 3.5% of all beers I have rated). Go try it: the Second Chance Beer Lounge in North Park is awesome if you haven't been there yet.
Back in the ESSA, Silver in English-style Summer Ale: Sept 2017 at Third Avenue Alehouse--liked it, but wasn't especially wowed. Similar reaction to sample at Guild Fest during SD Beer Week 2017; 3.5/5. I liked Karl Strauss Liquid A/C much better. I've checked this in twice on Untappd, but by an unfortunate coincidence I was in social situations both times and didn't give a description. This averages 3.58/5 on Untappd with just 227 ratings. By the way, if you would like to buy a GABF-winning brewery, this one is for sale.
Sour Wench Blackberry Ale, Silver in Fruited American-Style Sour Ale [no gold awarded]. I rated it 3.5/5 on October 11, 2017. Blackberry & vinegar/funky nose, a tad sweet on palate, only mildly sour, CO2 fizz. Reminds me of sour candies I had as a kid. To me, this seems like a beginner beer--that's not a dig, there is definitely a place for that. This averages 3.76/5 on Untappd with 39,028 ratings since the entry was created in 2010.
Manta Ray, Gold for Imperial India Pale Ale. I rated it 4.5/5 on October 11, 2017. I've had this on several occasions, both draft and bottle, and I've noticed that while it is always good it is not always exactly the same. That's probably the hops falling off as it ages. At its best--a fresh batch on draft at the brewery--this is one of the best west coast IPAs out there. Bright citrus nose with pine background, clean crisp first sip, balanced, bitter finish but not overly so. Just “wow”: a worthy GABF17 Gold. This averages 3.91/5 on Untappd with 51,244 ratings. Some craft beer nerds will chafe at the fact that Ballast Point is not a craft brewery according to the Brewers Association definition since it was purchased by Corona's owner, Constellation Brands. But the fact that Ballast didn't just win two GABF medals this year, an extremely impressive feat for any brewery, it won perhaps the most-coveted Imperial IPA category, tells you they are making excellent beer.
Herd of Turtles, Silver in Baltic-Style Porter. I rated it 4/5 in December 2017. When I was looking up this beer, I learned that Baltic porters are actually lagers rather than ales. From the taste, you probably wouldn't have guessed. The nose is malty and boozy, the palate has elements of raisin, roasted malts, and biscuit, with noticeable ABV warmth. It is a satisfying beer. This averages 3.81/5 on Untappd with 955 ratings.
Blonde, Bronze for Golden or Blonde Ale. I have had this several times and rated it 3.5/5. Crystal clear with a tawny golden color. The aroma is malty, and the flavor is, too--and sweet. It finishes clean without much bitterness (Hallertau hops) and almost no aftertaste. This averages 3.35/5 on Untappd with 873 ratings. That's a weirdly low number of ratings for a GABF winner that is constantly available at three popular tasting rooms--I wonder if that is because the Culture locations all have almost nowhere to sit or put your beer down, so you don't have a free hand to do Untappd? I think it rates lower than many other GABF winners on Untappd (and in my estimation) also because of the fact that it is a very simple, straightforward beer built for drinkability rather than to bowl you over with flavor.
AleSmith Wee Heavy, Bronze for Scotch Ale. I had this in a flight of AleSmith medal winners at the brewery and rated it 4.25/5. At 10% ABV it can't get away from being boozy, but it compensates by being full of flavor: malty, toasty, sweet and smooth--there's a note that reminded me of butterscotch in some ways. I couldn't drink it all the time, but it is tasty. This averages 3.97/5 on Untappd with 20,482 ratings (the beer was added to Untappd in 2010 but existed before that, also winning a GABF medal in 2008).
Z Man Stout, Silver for Export Stout. I had a bourbon barrel-aged (BBA) version at the Carlsbad location in December but I didn’t think much of it, 3.5/5. I loved it non-BBA at Pizza Port Solana Beach in April 2018: 4.25/5. This beer is very dark brown, has a thin tan head that dissipates quickly, features prominent toasty/malty flavors, and its mouthfeel is on the thin side (almost like a brown ale). Z man averages 3.78/5 on Untappd with a mere 1070 ratings--a low number for a beer added to Untappd in 2012. This beer also just was awarded a 2018 LA International Beer Competition gold.
Guillaume, Belgian Blonde Ale, 4.3% ABV. Gold for Session Beer. This averages 3.61/5 on Untappd with a 515 ratings. I accidentally found this at Regents Pizzeria the day before I was going to make this post, which made me happy. I’m not into Belgian beers, so it didn’t make a big impression on me. But it is clearly well made. It is a bright, nearly perfectly clear golden color, with a thin white head that rings the glass. The aroma is banana and clove, as you might expect. The flavor is similar, plus maltiness in the background, with the first impression being the sharpness of carbonation. The finish reminds me of Champaign. Banana/clove lingers on the aftertaste. My personal rating (which includes my bias against Belgians—the beers, I mean) is 3.25/5.
SouthNorte Beer Co.
Agavamente, Bronze for Specialty Beer. That's a great result for a brand new brewery--one that doesn't even have its own brewery. (SouthNorte guest brews at Coronado Brewing Co.) I had it at the SD Guildfest in 2017, then on draft at Regents Pizza in May 2018. This is the best lager I have ever had. Smooth, balanced, beautiful pink/red color, slightly sweet and refreshing. I get more hibiscus/rose hip flavor than agave sweetness, despite the name. I rate it 4.25/5. This averages 3.67/5 on Untappd with a mere 55 ratings, only 9 of which were posted before May 2018. It has been unavailable since just after GABF until very recently: it was released county-wide in May both on draft and in cans.
You are right, Belching Beaver didn't win any 2017 GABF medals. But Thizz is What It Is, a 9% ABV Double IPA, did win the Alpha King Challenge held in advance of the GABF. When I had it at the main brewery in January, I was impressed. It has a gold-brown color, and a thin but persistent white head that laces the glass. The aroma and flavor are floral and tropical/juicy. There's a background pineyness, and a lingering but not-too-intense bitterness. All the elements work together beautifully. I rated it 4/5. It is also $9 per pint at the brewery. On Untappd it averages 3.95/5 on 498 ratings--basically tied for the highest average rating of any of the medal-winning beers in this list.
The ones I haven't tried yet:
Stone Brewing Bistro and Gardens--Liberty Station
Witty Moron, Gold for Other Belgian Style Ale. It is described as a black witbier, which sounds intriguing. This averages 3.68/5 on Untappd on 5834 ratings.
Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Carlsbad
Orange Blossom Honey Common, Gold for Honey Beer. This averages 3.58/5 on Untappd with a mere 42 ratings, only two of which are from April of this year and the rest from October 2017. I know I am really going to enjoy this one when I finally get to try it.
Hidden Gem Dunkelweizen, Silver for German-Style Wheat Ale. 5.5% ABV dark-style German wheat beer. This averages 3.67/5 on Untappd with just 196 ratings. I made a special trip to OB to go try this in early June because the online beer listing said it was available. It turns out they had just run out of it by the time I arrived (the bartender didn't even know yet, having just come on shift)--the new menus had it marked "coming soon!" The bartender told me they try to keep this on all the time since it has become one of their more popular beers.
If and when I'm able try the remaining items on this list, I'll update this post. In the meantime, get thee to a brewery and try some of these delicious beers--if you can find them!
I crew on a sailboat for Wednesday evening races down on Coronado Cays. Traffic can be pretty bad getting over the bridge at 5 p.m., so last Wednesday I went down in the early afternoon and parked my laptop at a table at the Coronado Brewing tasting room in Imperial Beach.
I had been to this location before, but that other time I was unable to get a seat because it was so crowded; in fact, I couldn't even get to the bar to order a beer. It turns out Wednesdays in June are a lot less crowded than Saturdays in July. The place was about one-third full when I arrived and it started filling up around 4pm, once people were done at the nearby beach or had gotten off work.
Coronado doesn't brew at this location, just at the Bay Park production brewery and at the original Coronado Brew Pub. They were pouring only about a dozen of their beers, mostly the core offerings. Coronado has carved a nice niche for itself making flavorful but approachable beers for a wide consumer base interested in easy-to-drink and refreshing "beach beers", many of which they package in cans. They also make some excellent smaller batch beers. One of my favorite Coronado beers is Stingray, a double IPA (7% ABV) that I think gets better and better over time: I had it in a six pack a few weeks ago and rated it a very flavorful 4.25/5. On this occasion, since I didn't want to be too toasty for the race, I went with an Easy Up Pale Ale, 5.2%. It is hoppy for a pale ale, in the west coast way; refreshing, not challenging. Just the ticket for a hot day at the beach where beer is an accompaniment, not the focus. I rate it a 3.5/5. I had a similar reaction to Coastwise IPA later on at the yacht club: It was kind of ordinary, for lack of a better term. But it was well made and refreshing after the sailing race. 3.5/5 Plus, we won!
The interior of the Coronado Brewing IB tasting room is clean and comfortable; it is nothing fancy but there are large tables for groups and lots of light from the front wall of windows. There are just a few seats at the bar. The bathrooms are nice.
Service was a little weak. There is no signage to explain that you have to order at the register and then they deliver food to the tables, and the waitress seemed a little put out to have to explain it to me. The bartender was also apparently uninterested in talking about the beers (at least to me; the young woman at the other end of the bar seemed to get friendlier service, imagine that). I guess there isn't much incentive for staff to go the extra mile when there is an automatic crowd, most of whom are tourists who won't return soon anyway. It is interesting that I noticed this sort of problem last year, too, and things are still the same.
The relatively small food menu is pub fare with some Mexican offerings. I tried the chicken strips. It was a larger portion than I had anticipated for an appetizer, so they are definitely shareable, but I wasn't too impressed with the flavor and they came out a little overcooked.
The parking lot is very small; I ended up on the street even though they weren't very busy when I arrived.
Located in a new and stylish strip mall in front of a condo development in the otherwise-residential neighborhood of Carmel Valley, this newest addition to the Mason Ale Works line up is bound to be a hit.
While not as impressive as the huge San Marcos location, this tasting room is sleek and modern, with a sophisticated vibe. Distressed wood and metals accent the concrete floors and wooden walls. A large beer fridge offers a wide array of Mason beers (mostly in cans), both core beers and specialty releases, "to go" or to be served on premise. In addition to several high tables and a curved bar, there is a comfortable patio that is partially screened off from the street.
The big sliding wooden door in the middle of the wall opposite the bar opens onto the Barrel Room restaurant, owned by the same group. Note that the Barrel Room has different hours, and a different menu, than the Tap House and Kitchen.
Service was very good. Though, since it is open seating, the hostess near the door seemed superfluous.
The food menu is smallish but solid; there are some expected items and some innovative items. We grazed on some very tasty "crispy olives" (lightly battered and deep fried) while enjoying a pint of I Just Want to Cuddle, (Dry Irish Stout, 5.2% ABV). Like Mason's Cash Imperial Stout, Cuddle is a very good stout, and it has a lot of coffee in it. I think this one is good with coffee, but it would be better without. I rated it 3.5/5. I was itching to try the barrel-aged Cash but I didn't pull the trigger on the four-pack of cans for $18.
In addition to 17 house beers across a range of styles on tap, they also offered 11 guest beers. The style range on the guest beers seemed off to me--two big stouts (AleSmith Speedway and Belching Beaver Peanut Butter), three ciders, and then mostly Belgians and sours.
Parking in the garage under the adjacent building (far end of the parking lot from the entrance) is the best bet, but it is very narrow. They offer valet parking during evening hours.
Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned: it has been seven weeks since my last "monthly" brewery update.
Here is the latest version of The List of every brewery, brew pub, and tasting room in San Diego County.
New Locations Now Open
Bear Roots Brewing Co. has opened their second location, in downtown Vista. There are now four breweries there, in a very small area. Not only is the brewery density high, the quality level is high. Downtown Vista would make a great visit for a brewery tour. Gaudalupe is due to open their tasting room there later this summer, as well.
Council Brewing has opened their second location in Santee, in the spot that was formerly Finest Made Ales (which was formerly Butcher Brewing, and before that the spot was occupied by Twisted Manzanita, which moved on to the facility that is now owned by Groundswell). This marks the 180th San Diego-based craft beer location, and the 200th beer location in the county.
Mason Ale Works Tasting Room and Kitchen opened in Carmel Valley on May 29. This is the third Mason Ale Works location, the first that does not brew on site. The food program looks awesome, the location is beautiful, and they are right next the second Barrel Room (wine bar). Here's my first look.
Cerveza Xteca (which is the name of the only beer produced by SD Craft Beverage Co., as far as I can tell) was announced today just before I was about to publish this post. It appears to no have no tasting room and their website has next to no information on it in addition to being very difficult to use.
Golden State Brewing, based in Santa Clara, had a tasting room behind Voltaire Beach House in Ocean Beach. I'm not sure when it closed (the most recent Yelp review was about a year ago) but they are definitely not open anymore. All the remaining non-San Diego craft tasting rooms are BJ's and Oggi's--at least until Melvin opens downtown (currently projected for the end of 2018). It isn't new, but I finally got around to adding the Oggi's Pizza Express at SDSU to the list, so there is a net no change to the numbers in this category for this update.
To my knowledge, there have been no brewery or tasting room closings in the last two months. Maybe it is a summer reprieve, but more likely we are just back on track.
Amplified Aleworks has announced a new restaurant/tasting room in East Village that should open this summer. Duck Foot's East Village restaurant and tasting room is projected to open in June. Coronado Brewing has put Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery up for sale so they can refocus on their core business. East Village is becoming yet another craft beer hot spot in San Diego.
On June 9, Julian Beer Co., which has been shut down for renovations for a long time, made a post to Facebook that said, "So close you can almost taste it." They were originally planning to reopen last summer. West Coaster just announced that the opening is planned for July 4, with a grand opening celebration later this sumemr.
I had the pleasure of being invited to the San Diego International Beer Festival last weekend by "Oggi's Sports | Brewhouse | Pizza". It was a good event.
First, a nod to my benefactor--this was my first time entering a festival on a media pass and it felt pretty cool, so thanks, Oggi's. Oggi's was one of the originals of the San Diego craft beer scene--one of the O.G.'s, you might say. That era has passed and Oggi's San Diego brew pubs no longer brew on-site, with the exception of the Carmel Mountain Ranch location. These days, Oggi's brews in San Clemente for distribution to its 16 locations around Southern California plus one in Arizona. Oggi's shares a brewery with Left Coast Brewing. Once upon a time I thought that was a contract brewing situation; since the same family owns both companies, I guess Oggi's beer really counts in some sense as a sub-brand of Left Coast. The Oggi's rep at the festival wasn't able to tell me the annual production volume of Oggi's beers, but it must be pretty large given all the locations they supply.
Oggi's was pouring two of its beers at the fest. Black Magic, a robust dry Irish stout coming in at 5.2% ABV, has won a slew of awards over the years--including a World Beer Cup gold in 2010, and most recently an Honorable Mention for Export Stout at the 2016 LA County Fair (no bronze awarded). It is rich and roasty, full flavored with a medium mouthfeel and a balanced bitterness. Also on offer was Hoppily Ever After, a decent but unexceptional west coast IPA.
One of the strange things about the SDIBF is that all the booths are staffed by volunteers, most of them from an old folks' home. None of the volunteers seemed particularly interested in beer; none that I talked to even had an inkling of what they were pouring. A few breweries that invested in their own pop-ups or tables, rather than just being on tap in the central bar area, had their own reps present to chat up the customers, but they aren't allowed to pour for themselves. A third style of beer delivery was from cans and bottles that were served from ice tubs tightly packed at tables. The volunteers were supposed to pour 1 oz samples, but old people's reflexes aren't that quick so most of my pours were a lot larger. Even so, I'm not sure the $65 ticket price would seem like a good deal unless you are really into beer fests. The ticket price does include fair admission, though, so there is the added attraction of farm animals, a few midway rides, deep fried everything and a genuine 14-foot Louisiana 'gator. I kid you not.
I attended the Friday afternoon session, which didn't seem very busy at all. I don't think I was ever in a line longer than two or three people. I was told by experienced SDIBF-goers that the Saturday sessions would be slammed, and Sunday quieter again. The fair itself was not overly busy on the Friday, which made getting in to the Del Mar Fairgrounds a little easier than expected around noon. There was solid traffic in and out by the time I left at 5 p.m. I took a Lyft both ways, which was much easier than driving myself and meant that I could enjoy the wares at the beer fest more fully.
For an "international" beer festival, there weren't many international beers being poured. Aside from a handful of Belgian breweries, I can't say I noticed many others from outside the USA. There were, at least, quite a few beers from notable US breweries that I don't often see in San Diego.
My favorite beer of the fest, out of the fifteen or twenty that I tried, was Claremont Craft Ales Royal, a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout (12% ABV), which I rated at 4.25/5. I've been to the brewery, it is a good spot, and I'm excited to see their beer is even better than the last time I was there.