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Exploring San Diego’s Craft Beer Scene

Fanatically innovative brewers around the globe are creating new beers with unorthodox ingredients and techniques. Beer geek Christian DeBenedetti makes a pilgrimage to a newly famous scene close to home: California’s San Diego County.

My mission is simple: Skip the bland international lagers sold everywhere on earth, seek out small-batch, artisan-made beers in their native habitats and drink them.

It’s early spring, and I am exploring San Diego County, one of the most dynamic beer scenes in America and arguably the world. Avant-garde pro brewers from all over the planet, ambitious home brewers and even plain old beer geeks have made this pilgrimage before me. And like me, they have driven Route 78, a near-mystical road through San Diego County’s brewery-dotted landscape, then returned home with cases of rare beers (and even yeast samples), inspired and ready to experiment.

For me, this is the latest stop on a beer journey that began more than a decade ago. The year was 1996, and I was a beer scholar on a post-graduate grant that allowed me to spend 12 months researching ancient brewing techniques in Europe and Africa.

Belgian Beer

Courtesy of New Belgium

As a fledgling beer pilgrim, my ultimate destination was Belgium. The variety of Belgian beers is legendary—around 100 breweries produce some 500 types. Though most Americans would consider the mass-marketed Stella Artois to be Belgium’s signature, the country is renowned among craft-beer lovers for cutting-edge brewers like Jean-Pierre Van Roy of Cantillon. This tiny, 109-year old brewery in Brussels is where I had one of my earliest and most memorable beer revelations.

Inside the gorgeous, barnlike tasting room, Van Roy told me about esoteric beers that I had only read about in semi-obscure books; these included a sort of wine-beer hybrid called Vigneronne, which he blends with Italian Muscat grapes. Then he offered me tastes of several different beers. Though it was 13 years ago, I can still vividly recall the luminous scarlet color, funky smell and first bracingly tart sip of his Rosé de Gambrinus. It had been fermented with raspberries and was unlike any beer I’d ever tasted: slightly carbonated, with complex, mellow fruit flavors, intense acidity and a hint of woody tannins. I was confounded, trying to understand exactly what it was I was drinking. Today, I realize I was tasting innovation.

My current beer pilgrimage didn’t involve crossing an ocean; it simply required a cross-country flight from New York to California.

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Although there are pockets of beer innovation scattered all around America (most notably in Colorado and Oregon), no other place in the U.S. offers the diversity of styles, techniques and flavors that San Diego County does. When I ask other beer pilgrims why San Diego has emerged as a leader in craft brewing, I get variations of the same answer: The bold creativity stems from the area’s lack of brewing history. There is no pressure to follow traditions; there are no expectations to live up to.

I begin my journey at Stone Brewing in Escondido. Acclaimed Japanese brewer Toshiyuki Ishii of Yo-Ho Brewing Company, outside Nagano, Japan, spent three years training at Stone before returning home and introducing U.S.-style pale ales to the lager-dominated Japanese beer market. I figure if Stone Brewing is fascinating enough to attract a master like Ishii, there will be plenty I can learn.

Stone Brewing

Stone Brewing. Photo © Gregory Hayes.

Stone Brewing’s “extreme” beers are like standard ales in overdrive. At its most basic, beer is made from water, a starch (malted barley, called malt, is most common, but wheat, corn and rice can also be used) and hops (a bitter-tasting flower that adds flavor and aroma and acts as a natural preservative). The brewer steeps the malt in hot water, then boils it in a kettle with hops, cools the mixture and adds yeast to activate fermentation (which creates the alcohol). This simple formula leaves plenty of room for imaginative interpretations, such as the addition of herbs, fruits and spices.

Steve Wagner, Stone’s brewmaster, has spent years creating radical riffs on traditional styles: aggressively hopped ales fermented to a high alcohol percentage, usually around seven percent but sometimes nearly double that. (Most beer hovers between four and six percent alcohol, while craft beers average six percent.) The point of Wagner’s love-them-or-hate-them beers (Stone is now sold in 31 states, so it’s mostly the former) isn’t to get the drinker intoxicated, but to create complex layers of flavor through long, robust fermentations with a rich mix of grains and huge amounts of resiny, fresh, green hops.

These bold beers attract bona fide beer pilgrims. In Stone Brewing’s shiny, sun-filled tasting room, I chat with a beer fanatic named “Dr. Bill” Sysak. A former Army combat medic with a generous beer-lovers’ waistline and enormous muttonchop sideburns, Sysak has toured more than 750 breweries worldwide—over 300 in Germany alone—and has visited Belgium at least 37 times. I’m not sure whether he’s a true disciple or a complete wing nut: He tells me that he once flew to Belgium on a Sunday to buy six cases of Westvleteren, arguably the world’s rarest beer, then turned around and flew right back home on Tuesday.

Sysak is drinking a Blind Pig IPA from a “guest” tap that features other U.S. and foreign brews alongside Stone Brewing’s own. India Pale Ale (IPA) is a hoppy, medium-alcohol beer invented in England in the 18th century and now nearly ubiquitous in American craft brewing. Vinnie Cilurzo, brewer at Santa Rosa, California’s Russian River Brewing Company, created Blind Pig IPA in 1994, and Sysak tells me it is one of America’s first “double” IPAs. Double refers to the addition of more malt and hops, giving the beer much greater intensity. I contemplate Stone’s Ruination IPA, an extraordinarily bitter, almost-eight-percent-alcohol beer, but the name gives me pause, so I bid Sysak farewell and good luck (he is applying for a job at the brewery, it turns out) and continue my tour.

At Port Brewing Company in San Marcos, celebrated brewer Tomme Arthur experiments with hop levels, barrel aging and unusual (even wild) yeasts. Arthur is a legend in craft-beer circles, thanks to his groundbreaking beers for Pizza Port, a brewpub in Solana Beach founded in 1987 that was the forerunner of Port Brewing.

Today, Arthur dedicates his time to the Lost Abbey, his line of Belgian-style beers. I can immediately sense the influence of Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy as Arthur starts to describe these complex beers. Considered revolutionary when introduced in 2006, they are fermented with yeast strains including Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, microorganisms considered taints in most beers and wine. But in certain Belgian beers—like Cantillon—Brettanomyces can generate appealing earthy and acidic flavors. Brettanomyces is now used by a number of American craft brewers, but Arthur was among the first.

He was also one of the first U.S. brewers to age beer in wine, brandy or bourbon barrels. He uses Kentucky bourbon and brandy barrels for his Angel’s Share, a strong (10 percent alcohol) ale. The rich, caramelly character of wood and whiskey comes through without dominating the beer.

Later, I drive to Ballast Point Brewing Company’s brewery location in the city of San Diego. Brewmaster Colby Chandler (president of the San Diego Brewers Guild) is also playing around with barrel aging, as well as with Belgian-style sour beers and wild yeasts. Chandler takes me through a tasting of beers that are still aging in-barrel. One by one, we sample vinous, uncarbonated ales overlaid with hints of oak and brandy. Production is so small-scale that most of these beers are rarely seen outside of San Diego County. I taste the fully aged beers—like his Navigator Doppelbock, which spends eight months in brandy barrels—at the home-brew supply shop attached to Ballast Point, which doubles as a taproom.

After just a few days in San Diego, I feel like I’m turning into Dr. Bill Sysak, trying to cram in as many breweries as possible during my three-day trip. Up in quiet little Alpine, a 40-minute drive into the Coast Range foothills, I meet Pat McIlhenney, a full-time fire captain who is rapidly making the transition to full-time brewer. He built his own small-production brewery in an old TV-repair shop, where he runs a copper-sided kettle a few times a week, producing beers under his Alpine Beer Company label. “I cannot make beer fast enough,” he says with amazement, handing me a sample.

His beers are among the best I’ve tasted anywhere. I love his tangy Duet, full of the fresh, floral flavors of Simcoe and Amarillo hops, two rare varieties. Walking around the back, he shows me new fermenters and a shuttered diner that will become a barbecue spot and pub. For now, he has only built his bar, which is hand-varnished to a deep, lustrous shine. A stream of visitors comes in to talk and fill half-gallon glass jugs (called growlers) with draft beer to go. I’d like to take six cases of Duet home myself.

Back in downtown San Diego, a handful of noted beer pubs along 30th Street—the Toronado and Hamiltons Tavern, for example—serve McIlhenney’s beer. I have a final pint before flying home to New York, unsure of when I’ll get back here. On the plane, I’m already plotting my next beer pilgrimage, inspired by tales overheard in San Diego tasting rooms.

I’m fascinated by another beer destination without a beer tradition, Italy, where a handful of small, well-regarded operations are developing idiosyncratic brews with flavors many wouldn’t associate with beer at all, using ingredients like carob, chestnuts, even gentian, a medicinal flower described by the ancient Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder.

Then there’s Japan, where a brewery outside Tokyo produces a light, citrusy beer with red rice instead of barley, malt or wheat.

But ultimately, I’m most intrigued by Norway: Tomme Arthur tipped me off to a Norwegian who collaborated with Japanese brewers to craft Scandinavia’s first double IPA. I wonder how Norway is this time of year?

New York–based Christian DeBenedetti writes for National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times and Esquire.

Published June 2009
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