Sunday, September 15, 2013

San Diego – Move over Shamu, it’s all about craft beer

Anniversaries come but once a year and when Stone Brewing has one, they don’t pull out the candles and flowers, they light it up with 50 guest breweries joining them at their annual festival in San Diego. My husband and I bought tickets and planned to build a holiday in San Diego around it. There are so many amazing breweries in the area, all begging to be visited. Unfortunately for my husband, he couldn’t get the time off from work thus, my plans changed and my craft-beer-loving friend, Nicole, joined me.

We arrived on Wednesday and as the festival was on Friday night and Saturday, we had plenty of time to explore the brewery and craft bar scene.

First stop – Pizza Port Ocean Beach. Our hotel was mere blocks away and as Pizza Port is synonymous with Lost Abbey, you know you’re guaranteed to find some delicious beer. It’s a super casual place where you order your food and beer at the bar and they call you up to collect your food. Forty taps, pizza, salads and appies are on the menu. Awesome beer and delicious food – need I say more?

Pizza Port Ocean Beach

Next, Tiger! Tiger! - a casual bar with some outdoor picnic tables, they host twenty-three beer taps and a few wine taps. They’ve recently been named in Draft Magazine’s America’s top 100 best beer bars - pretty awesome for a bar that just turned two. Great atmosphere and a fun place for afternoon drinks. I suspect it’s hopping there at night.

Tiger! Tiger!

From there, we were moving onto Toronado when I spotted the Belching Beaver tasting room on my left. Who wouldn’t go into a place called Belching Beaver? They were on the Stone anniversary list and I quickly deducted they’d be worth trying. Their Beaver’s Milk Stout on nitro was amazing! I also had the Dam! Double IPA which was delightful. Their bartender was super friendly and we sat next to two locals, Sam and Jen. After chatting with Sam and Jen (also very friendly!), we invited them along to Toronado with us.

Belching Beaver
However, a slight detour was had… we’ll get to you, Toronado, be patient my pretty little beers. Jen suggested we hit up the new Mike Hess tasting room before Toronado. I believe it had just opened that week and they did a great job. It’s a cool place with tanks at the front and tasting room upstairs. And with the purchase of a taster paddle, you get a free glass! My paddle consisted of Grazias, Pallidus, Intrepidus, Ex-Umbris and Torulus – we have some serious people in the naming department… The beers were great, they have fun merchandise and it looks like this will be a busy local hangout.

Mike Hess
The night was still fairly young so we moved onto Toronado (yes, finally) to complete our evening. The four places are within short walking distance of each other so I’ve just made you a walking beer tour. You’re welcome. Toronado is a busy place with fifty-six rotating taps and a cask or two on the beer engines. Suffice to say, picking a beer to drink wasn’t an easy choice but it was a satisfying one as I ended up ordering a Pliny. If you’re looking for bottles, they have a bajillion from all over the world. As I look at the list now, I’m booting myself for not seeking the bottle list as they have some gems!

Day two. Time to go to Best Damn Good Beer Shop to get some bottles to take home. With a name like that, it must be damn good, right? They have a good selection and if I wasn’t limited by those pesky customs rules, I would have picked up more. I had tweeted them before coming and subsequently emailed them to see what they might have hiding in their cellar. Wasn’t sure what to request so I went with Old Rasputin XIII (which they didn’t have) and anything hard to find from Lost Abbey – and scored a Red Poppy. Sweet! While shopping, another patron told me to hit up Holiday Wine Cellar, Pizza Port Carlsbad and Fathom Shelter Island. The Pizza Port has a bottle shop and a less-known cellar for the rare ones. Sadly, we didn’t make it out there to peruse.

After I got lost trying to find the car (whoops, sorry for the delay, Nicole), we headed to Blind Lady Ale House for lunch. Another casual place with an excellent tap list and tasty food, most of which is organic and locally grown. They’re pretty particular about the food and beer they serve, and how the serve it. Love this. AND, they too were named in Draft Magazine’s 100 best beer bars, fourth year in a row!

Blind Lady
Lunch done, now onto brewery visits! Our first stop wasn’t a brewery, it was White Labs. They supply breweries, wineries and distilleries with fresh yeast and provide analytical services. Sounds boring? Ah, not when you sit at their bar and you taste a style of beer with varying yeast strains – forty-six taps to choose from. My god is that ever interesting to compare a style and see how unique they taste with different yeast in each one. Guess what their address is… it’s on Candida Street  - hehe. Someone at the post office had a sense of humour. I would have spent hours here if we’d had the time.

White Labs

Brewery time - Ballast Point was a few minutes away from White Labs and our first stop. Nice patio section, decent sized tasting room with eighteen taps and one cask to choose from. I had a taster of the Sculpin IPA on draught and cask, Brother Levonian and Smoke Screen. Fantastic beers.

Ballast Point
Next up, Green Flash. Huge, and full, parking lot which also meant a huge and full tasting room. The tanks and casks are all visible from the tasting room and they have twenty beers on tap. I went with the Saison Tart, Citra Session IPA and the Hop Odyssey Symposium IPA. I’m sounding like a broken record, but I loved them all.

Green Flash
Also within close proximity was Societe Brewing so off we went. Another large tasting room full of people. By the way, San Diego, don’t you people work? This day drinking at breweries is amazing and makes me want to move here. Can someone give me a job that allows me to do this? Thanks. Samples here were of The Harlot, The Pupil and The Scrapper. Sigh. Lovely.

Societe Brewing
Empty kegs, or are they?
For the evening, we ventured out to Neighborhood by cab and had dinner in their smallish restaurant. Good food and decent tap and bottle list – worth the visit. Nicole heard that there was a Speak Easy bar area in the back so we went to check that out after eating. Little did we know that you have to make reservations weeks in advance to get in. It’s a tiny area, hidden behind what looks to be stacked kegs (that’s the door), that seats 20 or 30. Apparently, once people get in, they don’t leave as we were second on the waiting list for over an hour and a half with no movement. The hostess couldn’t give us even a guestimate of when we’d possibly get in, if at all, so we left.

We headed over to Hamiltons Tavern, which we heard was more of a neighbourhood bar, but with good beers. Yup, just an older neighbourhood bar with the local Thursday night crowd playing pool and getting sauced. The place was packed and we squeezed in at the end of the bar, where I had a prime view of a girl trying to sit on a stool, tumbling off and landing outside. Those are some moves, girl. Drunk, stupid ones, but moves nonetheless. Oh, guess who texted as soon as we ordered a beer. Yup, the Speak Easy hostess. Figures. Now we’re a cab ride away and they don’t hold your seat. Boo.

Pacific Beach
Torrey Pines
We hit up Pacific Beach for a stroll and breakfast at World Famous. They’re not modest, but they do have fantastic food and are right on the ocean. After breakfast, we headed over to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. We’d heard this was a good area for a hike although neither of us brought the appropriate footwear to properly hike. It didn’t stop us from going up the paved hills to High Point to get a view of the valley. The park has multiple trails and other, higher, lookout points. We encountered numerous people running (crazy buggers) up the hill. In the heat. We were sweaty enough given that we didn’t bring water or proper clothing/footwear, I can’t imagine running up that incline.

One of my favourite breweries, Lost Abbey, is close to Stone and the festival and was a must to visit. I could have spent hours here sampling all of their delicious beers. What I did sample was the Red Barn Ale, Lost and Found Abbey Ale, Judgment Day and 10 Commandments (2012). I picked up a number of bottles to take home as well as stemmed glassware and t-shirts. Next time, I’m going to go hide in the barrel room. Shhhhhh… they’ll never find me.

The barrel room I'm hiding in...
Lost Abbey!

Finally, it’s time for the Stone 17th Anniversary Celebration & Invitational Beer Festival! Something you might not know about the festival is what a major fund raiser it is for Stone’s charities: Surfrider Foundation, The Boys & Girls Club of San Marcos, The Palomar Family YMCA and Fight ALD. Over the seventeen years, they have raised more than $1,5 million for local charities. Damn impressive.

I bought the VIP Brewers Reception tickets for Friday night that gave you all-inclusive beer and food sampling. Thirty-one of the beers that were served Friday night weren’t being poured on Saturday so those are the ones I mostly focused on. Generous pours were put into our tasting glasses – so much so that I started asking for half pours as my intention wasn’t to get sloshed, I wanted to experience and enjoy the beers. The festival was held outdoors at the University and was a great setup. Lots of covered seating, decently spaced aisles to allow for line-ups and walking through, a massive Stone ice sculpture and a great two-person band. The food from Stone Gardens and other food vendors was fantastic – restaurant quality, not the usual greasy snack food you usually see at a festival.

Stone Greg greeting people at the entrance
Saturday we drove out to the festival again, this time with an all-access pass for the entire day that also gave us access to the rare beers section. Fifteen tokens, with no additional tokens being sold so choose wisely, my friends. We ventured out of the rare beers area once, foolishly, then quickly retreated back to this heaven on earth. Thirty-nine bottles and thirty-nine kegs including delightful treasures from The Bruery, Cascade, Russian River, Dogfish Head, Cigar City, Avery and on and one as well as many rare beers from Stone. As our hotel was a $100 cab ride away, each way, I was the designated driver on Saturday so sadly, I only tried sips of some beautiful beer and either gave the rest to Nicole or did the sacrilegious thing and poured. I know, you want to hit me now. So would I.

What a fantastic beer festival Stone puts on – I’d love to return and plan another holiday around it. This time, with my husband and staying closer to the festival area so one of us didn’t have to be the designated driver.

Rare beers being poured

Drone flying over the festival taking pictures
Rare beer lists!

To complete the Stone experience, we went to the original Stone Brewing World Bistro Gardens for dinner. The outdoor seating is spacious and it leads into a little oasis garden. You wouldn’t have a clue that you were smack dab in the middle of an industrial area. Fantastic food and a gorgeous setting, not to mention the view of the brewery, makes this worth the visit.

On Sunday, we checked out the newest Stone Gardens Bistro at Liberty Station. Another huge patio area with a bar at the back. Stone doesn’t just know how to make beers, they’re masters at the restaurant ambience and quality food. Some of the Stone beers being served are exclusive to the Liberty Station location, which is pretty cool. The beer list at both locations is a large draught list, including non-Stone beers, as well as an extensive bottle list.

Hodads - yes, we're eating in the bus

Well, our trip is almost over and we stopped into Pizza Port one more time for a couple of afternoon beers. Dinner was at Hodadas [definition: noun – a non-surfer who spends time at beaches masquerading as a surfer. See also poser]. This is a tiny little hole in the wall that has a line up down the block from the moment they open at 11am. We got in after about a 25 minute wait and we ordered their famous burgers. I went with the mini burger (super cheap at $4.25) with blue cheese. Glad I went for the mini as this was no mini burger, it was a normal sized burger (at least for this Canadian), and not possible to finish. Damn tasty though!

Vacation over, Nicole has a really early flight Monday morning and I have some important bottle packing to do. Did I mention that between all this beer sampling and brewery visiting, I managed to get in three runs including a 16km one on Sunday – AFTER the all-day beer festival at Stone. I’m hard core, baby.

Observations about San Diego – lots of bike lanes; it’s dog friendly at hotels, on patios and even in restaurants; friendly servers and ocean, ocean, ocean. Traffic on the freeway is congested and sucks at most hours of the day but it’s easy to get around. Next time I’d stay downtown or closer to the brewery areas so there isn’t so much designated driver necessity, but the ocean is obviously a beautiful place to reside by as well.

Sorry Shamu, but you’re just not that interesting to me anymore – San Diego is synonymous with fantastic craft breweries for me. Deal with it you fish-loving, over-grown orca.

Beers ready to be packed!
Made it home safely!

1 comment:

  1. Yeah this looks something interesting!! Actually I have heard so many times that San Diego Venues are popular for their extraordinary creativity. Is that true?