A Different Class of Brew

    On the bus headed toward Old Town Transit Center last Saturday, I spotted a trio of bros in Hawaiian shirts making leis out of pretzels. The rest of the bus stared at them in disbelief — myself included — yet they seemed unfazed and giddy as they continued to slip the snacks through their twine.

    “What are the pretzel leis for?”  I finally asked.

    “San Diego beer fest,” they replied, in what I like to think was perfect unison.

    Turns out, these dudes go to a lot of beer fests together, so they’ve established the traditions of Hawaiian garb and wearable food. (The beer bong had been taken away too many times to bring anymore.)  I happened to be on my way to the same place, since I happily accepted a press pass to go try some of San Diego’s finest craft beers at the Brewer’s Guild Festival, the capstone event to the annual San Diego Beer Week, now in its fifth run this year from Nov. 2 to Nov. 11.

    There are over 60 breweries in the county, meaning San Diego has one of the highest concentrations of breweries in America. While many pockets of the country have thriving beer scenes (Oregon and Colorado, for instance), San Diego has made a name for itself as having the most creative and diverse beer scene of the bunch.

    Though the scene has grown more and more commercial over the years, with Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company becoming the flagship brewery of southern California, ties to its home brewing roots remain strong. Take Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits, one of the city’s most celebrated breweries. It was founded in 1996 as a spin-off of Home Brew Mart, a store dedicated to the home brewing process. Co-founder and Head Brewer and one-time UCSD student Yuseff Cherney told me more over email.

    “When we opened the Home Brew Mart in 1992, there were only a handful of brewpubs operating in San Diego,” he wrote. “The home brewing scene was very strong with clubs like Quaff leading the charge to appreciate craft made beer. The late ’90s had a bit of a boom, with quite a few breweries opening. . .[but] it wasn’t really until a few years ago that craft beer really experienced a huge resurgence, completely eclipsing the boom of the ’90s.”

    Ballast Point still maintains a specialty brewery at its original Home Brew Mart location, which “allows us to be very experimental with our beers and keep true to our roots as craft brewers,” Cherney said.

    This dedication to home brewing culture is prevalent among nearly all the breweries in town — a fact made startlingly clear to me as soon as I walked into the Brewer’s Guild Festival at the Broadway Pier on Saturday Nov. 3. Faced with a crowd of hundreds of beer lovers and rows of colorful tents stocked with kegs, I felt more than a little out of my element. I’m from Livermore, Calif., a small town in the outer East Bay Area, known for being home to over 40 wineries and more than 5,000 acres of vineyards. I love beer, but I was raised on vino.

    So after filling my complimentary tasting glass with Ballast Point’s rum barrel-aged “Victory at Sea” Imperial Porter, I was tempted to swirl and smell. Inspired by Cherney’s declaration, “I can’t wait for the day that we can fill our barrels with beer after we age our spirits,” this brew was made by aging Ballast Point Three Sheets Rum in a barrel for two years, filling it with Ballast Point’s limited edition Imperial Porter “Victory at Sea” and then aging it for two more years. Ballast Point emptied the barrel in June, but to continue the experiment, they refilled it with more of their Three Sheets Rum, and two years from now they’ll make 200 bottles.

    It’s this kind of taste for experimentation that makes San Diego breweries so unique. I tried a number of odd flavors throughout the day, including a peanut butter cup porter from Karl Strauss, a coffee stout from Coronado Brewing Co. and a special version of Ballast Point’s Smoke Screen, a smoked Helles, that was infused with jalapeños. The latter was a fun experiment, but I’d rather not have my hops be so fiery. My personal favorite was a medium-bodied IPA with an easy-to-drink touch of pine, courtesy of Green Flash Brewing Co.

    While the crowd at the event was mostly of the over-30 variety, (sorry) college students shouldn’t fear the craft beer. While the brewers encourage patrons to sip ale like wine, there’s no need to dissect the notes. Liking the beer seemed to be enough for everyone in attendance — not to mention the excellent food pairings supplied by Craft & Commerce (meat ball sliders), Hamilton’s Tavern (spicy beer cheese soup), Swieners (sausage, of course) and more.

    If anything, the craft beer scene is putting San Diego on the map, even at an international level. Just this week three San Diego breweries won top awards at the inaugural Brussels Beer Challenge in Belgium. Stone Brewing Co. and Green Flash Brewing Co. earned gold medals for their beers, while Ballast Point received a bronze. All three bested breweries from more traditional beer locales such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the host country, Belgium. Such successes recall the 1976 wine competition termed the “Judgment of Paris,” when California wine defeated French wine in a blind taste test. Perhaps, then, San Diego is now the Napa of beer.

    If that’s the case, then Beer Week is just like Disneyland for the drunk.

    “[It] gives all of our brewers the opportunity to interact, shake hands, talk their craft and bask in the adoration of the true beer fans,” Cherney said. “Consumer recognition goes a long way in reaffirming your goals to make the best beer in the world.”

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