Saturday, April 07, 2012

San Diego Beer Tour

"Come to San Diego," Scott said, "and you'll find a beer scene as good as Denver's." That's a big claim - and one that anyone who knows the depth and quality of the Mile High City's brewing culture has to question.

But on a recent Saturday, the Fearless Tasting Crew flew out to see this new hops haven and find out how the Southern California beer scene is evolving. And after stops at three of the area's best-known breweries and one that had tantalized us with a single superb offering at beer festivals, not a person came away disappointed at what was to be found.

Stop one on the great San Diego beer tour was, of course, Stone Brewery and World Gardens, the now-legendary home of Greg Koch's line of intriguing beers. After walking through a garden more reminiscent of an arboretum than an industrial manufacturing plant, the crew found a table in the cavernous restaurant and flipped through a lengthy list of cellared beers.

The trick with Stone is this: What you know is what you get. There's no secret line of experimental brews you can't get in Denver. But there is an offering of bottles going back nearly a decade that is unlike any brewery in this area. And beginning the day with a 2009 Double Bastard Ale - shorter on carbonation but longer on hints of plum-like dark fruit and still sporting a grassy hop feel - and a 2007 Old Guardian Barleywine, whose aging gave it more of a thick, licorice-rum aura, was a perfect way to experience anew beers you might have thought you knew fully.

Stop two was Lost Abbey/Port Brewing, whose industrial-park location was reminiscent of Avery Brewing. Most patrons rushed to grab open table space or milled around in the general taproom, but the crew was lucky enough to grab seats in the barrel-aging room, where one could ogle the concoctions around you while enjoying the ones in front of you.

And on this day, the piece de resistance was Track Two, a blend of Cuvee de Tomee, Angel's Share and American Wild Ale that was barrel-aged for six months with peaches and cherries. Spectacularly vibrant raspberry and vanilla oak tastes converged to form a complex, intriguing sour with a dry backing that is the kind of beer you would travel out of town to try.

Third on the tour was Ballast Point Brewing, whose Victory at Sea Imperial Porter has often been the talk of the Vail Big Beers festival, for its exceptional blend of roasted coffee flavor and drinkable body. But since Victory at Sea wasn't on tap this day, the crew decided to go for the full sampler of everything else on the menu.

What was interesting is that no beer stood out among the offerings. The Big Eye IPA was sweetly grassy and the Piper Down Scottish Ale was nicely peated without being overly aggressive, but neither would have caused a beer geek to write home. Still, of the nine beers on the menu, there wasn't a single miss, a beer that was off-style, too light or just plain funky. And that in itself was a huge complement to a mature brewery.

Last was Green Flash, notorious for its profusely hopped concoctions. I thought I knew this brewery, as its wares are available in Denver. But after one hour in its tasting room, I and other crew members left with a new appreciation for what Green Flash can do.

From the flowery assault of the Imperial IPA to the orange-zest-bomb that was the Raison Vert Belgian-style pale ale to the thickly-bodied West Coast IPA, each hop experience was different and new. The tasting room was spartan - a.k.a., almost no seats - but you are so focused on the tasters in the front of you that you could be in the midst of a rainstorm and nothing would disturb.

So, was it Denver? As a Colorado resident, I have to lean toward the local scene still, especially in the way that many of the breweries can be hit by walking downtown rather than driving to the suburbs. But the crew came away with a new found respect for this West Coast mecca - and a whole lot of desire to get back soon.

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