I walked into SpecHops Brewing (1280 Activity Drive, Vista), took a seat at the bar and turned my attention to the menu board. Chalked across the top in a faux military stencil were the words “top secret” and “brew intelligence.” It was nice to see info about this operation so readily available. Months before SpecHops went online I tried numerous times to extract “brew intelligence” from its owners, but found it so difficult, it almost felt as though that info was, indeed, “top secret.” So, it was with great curiosity and anticipation that I ordered a flight of tasters and settled in to go through them.
Though more than half the beers available the day I visited were India pale ales (IPAs), they were about as varied as that style can get, with session, single, black, rye and Belgian iterations. That was the order in which I enjoyed them. Cointelpro Session IPA delivered a nice splash of bitterness with a dry finish, while Two/Four IPA was a nice hoppy beer for everyday consumption with light floral notes from the hops. The Activity Black IPA was a fair take on a style that, if not dead is so near expiration it might as well be, and the rye IPA was a bit low on hop profundity but featured nice spice from its augmented grain bill. Unfortunately, Frumentarii, the Belgian IPA, was not to my taste, coming across like old-school, lupulin-rich Pacific Northwest hops battling a Belgo yeast strain as opposed to the two working together to produce something cohesive.
Of the remaining eclectic quartet of beers, a saison dubbed Jedburgh was the best. It was well attenuated, not overly fruity or sweet, and most of its Belgian-yeast character, including a touch of bubble-gum flavor, came on in the finish. Beyond that, things were so-so. Culper Ring Stout lacked body, coming across more like a brown ale. Coldbore Pale Ale was soft-spoken, offering just a bit of tacky pine in the finish. And unlike most vanilla-infused beers, a cream ale called Codeword would actually benefit from additional sweetness.
While not perfect, SpecHops’ beers are free of defects. The space itself is a bit stark, as one might expect from a militarily geared business, but there are cozy cushions on the bar stools and the kindness of the staff goes a long way to softening the setting. Also endearing is the company’s support of U.S. Armed Forces veterans. Not only do they have a military discount, but they also have a studio area set up in the tasting room to film veterans (as well as members of public service agencies, contributors to charitable causes and others doing good things for their country and communities) telling tales of their service. That footage is then slated for sharing online. It’s a unique and welcomed value-added from people with a clear and palpable passion for people.
It’s time once again for our end of the year poll. Cast your votes across 17 different categories to help us decide who was the best of the year in our local brewing scene according to you, West Coaster readers. We’ll run the poll for approximately a month. Then, we’ll crunch the numbers and reveal the results in a post in January.
Check out winners from previous years
It’s the type of moniker that inspires more question marks than exclamation points: Black Plague Brewing (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside). The first time I heard about it was nearly two years ago when I first interviewed the owners of the now-open business. And over that span, the odd resonance of that name hasn’t diminished in the least. Part of it may be the fact the words are typically presented along with a spooky logo featuring an ancient, crook-beaked plague doctor, but mostly it’s the reference to the historic bubonic plague (AKA “the black death”), which wiped out between 75 and 200 million Europeans (30-60% of the continent’s entire population) from 1346 to 1353. But there’s more to a business than its handle and motif. I was sure to remind myself of that as I entered Black Plague’s tasting room for the purpose of sampling its beer and atmosphere as part of a recent brewery touring session.
Walking through the door, I bid adieu to a perfectly sunny day and took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the space. Though outfitted with skylights and a lobby bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls are painted jet black. Furniture hues range from brown to ebony and the only relief from the dim color palate is a beer board decorated with colorful, artful names and descriptions, plus rudimentary thin, white-line sketches of the plague doctor and such. It was around Halloween when I visited, but it’s clear the creep factor had little to do with that macabre holiday. And while it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, I had to hand it to the folks who handled the interior design. They took a thematic, embraced it and delivered. It’s complete and makes good on a promise set forth by the brand and its back story, even adding a touch of whimsy here and there in the process.
Fortunately, the service element does not fall in line with what one might find in the midst of a continental pandemic. The bar staff is rather friendly. My only knock was a seeming lack of knowledge or interest in the finer points of beer and brewing, but not everyone can be a nerd. They knew Black Plague’s beers enough to be helpful, and made a point to note something very cool (literally): a glycol-chilled copper strip running down the center of the bar. That amenity keeps beers cool should you be consuming a style that you’re not looking to warm for increased sensory effect. The customers, too, were in a jovial mood as they drank their beers and watched football on a screen mounted left of the beer menu. As I received my taster flight, I looked forward to falling into their frame of mind.
Prior to coming to Black Plague’s tasting room, I had sampled only one of the company’s beers, 1347 IPA. Named, as they say, for “the year of the plague,” it was hazy and juicy. Now, however, it’s no longer Northeastern in body and has far less of a fruit-juice character. If anything, it’s much drier and exhibits a grapefruit pithiness more evocative of a San Diego-style IPA. For those looking for fruit, however, there are multiple versions of this beer available, all of which have been infused with a different fruit (mango, pineapple, blood orange, grapefruit, blueberries) as well as habanero peppers. Plenty happy with the base beer, I chose the purist route, moving on to a Kölsch called Remedium that was crisp and balanced, and Nelson Pandemia, an IPA hopped with “an outbreak of Nelson hops,” that had a sharp, bitter finish that left a sticky, peppercorn-like spice in its wake.
From here it was on to more avant-garde beers, starting with ChaI.P.A. Fans of chai (which I am) are likely used to encountering this exotic-tasting adjunct in beer, but typically styles on the darker end of the spectrum. I was skeptic of how it would come across in a lighter-bodied, hoppy beer, but it was a winner. All chai in the nose and only slightly bitter, allowing the added spices to come through, it was my favorite of Black Plague’s beers. Second place went to Samoa Stout, a beer brewed with chocolate, roasted coconut, maple syrup and graham crackers to emulate the Girl Scout Cookie of the same name. Dessert-like, but not overly sweet, it comes across as dark chocolate with a supportive caramel backdrop.
While my inner-marketing professional shudders when presented with this brewery’s branding, I would happily reach for one of its beers. Though its owners lack beverage-industry experience, they have been wise enough to consult with professionals who possess just that. Their brewhouse is currently benefiting from the services of ex-AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego fermentationist Bill Batten, who specialized in traditional beer styles for more than a decade before shifting to more experimental brews at his most recent gig. He seems a perfect fit for his current digs while he waits for his next post, North Park’s TapRoom Beer Co., to be constructed. From what I tasted, he’ll leave some big boots to fill.
The holidays are great, but beer makes everything better, including December’s most iconic condiment
When it comes to familial gatherings during the holidays, many see the helix strains of DNA as the ties that bind…but not me. I say our winter comings, goings, catch-ups and throw-downs are bound by two mighty forces—alcohol and gravy. The former makes everything better—or at least far more tolerable—including the latter. With Thanksgiving in our near-horizon rear-view and the yuletide fast approaching, this seems the perfect time to share a base recipe for beer-infused gravy as well as several fun variations and preparations for it.
Many believe you need to have the drippings from a large roast beast or buxom fowl to construct authentically delicious gravy. I am not arguing the glories of starting with the rendered fat and juices of a slow-cooked behemoth, but gravy on the fly can be made using just about any form of fat desired. It all depends on your ultimate saucing goal.
If you’re looking for a really meaty or smoky gravy, but aren’t starting with a meaty, smoky hunk of protein, the best way to go is sausage. But know your links (or patties). Breakfast sausage is a nice midpoint. It generally exhibits big pork flavor, plenty of salt and a touch of black-pepper spice, making it ideal for the “sawmill gravy” used to smother biscuits across the South. That dish sees crumbled breakfast sausage rendered in a cast-iron skillet, followed by a sprinkle of flour (typically Wondra, a super-fine variety easily found in supermarkets) and the addition of whole milk and more pepper. Other forms of sausage can be used in this preparation, most notably loose, Mexican-style beer or pork chorizo, which adds plenty of garlic and paprika flavor to the finished product. But given its high fat content, you may need to actually remove some of the abundant (and abundantly tasty) orange oil slick that results during rendering.
Getting back on the holiday-accoutrement track, Italian sausage rendered in olive oil provides nice flavors for turkey gravy, as do the giblets (the heart, kidneys, liver and neck packaged inside a frozen turkey’s cavity), though the latter lends flavor sans fat. With turkey and beef gravy, it’s not as important to extract flavors from fat so long as you use stock. One can make their own stock by simmering bones or the aforementioned giblets along with aromatic vegetables (generally, carrots, onions and celery), but store-bought versions have come a long way over the years. When utilizing them, it’s recommended to go with low-sodium or unsalted varieties so you can control the amount of seasoning in your gravy.
When it comes to incorporating beer, it’s important to select the right type for the dish that you are adding the gravy to. For beefy gravies, reach for ales with rich, roasted-malt character—brown ales, porters, stouts, Belgian dubbels and quadrupels. Even coffee beers can work, especially when making “red-eye gravy”, which typically incorporates black coffee and is served over country ham. For lighter gravies served over poultry, it’s best to stay on the lower-bodied, gold-to-blonde side of the SRM scale, opting for beers with floral, herbal or vegetal character—helles, Kölsch, Belgian blonde ales, witbiers, table beers or saisons. The nuances of Belgian ales, in particular, create a flavor bridge for herbs like sage, thyme, parsley and rosemary. In the case of any gravy, it’s highly recommended that hoppy beers be avoided altogether.
Some of my favorite beer-gravy dishes during the holidays include herbed saison gravy with turkey and brown ale beef gravy with steak of any kind. Either work well over mashed potatoes, especially if they have goat cheese whipped into them along with whatever herbs are used in the gravy. And a dish that holds a special place in my heart 365 days a year is something I affectionately call Debu-Tots. It gets its name from the main ingredient—The Debutante, a Belgian-style amber ale made at my nine-to-five, Societe Brewing. That, bacon fat and beef stock form the basis for a gravy that is ladled over tater tots that are then adorned with cheese curds (if you can get them…queso Oaxaca or queso fresco if you can’t). It’s a modern, beery take on poutine that benefits greatly from the depth of malty, spicy flavor in the base beer. I’ve included the recipe so that you can enjoy it now, into the New Year and beyond!
with Bacon, Cheese Curds & Belgian Amber Beer Gravy
Yield: 4 servings
Add the bacon to a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan over medium-high heat and cook until it is crispy and its fat has fully rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan and, if necessary, remove some of the fat so that there is ¼ cup remaining in the skillet. Whisk in the flour until it is fully incorporated with the fat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the stock, beer and Worcestershire sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, add the rosemary and cook until a gravy consistency is reached 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Strain the mixture into a gravy boat and set aside.
To serve, divide the tater tots into serving bowls. Place the cheese over the tater tots and ladle with warm gravy. Garnish with the reserved bacon and scallions. Serve immediately.
Alex Pierson’s Amplified Ale Works celebrated 5 years during SD Beer Week. We caught up with him for a quick five questions:
1. If you could go back in time 5+ years, what would you tell yourself before opening the PB brewery?
Don’t do it! Hah, just kidding, no regrets here, but I would have told myself to really think through the longer term business plan beyond a single location, as there were definitely things we could have done from an investor and business formation perspective to better prepare us for growth. That said, I never imagined the local craft beer movement would blossom so fast, and so we’ve chosen to grow in a cautious manner.
2. What do you see for the next 5 years of Amplified?
Our goal is to be growing into a larger, more permanent brewery space and commissary kitchen in the next year that can support the growth of additional Amplified locations in Southern California. As for future locations, we would really like to partner or even create a live music venue where we can evolve the intersection of live music and craft beer. Being able to be a part of a community and a local gathering hub is something I’ve been really proud of in PB and something we hope to emulate in any future locations.
3. Which SD music venues have the best local beer selections consistently?
Casbah has a solid tap lineup these days and is the venue I probably frequent the most. Soda Bar has an extensive list as well, and honestly it seems that every venue is stepping their game up recently. I’ve loved seeing more local options available inside the Observatory too.
4. Can you give us an update on the Pathways collab?
We actually just had our 2018 planning meeting for Pathway Ale, and to date we have raised more than $14,000 in the two years since we started our partnership with beautifulPB and Karl Strauss to create pedestrian, bike, and skate-friendly paths around the neighborhood. We’ve got some fun recipes in store for next year, and you may also be seeing some of the previous favorites coming back for an appearance. We’re also hoping to have several new retailers commit to selling the beer on tap, so that we can better communicate to our neighbors where exactly they can drink it while supporting community improvement projects and the development of PB’s EcoDistrict.
5. Can you discuss both recent & upcoming collabs?
Our Western Settings collaboration, DIYPA, was our most recent can release, and it was a lot of fun given the timing with them playing their largest show at 91x’s Scallywag, and leading into Beer Week. We also released our second beer with Motorhead, Live to Win, for our 5 year anniversary party at the Lafayette Hotel in early November. We previously did collaborations with The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble and Reel Big Fish earlier this year that were a lot of fun. We’re actively working on several future band collaborations, including one we’ll be brewing up north at Fieldwork Brewing in early 2018. Stay tuned for that and a few other exciting music collabs in store for next year!