Evan Smith enjoys creating things and pushing the envelope in the process. That’s the approach he took with his family business, Escondido Feed and Pet Supply, which has been in operation for decades but gained a reputation as one of the nation’s best stores of its kind only after Evan took the reins. When looking to take on a new entrepreneurial enterprise, he set his sights on craft brewing. A friend of Jordan Hoffart, he had discussions about investing in the pro-skateboarder’s Black Plague Brewing, which recently opened in Oceanside with a 20-barrel system, and grand-scale sales and distribution ambitions. In the end, the big-time wasn’t for Evan. So he went the exact opposite route, building San Diego County’s smallest fermentation interest, Escondido Brewing Company (649 Rock Springs Road, Escondido), which opened last weekend.
In doing so, Evan enlisted the services of an Escondidian homebrewer with scads of beer-competition wins under his medal-clad belt, Ketchen Smith. Together, they went to work building their brewery “like a tiny home.” With only 300 square feet at their disposal, even the most common construction tasks had to be analyzed and strategically managed. They had to cut a vertical foot off the cold-box and reverse the door. They had to install a sink small enough that it would allow them to open doors to that cold-box and the dishwasher on either side of it. And they had to install a bar-top that can be removed to allow a roll-up garage door to fully close. But they relished these challenges and maximized their space in the process. That removable bar-top can also be shifted to a lower rung to allow for service to patrons in wheelchairs, and visible fermenters stored in a converted liquor-store refrigeration unit are lit in a way they lend ambience to the place.
Having seen many a brewery in my day, Escondido Brewing is a testament to thoughtfulness, elbow grease and sheer will to make something happen. The Smiths smithed most of this big little project on their own, and what they didn’t do themselves, they got help from courtesy of friends and relatives. The business is a sterling example of what a hometown brewery should be, right down to founders whose aspirations are entirely confined to the city they love and live in. With shaded bar-seating and a trio of picnic tables making up the entirety of Escondido Brewing’s seating options, the business is a far cry from the sprawling gardens and critically acclaimed two-story restaurant at nearby Stone Brewing, the county’s largest independent craft-beer producer. And that’s the point. It’s a nice departure, especially for locals looking to avoid out-of-town beer geeks and tourists; a polar-opposite option that larger, regional breweries needn’t worry about competing with.
Amore for Escondido is further communicated through the names of the brewery’s beers—Hidden City Pale, Rock Springs Red, Hopcondido IPA—and most are based off homebrew recipes Ketchen has won multiple awards for. The most pertinent of those is the first release in a rotating Hop Animal series of ever-changing India pale ales called Marshall Nose IPA, the recipe for which took second overall at last month’s Homebrew Con, the country’s foremost amateur-brewing competition. Pale gold in color and hopped with massive amounts of Citra and Mosaic, it features big aromas of lemon balm, hay and loam accented by flavors of melon, mango, lemon and orange. Smith says it’s inspired by West Coast breweries that have pushed for so long to develop hop-forward beers devoid of caramel color and heavy malt presence. Smith’s other IPA, Hopcondido, comes across like lemon meringue pie on the nose and fresh-cut grass on the tongue, while his pale (which was previously brewed at Coachella Valley Brewing Company following a win at the Hops and Crops homebrew competition) goes from delicate in the front to assertive, late-90’s bitterness on the back end. A milk stout referencing Escondido’s year of incorporation (1888) is all chocolate and cola, while a whiskey barrel-aged version brings vanilla and caramel into the equation without lending over-the-top booziness. All in all, it’s a fun and enjoyable opening line-up, especially given the intimate environs in which these ales were birthed.
Being so small and brewing beer one-and-a-half barrels at a time makes for the real and constant possibility that the Smiths will run out of beer. To combat that, they have trimmed their hours of operation to Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 8 p.m. However, they do plan to play off a description lauded on them by several of their customers deeming them the brewery equivalent of a food-truck, by having spontaneous pop-up openings when beer inventory allows for it. Another fun twist that couldn’t exist at a brewery registering as any more than “tiny”.
From the Beer Writer: It took me a while to get up to Belching Beaver Brewery Tavern & Grill, but the delay served me well in that, by the time I came in, a good number of beers from Thomas Peters (BB’s director of quality assurance and master of the brewpub’s 10-barrel system) were up for grabs. Peters’ goal is to brew one-offs that are both traditional and unique. On the to-style front, a Helles is everything one would want from that refreshing Germanic lager. But I was most taken with Belching Beaver Peaches Be Crazy, a 5.2% alcohol-by-volume pale ale brewed with copious amounts of peach purée and Galaxy hops. After coming in from our current heat-wave, this beer welcomed me and downed my core-temp in the most refreshing and delicious manner possible. It also did a nice job washing down the Tavern’s fair-like fried squash and andouille corn-dog appetizers. Next up on Peters’ brew schedule are an Ameican IPA brewed for the Deftones, a sour Belgian-style wit with hibiscus, rose-hips and chamomile, and the Pilsner recipe from West Coaster columnist Ryan Reschan that just took gold at this year’s National Homebrew Competition.
From the Brewer: “Peaches Be Crazy is an easy-drinking pale ale brewed for the hot summer months. The goal was to complement the big stone fruit qualities of Australian Galaxy hops with the bright flavors of puréed peaches. I used a very soft water profile to keep the beer clean with a crisp finish. The peach flavor is enough to balance the flavor of the hops and does not overwhelm, making this beer very drinkable and a perfect sipper for our outdoor patio at the Tavern.”—Thomas Peters, Director of Quality Assurance, Belching Beaver Brewery
Why is San Diego such a hotbed of quality brewing? It’s a popular question with many answers. Most brewing professionals agree that a major key to the permeation of the suds subculture into the board-short fabric of San Diego is the prominence of homebrewing throughout the county. Many of San Diego’s commercial brewers and brewery owners spent years honing their craft on a recreational level before going into business. As hobbyists, homebrewers collaborate, learning from each other as well as the numerous pro-brewers who revel in maintaining their connection to the amateur-fermentation ranks. For many in San Diego, homebrewing is as big a deal as what goes on at Stone, Ballast Point or Green Flash. And once a year, the county’s homebrewers pit their best beers against those of homebrew clubs throughout the world at the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrew Competition (NHC), winners of which were announced over the weekend from Homebrew Con in Baltimore, Maryland.
San Diego’s largest homebrew-club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity), was named the NHC Homebrew Club of the Year—the most prestigious honor of the entire competition. The 2016 NHC featured 7,692 entries from 3,396 homebrewers hailing from every U.S. state as well as 13 other countries. Numbers like that equate to big-time bragging rights for the hundreds of members of Carlsbad-based QUAFF. But the QUAFF member who gets to do the most bragging is San Marcos’ own Nick Corona, who earned Homebrewer of the Year honors after beating out 175 other entrants in the German Wheat and Rye Beer category with his homespun weissbier.
Other local winners include West Coaster staffer Ryan Reschan, who took first-place in the heavily contested Pilsner category (215 total entries). The runner-up to Reschan was also a local, Jeremy Castellano, who entered without affiliation to any particular homebrew club. Other successful QUAFFers included Curt Wittenburg (first-place in the Other American Ale category), Mike Habrat (second-place in Traditional Mead) and Tim Wang (third-place in Light Hybrid Beer). This isn’t the first time QUAFF has experienced success at the NHC. Quite the contrary. From 2001 to 2006, the organization won Homebrew Club of the Year a record six consecutive times. In 2011, Paul Sangster—co-owner of San Marcos’ Rip Current Brewing Company earned the Ninkasi Award for most wins at that year’s competition. These are just some of the major accomplishments this standout organization has amassed at the country’s premier homebrewing competition.
It happened in a most apt environment, a beer festival teeming with recreational fermentationists the day before the start of the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrewers Conference (NHC). It was there, on Broadway Pier, that I bumped into Rip Current Brewing Company co-owner and brewmaster Paul Sangster, who escorted me back to his San Marcos-based brewery’s table to sample a beer very close to his heart. Dubbed What Would Dave Drink?, it was a Belgian-style strong ale referencing QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraterninty) legend Dave Levonian.
Dave’s last name may sound familiar to those in the local beer know as both Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits and The Lost Abbey brewed farmhouse ales called Brother Levonian Saison to honor the homebrewer, who sadly lost his battle with cancer back in 2008. Gone but far from forgotten, Dave’s legacy and spirit for crafting quality beer in domestic environs lives on in the many he touched, including Sangster, who offers up the following explanation of this very special beer.
“The AHA approached Rip Current and a few other reputable San Diego County breweries to brew commemorative beers for the NHC. They asked for 1,000 bombers to give to attendees. Having won the Ninkasi Award when the NHC was held in San Diego in 2011, I was happy to participate, but there was one sticking point—we don’t bottle our beer at Rip Current. So we had to get creative. I asked QUAFF if we could do a collaboration where the homebrew club would provide the recipe and manpower to help with bottling, and they agreed.
“A few of QUAFF’s leaders got together and decided to make a beer straight out of Dave’s recipe book. Since Brother Levonian was a saison, we wanted to do something different. Dave was particularly well known for his expertise with Belgian and English beer styles, and we found his recipe for a Belgian-style dark strong ale we thought would be great to make in his memory. We brewed the beer based closely on Dave’s recipe but with a couple of modernizations. As planned, Dave’s sister, Andra Levonian Fromme, and members of QUAFF attended the brew day to mill the grains, ceremoniously add in hops and drink several bottles of Dave’s homebrew that his friends had cellared. Three weeks later, we set up bottling stations and hand-filled all 1,000 22-ounce bottles with the help of a bunch of QUAFFers using eight homebrew-style, single-shot bottle fillers (i.e., beer guns). It was an incredibly fun day.
“Dave was known as both a beer expert and a foodie. Because of this, friends would often ask him for food and beer suggestions. This prompted the posthumous creation of a t-shirt that read: What Would Dave Order? And that’s where the name for this beer came from. Also popular was a shirt mimicking the logo aesthetic of Duvel, but altered to read “Davel,” referencing the name of a Belgian-style golden strong ale he created using notes from a conversation he had with Duvel’s brewmaster.
“What Would Dave Drink? is 9.8% alcohol-by-volume and recently went into distribution. During NHC, we gave out the bottles and poured the beer at associated conference events. All the feedback has been amazing so far, so we’re pleased to share the remaining barrels with San Diego accounts and visitors to our tasting rooms. But more than anything, we’re excited to hear friends of Dave’s who’ve tasted this beer say it’s very similar to what he brewed.”
Ray Astamendi and Kelsey McNair have a lot in common. Not only are they both brewers, but they’re both plying their trade in North Park and both jumped to the industry like Mario clearing a barrel on a downhill trajectory. It’s while working on pixilated interactive software and brewing on a recreational level that they first made each other’s acquaintance.
It happened at a local meeting of homebrew club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity) in 2006. They talked brewing, became fast friends, and remain big fans of each other to this day. Nowadays, Astamendi is busy churning out quality beers from a former 30th Street automotive repair facility at Fall Brewing Company, while McNair is building out his long-awaited North Park Beer Co. just a mile away on University Avenue.
Astamendi recently invited McNair into Fall’s brewhouse to craft a beer to celebrate his friend securing a location after many years of searching. The release of this commemorative quaff was timed for this week, which not coincidentally, is when the American Homebrewers Association’s annual National Homebrewers Conference will be held at Mission Valley’s Town and Country Resort. The beer debuted Monday and will also be served today at the NHC welcome reception and The Brewing Network’s 10th anniversary celebration on Broadway Pier.
A session India pale ale called Moscoe—a portmanteau based off the hop varieties, Mosaic and Simcoe—the beer comes in at a svelte 3.8% alcohol-by-volume. Astamendi called it “a pungent beast of a little beer,” while McNair calls it “very crushable” with “piney, oily dankness upfront, juicy-fruit throughout and some strawberry undertones in the background.” Balanced yet vibrant, it provides a nice opportunity for both North Parkers to show amateur brewers from across the country what they’re all about.