Typically, I try to wait a while before visiting a new brewery so the brewing team has time to work out any early kinks, but recently I was so inspired by pre-open samples of beers at Wild Barrel Brewing (692 Rancheros Drive, San Marcos) that I deviated from my SOP. Also, I didn’t want to be the last beer fan in the county to make it to this early success from Stone Brewing expats Bill Sysak and Bill Sobieski (editor’s note: Hernández himself is a Stone expat). The former is known as “Dr.” Bill in beer-connoisseur circles, as he was a medic in the military, and he absolutely knows good beer, but many wondered if he’d be able to brew good beer, too. My answer: probably not…but that’s what the other Bill (the one with fermentation experience at Stone as well as Anaheim’s Hoperazzi) brings to the table.
Although he’s not milling, graining in and dry-hopping, Sysak does have a major impact on brewing decisions at Wild Barrel. In his roles as beverage supervisor and beer ambassador for Stone, he always kept his finger on the pulse of beer fans, so he is familiar with current trends and has used that knowledge to develop a sound portfolio that features numerous India pale ales (IPAs) and fruited kettle sours, a coffee milk stout, and a single style for entry-level visitors, White Rabbit Belgian-style witbier. The latter is brewed with coriander and two forms of citrus, traditional curacao orange peel, and fresh Valencia orange zest. It is light in body, lively on the palate and good enough to serve as the only non-hoppy, non-sour, decaf option.
Of late, many new breweries have had to contend with shortages of popular hops such as Citra, Mosaic, and Nelson Sauvin, but this operation is well stocked, making for a family of IPAs that feel current and almost familiar. The flagship, Indie IPA, has a medium body and savory notes of garlic and onion, while the murky Shape Shifter’s combo of Nelson, Mosaic and Idaho 7 makes for a harmonious mix of tropical fruit flavors. By far the most layered (and downright badass) of the bunch is Prince of Dankness, an 8.4% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) double IPA dry-hopped with 28 pounds of Nelson and six pounds of Motueka. The result is a beer with big pine-cone and toasted popcorn kernel overtones, plus a downright sappy finish.
As lovely and varied as the IPAs were, my favorite beer of the visit may have been Hipster Latte, a 5.5% ABV milk stout made with a blend of coffee made exclusively for Wild Barrel by Rancho Bernardo-based roaster Mostra. It is bold in its roastiness—you’re abundantly aware there is coffee in there—but it is extremely balanced and especially dry for a stout with lactose. It’s particularly impressive that Sobieski put out a beer this perfect his first time producing it and makes me look forward to trying that proprietary blend at the coffee counter that will be constructed next to the tasting room’s main entrance.
Of Wild Barrel’s early beers, I found the San Diego Vice fruited Berliner weisse series — the name illustrates how to pronounce the German word “weisse” — tasted over-fruited for my palate, with the black currant iteration coming across as a tad too sweet. Still, this is a subjective knock, and a beer having too much quality local fruit, some of which is from Sobieski’s back yard, is a first-world problem entirely. Of the three Vices, a Montmorency cherry version was my favorite. The nose is rosé all day, and it tastes of cherry and strawberry preserves.
As the business’ name implies, barrel-aged sours, stouts and strong ales will be part of Wild Barrel’s makeup, but not until its oaken stock has time to mature. Even without wood- and booze-tinged product, there is plenty of high-quality beer to draw imbibers to this North County newcomer.
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 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.
It took more than three years to open, standing as a three-story enigma on the western end of Newport Avenue. But OB Brewery (5041 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach) finally debuted with the bang of fireworks last Independence Day weekend. When conceived, there was only one other brewery in town, the southernmost porthole of local brewpub chain Pizza Port. Now, this sister-business of craft-beer early-adopter Newport Pizza and Ale House is one of seven brewery-owned venues within a half-mile of each other…and that doesn’t even count the recently opened Voltaire Beach House and its on-site tasting room for Santa Clara-based Golden State Brewery, or beer-centric businesses like Bar 1502, Wonderland, Raglan Public House or The Joint. Competition for imbiber interest is fiercer than ever, and it would seem the neighborhood’s namesake brewery is ill-equipped to put up much of a fight.
The major appeal of OB Brewery is its triple-decker architecture. The venue provides three unique environments in which to relax with a cold one, be it house-beers or ales and lagers from guest taps. As one would expect, the most popular of those options is an open-air, tiered deck on the top-floor providing fantastic views of the ocean and the eclectic mix of comers-and-goers on Newport…at least during the sunny season. Of late it’s been far too cold for this choice value-added to factor in, requiring beer-quality to carry the day. After a recent visit, I feel comfortable venturing the theory that OB Brewery’s scarce patronage is directly attributable to its lackluster wares.
The house India pale ale (IPA), Hop On Board, was low on carbonation and had competing notes of pine, kumquat (odd, but not off-putting)…and butter. The latter is an off-flavor associated with the presence of diacetyl. An oatmeal stout started off nice and coffee-like but quickly devolved into an ashy finish that was like kissing a chain-smoker. A red IPA had no nose to speak of, but did exhibit some tea-like hop notes on the palate. If anything, it came across as an amplified version of an English-style extra special bitter (ESB). The beer with the most redeeming qualities was Roll Wit’ It, a Belgian-style witbier that had plenty of trademark citrus character plus a touch of earthy notes from the addition of coriander. It will do well with the Blue Moon and Shock Top crowd—something an OB watering hole must consider—but a legitimate San Diego beer experience requires mastery of more than a lone wheat ale.
Were this superiorly cool venue to touch-down in a community under-served from a craft-beer perspective, it would fare much better. The same would be true if this business could have taken less than an entire high-school career to open. But smack-dab in the heart of current-day OB, a neighborhood that is, frankly, over-saturated with local beer options at present, the odds of this place competing (even against its parent business), much less emerging victorious, are rail-thin.