From the Beer Writer: Since I first got into beer, I found myself gravitating toward Belgian-style ales. Their mix of floral and spice notes just hit my palate in all the right places. Some of my favorites early on were Belgian Christmas beers; high-alcohol, typically medium-to-dark-colored ales brewed with myriad spices akin to those used in yuletide baking. I became so enamored with them that, since they are only available during late-fall and early-winter, I would stockpile them for the rest of the year. Over the past decade-plus, I’ve tasted just about every Belgian holiday ale available in the States, leaving me pining (pun intended) for undiscovered Christmas goodies. So, when I caught wind of Kearny Mesa’s Kilowatt Brewing releasing a holiday offering paying tribute to the rich brewing traditions of…Ohioans…I had to check it out. Kilowatt Christmas Ale comes in at 9.45% alcohol-by-volume and derives much of its December appeal from usual suspects cinnamon and nutmeg, plus ginger and a heaping helping of honey. That last one is lesser seen in beers of this ilk and imparts an earthiness seldom found in wintertime brews. That taste sensation fits in nicely with the traditional dark fruit, baked sweet potato and brandy-like notes representative of Belgian Noëls.
From the Brewers: “Our Cleveland-style Christmas Ale is handcrafted in small batches with 20 pounds of honey, fresh ginger root, cinnamon bark and nutmeg. This high-gravity, amber-hued, Belgian-style ale is brewed with red wheat malt, toasted malt, caramel malt and a pinch of special roast and roasted barley. We call it ‘Cleveland-style,’ since almost all of Kilowatt’s owners are from Ohio and the Midwest, where Christmas ales are extremely popular and typically sell out. Every year in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio near the shores of the Great Lake’s Erie, there is an unwritten friendly competition among local craft brewers for the best-brewed Christmas ale in the land. Each and every year, the brewers bestow upon their tasty brews delightful holiday flavors such as you’ll find in this beer. We West Coasters of San Diego, California—the IPA capital of the planet—tip our hat to Clevelanders and recognize that locale as the Christmas Ale Center of the Universe. Cleveland Style is our tribute!”—Rachel Fischer, Co-owner & Brewer, Kilowatt Brewing Company
The first time I met Gunnar Planter, he was tableside, dressed in chef’s whites and describing a cavalcade of beautifully-plated dishes at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe’s fine-dining restaurant, Morada. I was there on a fact-finding mission as part of my food writing and, in preparation for my visit, Planter had conducted a thorough Internet search to find out what I’m all about — beer. He brought up that bailiwick along with the fact a chef-friend and former colleague from nearby gourmet gem Mille Fleurs was opening a brewery in Del Mar. I asked him if it was Viewpoint Brewing Company, he confirmed, and soon we were gabbing over the topic like a couple of beer nerds. It was a welcomed surprise, as was his announcement to me via a follow-up email that he was moving on from Morada to become executive chef at Viewpoint.
Being deep into beer and food, I was eager to learn more about Planter and Viewpoint founder Charles Koll’s vision for the business, especially when I discovered they were bringing on a third culinary professional, former pastry chef and Bear Roots Brewing brewer Moe Katomski, to serve as head brewer. That’s a great deal of gastronomic firepower, and they intended to put it all to use from the get-go at their high-profile brewpub on the banks of San Dieguito Lagoon directly across from the Del Mar Fairgrounds. That spot opened in July and has impressed behind a menu stocked with dishes that are a cut above more common brewpub offerings without coming across as stuffy or pretentious.
Pork belly “bites” are dressed with a molasses gastrique while a honeyed balsamic reduction adds sweet-and-sour zing to a salad of watermelon and feta cheese. Jidori chicken receives added savoriness from a jus infused with a house porter and hanger steak is bolstered by both pink peppercorns and a fresh chimichurri sauce. Even chicken wings are more exotic, coated in a dry-rub flavored with black limes or coated in a “Buffalo” sauce made with mild Calabrian chilies.
In my opinion, the most impressive differentiator at Viewpoint is implementation of a first for San Diego brewpubs—a food-and-beer tasting flight. Three beers served with three small-bite offerings designed specifically to pair with each ale. It’s the sort of idea so simple and smart one wonders how it doesn’t already exist. And now it does. Planter’s mode of conveyance for interchangeable flavors and ingredients is a brilliant pretzel bao bun. Viewpoint’s initial tasting flight paired a Mandarina Bavaria pale ale with salt-and-pepper shrimp, bacon jam and daikon relish; a red-rye India pale ale with pork belly, apples and kimchi; and a single-malt-and-single-hop (SMASH) saison with oxtail, pickled peppers and coconut hoisin sauce. It’s thoughtful, high-level pairing made better by a trio of chef minds.
The recipe for the house bao buns is rightfully well-guarded, but Planter did divulge a couple recipes for those looking to see things from his culinary point of view: mussels that includes nduja, a spreadable Italian-style pork sausage (which can be substituted with easier-to-find Mexican-style chorizo in a pinch) and shishito peppers in a German wheat ale broth. That’s followed by a popular vegetarian entrée from Viewpoint’s menu, roasted Romanesco cauliflower served over quinoa with roasted baby vegetables and heirloom tomato gazpacho. Get cooking… or simply make a visit to Viewpoint.
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.
Chula Vista is experiencing a bona fide craft-beer boom. Not only have two breweries opened on downtown’s main drag over the past year—Chula Vista Brewery and Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing—but an existing San Diego County brewing company has opened a tasting room directly across the street from the latter. That newly opened sampling space comes courtesy of Groundswell Brewing, a business that started small in Grantville before acquiring a much larger brewing facility in Santee from defunct Twisted Manzanita Ales and Spirits.
Satellite venues are nothing new for local breweries. Currently there are 27 throughout the county, but this while most have been established in North Park, Ocean Beach and, most recently, Encinitas, this is the first to be placed in Chula Vista. Groundswell owners Kevin Rhodes and Christianne Penunuri have lived in Chula Vista for 17 years and say a location in their hometown has been in the business plan since they first opened their doors in Grantville. At the same time they were ready to pull the trigger on the project, a building adorned with front and back patios became available. They snapped it up and have spent several months renovating it.
The tasting room comes in at 1,500 interior square feet with an additional 900 square feet of outdoor space. The bar is equipped with 21 taps as well as large, cushioned stools like those at Groundswell’s original location. The front window retracts revealing seating overlooking the sidewalk. The back patio includes seating as well as a play area with activities such as corn hole. Inside, vintage pinball and video games make up the non-liquid entertainment options. Televisions and artwork, including photographs of iconic South Bay landmarks are on the way, as well. Also en route is a kitchen in a space adjacent to the Chula Vista tasting room, which will prepare a menu of light fare that can be served at all three Groundswell locations.
The Chula Vista tasting room is located at 258 Third Avenue. An official grand opening is planned for Sunday, December 17, from 12 to 9 p.m. It will consist of three sessions and include branded glassware and a raffle. The day before, Groundswell will have its first can release for Oathkeeper, an imperial stout, and Oathbreaker, that same stout aged in Four Roses bourbon whiskey barrels. The cans will be available in four-packs at all of Groundswell’s tasting rooms.