I’m always intrigued by new breweries, but one’s institution of a motif inspired by a literary masterpiece made me extra eager to check it out. That operation is Circle Nine Brewing (7292 Industrial Road, Suite C, Kearny Mesa), an interest founded by a pair of homebrewers with fondness for Dante’s elliptical nonet diagramming of the afterlife. Together, Darren Baker and Andrew Campbell have forged a humble, comfortable brewery and tasting room given additional panache by a bar that extends from the taps into a rounded service area creating a cul-de-sac effect. Table seating is available beyond that along with a rail bar that, although a bit too slim by my assessment, can get the job done on a busy night.
Beers fall into different “circles” based on their robustness. The chief occupant of circle one—Dante’s ground level—is Limbo Lager, a light beer built to appeal to the masses, particularly guests with less pronounced craft-beverage affinity. Knowing the intentions behind it, it comes across nice with lemony citrus appeal, though the beer-fan in me craved a little more body. Following that introductory quaff is a trio of diverse India pale ales (IPAs), the best of which is River of Acheron, a session IPA with flavors of tropical and stone fruit that has a crisp, dry finish. My only beef with it was its 5.8% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) status, which comes in well above the generally accepted five-percent-or-under requirement to be dubbed “session” in nature. An English-inspired IPA called Argent was all orange with considerable malt presence, while a double IPA designed to be “in your face” certainly was; perhaps too much for my taste. Its flavors—caramel, grapefruit pith, cut-grass—seemed to compete versus coalesce and there was an unrefined graininess that was a tad unpleasant. Of all the beers, it needs the most work.
The ninth circle of Hell has the greatest population density, with three versions of Circle Nine’s 9.2% imperial stout, The Relic, currently on the beer-board. The base version is luxurious with big chocolate notes, a touch of juniper and roasted coffee notes in the finish. It was my favorite of this new brewery’s offerings. Served on nitro dulls its aromatic appeal and some of its finer flavor notes. Skip that iteration and go for one aged in Bourbon whiskey barrels for just under three months. It’s rich with vanilla-tinged booziness and an increased ABV of 10%.
All of the beers I tasted were from Circle Nine’s first runs through their three-and-a-half-barrel brewhouse, so the need for some fine-tuning is both understandable and acceptable. It’s a nice little newcomer to the Kearny Mesa brewery scene (which is currently six strong after the recent shame-ridden exodus of Magnetic Brewing). It’s not to die for just yet, but it’s a great deal more hospitable than the locale for which it’s named.
More than a decade-and-a-half ago, Andrew Campbell took a trip to the Czech Republic, where he ventured to Plzen and tasted fresh, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell on tap. It was delicious enough to send him searching for the beer or a brew of equal or greater quality when he returned to the States. Alas, the craft-beer movement was still gaining momentum and Pilsners weren’t nearly as en vogue as they are at present. Unimpressed but not one to cast aspersions on all local takes on Bohemian Pilsners, he returned to Plzen the following year, just to make sure the original was as incredible as he remembered. It was, and he decided if he was going to enjoy beer like that back home, he was going to have to make it himself. Campbell has been brewing ever since, but he’s about to go from fermentation hobbyist to vocational beer-man along with fellow long-time homebrewer Darren Baker, when they open Circle Nine Brewing (7292 Opportunity Road, Kearny Mesa).
Campbell and Baker selected their Kearny Mesa business-park location based on their respect for the area’s extensive line-up of good breweries and beer-centric retailers, specifically citing Council Brewing, Societe Brewing, O’Brien’s Pub and Common Theory Public House. They hope their operation can fit into visitors’ beer- and pub-crawl itineraries, and hope to provide “a complete portfolio and something for every craft-beer lover, even those who don’t really like craft beer.”
That’s a pretty tall order, but when Circle Nine opens in late-July or early-August, its beer list figures to be fairly varied. Scheduled to be on tap are a rice lager, pale ale, India pale ale (IPA), double IPA, stout and barrel-aged stout. The names for those beers range from Circle One for the lager and Circle Nine for an upcoming whiskey barrel-aged imperial stout. That nomenclature evokes Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic, Divine Comedy, which artfully and meticulously diagrams the author’s vision of the afterlife; the more robust the beer, the further along in the order it falls.
Those beers will be produced on Circle Nine’s three-and-a-half barrel brewhouse. Campbell and Baker will double-batch into three seven-barrel fermenters, a pair of bright tanks of equal capacity, plus two single-barrel fermenters for experimental and specialty beers. More seven-barrel fermentation tanks will be added after the brewery opens, and will help them achieve an estimated 300-400 barrels of annual beer production.