Beer festivals take place nearly every weekend in San Diego County. We are, arguably, the craft-beer capital of the country, after all. But even with such a local plethora of opportunities to celebrate and consume copious amounts of craft-beer, there are out-of-town events of such high caliber that they merit travel expenses. Popular examples include the country’s largest event, the Great American Beer Festival, and most Californians’ be-all-end-all, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. But there’s a relatively new arrival to the must-visit ranks where every ale and lager is special, Collaboration Fest.
Held in Denver, Colorado each March during Colorado Craft Beer Week (CCBW), Collaboration Fest is an initiative conceived by the Colorado Brewers Guild and Two Parts in 2014 to bring together breweries to a degree that goes beyond standard beer-festival camaraderie. Each year, the Guild’s member-breweries reach out to brewing companies to brew special collaboration beers specifically for this festival; one-time-only creations that are here then gone, making for the type of unique experience adventurous, whale-hunting beer connoisseurs live (and die) for.
This year’s Collaboration Fest, which will take place at the National Western Stock Show Complex on March 25, will feature 100-plus breweries serving more than 75 collaboration beers. Last year’s event was stocked with a similar assemblage of players and project-beers, the majority of which went outside the box of standard-styles. Many were ultra-hoppy, funky, style-bending or infused with exotic ingredients, creating a beer-list unlike that of any other festival.
Several of 2016’s collaborative efforts involved San Diego brewing interests. Rip Current Brewing brewmaster Paul Sangster paired up with Littleton’s Living the Dream Brewing to brew a San Diego-style IPA. Stone Brewing small-batch brewer Laura Ulrich cooked up an imperial stout with old friends and coworkers from Fort Collins’ Odell Brewing, where she worked from 2002 to 2004 before joining the gargoyle clan. Both San Diegans were on-hand at the event to interact with festival goers and check out the other beers on the floor.
Other San Diego collaborators included Bagby Beer Company, Ballast Point Brewing, Green Flash Brewing and Pizza Port, who worked-up a pair of beers with Cannonball Creek Brewing and Twisted Pine Brewing. (A full rundown of the individual beers from San Diego collaborators can be found below.)
Some of the standout sours included a tart dark ale with Brettanomyces from Crooked Stave and Evil Twin Brewing, a black saison called “Ramblin’ Man” from Liquid Mechanics and Odd 13 Brewing, “Deux Funk” from Funkwerks and Wicked Weed Brewing, and a vanillin-kissed, barrel-aged sour from Denver Beer and Spangalang Brewing called “Cross Eyed Funktion”. An oak-aged Gose from TRVE Brewing and Prairie Artisan Ales exhibited brilliant depth and fruitiness from Colorado peaches. Rare styles like Kvassier (Call to Arms, Denizens and Conshocken Brewing), Kottbusser (300 Suns Brewing, Gemini Beer) and a rye- and wheat-beer hybrid (a roggenweiss) from Prost! And Dogfish Head provided even more depth and variety.
Even takes on IPAs went outside the box. Epic and Ska Brewing teamed up for a barrel-aged American IPA dubbed “Skeptic Ale”, while Crazy Mountain Brewing and Stillwater Artisan Ales’ “Neoteric” sour wild IPA was one of the fest’s most impressive offerings. There was also a reunion stout called “Breeze’s Mom” brewed by the founders of Call to Arms Brewing with their longtime former colleagues at Avery Brewing. Then there were all-in collabs like an outstanding barrel-fermented sour brewed by Our Mutual Friend, Scratch Brewing and Hopworks Urban Brewery; and a dubbel forged by the collective powers of The Bakers’ Brewery, Breckenridge Brewery, Pug Ryan’s Brewery, Angry James, Broken Compass, Backcountry and Dillon Dam Brewing.
Some may find it difficult to justify traveling halfway across the country for three-to-four hours of beer-tasting, no matter how outstanding, but more awaits visitors to Collaboration Fest. Denver is home to 65 breweries, brewpubs and beer-centric bars and restaurants, many of which—roughly 25 breweries and 20 or so hot-spots, including Falling Rock Tap House, Euclid Hall, Star Bar, First Draft, Tap 14 and Avanti—occupy the downtown core. Thanks to free public-transit along the 16th Street Mall, a wide array of them can be accessed easily and expeditiously. And because the event is held during Colorado Craft Beer Week, many of those venues have special events and promotions taking place, adding value and enhanced experiences to one’s travel itinerary. (Between 40 and 50 CCBW events were planned within Denver at press-time).
San Diegans are fortunate to live in a suds-saturated locale, but remarkable events like Collaboration Fest remind us that there’s a whole world out there, and that it’s one worth exploring.
San Diego Collaboration Fest Beers
I’ve interviewed many brewers in my day, and when asked about their portfolios, nearly every one of them rifles off the same statement: “We brew beers that we want to brew.” This answer’s ubiquity in no way detracts from its authenticity, but it means a lot more for the most recent fermentationist to say it to me, Brian Mitchell of Pariah Brewing Company (3052 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park). Doing things his way doesn’t mean daring to brew a lager in ale-town San Diego, brewing gluten-free beers or shooting for extreme alcohol-by-volume. His family of beers—which will make their official debut at a trio of grand-opening sessions (which are nearly sold out) next weekend, before Pariah’s tasting room opens to the public on Sunday, February 12—are unlike anything being brewed anywhere in San Diego, or pretty much anywhere else.
Of the six beers that will be on-tap when Pariah opens, the tamest is Off-White Wit, a Belgian-style witbier inspired by Taiwanese boba tea. Honey, green tea, lemongrass, ginger and orange find their way into this exotic brew, but Mitchell leaves out one of this style’s most traditional ingredients, coriander. The result is a wheat beer with herbal notes versus overbearing citrus character. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Uni Stout…and it’s just what it sounds like, a take on an oyster stout brewed with lacto-sugar, sea salt and fresh sea urchin gonads from Catalina Offshore Products. The sea fare (added in the whirlpool) combats some of the sweetness, drying things out and leaving flavors of chocolate and pumpernickel behind. It makes Dorcha, a nicely balanced stout brewed with molasses, cacao nibs and a proprietary blend of coffee from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters seem everyday by comparison.
There is one traditional beer on the board, a West Coast IPA fortified with Amarillo and Mosaic hops that’s been cleverly dubbed Dank Drank. Dry with a lasting lemon pithiness, it’s 6.66% ABV and comes in at 66 on the IBU (international bittering unit) scale. But even it is offset by a more avant-garde IPA that’s brewed with mangoes, peach-flesh and hemp oil. Mitchell hates fruit IPAs produced by “certain local companies” and aimed to use real fruit (versus extract) to marry with and amplify the qualities of the hops used for this beer. The result is an IPA with malt character reminiscent of a Pacific Northwest IPA and heavy tropical flavors.
The most ambitious of the lot is Erotic City. The name is inspired by the dearly departed “Purple One”, while the recipe for this strong ale resulted from a challenge issued by Mitchell’s wife, who wanted a beer brewed with Muscat grapes, honey and grains of paradise. The resulting beer is big on grape flavor, but low on the mustiness that typically accompanies wine-grape beers. There is some sweetness, as one would expect, but I’ts earthy and honey-like as opposed to cloying. This is a beer for adventurous drinkers, but that seems to be the point at Pariah.
And these aren’t specialties or one-offs. The beers described above comprise Pariah’s core-beer line-up. That’s gutsiness that bleeds over into Dogfish Head territory. (Erotic City actually closely resembles Dogfish’s “ancient ale” Midas Touch.) That Delaware-based veteran brewing company has been manufacturing “off-centered ales for off-centered people” for 21 years, growing into the 16th largest craft brewery in the country in the process. Mitchell’s aspirations aren’t that large, however, he does want to grow his business. As such, he has hired employees to handle sales and distribution, something not that many new breweries devote start-up funds to. His business practices seem sounder than many, lending method to what, to beer purists might seem light outright madness.
With new breweries opening at a rapid clip and nearly 140 operating brewhouses, many wonder if our county needs any more brewing companies. This opinion is fueled mostly by people who feel the majority of each business’ offerings are nearly identical, especially where hoppy beers are concerned. Pariah’s wares soundly answer any questions about why this interest exists—because without Pariah, beers like this wouldn’t exist…anywhere. It’s refreshing to come across a new brewery with so many unique offerings, and even those who don’t take to Mitchell’s creations will likely agree with that sentiment.
Pariah’s out-there line-up offers an advantage to a pair of other breweries—Eppig Brewing and San Diego Brewing Company. Those businesses are located on either side of Pariah in the second of H.G. Fenton’s Brewery Igniter complexes. All three companies entered these ready-to-brew, tasting room-supplied spots with equal brewing and cellar capacity. It was up to each to differentiate themselves and that’s just what’s happened. San Diego serves its vanguard staples plus worldly one-offs, while Eppig is gaining a good name behind high-quality lagers and a mixed-bag of hoppy beers and kettle-sours. Then there’s Pariah, which also features the most jarringly disparate environs. Purple (more Prince influence) is the main color in the dimly lit space, which San Diego Brewing co-owner Lee Doxtader has taken to (respectfully) calling “the dungeon”. But how many captive environments are so nerdy about glassware that every beverage served there comes in its own specific type of glassware (including the aromatic-enhancing Spiegelau IPA glass)?
Pariah’s tasting room will be open Monday through Wednesday from 12 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from noon to midnight and Sundays from 12 to 7 p.m. The tasting room is equipped with 13 taps that will soon be filled. Bottled wild ales are also in the works, as is a three-way collaboration between the North Park Brewery Igniter’s tenants.
A quartet that seems well-fitted for erecting and operating a successful brewery is looking to do just that in Barrio Logan. Currently in planning, that business will go by the name Alta Brewing Company and be located in the Bread and Salt building on Julian Avenue just east of the Interstate 5 freeway. That venue is being converted into an art-centric hub for the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Three of the aforementioned founders will be putting their skills to use on this project—John Bull, owner of general contractor Blueprint Contracting, Josh Gliko of structural engineering firm Shop Engineering, and Branded Woodworks co-owner and operator Mike Franck. But who will do the brewing? Answer: Brett Stampf.
Stampf started his brewing career 20 years ago and has the likes of Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Green Flash Brewing Company on his résumé, as well as a stint as the opening head-brewer for La Jolla Brewing Company. Since departing the latter, Stampf has focused his attention on the Alta project. As such, the game-plan for that brewery, which aims to be open by spring of 2017, is more developed than most in-progress brewing interests.
Stampf expects to brew five core-beers capable of satisfying a wide-ranging array of palates—a golden ale brewed with English yeast, a dry-hopped brown ale, San Diego-style pale ale with “old-school” hops, an India pale ale and a dry Irish-style stout. Armed with a five-barrel system, the goal will not be to flood the market with these beers via distribution, but rather supply the on-site tasting room while ramping up to service future satellite, sampling-only venues. Stampf estimates he can keep up to two such spots in beer with his system, and his team has identified North Park and Chula Vista as particularly attractive communities.
Originally, the founders considered pursuing the traditional craft-brewery model—a 15-barrel brewhouse with 30- and 60-barrel fermenters and distribution as a primary revenue-source. In the end, following the footsteps of Stampf’s previous employers (including La Jolla Brewing, which is attempting to graduate to greater distribution) wasn’t what they wanted. So they are opting to stay ultra-local. The financial risk is lower, as is the stress-level for Stampf.
San Diego’s craft beer scene has come full circle before Arsalun Tafazoli’s eyes.
When Tafazoli opened Neighborhood Ale House in 2006, he didn’t want it to be another bar in Downtown where shiny-shirts came to get hammered. Instead, the 25-year-old San Diego native wanted a place where beer would be appreciated for having substance.
“When we were starting out, young brewers would come in and tell stories about how they mortgaged their houses—put everything on the line to get their product out there,” says Tafazoli. “There was so much passion behind it. It was incredible to me that it didn’t have the same credibility as wine.”
Tafazoli made moves. His staff of mostly women were pros on the ins and outs of beer styles and food pairings. He regularly hosted meet-the-brewer nights―with out of towners like the venerable Dogfish Head and Allagash. Lee Chase (Blind Lady Ale House, Automatic Brewing Co., Tiger! Tiger!) was hired as Neighborhood’s first beverage manager.
“If Lee’s behind the bar pouring you a beer—to this day—he’ll get you behind it. It’s amazing to watch,” says Tafazoli of Chase, a mad beer scientist of sorts who worked as head brewer at Stone for nearly 10 years until 2006. “That got really hip; people would come in to taste more stuff. We’d get letters saying ‘I didn’t know what good beer was before.’ We really built a community one person at a time.”
Around the time of the housing market crash, there was a boom of creativity among brewers, says Tafazoli. And newly-broke winos took note. This is when Neighborhood took off, and gave rise to a new order of local establishments.
“San Diego is littered with gastro pubs now,” Tafazoli says. “Nowadays, the word “craft,” the term “farm to table”—it’s all been commodified. It’s a trend that people exploit. You see these banners hanging in front of places everywhere say “craft beer.” It’s more than getting a tap system installed; that’s just one component in the context of this bigger picture. You have to make sure the whole story makes sense or else it doesn’t work.”
Having grown from 33 breweries in 2007 to 88 at time of print, some of the craft beer scene’s original players are wary of its sustainability.
“It used to be that there was this young guy starting a brewery, and you’d want to support it. And now every day it’s someone else. It’s great for the proliferation of the culture, but I think some people are getting into the business for the wrong reasons.”
Tafazoli’s approach to success has launched what is today one of San Diego’s most ambitious and talked about hospitality brands, Consortium Holdings (CH). In 2008 he joined forces with Nate Stanton (El Dorado), when both of their businesses were gaining momentum in the up and coming East Village. Since, the two have undeniably elevated drinking and dining culture in San Diego with eight successful concepts and counting.
It doesn’t hurt to have a dream team behind their backs, with two-star Michelin Chef, Jason McLeod, helming kitchen operations for all the projects, and highly reputed bartenders like Erick Castro (Polite Provisions) and Anthony Schmidt (formerly of Noble Experiment, now headed to new project Rare Form). Then there’s local designer Paul Basile, whose past projects include Bankers Hill Restaurant + Bar and Acme Southern Kitchen.
Just last year, CH won national praise for two of its projects. The speakeasy Noble Experiment (designed by Mauricio Couturier) made Esquire Magazine’s top 100 bars list and Polite Provisions won Imbibe Magazine’s Cocktail Bar of the Year. The James Beard Foundation also loved Erick Castro’s Mayan Concubine cocktail at Polite, naming it one of their favorites of 2013, from a spot that opened the same year, no less.
“We want our spaces to promote our core values. It’s why we don’t do vodka or shit beer, and think about every aspect of a space—because it’s a reflection of who we are and what we want to perpetuate to our community,” says Tafazoli. “It was the Greg Kochs [Stone CEO] and the Lee Chases who reaffirmed what I thought. At first, people were coming in to Neighborhood and not getting it, and sticking to our identity and not watering it down—back when everything was on the line—that’s what made us.”
CH’s first all-out culinary endeavor, Ironside Oyster, has been packed since opening in early May. In the works are North Park’s Underbelly, an East Village juice bar, and Rare Form, a Jewish Deli that will share space with a Stone tasting room in the historic Simon Levi building next to Petco Park.
Tafazoli says of the perceived “seasonal” neighborhood, “The stadium has shaped the cultural geography of East Village, and not in a good way. Too many businesses cater to the stadium crowd. It’s not about walk-by traffic for us, it’s about the great community of people who live there,” he says. “We’ll create a synergy there with the two different businesses. The idea is that our core values are very much alike. Stone knows who they are, they stuck to it, and it’s been effective. They paved the way for a lot of people. You have to respect it.”
No one could have predicted the force that craft beer would play in the trajectory of Tafazoli’s businesses, let alone its tremendous impact on the local economy. Tafazoli points out that the proof lies in a craft beer newspaper like West Coaster—something most people wouldn’t have looked twice at a decade ago.
Still, Tafazoli remains cautiously optimistic about San Diego’s brewing future.
“A lot of brewing companies have popped up without understanding the soul and economics of the business. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of these guys will be able to sustain,” he says. “In the end, I want everyone in the community to be successful, but unfortunately capitalism is harsh. I think there is a lot of local talent sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how things play out. I see them stepping up as other people phase out. Then, we’re going to experience a stronger renaissance.”
Not all beer glasses are created equal, or at least that’s what the folks at Spiegelau, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head have proclaimed with the recent release of a style-specific IPA glass. The collaborative project between the two breweries and German glass-maker has been in the works for quite some time and has finally made it out into the world to (hopefully) enhance our appreciation of lupulin-heavy beers like IPA.
I first got wind of this project last summer while co-hosting a glassware seminar with Matt Rutkowski, Vice President of Spiegelau USA, at the Savor the Central Coast event in Santa Margarita. We tasted four different Firestone Walker beers in the four glasses of the Spiegelau Beer Connoisseur Set, along with each in a standard shaker pint glass, which is the most common beer glass in the United States.
Rutkowski told me that he had been working with teams from Sierra and Dogfish to fine-tune the perfect glass for IPA. They felt that as IPA was quickly becoming one of the most popular styles of beer in the U.S., it deserved a glass designed to accentuate its signature hoppy characteristics. My interest was definitely piqued, but he said the release was months away.
Coming away from that seminar, I learned a few important things about glassware that even this self-proclaimed glassware geek hadn’t considered. For one, the material matters; lower-quality glass is brittle and breaks easily. To compensate, the glass needs to be thick, with a rounded lip to maintain durability. More glass equals more thermal mass, which causes your beer to warm up unless the glass has been chilled. This warming effect also causes your beer to go flat faster, due to the fact that the solubility of carbon dioxide in beer decreases as temperature increases.
A thicker glass lip also dumps the beer into your mouth, versus the more accurate palate delivery that a thin, cut lip on a higher-quality glass promotes. More glass just gets in the way when it comes down to it. Spiegelau and other similar higher-quality glasses are made of much stronger, blown crystal glass, which allows very thin walls while retaining superior durability. They source their silica from a German quarry near the factory that also provides materials for the fiber optics and medical industries.
Because of this, when you pour a beer into one of their glasses, very little heat gets transferred. As an added bonus, I have been using their glasses 90% of the time when drinking at home for the last eight months, and have yet to break one, while several other glasses have met an early grave in my sink during that time. Knock over a product from Spiegelau and they are more likely to bounce than shatter.
My other big take-away was that most branded glassware is just brewery marketing and often made of low-quality glass that doesn’t do anything particularly good for the beer. The shaker pint is the epitome of this – cheap advertising meant to help sell beer to people who hopefully don’t know any better. In my previous column on glassware, I celebrated the diversity of glasses around the world for different beer styles, but when it comes down to it, many of them are about branding and appearance over substantive benefit to the beer drinking experience. Even many fancy Belgian chalices are basically thick glass bowls that do more to evoke monastic imagery than to enhance the beer in any way.
How much does any of this affect your personal beer drinking experience? That’s really something you have to see for yourself. I decided to test the new IPA glass, which is currently available from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, and will be shortly directly from Spiegelau. Since I had already compared Spiegelau glasses side-by-side with shakers before, I knew it wouldn’t be much of a competition, but we decided to include one anyway as a base-line for the common IPA drinking experience. Then, we added the Spiegelau tulip glass as the third contender, to test the IPA glass next to a glass of equal quality that is also designed to enhance aromatic beers. For our test beer, I chose to go with Pale 31, a dry-hopped West Coast pale ale. I wanted a beer that I am intimately familiar with and could guarantee a good sample. Pale 31 is also on the more delicate side as far as hop character, so any flaw in a glass’ ability to accentuate hop aroma would be noticed.
All three clean glasses were filled at the same time from three bottles out of a six-pack, and the tasting session commenced.
On the appearance front, the shaker retained a moderate head for several minutes and then left a ring of foam. The tulip initially offered a smallish head with visible carbonation trails, but had trouble sustaining the head after a few minutes. The IPA glass poured the biggest head which stayed around the longest. More bubble trails were visible as well, likely due to the nucleation point on the bottom of the glass. Upon drinking, the ridges at the base of the glass agitated the beer, also contributing to sustained foam. I had heard others comment on the unorthodox appearance of the IPA glass, but I actually found it rather charming with a full pour in it. The tulip is a classic look but I have to give the edge to the IPA glass here, with the shaker a distant third.
The aroma was what it all came down to for me, and the IPA glass delivered in spades. I knew from past experience that the shaker would do poorly, and there were no surprises; it was vague and weak compared with the other two, and even started to show a papery, oxidized quality after a few minutes while the others did not. The tulip delivered a soft, round hop aroma with more emphasis on juicy fruit and flowers. The IPA glass delivered an edgier citrus and fruity aroma, with a good deal more intensity. It really was like sticking your nose into an “olfactory cannon” – to borrow a phrase from Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione. The bottom ridges of the glass came into play, automatically kicking out more aroma with each sip, an effect the tulip showed only with aggressive swirling. While both the IPA glass and the tulip presented the aroma nicely, I was surprised at how much more I preferred the IPA glass.
The flavor/mouthfeel differences between the glasses were most apparent in carbonation levels and delivery onto the palate. The shaker glass warmed faster than the other two as the heat from the thicker glass infused into the beer. This caused a faster carbonation loss, even when compared to the etched IPA glass. I would speculate that the somewhat narrower surface area of the IPA glass helped in this department, balancing the effect of the etching. It was roughly equal to the tulip in this respect. Palate delivery with the IPA glass was somewhat like a pilsner glass in that it was directed more to the center of your tongue, while the tulip was more to the front. The IPA glass just felt like you get a slightly more balanced flavor, conducive to quaffing instead of sipping. The tulip glass made me want to take smaller sips, but that might just be because I’m used to drinking bigger beers out of tulips. I’d pretty much lost all interest in the shaker at this point but I will say that the delivery was less controlled and didn’t do much for the flavor.
Overall, I think I have a new go-to glass for pale ales and IPAs. The aroma delivery is just as good, if not better, than a tulip, while the feel is more like a taller pint/pils glass, which is the perfect combination for me. I know that people will continue to judge it for its unique looks, but I wouldn’t rush to judgement without trying it for yourself. In the land of the IPA, this glass just might be king.