Judging brewing competitions can be a reassuring exercise on many levels. If one devotes themselves to the process and takes it seriously, they often gain validation of their powers of evaluation through their panelist peers. And when everyone gives it their all, taking time to thoroughly analyze each entrant and debate top contenders’ rankings, it often leads to a truly high-quality beer taking top honors. This was what played out for me last Saturday when judging homebrew entries in Green Flash Brewing Company’s Genius Lab competition.
Held in conjunction with the company’s annual Treasure Chest Fest, a beer-and-food festival raising funds for the local chapter of Susan G. Komen, this battle of recreational brewers drew 31 entries. Contestants were permitted to brew any style of India pale ale they chose be it session, fruited, imperial, Belgian, black or hazy. Even with that much guideline leniency, a popular fact was easily proven true. IPAs are the toughest style of beer to brew at home; especially to standards that merit reproducing a beer in a professional setting. That was the first-place award for this competition.
Originally, our panel, which consisted of organizer Brian Beagle of local podcast San Diego BeerTalk Radio and Green Flash representatives including brewmaster Erik Jensen, had hoped to advance 15 beers from the first round to the second. It was about a third of the way through that it became apparent that this would not be possible. From aroma to flavor, the flaws were many. Some beers reeked of butyric acid (reviled for possessing a scent evocative of vomit), while others were as vegetal as a plate of Brussels sprouts. One even tasted like—I kid you not—Cinnamon Toast Crunch. In the end, we squeezed out 12 second-rounders by allowing in some “maybes”, but it really came down to four beers that had a chance at the top spot.
My comments above may make it seem like beer judges’ senses lead to instant consensus in most cases, but that hasn’t been my experience. Often, second- and third-round judging involves a great deal of discussion and debate. It’s a key part of the process, as it was in this instance. In the end, we selected an IPA called Searching For Clarity that, post-judging, we learned was entered by Nick Corona. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he won Homebrewer of the Year honors at last year’s Homebrew Con, the country’s largest recreational brewing competition, held annually by the American Homebrewers Association. A member of local club QUAFF, Corona is also the reigning homebrewer of the year for his winning entries at the 2017 edition of the San Diego County Fair‘s annual homebrew competition.
Corona’s win was announced the following day at Treasure Chest Fest, along with the second-place winner, a Northeast-style IPA from Solomon Cantwell, and the second-runner-up, Summer of Hops from Caden Houson (who is Corona’s co-brewer). Look for the winning beer to debut at Green Flash’s Mira Mesa tasting room as part of its small-batch Genius Lab program during San Diego Beer Week in early November.
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”.