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.
From the Beer Writer: Some see beer as an artistic medium, while others view it as a platform for experimentation. Not surprisingly, the scientific minds at Miramar’s White Labs, the foremost manufacturer of yeast for beverage fermentation in the world, fall into the latter category. Last year, their on-site brewing team created something previously (and since) unheard of: a beer fermented using a whopping 96 different yeast strains. What could have come out tasting like a cacophony of competing characteristics tasted very nice fresh, with Belgian yeast varieties coming to the forefront with their bold, fruity, botanical attributes. Yesterday, White Labs released a version of the beer given even more complexity from extended aging in bourbon whiskey barrels. The result is Barrel-Aged Frankenstout, which features a downright lovely aroma reminiscent of dark chocolate truffles and rose petals. The chocolate carries through on the palate and is accompanied by vanilla and chicory, followed by an herbal feel in the finish. In the world of beer-based science projects, it doesn’t get much more exotic than this.
From the Scientist: “The team at White Labs was working on sequencing 96 of our yeast strains for a collaborative research project with Illumina, Synthetic Genomics and a team of scientists based in San Diego and Belgium. The goal was to understand the genetic diversity between strains (i.e., what makes WLP001 California Ale Yeast have such different flavor characteristics compared to WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast), and some of these findings were later published via the scientific journal Cell in September 2016. Since these strains needed to be propped up in order to do a full sequencing run and fill 96 spots in a multi-well plate, we used the propped-up yeast to do a fun ‘experiment’ and look at what would happen if they were all used to ferment only one beer. Our team tried a few different prototypes before landing on the final recipe for Frankenstout, as they found that the malty backbone played really well with the complex and various flavors created by 96 different strains!”—Karen Fortmann, Senior Research Scientist, White Labs
From the Brewer: “Barrel-Aged Frankenstout rested for more than one year in second-use, bourbon oak barrels. During that time, the brewing team monitored the barrels on a regular basis until we finally landed on the perfect amount of oak and bourbon traits combined with Frankenstout. We found the flavors in Frankenstout really changed over time, and it also picked up a higher alcohol-by-volume (10.1%) from the time spent in barrels. Barrel-Aged Frankenstout carries vanilla, oak qualities and mild notes of bourbon, which pair well with the more subtle phenolics of the matured base beer.”—Joe Kurowski, Brewing Manager, White Labs
The “South Bay Uprising”—an influx of banded-together breweries and beer-centric venues spanning Chula Vista to Barrio Logan—has been picking up steam for years. Last weekend, the most formidable beer-making member of that growing movement opened its doors after two years of construction on downtown Chula Vista’s main drag, Third Avenue. Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Company (259 Third Avenue, Chula Vista) has brought its ambitious vision for a multi-story brewery and tasting room simultaneously celebrating anarchic rock and the city its founders call home. In doing so, it’s given the community the type of business it can rally behind and build upon.
When we first met the Chula Vistans behind this business, they were renting space at Santee’s Butcher’s Brewing (since renamed to Finest Made Ales) to create their first batches of mostly-hoppy beers, but their dream was to secure space to make an artisanal impact on their home turf. They were able to do so in 2015 when they secured the building that formerly housed The Highlander. A rare basement-equipped structure it was first coveted by Fall Brewing Company, but elevated enthusiasm and hometown espirit de corps inspired the landlord to opt for Thr3e Punk Ales. At last weekend’s friends-and-family pre-open party, the landlord felt vindicated in that decision and bullish on the future of Third Avenue’s business district with the debut of Thr3e Punk Ales as well as the impending arrival of a tasting room for Santee-based Groundswell Brewing Company in another of his properties across the street, and the recent opening of Chula Vista Brewery on the same block.
While Bay Bridge Brewing Company and Novo Brazil Brewing Company have been making beer in Chula Vista for years, quality has been an issue and neither are centrally located enough to make the number of impressions and aid in revitalization the way Thr3e Punk Ales can. In addition to being smack dab in the middle of downtown, Thr3e Punk Ales is an attractive space with a fully conveyed thematic. The north wall is covered from basement to ceiling in a punk rock collage intermingled with iconic imagery. Tour poster artwork from the likes of Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Religion, the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys share space with the logos of Thr3e Punk Ales and the City of Chula Vista and the original Highlander sign augmented by the anarchy “A” utilized in the brewery’s wordmark. The brewhouse and fermenter tanks jut up from the basement into the tasting room opposite an L-shaped bar flanked by a roll-down screen illuminated by a ceiling-mounted projector. Rail bars line the north and roll-up garage door-equipped west side of the tasting room while a large wooden table provides a second, more communal seating option.
The opening beer list consisted of five offerings. Of them, the hoppy stock—what the company made its name on in its fledgling period—was the best. Needle in the Hey double IPA has the nose of a dispensary with flavors of clementine, melon, orange zest and pine resin. While it isn’t heavy, it is purposely sweet in a nod to old-school imperial IPAs. Conversely, their 6.5% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) IPA Hole has intense mango-and-papaya-like hop-bite up front and a sharp yet tacky finish. Morning After Pilz has such vibrant hop character it almost blots out its Pilsner foundation, but as its first-pour chill wears off, a bit of honey-ish earhiness and yeast character enter into the equation. A Mexican-style lager and 9.5% ABV imperial stout with flavors evocative of bittersweet chocolate, coffee and cinnamon bark round out the menu. Both would benefit from added carbonation, but taste nice and provide increased variety.
Overall, this much-anticipated project has made good on its intentions to bring a vibrant business in line with current trends and San Diego’s craft-beer scene to downtown Chula Vista. It will be interesting to see how a community less indoctrinated and inundated on the independent beer front will react, but if any brewery in the area has a chance to change the tastes of the city’s denizens, it’s this one.
From the Beer Writer: From the moment the owners of the Urge Gastropub family of hospitality venues conceived their foray into the brewing business, a barrel-aging program was a key component. Even before their eventual Mason Ale Works was serving beer from its sister-restaurants’ taps, it was siphoning hearty ales into spirit-soaked oak. They dubbed this slice of the business Mason Snaleworks in light of the extended time it takes for beer to mature and take on wood-borne character. After eight months of patience on the Mason crew’s part, the first bottled Snaleworks release, Mason Second Son, is now available in wax-dipped, 22-ounce bottles throughout Southern California. Labeled simply as an “American strong ale”, it’s a blend of imperial stout and barleywine that pours nearly black and lets off a bold, billowing bouquet rife with scents of sawdust and whiskey extracted from 12-year-old Elijah Craig barrels. Alcohol is big on the nose, but much more subtle in the palate; no small feat considering this monster registers a whopping 14% on the alcohol-by-volume scale. Despite its brute strength, it drinks rather smoothly, cohesively presenting flavors of dark chocolate and coffee with a ton of vanilla and a hint of anise that comes out once the beer reaches room-temperature. It’s a great first-effort that elicits excitement over future barrel-aged offerings from Mason, which will soon have a lot more barrels and space to work with when it moves its primary brewing and aging operations to San Marcos’ Urge Common House venue early next year.
From the Brewer: “First of all, we are pleased as punch with ourselves for the release of our first barrel-aged, Mason Snaleworks release. Second Son was a name we had been throwing around for quite some time, mostly for the enjoyment of the way it sounded and how we associated it with ourselves, personally. Having been born in this particular order in my family, as was Mason co-founder Grant Tondro, I am very aware of the stigma that comes with being a giant pain in the ass and an embarrassment to the family. Our second barrel-aged beer somehow escaped the blemishes often staining the second-born. A barleywine and imperial stout aged in eight bourbon barrels for eight months, blend together so perfectly. It’s rare to see such a complex barrel-aged beer that is so approachable. Rich chocolate, toffee and bourbon notes in the nose finish with soft caramel, toast and slight roast from the coffee. Take heart, at 14% ABV, this sneaky little bugger can drive you to dangerous levels of insanity, but you will fall fast in love with the ferocity with which this child opens its heart.”—Jason De La Torre, Head Brewer, Mason Ale Works
From the Beer Writer: Many are the fans of the beers at East Village brewpub, Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery. And many are the beers of that divey-but-divine spot. But few are the opportunity for those fans to take those beers home in bottles, making the chance to get Monkey Paw Thank You! Double IPA in 22-ounce glass something of an early Christmas present. At first-blush, being able to buy a beer doesn’t seem all that special, but owner Scot Blair is essentially giving this beer away, charging a miniscule $4 a-bottle, which he says is just enough to cover the costs of brewing and packaging the hop-heavy (read: expensive-to-produce) beer. Its the celebrated local publican’s way of saying thank-you to those who have supported Monkey Paw over the past five years, a milestone he will officially celebrate tomorrow, Saturday, November 19, when Thank You! and holiday imperial-stout Santa’s Pet Monkey go on-sale to the public at Monkey Paw. Adding to the value (I’d say collectability, but holding onto a fresh IPA is San Diego sacrilege) is the fact these are some of the last beers that will be produced by Monkey Paw’s popular head brewer, Cosimo Sorrentino, who recently announced his impending departure from the business at year’s end. Rather than toasting all that could have been had he stayed, might I suggest toasting all that he and Blair accomplished in conjunction with the craft-beer fans they are extending their gratitude toward with this pair of releases.
From the Brewer: “In English, ‘thank you’ derives from ‘think’. It used to mean, ‘I will remember what you did for me.’ Everyday people thank us for what we do as brewers and publicans and every time I want to say, ‘No, thank you.’ I’m stoked every day to have my job and to be part of this community. That only happens when hundreds of people choose to spend their hard-earned money on our beers and/or in our establishments. Thank You! double IPA is our way to say, ‘I have and will continue to remember what you do for us.’ We have made a beer in the style of Muriqui and Gibbon Back, and bottled it two days before the release with a message to ‘Drink this now!’ Selling the beer for $4 per-bottle out the brewery door covers our costs and keeps it legal, but otherwise results in no profit. This one is for the conscious beer drinkers!”—Cosimo Sorrentino, Head Brewer, Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery