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.
It’s the type of moniker that inspires more question marks than exclamation points: Black Plague Brewing (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside). The first time I heard about it was nearly two years ago when I first interviewed the owners of the now-open business. And over that span, the odd resonance of that name hasn’t diminished in the least. Part of it may be the fact the words are typically presented along with a spooky logo featuring an ancient, crook-beaked plague doctor, but mostly it’s the reference to the historic bubonic plague (AKA “the black death”), which wiped out between 75 and 200 million Europeans (30-60% of the continent’s entire population) from 1346 to 1353. But there’s more to a business than its handle and motif. I was sure to remind myself of that as I entered Black Plague’s tasting room for the purpose of sampling its beer and atmosphere as part of a recent brewery touring session.
Walking through the door, I bid adieu to a perfectly sunny day and took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the space. Though outfitted with skylights and a lobby bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls are painted jet black. Furniture hues range from brown to ebony and the only relief from the dim color palate is a beer board decorated with colorful, artful names and descriptions, plus rudimentary thin, white-line sketches of the plague doctor and such. It was around Halloween when I visited, but it’s clear the creep factor had little to do with that macabre holiday. And while it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, I had to hand it to the folks who handled the interior design. They took a thematic, embraced it and delivered. It’s complete and makes good on a promise set forth by the brand and its back story, even adding a touch of whimsy here and there in the process.
Fortunately, the service element does not fall in line with what one might find in the midst of a continental pandemic. The bar staff is rather friendly. My only knock was a seeming lack of knowledge or interest in the finer points of beer and brewing, but not everyone can be a nerd. They knew Black Plague’s beers enough to be helpful, and made a point to note something very cool (literally): a glycol-chilled copper strip running down the center of the bar. That amenity keeps beers cool should you be consuming a style that you’re not looking to warm for increased sensory effect. The customers, too, were in a jovial mood as they drank their beers and watched football on a screen mounted left of the beer menu. As I received my taster flight, I looked forward to falling into their frame of mind.
Prior to coming to Black Plague’s tasting room, I had sampled only one of the company’s beers, 1347 IPA. Named, as they say, for “the year of the plague,” it was hazy and juicy. Now, however, it’s no longer Northeastern in body and has far less of a fruit-juice character. If anything, it’s much drier and exhibits a grapefruit pithiness more evocative of a San Diego-style IPA. For those looking for fruit, however, there are multiple versions of this beer available, all of which have been infused with a different fruit (mango, pineapple, blood orange, grapefruit, blueberries) as well as habanero peppers. Plenty happy with the base beer, I chose the purist route, moving on to a Kölsch called Remedium that was crisp and balanced, and Nelson Pandemia, an IPA hopped with “an outbreak of Nelson hops,” that had a sharp, bitter finish that left a sticky, peppercorn-like spice in its wake.
From here it was on to more avant-garde beers, starting with ChaI.P.A. Fans of chai (which I am) are likely used to encountering this exotic-tasting adjunct in beer, but typically styles on the darker end of the spectrum. I was skeptic of how it would come across in a lighter-bodied, hoppy beer, but it was a winner. All chai in the nose and only slightly bitter, allowing the added spices to come through, it was my favorite of Black Plague’s beers. Second place went to Samoa Stout, a beer brewed with chocolate, roasted coconut, maple syrup and graham crackers to emulate the Girl Scout Cookie of the same name. Dessert-like, but not overly sweet, it comes across as dark chocolate with a supportive caramel backdrop.
While my inner-marketing professional shudders when presented with this brewery’s branding, I would happily reach for one of its beers. Though its owners lack beverage-industry experience, they have been wise enough to consult with professionals who possess just that. Their brewhouse is currently benefiting from the services of ex-AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego fermentationist Bill Batten, who specialized in traditional beer styles for more than a decade before shifting to more experimental brews at his most recent gig. He seems a perfect fit for his current digs while he waits for his next post, North Park’s TapRoom Beer Co., to be constructed. From what I tasted, he’ll leave some big boots to fill.
From the Beer Writer: Last month, I ventured to Sorrento Valley for a Monday-night session at New English Brewing Company, where my eyes gravitated to a beer on the board called “Hop Slap’d”. In a matter of seconds, I was lifting a full pint, but before I could take a sip, I was shocked into a neutral state by the outrageously vibrant hop aroma wafting up from the glass. Freshly zested oranges, mowed grass and a hint of lemon registered with force. When I eventually took a taste, all of those components were there along with a touch of casaba melon. As potent as it was, I figured it must be a newly tapped beer, but it had already been on-tap for a month. Just as I began wishing I’d have visited the brewery 30 days earlier, the barkeep mentioned the beer was part of a series of pale ales with rotating hop bills, the next of which, New English Hop Slap’d #5, was about to make its debut. I immediately made plans to come back to try that beer, which derives its hoppy appeal from Citra hops, coming on strong with scents and flavors of myriad citrus and tropical fruits, minus the grassy, melon-like nuances imparted by the Mosaic that gave Hop Slap’d #4 its unique characteristics. I’ll definitely be back for future editions of this pale. Consider me hop slap’d!
From the Brewer: “Hop Slap’d pale ale is designed to educate drinkers about the differences between hop varietals and also about the difference between ‘hoppiness’ and ‘bitterness’. Brewed using the same base recipe for each batch, we end up with an American pale ale weighing in at 5.5% alcohol-by-volume and 40 IBUs (international bittering units). Very crushable! The key to these rotating-hop-series beers are the late kettle-hop additions and, more specifically, the dry-hop additions. Each successive batch of Hop Slap’d features different hops, so if you try #4 alongside #5, for instance…as you can right now at the New English tasting room…you can eliminate the base beer as a variable. Any difference in taste or aroma is down to the hops alone! Batch #4 used all Mosaic for late and dry additions, while #5 used all Citra. The difference is amazing, and since the beer isn’t overwhelmingly bitter like some IPAs tend to be, the character of the hops themselves shines through. In order to accentuate the difference and literally slap you in the olfactory organs with flavor and arom,a we load up the dry hops at almost two-and-a-quarter-pounds per-barrel. That’s the same as our double IPA! Hop Slap’d #5 features big tangerine and ripe citrus aroma plus a light scent of pineapple. The taste is like fresh-squeezed OJ on the palate with a mild bitterness and light malt character. This is a thirst-quencher and perfect for the hot, dry weather we’ve been having.”—Simon Lacey, Owner & Brewmaster, New English Brewing Company