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.
Before Ballast Point Brewing was a company capable of commanding decuple figures, before it grew into San Diego County’s largest brewery and one of the biggest beer-producers in the country, before there even was a brewery called Ballast Point, there was Home Brew Mart (HBM). That Linda Vista hobby shop—one of the first to grace America’s Finest City—opened quietly in 1992 and, over the following quarter-century, has ignited a fire for recreational fermentation within a great many ale-and-lager neophytes. That includes individuals who now own breweries and brew professionally. Some of that contingent even worked for HBM in its early days. In celebration of the big two-five, Ballast Point is creating Family Reunion collaboration beers with those ex-employees as well as former BP brewers, an impressive assemblage of well-known, award-winning talent.
Several of the beers have already been released, while others are scheduled to be brewed in time for them to all be on-tap at HBM’s 25th anniversary event on September 24. The following is a breakdown of the collaborators, their creations and their past.
In an effort to increase its current employee base’s knowledge on the history of BP and its eldest venue, vice president Colby Chandler asked each collaborator to speak to present-day brewers about their time with the company, how it was then and how it prepared them to venture out on their own. Many said that making beer at such a fast-growing brewing company provided them wide-ranging experience as well as reference points for overcoming myriad obstacles. According to Chandler, many brewery owners, in particular, felt their time with BP made it much easier once they were working for themselves.
In addition to the HBM anniversary event, BP is also holding a series of beer-pairing dinners incorporating the aforementioned collaboration brews at HBM. The next will take place on August 24 and include five courses served with Swemiceros, Bay to Bay, Scripps Tease and various other BP beers. Chandler, Tweet, Stephens, LeBlanc and Ceniceros will all be in attendance.
Having lived in the area for more than a decade, Morris and Robin Nuspl always wanted to bring a brewery to their community, but finding good, industrial-zoned real estate was problematic. So they considered Kearny Mesa, Mission Valley and areas near Lindberg Field before coming upon the eventual home for Deft Brewing (5328 Banks Street, Suite A, Bay Park), a 1950s gable-roofed former fishing-boat factory in a cul-de-sac a block off Morena Boulevard, Linda Vista and Friars Roads. Plenty of windows, a roll-up door and a patio were deal-sealers for them.
Morris will serve as head of brewing and operations. A former electronics-industry executive and engineer, he is an avid homebrewer who believes in small-batch creation. He and assistant Mike Finn will employ a two-barrel pilot system to develop and fine-tune beers before installing an eventual 10-barrel brewhouse to ramp up production. That move is currently slated for next year and will only happen after Deft brings on a professional brewer with experience running larger breweries. At that point, 10- and 20-barrel fermenters will be brought in to replace the current stock of two-, five- and eight-barrel tanks.
The company’s product portfolio will be made up mostly of ales of British, Belgian and German origin, each infused with twists—described as “deftness”. While there will be hop-forward offerings (English-style IPA), Morris intends to make approachability (Kölsch) his primary focus and isn’t scared to bring malt-heavy beers (Irish-style red ale) to a county that generally eschews grain-centric brews. He’s also eager to present Western European styles seldom produced on a commercial level. Year One production is estimated to meet or exceed 500 barrels.
Despite being a rather centralized neighborhood accessible from Interstates 5 and 8, the Nuspls concede Bay Park is still tucked away and unfamiliar territory for many San Diegans. They hope to do their part to change that by adding good beer with existing Bay Park interest Coronado Brewing Company and the incoming tasting room from Grantville’s Benchmark Brewing Company. They believe in the camaraderie of the industry and cite Home Brewing, Duck Foot Brewing, Eppig Brewing, Bitter Brothers Brewing (in nearby Bay Ho) and Hauck Architecture as businesses that have helped them a great deal over the past year-and-a-half. Deft is on track to open around Labor Day.
Back in March, we introduced you to key personnel from Viewpoint Brewing Company (2201 San Dieguito Drive, Del Mar), Charles Koll and Gunnar Plantar. The former conceptualized the business and brought on the latter to lead the kitchen, but both are chefs with white-linen backgrounds. Over the past four months, they’ve been busy putting finishing touches on their brewpub (Del Mar’s first-ever beer manufacturer), which included hiring a head brewer. Not surprisingly, that individual, Moe Katomski, amassed years of chef experience before transitioning to the fermentation industry via a job with Vista’s Bear Roots Brewing. As soon as next week, the general public will be able to see what this trio of toques has been working on when Viewpoint opens its doors.
The opening has been a long time coming—more than three years, in fact. Having recently toured the space, that time was put to good use. Viewpoint is in a simultaneously great and not-ideal location. Located across the San Dieguito Lagoon from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, it is highly visible and should receive plenty of patronage, not only from San Diego County Fair and Del Mar Racetrack visitors, but Del Mar residents, in general, and walkers on the trail abutting Viewpoint’s shaded outdoor patio. The latter area is outfitted in a mixture of concrete and artificial turf, with live-edge, wooden communal tables and banquettes with tabletop fire features, as well as large, open, globe-shaped swings and corn-hole setups. These contemporary SoCal environs are particularly inviting and will surely inspire would-be exercisers to sit a spell and shift from calorie-burning to consumption.
Those dropping in by car might find themselves a little less enamored rolling into a parking lot that, with Viewpoint’s industrial roots fully exposed (perhaps to too great an extent, aesthetically), doesn’t appear to house a restaurant. The front door is small and inauspicious, but upon stepping through it, guests figure to be glad they did. While not as luxurious as the patio, the main dining room is neatly situated and comfortable. A zig-zagging bar gives way to two high-top communal tables and additional bar-seating bordering Viewpoint’s fermenter tanks. Roll-up garage-style doors provide access to the outdoor area as well as a pair of Skee Ball tables, further increasing the family-friendly aspect.
Viewpoint’s license allows for sale of guest beers to supplement a selection of house brews currently coming in at five. Katomski’s wares include a single-malt-and-single-hop (SMASH) beer made with Maris Otter and Chinook hops, a rye IPA with Red X malt that lends a chocolate-like character washed away by a dank finish, and a light-bodied Belgian-style saison that’s herbaceous and lemony with a hint of bubble gum. There is also a pair of pale ales. The first, Pleasant Surprise, was the initial beer run through Viewpoint’s 15-barrel system and didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but is not without its charms. Built on a Kölsch-recipe base with minimal infusion of Chinook hops for bittering, it may actually be a big hit with Del Martians. The second go at that beer is big on citrusy Mandarina Bavaria hops and a much more successful iteration in Katomski’s opinion. That recipe is now set in stone.
Drinkability and approachability were strived for and achieved with Viewpoint’s first beers, but Katomski also plans to follow some suggestions from Plantar, who regularly turns him on to exotic ingredients from the culinary world. For now, he’s fighting the urge to get “too crazy” and that seems a good game-plan for a community that has yet to have much exposure to craft beer.
With so many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a for-chefs-by-chefs menu that’s overly extensive and out of control. Viewpoint’s is relatively brief but offers variety, including an assortment of appetizers that includes riffs on poutine and Jidori chicken wings served by the dozen with house sauces, charcuterie, salads, sandwiches, entrées (steak frites, salmon) and desserts. Beer and its ingredients make it into accoutrements such as a hop vinaigrette and milk stout demi-glace. Then there’s a rare first for the local beer scene, a beer-and-food flight wherein three of Viewpoint’s beers are served with a trio of pretzel bao buns stuffed with ingredients selected to match their liquid counterparts.
Following its debut, Viewpoint will be open seven days a week. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. it will operate as a tasting room offering light bites, before converting to a full-on restaurant from 4 to 11 p.m.
Sometimes brewery leads come from the most unexpected sources. I was at a white-linen restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe recently, when a young chef emerged from the kitchen to explain a complex and delicious clam and pork belly appetizer to me. After doing so, he said he knew I wrote about beer and thought I should talk to a friend of his who was in the midst of opening a brewery in Del Mar. I asked him if he was referring to Viewpoint Brewing Company. He replied in the affirmative and, a few days later, the three of us were chatting about this work-in-progress brewpub over a few beers. Read more »