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”.
From the Beer Writer: Acronyms are used across the alcoholic-beverage industry, typically to describe particularly fine product. Cognac uses VSOP (very special/superior old pale) and XO (extra old), and I’ve always been a fan of Napa-based Chateau Potelle’s using VGS (very good shit) to describe its finest vintages. Alpine Beer Company issued an acronymous handle to its Mosaic-, Simcoe- and Citra-infused India pale ale…Alpine HFS. It’s not so much a descriptor as a reactionary phrase broken down into a publicly suitable format; the sort of happily expletive-laced comment one’s liable to make after tasting this rich, bold IPA. It debuted to great fanfare last year as a draft-only offering before taking a bronze medal in the American-style Strong Pale Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival. The next chapter in this brew’s short but illustrious lifespan is its first release in bottles. That will take place starting at noon, today at Alpine’s tasting room in its namesake East County town. They don’t figure to stay in stock for long. Show up tomorrow to pick some up and you may find yourself shouting Holy F***ing S*** for all the wrong reasons.
From the Brewer: “The beer that named itself. We always strive to offer the best beer we can possibly make, and with this beer we felt it was perfect right out of the gate. No adjustments were necessary. We got exactly what we wanted out of the beer: huge hop aroma, light body and immense drinkability. We hope this beer stays in heavy rotation.”—Shawn McIlhenney, Head Brewer, Alpine Beer Company
From the Beer Writer: During my time working for Stone Brewing, I made many great friends. The company is packed with brilliant, fun and kind people, and one of the nicest of them all is the man in charge of brewing operations at Stone’s Liberty Station brewpub, Kris Ketcham. A champion of creativity who has indulged the desires of many novices in his brewhouse, he not only dares to try things others would avoid, but possesses the skill to pull off nearly every challenge thrown his way. In 2015, when I kicked off a charity campaign to raise money for the Lupus Foundation of Southern California through the sale of specialty beers from local breweries, I had the chance to brew with Ketcham, and it was a joyfully educational experience. This year, he let me back in the brewhouse to help conjure another charity beer: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station Trending Travis-ty. Aside from being long as all get out, there’s significance to the name of this hazy, “Northeast-style” session IPA. At the brewery I currently work for, Societe Brewing, clarity is king. Our brewing team strives to avoid haze in our IPAs and our brewmaster, Travis Smith, finds what he calls the “muddy IPA” haze-craze to be ridiculous if not a sacrilege. So we took this raging trend and made our own little “Travis-ty”. To be fair, Ketcham and I prefer clear IPAs, too, but we thought it would be a fun challenge to create a not-overly-hazy IPA with big hop appeal and extremely low alcohol; a crushable beer that would benefit from increased body from a variety of adjuncts and provide that “juiciness” beer fans are looking for these days. It’s on tap now and a portion of proceeds help lupus patients in San Diego and Imperial Counties care of the Beer to the Rescue campaign.
From the Brewer: “There have been a lot of trends in brewing over the years. The most recent one I can remember is session IPAs, and now we have ‘the L replacement’ hazy, juicy IPAs. As someone who’s taken pride in learning and employing multiple techniques for achieving beer clarity, I find it such a travesty that we’ve shifted into this. However, as much as I love to knock them, there is a uniqueness to them that even I find enjoyable from time to time. I also need to remind myself to keep an open mind, as we’ve come a long way in the past twenty-plus years. All of us as ‘craft’ brewers have changed the perception of beer over the years and still continue to do with styles like these. Sometimes we enjoy them so much that we try our own interpretations with our own signature twists. Trending Travis-ty mixes the past and current trends brewers have been chasing. Take all the adjuncts that give you the trending haze and put them to use in a style that’s lacking in body—session IPA—and you get a win-win result. For this beer, we used a blend of two-row, oats, wheat and dextrin malt to increase body and haze levels. No hops where harmed in the boiling of the wort. Instead, all of the hops used in this beer were added at the start of fermentation and post-fermentation to really bring on the haze. The combo of Mosaic, Loral and Vic Secret hops was a fun combination that uses Brandon and I’s favorite new hops with a hop that is in damn near every single IPA on the market today. Clocking in at 4.3% alcohol-by-volume and 40 on the IBU (international bittering unit) scale—all from the dry hop—this beer fulfills those whose hipster mantras include ‘I only drink hazy IPAs’ and ‘I only drink session beers.’”—Kris Ketcham, Liberty Station Brewing Manager, Stone Brewing
Brian Scott is living a brewer’s dream. After a lengthy career including stints at Firehouse Brewing Co., Mission Brewery and Karl Strauss Brewing Co., he is calling the shots as the head of SR76. That brewing interest is owned by the economic development arm of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians and installed within the master-structure of Harrah’s Southern California Resort (777 Harrah’s Rincon Way, Valley Center). It’s the first brewery of its kind in the county and, given its business efficiencies, Scott and his associates see it as a duplicatable model, both locally and abroad.
From a brewing perspective, Scott cites numerous advantages at his inland North County anomaly. Chief among them is having his biggest customer—the resort—right next door. Rather than distribute product across or outside San Diego County, Scott can focus all of his attention on close-knit colleagues, meaning he can maintain first-hand quality control regarding beers and the lines they are dispensed through, and help the resort trouble-shoot and repair any problems that come about. SR76’s beers are available at the resort’s family of bars and restaurants, which go through enough kegs that there is currently no need to explore selling product to outside accounts. Additionally, the resort selecting the beers that fill out the rest of its taps and fridges, allows for control of competing brands.
Even so, Scott is not looking to go head-to-head with big boys like Ballast Point, Stone or Green Flash. He doesn’t even brew an IPA. Instead, he’s aiming for approachability and producing a line of session beers that will be compatible with the tastes of the resort’s diverse—and largely new-to-craft—clientele. The way he sees it, having his beers predominantly featured at a resort with the size and scope of Harrah’s allows him to touch tons of people other craft breweries have little or no access to, so he doesn’t want to lose them with massive bitterness, big-alcohol or outlandish adjuncts. As such, SR76’s current quartet of core beers consists of a German-style wheat beer featuring traditional notes of banana and clove, a light-bodied Kölsch, and pale ale built to scratch the IPA itch care of Mosaic hops and 70 IBUs (international bittering units). His most avant-garde offering might actually be the best shot at converting oenophiles and the beer-averse. Dubbed Supul (translating to “one”, signifying it being the first beer brewed by SR76), it’s a sub-4% alcohol-by-volume saison that, with floral notes of violet, lavender and honeysuckle, comes across like the ale-equivalent of viognier. The body of this beer, as well as that of the wheat and Kölsch, is thin by traditional standards, but that may be advantageous once temperatures reach the extremes that are the norm during Valley Center summers.
SR76’s tasting room is in a separate ground-floor structure across from the hotel’s main entrance. A condition of the business’ manufacturing license dictates that it can’t be connected to Harrah’s, but Scott sees advantages there, as well, stating that it renders his sampling space as an “oasis” of sorts. While the casino and hotel pool-area are typically high-energy, loud and even a bit raucous (particularly during the sunny season), SR76 is lounge-like with its bevy of comfortable seating options and lack of gaming or TVs. Most of the customers who venture there are looking for beer, a break or both. Like most local tasting rooms, beers are sold below at-large prices, which was important to Scott, who wants a visit to the source to be as authentic as any other. The smell of steeping grains on brew-days really helps hammer that home. Another bonus: guests are allowed to bring food in from the resort’s plethora of dining spots.
A prime reason the tribe opted to get into the brewing business was to be able to spotlight San Diego’s brewing culture while keeping beer-seekers on property. Harrah’s has historically been a key supporter of the San Diego Brewers Guild by sponsoring the Rhythm and Brews Music and Craft Beer Festival, and putting on its own Hop Heads and Dreads Craft Beer and Reggae Festival. By constructing a brewery, the resort now has increased ability to put on large-scale events, and they are exploring ways in which to do so.
Thus far, SR76 is performing to tribal expectations, albeit during the slow-season for tourism and beer-consumption. Time and data collected during peak months will tell the true tale, but if the operation is successful, the SR76 team sees this as a model that can be duplicated at resorts throughout Southern California and beyond—citing Northern California, Arizona, Oklahoma and North Carolina as potential regions for on-property brewery infusion.