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: Collaboration beers provide the greatest opportunity for brewers to get out of their comfort zones and try their hands at more out-there concepts. For some that means incorporating adjuncts, local ingredients or experimental hops. Then there’s truly next-level ventures like the one recently embarked upon by ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, Council Brewing Company and White Labs, where the latter interest revived somehow-still-active yeast from a 25-year-old bottle of Russian imperial stout. With that biological feat accomplished, ChuckAlek and Council’s brewers went to work crafting a traditional high gravity stout recipe and fermenting it with that yeast strain. The result is Katerina, a 10.5% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) offering that was recently bottled and had its official coming out party at ChuckAlek’s Biergarten in North Park. Unlike most modern day imperial stouts, the beer is lower on the chocolate and coffee scale, instead exhibiting big notes of raisin, date and plum with some brown sugar sweetness and a touch of baking spice. Named for the Russian empress whose love of dark beers spurred the eventual popularity of this style, Katerina is a lovely blend of tradition and modern-day ingenuity.
From the Brewer: “Back in 2015, when I was pouring ChuckAlek beer at the pro-brewers night of the National Homebrewers Conference here in San Diego. Jeff Crane from Council and I discussed a tentative collaboration based on the idea of England’s old Brettanomyces-aged stock ales. The next day I ventured down to Baja with friend and beer historian Ron Pattinson to show him around the burgeoning beer and food scene. It didn’t take long before we were chatting about porter and Ron brought up the famed Courage Russian Stout; telling me how he’d bought up a couple of cases before the beer ceased production in the early ’90’s and he was sure the original Brettanomyces yeast strain was alive and well in the bottle, allowing the beer to hold up extremely well over a couple of decades time. Courage Russian Stout was of the lineage of over 200 years in production of the original Russian Stout brand, which famously became high demand from Catherine the Great of Russia and her Imperial Court. At that time, in the late 1700’s, the beer was produced by Barclay Perkins who held the brand through the 1950’s, at which point Courage bought the brand. Most traditional beer styles have changed radically over time due to factors such as war-time taxation and rationing or laws dictating acceptable beer ingredients. Russian Stout, however, remained rather unchanged in spec: about 10% ABV, loads of high-quality UK hops and long maturation in oak vats. With the help of White Labs, we isolated the yeast strain from a bottle of 1992 Courage Russian Stout from Ron’s private cellar. Genetic identification determined it was actually Saccharomyces (ale yeast) that had heartily survived over 25 years. We then worked with Council to conduct a pilot brew and construct a recipe based on Ron’s research on the Barclay Perkins brewing logs. The result is a big and truly stout beer with raisin and date on the nose, fruity yeast and caramelized sugar flavor up front, then lingering bitter chocolate and orange peel in the finish. The body is full, which rounds out the strong hop charge and roast on the finish. This beer will surely do well with some age and we intend to brew it again with Council to set it down in some barrels in the spirit of the historically oak-vatted porter. The ‘Perkins Ale’ yeast is available to commercial breweries via White Labs and we hope to see others experiment with it!”—Grant Fraley, Head Brewer, ChuckAlek Independent Brewers
Though they’re not related by blood, Ketchen Smith and Evan Smith are bound by their love of craft-beer and their shared project for getting into the business of producing it, Escondido Brewing Company (649 Rock Springs Road, Suite B, Escondido). Longtime Escondido residents, Evan owns and operates his 38-year-old family-business, Escondido Feed and Pet Supply. That is where the new business will be sited, with the 1.5-barrel brewing system installed in a small space in front of the store. Escondido Brewing will epitomize the term nano-brewery…and that’s just the way the non-fraternal Smiths like it.
“We will be one of, if not the smallest brewery in San Diego. This will be both in physical size as well as production quantity,” says Ketchen, who will serve as president and head brewer. (Evan will manage business operations). “The interior space will be almost completely occupied by the brewery and seating will be on an outside patio.”
Ketchen is an engineering manager for a company specializing in spinal-implants. He has been homebrewering for a dozen years, racking up awards at the San Diego County Fair, Southern California Fair and National Homebrewers Conference. His most notable achievement, and one that bled into the realm of professional brewing, was having an American ale he brewed 40 barrels of with Coachella Valley Brewing Company entered into the pro-am competition at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival.
The majority of Ketchen’s awards were garnered by hop-driven beers, but he hopes to have variety that goes beyond lupulin-rich ales. In addition to multiple IPAs, he will brew blondes, ambers and stouts, with a wheat or Belgian-style beer mixed in every now and then. Each offering’s name will bear some form of tie to the community (e.g., Hopcondido IPA, 1888 Stout). Escondido’s tagline illustrates the company’s intended approach—small batch beers from the heart of the Hidden City. The “Hidden City” (which is already home to Stone Brewing, Offbeat Brewing Company and Plan 9 Alehouse) can expect its newest resident to open to the public in early-2017.
From the Beer Writer: It took me a while to get up to Belching Beaver Brewery Tavern & Grill, but the delay served me well in that, by the time I came in, a good number of beers from Thomas Peters (BB’s director of quality assurance and master of the brewpub’s 10-barrel system) were up for grabs. Peters’ goal is to brew one-offs that are both traditional and unique. On the to-style front, a Helles is everything one would want from that refreshing Germanic lager. But I was most taken with Belching Beaver Peaches Be Crazy, a 5.2% alcohol-by-volume pale ale brewed with copious amounts of peach purée and Galaxy hops. After coming in from our current heat-wave, this beer welcomed me and downed my core-temp in the most refreshing and delicious manner possible. It also did a nice job washing down the Tavern’s fair-like fried squash and andouille corn-dog appetizers. Next up on Peters’ brew schedule are an Ameican IPA brewed for the Deftones, a sour Belgian-style wit with hibiscus, rose-hips and chamomile, and the Pilsner recipe from West Coaster columnist Ryan Reschan that just took gold at this year’s National Homebrew Competition.
From the Brewer: “Peaches Be Crazy is an easy-drinking pale ale brewed for the hot summer months. The goal was to complement the big stone fruit qualities of Australian Galaxy hops with the bright flavors of puréed peaches. I used a very soft water profile to keep the beer clean with a crisp finish. The peach flavor is enough to balance the flavor of the hops and does not overwhelm, making this beer very drinkable and a perfect sipper for our outdoor patio at the Tavern.”—Thomas Peters, Director of Quality Assurance, Belching Beaver Brewery
Why is San Diego such a hotbed of quality brewing? It’s a popular question with many answers. Most brewing professionals agree that a major key to the permeation of the suds subculture into the board-short fabric of San Diego is the prominence of homebrewing throughout the county. Many of San Diego’s commercial brewers and brewery owners spent years honing their craft on a recreational level before going into business. As hobbyists, homebrewers collaborate, learning from each other as well as the numerous pro-brewers who revel in maintaining their connection to the amateur-fermentation ranks. For many in San Diego, homebrewing is as big a deal as what goes on at Stone, Ballast Point or Green Flash. And once a year, the county’s homebrewers pit their best beers against those of homebrew clubs throughout the world at the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrew Competition (NHC), winners of which were announced over the weekend from Homebrew Con in Baltimore, Maryland.
San Diego’s largest homebrew-club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity), was named the NHC Homebrew Club of the Year—the most prestigious honor of the entire competition. The 2016 NHC featured 7,692 entries from 3,396 homebrewers hailing from every U.S. state as well as 13 other countries. Numbers like that equate to big-time bragging rights for the hundreds of members of Carlsbad-based QUAFF. But the QUAFF member who gets to do the most bragging is San Marcos’ own Nick Corona, who earned Homebrewer of the Year honors after beating out 175 other entrants in the German Wheat and Rye Beer category with his homespun weissbier.
Other local winners include West Coaster staffer Ryan Reschan, who took first-place in the heavily contested Pilsner category (215 total entries). The runner-up to Reschan was also a local, Jeremy Castellano, who entered without affiliation to any particular homebrew club. Other successful QUAFFers included Curt Wittenburg (first-place in the Other American Ale category), Mike Habrat (second-place in Traditional Mead) and Tim Wang (third-place in Light Hybrid Beer). This isn’t the first time QUAFF has experienced success at the NHC. Quite the contrary. From 2001 to 2006, the organization won Homebrew Club of the Year a record six consecutive times. In 2011, Paul Sangster—co-owner of San Marcos’ Rip Current Brewing Company earned the Ninkasi Award for most wins at that year’s competition. These are just some of the major accomplishments this standout organization has amassed at the country’s premier homebrewing competition.