San Diego Beer Week (henceforth known as SDBW because I’m not getting paid by the word) is upon us and I have already passed my first hurdle – the annual Guild Fest at Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier. Year over year it proves to be one of my favorite festivals, so I constantly jockey to cover it for “journalism”. Normally I’d regale you with the sights and sounds of this flagship event, but internet style guidelines demand that my experience be somehow enumerated to hold your attention. So here are The Eleven Best Beers I Managed To Drink At Guild Fest 2016 In No Particular Order Which Are Not Necessarily The Absolute Best Since I Couldn’t Possibly Drink Through All The Offerings And I Don’t Wish To Marginalize Any Overlooked Breweries. NUMBER SIX WILL SHOCK YOU!
Little Miss Brewing – Hoperation Overlord Imperial Oatmeal IPA
You know a beer is good when it essentially creates a style category and simultaneously establishes an absurdly high standard for it.
In truth I’ve likely had a IPAs with oatmeal in them before, but none of them left an impression on me like this one. The indulgent floral and orange rind aromatics perfectly complemented the chewy pine notes of the beer. It was potent, dank, highly memorable, and easily the strongest beer to come out of the relatively young brewery to date. I liked Little Miss Brewing before, but now I’m excited about them.
AleSmith Brewing Company – Barrel Aged Vietnamese Speedway Stout
This beer smells like happiness soaked in bourbon. That may be a little redundant, but whatever.
The Vietnamese Speedway Stout is a tough one to improve on, but this does just that. It hits you with a quick boozy snap up front that initially diminishes its rich earthiness, but slowly gives way to dark chocolate and berry sweetness. It’s a masterstroke in making the barrel sing.
Pure Project – Keep Amurka Dank
I know a lot of folks are riding the Northeast-style hazy IPA hype train these days, but this was a top notch take on it. The haze offered a little supplementary heft without feeling like it was dosed with flour to thicken it like a gravy.
Its substantial fruity orange character aromatics were capably backed by a familiar blend of citrus and pine. It was a great example of simple flavors executed with incredible finesse.
Abnormal Brewing Company – All of the Lights
When faced with a description “Coffee Nutella Imperial Milk Porter”, you can be virtually assured one of the adjectives you’ll trot out to describe it won’t be “subtle”. Sure enough, the nose hovered somewhere between Nestle Quik and Cocoa Pebbles with an unmistakable roasted hazelnut tone to it. The beer had touches of earth and maduro cigar to it, but was primarily a nutty, chocolate-y juggernaut.
Seeing the word “coconut” in a beer name often gives me pause. When applied with some restraint it can add a beautiful texture to a brew, but otherwise it cruelly devolves the brew into a fizzy piña colada. Both of these managed to march right up to the edge of that cliff without tumbling over.
The coconut in Darkness Refined was true to its moniker, delivering a restrained, silky stout with a rich milk chocolate character. I could sip on this all evening without worries of suntan lotion-flavored belches. The Vacation IPA used it even more capably, maintaining an IPA-forward experience throughout. The nose was dominated by grass clippings, leaving a subtle coconut creaminess to bolster the floral and tropical fruit flavors.
Intergalactic Brewing Company – Planet Invader (with coffee) Russian Imperial Stout
The body on this imperial stout was lighter bodied compared to those in its cohort at the festival, but then maple syrup would be considered thirst quenching compared to some of the monsters this festival has had to offer. Still, its 11.6% ABV was masked to the point of being perilous.
The coffee burst out of the mix and had a delightful resonance on the palate. Planet Invader delivered the RIS embodiment of a stellar coffee liqueur without oppressive sweetness.
Lost Abbey Brewing Company – Track 8
This one is a bit of a cheat as I am all too familiar with this barrel-aged ale, but it still managed to stand out among its peers. It reminds of oatmeal raisin cookies soaked in bourbon, just like mom used to make.
Aztec Brewing Company – Bruja Rubia
This may well have been the sleeper hit of the festival. Unlike the innumerable, massive imperial stouts it was flanked with, this unique wheat beer seduced with subtlety. The combination of aging in white wine barrels with blue agave and apricots produced a restrained citric bite with loads of dried fruits and lemonade sweetness.
Groundswell Brewing Co. – Oathbreaker
I appreciated Groundswell Brewing’s approach to the massive signage for this beer. Compared to the standard notebook paper-sized most everyone favored, it was as imposing at the 13% ABV stout itself. It left little doubt that it meant business.
The nose was redolent with coffee, vanilla, and milk chocolate, but favored a palate of anise, dark chocolate, and coffee ground earthiness. It was surprisingly nuanced for something that could have easily been a booze-bomb.
Second Chance Beer Co. – Festa Imperiale
Yes, it’s yet another bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout. No, I won’t apologize for picking so many of them.
Festa Imperiale featured the coffee notes you’d expect, but emerged from its peers with its boisterous roastiness and light brandy sweetness. It also summoned notes of toffee and chocolate turtles without becoming cloying or oppressive on the palate. It had a depth of character often clobbered by the booziness of the barrel, which was remarkable.
Former San Diego Brewers Guild president Mike Sardina (formerly of Kearny Mesa’s Societe Brewing Company) is headed to Vermont to take a job at cult-fave brewery Hill Farmstead Brewery. This left a sudden and significant vacancy to be expeditiously filled by the Guild. Fortunately, an able-bodied and passionate industry professional known for her seemingly unlimited energy and outgoing compatriotism in and beyond San Diego County has stepped up. Meet Jill Davidson, the western regional sales manager for Pizza Port and new president of the San Diego Brewers Guild.
How did you get into the industry and what led you to where you are today?
When I was 18, I walked into Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant in Newark, Delaware, and got a hostess job. I worked there all four years of college, became a server and went through their beer education. When I moved to San Diego in fall of 2006, there weren’t a whole lot of beer jobs around, so I did bartending and restaurant management. When Pizza Port Ocean Beach opened in 2010, I started there as bartender, and when the Bressi Ranch production brewery was built in 2013, I realized I wanted to get more serious about my position and recognize the growth potential. It was exciting to be part of the expansion of an old-school pioneer of San Diego craft-beer. I became a sales and brand ambassador and ran a brewery-tour program, which pretty much entailed me calling on accounts and being their only point-of-contact. It was pretty overwhelming but now we have a great sales team and I’m the regional manager.
What inspired you to get in line for the Guild presidency?
Mike called me and said there was a vice-president officer seat opening up on the Guild Board. He thought I would be great in that role and that we could do a lot of great things for the San Diego beer community.
How does the president role fit in with the rest of the components of the Guild?
The Board is really the Guild’s governing body and it is spearheaded by executive director Paige McWey Acers. She is a permanent fixture that keeps the fish afloat and steering in the right direction. The Board is then divided into committees that cover lots of different issues—planning, San Diego Beer Week, membership, bylaws. The work of the Guild is divided amongst members of the Board who in turn incorporate members at-large to be part of these committees. Officers change regularly, every year you get different personalities and different breweries represented—everybody has something different to bring to the table. As president, I’m more the face and voice of the Guild and its members. It’s definitely a team effort. We have a strong Board and it’s amazing to be surrounded with people who have so much experience and insight into what’s important.
What are some initiatives you are excited to introduce and work on?
Technically I’m in an interim position [until next year when I will start the term I would have served if Mike had stayed], so I’m mostly following up on his initiatives—development of committees so the Guild can be more efficient with time and energy in getting things accomplished. Also, our relationship with the San Diego Tourism and Marketing District, San Diego Tourism Authority, and San Diego Hotel and Motel Association; getting our seat at the table as an important part of local economy. Those are things that are very important to me, as well as establishing an Outreach Committee to be in contact with new breweries as they are developed. A lot of what the Guild does is legislative, so making sure those breweries-in-progress are in tune with ABC laws and being a resource for questions will be helpful.
What are some opportunities for success for local brewers that the Guild can help with?
Networking and resources are such a huge thing that [brewery business-owners and brewers] don’t realize they have. If they have a question about a beer-recipe, they can phone-a-friend. If they don’t have contact info, we’ll put people in touch. We’ll guide through what they need with legislative questions, and the stronger the Guild’s relationship gets with the aforementioned associations, the more our members will benefit. And of course there’s our maps [showing where every member-brewery is located throughout San Diego County]. There are 90,000 of those in circulation throughout the year. Then there’s San Diego Beer Week, which provides an international platform now. “San Diego-style” beer is a real thing now and, as San Diego beer grows, our members will grow with it.
What are some of the biggest problems currently plaguing San Diego brewers?
Quality is always a concern, especially with breweries growing and having different processes than when they were smaller operations. As we develop the “San Diego Beer” brand as a whole, quality is more important than ever. Each sip represents all of San Diego beer, not just the individual breweries. Luckily, there are a lot of resources to connect people in order to elevate the quality of everyone’s beer.
This place looks familiar, I thought as we turned into a business park I’d been to numerous times. The Carlsbad campus is home to two small breweries, Arcana Brewing Company and On-The-Tracks Brewery. This, despite being off the city’s commercial center. It’s almost inconceivable that these operations have managed to find success here (particularly with the questionable beers being produced at one of them), but lo and behold, they’re still there, and so is another interest that went in a few doors down from OTT last year, Guadalupe Brewery (5674 El Camino Real, Carlsbad). That was when I first wrote about owner Raul Deju, a brewer with experience south-of-the-border, who decided to kill his killer commute and give suds-making a go on his side of the border. Since then I’ve tasted a number of his beers, but that’s not why I was visiting the brewery on this day. Good thing—since trying house-beers isn’t allowed at Guadalupe.
Did that last sentence inspire a raise of your eyebrow? A brewery where customers aren’t able to taste the beers—that’s a new one on me. This factoid is made additionally confounding by the fact Deju and his wife Lisa have constructed a full tasting room behind the homebrew shop in which their nano-brewery is installed, Carlsbad Brew Supply. In it, a bar with comfy stools and a large mounted flat-screen await the sampling sect. All they need now is clearance from the City of Carlsbad to share the labors of their love with visitors. For now, all they are allowed to do is sell growlers of beer to-go, which requires a bit of a leap of faith without the ability to taste-test. So, by the time I got to Guadalupe, I’d already tasted through some beers with the Dejus off-site, and found them rather nice.
If you are a fan of Mother Earth Brew Co.’s ubiquitous Cali-Creamin’, a vanilla-infused cream ale, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy Guadalupe’s El Vanillo. It has slightly more body to it, but is comparable to Cali, which has proven so popular it accounts for roughly half of the MEBC’s total output. I could see this taking on a similar flagship role for Guadalupe. Many of Deju’s beers are augmented by familiar edibles. The addition of watermelon to a saison takes it from a traditional farmhouse flavor to something more akin to a Belgian-style tripel. He also brews a blood orange pale ale and a hazelnut porter. The latter is pretty straightforward and in keeping with its English roots, while the pale was probably the least impressive of the beers I tried—something tasted a little off there. The most striking beer of the bunch was an IPA by the name of Tepache. Brewed with Mosaic hops, it came on strong with bright notes of pineapple and mango followed by a bittersweet finish. It didn’t necessarily come across as an India pale ale—especially not in the San Diego definition of that style—but it had plenty of hoppy merit.
On the specialty-beer front, Deju also has a line of barrel-aged and sour beers. I tasted one by the name of Xokok, which he infuses with various fruits. At last year’s San Diego Brewers Guild Festival during San Diego Beer Week, I tasted a version flavored with blueberries and liked it so much I went back for seconds. This time around, the beer’s featured ingredient was tamarind. I am not a fan of that sour fruit, but in the beer, it works. That said, Xokok Tamarindo had nothing on its blueberry predecessor. But either are worth a try…as soon as you’re able to try them (which should be relatively soon). For now…beer beer everywhere and not a drop to drink.
The second stop on our #southbayuprising brewery tour proved the saying “all that glitters isn’t gold.” The shiniest stainless steel in the county resides at Novo Brazil Brewing Company (901 Lane Avenue, Chula Vista), but what’s inside is dull and spotty…assuming we’re referring to one of the many large fermentation tanks that actually has beer in it, that is. Many of them were empty at the time. But, dang, the place looks good.
There’s actually a lot to be said for the lengths brewery owners go to when it comes to providing an inviting and comfortable environment for their customers. At Novo Brazil there’s a lovely tasting room with plenty of seating, TVs broadcasting soccer matches, colorful wall-hangings, and even a help-yourself popcorn machine. A bevy of stacked barrels greets guests en route to a rather spacious sampling space with many beers to choose from, including some unearthed from those very vessels.
My party and I were greeted into the consumption phase of our stop at Novo Brazil by the scent of movie theater popcorn. No, it wasn’t coming from the aforementioned machine—it was rising from the non-existent head of a Pilsner. Aside from this obvious sign of diacetyl, the beer didn’t exhibit any characteristics of a classic Pilsner—straw-gold appearance, tightly bubbled white head, sharp back-end bitterness. I’d have mistaken it for a blonde ale or a flat pale if forced to venture a guess.
Another of the subpar offerings included a dry stout that tasted like it been filtered through a Randall filled with ash-tray residue, probably from the improper use of really dark grain, or scorching the wort. We also weren’t fans of the Belgian-style quadrupel. I’d had a barrel-aged version of the quad during last year’s San Diego Beer Week. Back then I picked up some sourness, which is highly uncharacteristic of a big, malty Belgian dark strong ale aged in oak. I had hoped the problem was with the barrel, but the base beer had a weird pomegranate-like fruitiness, as well as burnt caramel bitterness and an off-putting cloying sweetness.
Novo Brazil’s Russian imperial stout was better than the aforementioned dry stout, but still had too much bitterness in the finish. A Belgian-style tripel was low on aroma and big on banana and honey sweetness, but was again too bitter at the end.
The brewery’s hoppier offerings fared better with the group. The English India pale ale we tried had no noticeable hop aroma, but its IBUs (international bittering units) were spot-on for a UK-style IPA. The Otay IPA was under-carbonated, but it did have a nice citrusy nose with flavors to match thanks to the use of Amarillo, Centennial, Citra and Simcoe hops. A second IPA, Copacabana, had a lemony scent but was pretty one-note on the palate…that note being bitter.
Our last stop of the day was the oldest of the South Bay’s three fermentation interests, Border X Brewing Company, which awaited us in Barrio Logan. Check in tomorrow for that report.
Disclosure: In his day job, Brandon works as the marketing manager for Miramar’s AleSmith.
President, San Diego Brewers Guild
Each year, the San Diego Brewers Guild elevates a member of the local brewing industry to the role of president. Unlike the American presidency, candidate selection comes without muckraking, spouting of platitudes or child-like behavior. The Guild is all for one and one for all, with this year’s one-for-all being Mike Sardina. The assistant executive officer for Kearny Mesa’s Societe Brewing Company, Sardina volunteered for the position, serving first as vice president under last year’s leader, Kevin Hopkins (Mother Earth Brew Co.) to get a feel for the position before taking it on. A trip to the SDBG’s oval office resulted in the following presidential interview outlining some of Sardina’s initiatives for 2016.
What inspired you to throw your hat in the ring for Guild presidency?
Mike Sardina: Even before I transitioned into the industry, I was a fan of the beer community and the camaraderie among the brewers here in San Diego. Coming down here from San Francisco to visit and explore all-things-beer, it was clear that the Guild played a big role in making San Diego a magical place for beer. After I joined Societe, I started attending Guild meetings. At an early meeting, I saw (California Craft Brewers Association executive director) Tom McCormick present his legislative update and I knew then and there that I wanted to be as involved as possible with the Guild to help promote San Diego beer and the interests of local brewers. This led me to the Board of Directors and into the position of vice president in 2015.
What does being president of the Guild entail?
MS: There are many facets to the position, but it ultimately comes down to working as hard as possible at every opportunity to achieve the mission of the Guild, which was founded in 1997 in order to promote San Diego breweries, create an open line of communication between brewers and advocate for more modern beer laws. I am involved with fielding media inquiries, hosting folks from out of town and sharing my favorite San Diego breweries with beer tourists. I host the Guild’s general meetings and organize formal and informal meetings between brewers. I also work on legislative issues facing brewers at the local, state and national levels.
What are some initiatives you are excited to introduce and work on?
MS: I am excited to push harder this year to get more people involved and working collectively toward advancing the idea and the story of San Diego beer. Two specific areas of interest are establishing working committees within the Guild, one that focuses on technical brewing and quality, and another that focuses on beer tourism, hospitality and marketing the concept of “San Diego beer” at the national level. I fully believe that if we all focus on quality beer and technical brewing proficiency at each San Diego brewery, and if we all focus on promoting San Diego and the incredible beers being brewed here, we can help our county achieve the recognition that it deserves as being the best beer city in the world.
What are some opportunities for success for local brewers that the Guild can help with?
MS: Getting exposure for breweries, introducing beer drinkers to their beers and stories. The Guild publishes the San Diego Brewers map, an important resource and tool to help promote beer tourism and brewery visits in San Diego. Third is San Diego Beer Week. Get involved with the Guild during San Diego’s biggest annual celebration of beer. SDBW should be a highlight for beer brewed and poured locally, and the brewers and bars here are directly responsible for that.
What is a major problem facing local brewers?
MS: First and foremost is beer quality. If you’re not brewing good beer, that is an issue, and you are doing a disservice to the entire community in San Diego. We can’t accept bad (or even mediocre) beer. If we want San Diego beer to be representative of the best beers in the world, then every brewery here needs to be brewing world-class beer. Fortunately, there are members of the Guild who are willing and able to help fix quality issues. Be open and honest about your beer and don’t be afraid to ask for help. One bad glass of San Diego beer reflects poorly on us all. Don’t cut corners.