Friday, April 27, 2012

Adios San Diego!

This weekend marks the kickoff of the 2012 Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego. This is the second time in only 5 years that the conference has chosen the self titled "America's Finest City" for the premier gathering of all of craft brewers large and small. I am sure many could argue that it is because its "America's Finest (Craft Beer) City". With just one more day left in San Diego, before it was time to head north and back to the mountains, I thought what better time to check back in with some classics: Stone Brewing Co. and San Diego Brewing Co.

Up up and away... running out of room for more tanks at Stone,
America's 11th largest craft brewery in 2011
I first visited Stone's Escondido location 6 years ago while attending my friend Jason's wedding in La Jolla. It was my last stop in San Diego County before getting dropped off at the airport. It was to be my second to last stop this time! "This is becoming a tradition", said Jay as we walked up to the doors.

Last time we had planned ahead and were able to meet up with Mitch Steele, the head of brewing operations at Stone. He is genuinely regarded as one of the friendliest, most welcoming people in an industry filled with good-natured people, and he definitely lived up to that reputation. Last visit included a tour around the brewery and trading of beer goodies in the lab cooler, followed by a few pints in Stone's World Bistro and Gardens. This time Mitch was out of town (but kindly returned my call with his condolences) and I was out of beer to trade anyway so we ended up taking the regular tour followed by the obligatory pints at the pub.

Our knowledgeable guide (who I unfortunately forgot to write down his name) showed us around Southern California's largest brewery. Lots had changed in six years as Stone has been growing at or ahead of the craft brew pace. The 120 barrel brewhouse was the same but there was a lot more of everything else; fermenters, cold storage and packaging equipment. I also learned they use a hop back instead of dry hopping to get extra hop aroma in their beers. It was nice to see all the expansion that had taken place and the tasting room folks were very friendly. We tried all kinds of Stone offerings. Stone is available in 36 states and it's not hard to get many of their beers.  I had no objection to trying them again, always better when fresh at the brewery, along with some more limited releases.

In addition to their own large selection Stone features many other
beer selections from various breweries

Stone Pale Ale - 5.4% A hoppy Pale and my favorite year round beer from them
Smoked Porter - 5.9% Very dark and smoky and also a favorite of mine
IPA - 6.9% very hoppy IPA... they are not ashamed of using a lot of hops here
Arrogant Bastard - 7.2% A bit bigger, a bit darker, and a bit hoppier, and a rounder flavor than the IPA and a classic favorite in beer circles, the name doesn't hurt either
Oaked Bastard - 7.7% Just a hint of oak cuts through all the other flavors, nice balancing act
Levitation Ale - 4.4% I love this flavorful session beer, I can drink it all night. 
Brown? Red? You decide!
Self Righteous Black IPA - 8.7% Very hoppy with a little of the roasty flavor coming through
15th Anniversary Black IPA 10.8% ...just a bit bigger, why not, its your birthday!
TBA - Bear Republic/Firestone Walker/Stone Collaboration brew
Cali-Belgique IPA - Fruity from the yeast, hoppy as Stone likes it

Keep and eye out for their Point Loma brewhouse opening soon, which will feature a 10 barrel brewhouse.  I would not be surprised to see a lot more innovations coming out of Stone once its up and going.
Tucked into a strip mall, my last San Diego County stop
Determined to cross one more brewery off my list I made a quick stop into San Diego Brewing Company on my drive out of town. It was close to where one of my New York friends, Victoria was staying at her brother's, so a nice place to meet for a pint, or sample paddle in this case. The brewery was struggling to keep up with the demand from two restaurants that had been busy and unfortunately just a couple of their 40 taps featured their own beers but I heard they are in the middle of an off site expansion that will allow them to keep up with demand and get more creative with their own brews. I tried what they had on tap though and look forward to stopping in on my next trip to see how the new brewery shapes up.

Nicole guided us through the beers available at San Diego Brewing Co.

El Hefe - Hefeweizen - 4.5%, light golden wheat beer
Grantville Gold - 4.5% Another light beer for those not ready for bigger flavors
San Diego Amber - 4.5%  
80 Shilling Scotch Ale - 5.5% and my favorite
Choco Latte Porter on Nitro - 7% hint of chocolate, med body, sweet boozy porter
Callahan's (sister restaurant) Blueberry Wheat - Light and spritzy, a touch sweet and quite fruity

Driving north was sad and exciting. Goodbyes to a great brew scene, friends and sunny beaches to see some family, more breweries, the sunny mountains and more friends... ok that does not sound that bad, here we go!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Update from the road

So I am sitting here in Christchurch, New Zealand at Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn enjoying my after work beer and getting geared up to do some writing and I know I am really far behind chronologically with the blog.  I only intended to do an entry or two per week but I have over a dozen entries in the pipeline and basically the website is 4-5 weeks behind real time. The idea here is to just give a little update on where I am at the moment and where I have been as a bit of a teaser of whats to come on the blog.

Last meal in San Francisco before catching my plane!
After a month of driving across America, visiting over 40 breweries, including countless beer samples, I flew to New Zealand and continued on my beer tour's feverish pace.  In the next couple of weeks my writings will drive us up the west coast of the states, fly across the Pacific and introduce us to the beer scene in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch, which filled up my first 3 weeks in Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, the Maori name for New Zealand. Highlights include the New Zealand Beer Festival and Marchfest in Nelson, which I caught at the tail end of the hop harvest.

Founders Brewery was ready for Marchfest with
their "Envy of the Empire" IPA
Marchfest in Nelson, land of NZ Hops

My initial goal was to get a job as an assistant brewer here, roll up my sleeves and get dirty in the brew house. Brewery work is not as glamorous as it sounds from the outside, it generally involves long hot sweaty days and nights, mostly cleaning. I met a lot of craft beer folks the first few weeks in New Zealand. At first look the craft beer scene here is a good 10-15 years behind the States but it's on fire as we speak and it won't take more than a couple more years until its just as diverse and exciting. Most of the craft breweries, in this country of just over four million, are one or two homebrewers that "go pro" in their garage or contract brew. Hence, there aren't a bunch of medium to large craft breweries that have jobs to fill. The number of craft breweries over 10,000 barrels a year (Harpoon is 200K BBLs and Sierra Nevada almost one million barrels) is probably less than a dozen.

Huge turnout for the NZ Beer Festival in Auckland

 In total there are about 60 breweries at this time and a lot of them contract brew.  In the end I went to plan B, or I'll call it B+, beer bar work, and got a job at Pomeroy's in Christchurch. Its one of the most respected craft beer bars in New Zealand.  Almost all beers and special releases come through here.  Its a great spot to keep my finger on the pulse of the New Zealand beer scene.  I'll try to go to as many as I can but the rest will naturally come to me, or really to Pomeroy's.  There are other great beer bars in New Zealand and more opening all the time but from what I have seen and heard this is one of the top 5 in the country. Now the plus I mention is because as we speak there is a brewery on a boat headed for Pomeroy's and I'll be here for the install and the subsequent batches of beer that come out of it. B plus indeed!

Cafe culture in NZ. Kiwi's love it
And I need it to keep going!
Its not all beer 24-7

Hot springs, cold Kiwi beer
One of the few cheap foods in NZ:
Green lipped mussels, nom!

Brew day at Harrington's... sunrise in the shadows of the damaged Ami Stadium

Christchurch isn't the epicenter (terrible earthquake reference, I know) of New Zealand craft beer but they are home to Harrington's Brewery which is one of the oldest craft breweries in kiwiland. Newcomers Three Boys Brewery and Cassels & Sons Brewery are also putting out great beers, and out at an old airfield Wigram Brewing is part of the craft beer party too. As the second busiest airport in the country Christchurch will be a good launch pad to other beer destinations in the country... and maybe Australia and beyond. I hear they are opening a new craft brewery in Fiji soon, wink wink!

This is also last call to submit you home pub photos for the Beer SWAG From the Road contest. Feel free to leave comments or send me feeback at You can also stay up to date with my travels at beerlesstraveld on Twitter (drop the last "E", ran out of characters) and for more beer eyecandy there are extra photos on The Beer Less Traveled facebook fanpage. I've gotta run and help nail up the new ceiling in the pub before they open in 8 hours. That's a long time to think about what my shift pint will be... Cheers!

Monday, April 9, 2012

San Diego - Challenging my Craft Brew Biases

Cramming my surfboard and snowboard into my car...
ready to take on the California Coast!
The world of craft brewing is growing fast and that is what makes it extremely exciting although noisy. I've said before there is never a lack of material, its choosing what to write about that is difficult.  Everyday new breweries are opening up and existing breweries are putting out new beers.  No one person can keep up with it all.  Another thing I realize as I talk to craft brew fans and producers around the world is all the different opinions on what craft beer is and how it should be made.  The conversations often get heated, though a good beer usually calms everyone down. Some of it is semantics, some of it process or political. One thing is for sure some opinions are strong in favor of one philosophy or another.  As I travel around absorbing differing view points in the beer world, I find myself questioning some of my craft brew biases.

If I had to sum up my preferences for craft brew: I would drink something that was high quality (good balance, not oxidized, no diacetyl butter bombs), fresh (best buy/bottled on dates?), honest about what is in it (ingredients, ABV, IBUs, additives), open about how it was made (organic? pasteurized?) and who makes it (contract brewed? big corporations pretending to be small brewers?). I also prefer access to the brewery and the people crafting it, either through tours, tasting rooms, social media or brewery events. I want the people making my beer to be as excited about making and drinking it as I am. I want to know their story. It will be interesting to watch how my priorities evolve as my travels unfold.

Best seat in the house is one of the bar
stools overlooking the downstairs brewhouse
One bias I held before the trip was against brewpub chains. I would shy away from these back home and when I traveled. Its hard to pinpoint why, maybe lower quality perceptions, perhaps I assumed profit driven motives were driving expansion up and quality down. I might have assumed if they were offering wine and mixed drink features their number one priority wasn't beer. Maybe I had one bad experience 10 years ago. Trying to open up my mind and pallet, I threw aside my preconceived notions of  brewpub chain quality and intentions, and ventured into a few Southern California staples.

Solana Beach is one of the quiet beach towns dotting the Southern Californian Coast as you drive north on Highway 101. Pizza Port Brewing Co, now sporting five locations, has won a ton of awards and has been a staple on the west coast for decades. In fact this coming Sunday is the 25th Anniversary of their first location, which started here. They do two things really well, beer and pizza.  Aileen and I walked in on what we thought was a quiet Sunday evening, just after catching the sunset down at the beach, and were surprised how busy it was. All kinds of people are attracted to the brewpub and they have
Two flights didn't even cover all the beers offered!
something to offer everyone, craft brews, great pizzas, arcade games. We met a mix of families, groups of teenagers and older beer drinkers alike.  The picnic table seating also makes you get to know your neighbors, something that isn't for everyone but I like. We ordered a "make your own" pizza with a mix of veggies and then proceeded to the taps to see what was being poured. There were a lot of beers on tap. Erica, one of the managers walked us through the selection and let us try a few tastes. She also hooked me up with some stickers. (which you can still enter to win, see contest here) Per usual going with flights lets you try more beers than with pints. The advantage of having an "assistant" is you have a little help to finish the beers so you can get two flights! We were halfway through the beers when the pie came out, perfect timing just as we were getting to the heartier beers.

California Honey Ale - 5% Gold color, pretty sweet and light 
Old Bones Barleywine - 9% Semi hoppy dark brown and full bodied 
Pronto West Coast Pale - 6.4% Medium bitterness, dry and balanced
The Road West Coast IPA - 7.8% Medium bitterness, very citrusy
Poor Vato Imperial IPA - 10.3% A maltier Double IPA
Tubby's Robust Porter - 5.9% Roasty Dark and Dry, my favorite
T Grins American IPA - 7.2% Hoppy "West Coast" IPA
Jules Winfield American Stout - 8% A touch sweet and dark

Surfing takes a lot of energy out of you and I had no problem finishing up all the pizza that was put in front of me.  The beers were tasty and had a lot of variety. We grabbed pints of our favorites and a roll of quarters to round out the evening with some arcade games. I then found I am better at real soccer than video soccer! I could get used to this brewpub chain thing. Brewery chains: 1 - Ed: 0 Tomorrow we would try another.

Pizza Port - Quality pints and quality pies!

Brew Kettle
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, named for Karl Martin Strauss a German American brewer who fled Nazi Germany in 1939, is another of Southern California's brewing pioneers. Started in 1989 and now boasting six locations in the region. We went to the original location in downtown San Diego. I had to drop Aileen at the airport and what better way to finish off her trip than another brewpub!

It was busy as we caught the tail end of the business lunch crowd.  Luckily there were a couple of seats at the end of the bar right next to the taps.  Jeff was our bartender and fittingly for SoCal a surfing, wakeboarding laid back local. He was excited to show us the line up and with seven years under his belt at the brewery he knew more than we could take in.  Again going with tastes and small pours to help get through the line up I tried everything I could! It was a short stop but Jeff did very well to squeeze every last beer drop into our San Diego beer adventure.

Amber Munich Lager - 4.2% A touch hopper than the German versions, my favorite
Oat Stout - 5%, Pretty dry, roasty, porter like 
Full Suit Belgian Brown Ale - 6.3% Semi sweet, estery, brown ale
Off the Rail - 8.5%, 40 IBU, Imperial Red Trolley Red
Tower 10 IPA - 7% 70 IBU Grapefruity West Coast IPA
Windansea Wheat - 5.1% Cloudy Wheat, Lots of banana, Aileen's Favorite
10th Tap Black's Beach Extra Dk Lager - 4.7% Limited rotating tap, awesome roast flavor, lighter dark
Red Trolley Red - 5.8% 17 IBU Nice Malty, touch of roasty malt flavor, GABF Gold 2012

Lots of variety on tap at Karl Strauss
Brewery Chains: 2 Ed: 0. At the end of the day I would say I was very happy with both of San Diego's established brewpub chains.  They have paved the way for me to visit Rock Bottom, BJs and the other brewpub chains that now dot the American landscape. At the end of the day if your making good beer, we'll drink it. Cheers!

I'm having trouble remembering to
photograph samples BEFORE Idrink them!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

First Contest!

SWAG From the Road Contest!

Just a fraction of the beer SWAG up for grabs
My bag of beer SWAG is weighing me down on the road!  I want it to go to a good home so please send a photo of your home bar that needs decorating and one sentence describing why you should win, to I'll post them and the one that gets the most votes wins. I'll send you my collection of coasters, stickers, buttons, etc from my drive west and New Zealand! Good luck!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

San Diego - Last Rays of Sunshine

When talking about traveling around the world it’s easy to overlook how big America is and how many treasures there are to discover close to home.  My extended Santa Fe stay (see previous post) left me skipping Flagstaff, Phoenix and Arizona Beer Week (my apologies AZ… next year maybe!) and bee-lining it straight to one of the United States’ most visited and cherished vistas; The Grand Canyon.  I drove to within 2 hours of the park and pulled over for some sleep. After a 4 hour snooze I continued my drive in the early pre-dawn morning. The goal: Sunrise over the south rim.  The clouds were just turning dark purple as I arrived at the National Park gate.  I parked the car and walked along a path in the darkness with eager anticipation. The place is massive and I was the first one to the observation deck. For the next hour I endured the freezing winds while the sun slowly painted the clouds every color of the rainbow.  I probably took over a hundred photos but its just something you can’t fully capture on film. Like a great beer you just have to try it yourself. After another hour hiking along the rim, peaking out from each precarious viewpoint and listening to awed whispers in every language imaginable, I heard the ocean calling me.  Back on the road, craft beer heaven awaits!

Sunrise at the Grand Canyon before heading to San Diego, ahhhh...
San Diego has become one of the hotbeds of the American Craft Beer scene.  I’m not exactly sure why… maybe it’s the laid-back surfing and beach culture or perhaps the large military presence bringing back world beer culture and flavors. Usually places with warm weather beckon only light refreshing styles of beer but San Diego is awash with hoppy beers, dark coffee brews, high alcohol abbey beers and any other combination of things you can throw in a beer. Possibly it’s because a few beer pioneers pushed the flavor envelope so long it just does not seem weird to have super flavorful beers around, regardless of the weather. Whatever it is I knew at best I could only visit a third of the 30-plus San Diego County breweries, but I would do my best.  With the mountains behind me and the ocean calling I started to descend towards sea level to the land of fish tacos and crafty brews. Did I mention yet how much I love fish tacos?
Not just a one trick pony, Ballast Point has
entered the craft distilling movement as well.
Another 8 hours in the car across the desert and Northern Arizona and Southern California… I barely missed reaching the Pacific Ocean for sunset.  You can’t have it perfect every day! I met up with fellow travel buddy Jason Falco and his family at his favorite neighborhood soccer pub. Shakespeare's is an English style pub and basically does Fish and Chips and English Ales as you would expect but they still had some Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA on tap, satisfying my need for a regional craft beer. They also have a craft bottle feature each month. One pint was enough to calm my enthusiasm. After such a long, road weary couple of days, I slept very soundly that night. The sun, sand and hoppy suds of San Diego awaited and I needed all my energy to pursue all its flavors the next few days.

It was good to trade in the mountains and snow for the surf and sand for a few days. I'm always torn when I think about whether I'd rather settle near the ocean or in the mountains.  Some lucky places have it both ways, maybe that's where
If you wait a few more years those aged whiskey
barrels will probably be home to some
barrel aged beers as well

you'll find me someday. I was excited for the San Diego beer scene, stoked to trade my snowboard for a surfboard, and lucky that my girlfriend Aileen had flown out to join me for a long weekend on the beer road. She likes beer enough but tends to let wine and
spirits into the mix more than I do. This made our first stop very fitting as Ballast Point Brewing Co. not only makes great beer but has recently entered into the craft distillation world, a growing trend.

Ballast Point's brewery is not quite in the top 50 but is growing quickly and I wouldn't be surprised to see them sneak in there when 2011's numbers are released later this month. We were lucky that the Friday noon tour was empty when we walked in 5 minutes late for it. We ended up with a sweet personal tour that showed us all the expansion projects going on. We also got a close up look at the distilling options.  We followed up the tour with a pretty complete sampling of what was available in the tasting room.

Wahoo Wheat - 4% Belgian Wit with orange peel and coriander, hazy yellow and 
full of fruity esters, just how I like it! 
Ballast Point Pale - 5.2% Modeled after a Kolsh but with more hops, kind of light, dry and balanced
Fathom Indian Pale Lager - 7% 70 IBUs, another hoppy version of a traditional style, light but bitter
Sculpin IPA - 7% 70 IBUs Not the hoppiest but the driest of the India Pale series and my favorite
BigEye IPA - 7% 75 IBUs The hops come out more on this one
Piper Down Scottish Ale - 5.2%, Aileen's favorite but probably b/c she likes puns
Black Marlin Porter - 6% 45 IBUs Nice roasty lighter bodied porter, mix with Big Eye to make a delicious Black Eye!
Sea Monster Imperial Stout - 10% Big and chocolaty 
Its funny how your notes get shorter as you work through the beer list

Rule number one: Take notes, because you WILL forget
Rule number two: Don't lose your notebook

A huge thank you to Alex and Justin for showing us around the brewery and Julia for walking us through the beers and sharing their favorite San Diego beer bars. If you can do it get to the early tour. As we were leaving the line up for the Friday afternoon tour was backing up. It would be a shame to have to wait too long for your samples! Next stop Coronado.

Sad but true... a few bottles of deliciousness
leapt to their demise; no fear they will make more
Ah the memories of long days on the bottling line!

Another sunny day shines on Coronado Brewing Co.

One thing Aileen and I had in common was that we had both been to San Diego once before, though
we had been to different parts than each other.  She had never been to La Jolla and I'd never been to Coronado.  The good news is both have breweries! Coronado is known for its sparkly mica infused
beaches, quaint streets, the Sand Diego Coronado Bridge and the Hotel del Coronado.  So famous is the hotel that the tap handles from Coronado Brewing Co. bears a miniature likeness of it on top. I suppose a bridge would be harder to fit. We did stop by the hotel and took in the view and the scene which was nice, especially for Mojitos or sunsets, but if you want a good craft beer on the peninsula (frequently called an island, just a small strip of sand prevents this misnomer from ringing true) you go to the brewery.  The tasting room was lively and served a good mix of pub food with some true to San Diego seafood mixed in. We ordered a sampler tray, some mussels, and the cajun seared ahi on coleslaw, rolled up our sleeves and got into it.

Coronado Golden - 5.4% Light with a touch of Saaz Hops, like a Czech Pilsner 
Orange Ave Wit - 5.2% Hazy wheat with orange peel and coriander 
plus some sweetness from  local orange blossom honey
Mermaids Red - 5.7% A nice roasty red, a great break from the hoppy reds I'd been finding
Islander IPA - 7% A nice balanced IPA
Sweet Charlotte Cream Stout - 6.2% Smooth, roasty stout
Hoppy Daze Belgian IPA - 7.6% Missed this style from back east, Fantastic! Fruity from the Belgian yeast, with medium hop bitterness 

A beautiful copper clad brewhouse pumps
out craft suds for thirsty servicemen,
locals and tourists alike!

They also sport a few guest taps, which while we were there included West Coast favorites, Anchor Steam and Deschutes plus German import Paulaner. Other regional beers such as Sierra Nevada, Stone and our recent friends Ballast Point also make the list from time to time.

If you have time to rent bikes, maybe before too many beers, its a great way to see the rest of what sun soaked Coronado has to offer. Happy from from good eats and suds we headed back to the mainland to plan the next day's activities. Jogging down beaches, surfing and obviously more breweries lay in the future. Oh did I mention fish tacos? Time to check out some of those craft beer bars we heard about, I'm sure they will satisfy both needs! See you soon... Cheers!
A big selection of house beers with a few local and regional craft beers mixed in