I recently had the chance to go to Southern California for business. My business was on a Tuesday which normally would mean that Monday would be the travel day. So I decided to come a couple of days early, arriving around noon on a Saturday in early March. My friend Tom works for an airline and was able to fly out for free and join me for a weekend devoted to experiencing as many San Diego breweries as feasible in two days. The trip is divided up into four posts, one for each day of the trip:
- Day 1 – Pizza Port, Ballast Point, Hess Brewing, Alesmith, Wet and Reckless (this post)
- Day 2 – Alesmith, Alpine, Modern Times, Fathom Bistro, Stone
- Day 3 – The Bruery
- Day 4 – Angel City Brewing
the last two were just evening stops. For those of you contemplating/planning a Southern California beer tour I hope this post will have some interesting information for you. For everyone else maybe you will get some vicarious pleasure from reading about the best beer trip I’ve yet to experience.
Stop 1 – Pizza Port Carlsbad
After picking up our rental car at LAX and driving about two hours down to San Diego County we pulled into Pizza Port in Carlsbad. We grabbed a table outside, ordered a pizza, and picked up a pitcher of their Kick Flip Kölsch. Under other circumstances I might have made a different choice (there were a lot of intriguing choices on the tap list) but there were a lot of stops ahead and I wanted to be still standing with some semblance of my memory left at the end of the night. At this point I should mention that it was Saturday afternoon, sunny, 81 °F, and we were 5-6 blocks from the beach. So after the long cold Ohio winter we could have been drinking a pitcher of Bud Light and life would have been good. As it turned out the Kölsch was easy drinking and appropriate for a summer-like day, but I will say it didn’t measure up the Schafly Kölsch I had in DC the week before.
Pizza Port in Carlsbad has a small bottleshop adjacent to the brewpub so we stuck our heads in to see what they had. I didn’t see much that tempted me, but they did have several bottles of Seizoen Bretta by Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Hood River, which is one of my all-time favorites and impossible to find in Ohio (it’s the only beer on Pat’s Pints to receive a perfect 10 rating). So I snagged a bottle, threw it in the trunk of the rental car, and we walked down to the beach to get our feet wet in the Pacific. Having checked that item off of our list, we brushed the sand off our feet and headed inland to our next stop.
Stop 2 – Ballast Point
This was one of the stops I was most looking forward to. Sculpin IPA is such an iconic beer, but by the time it gets to Columbus it always seems to be 6-12 months old. So I was very curious to see what it tasted like fresh. We pulled into their main brewery and tasting room at around 5 pm. It’s set back in a commercial/industrial neighborhood. There is a fairly long bar with a reasonable amount of standing room on the inside, a medium sized patio with 8-10 tables on the outside, and a small area inside with merchandise for sale. There was a food truck specializing in grilled cheese creations set up right off the patio. The place was standing room only for the entire time we were there. There was a charter bus parked outside, no doubt some kind of brewery tour, which was at least partially responsible for the big crowd. Having said that the place was well staffed and there was little wait once you walked up to the bar.
I started with a half-pint of Sculpin. It was tasty no doubt, with its trademark orange/tropical fruit aroma and just the right amount of bitterness. Although I enjoyed it very much I was not blown away. I think the better Ohio IPAs can hold their own with it. After finishing the Sculpin I went for 4 ounce tasters of several other Ballast Point offerings. Black Marlin Porter is a really good Robust Porter with a lot of chocolate and coffee character. Fathom is an India Pale Lager every bit as hoppy as Sculpin but with a little crisper malt canvas on which the hops do their thing. Dorado is a Double IPA with the expected assertive hops and resinous mouthfeel. It was a very good closer for our stay at Ballast Point. Of the 11 breweries I visited on the trip I would give Ballast Point my vote for the best hop-forward beers of the trip. However, the hectic atmosphere didn’t leave much chance to interact with the bartenders or the patrons. It sort of reminded me of happy hour at (insert your favorite beer bar that draws in youngish professionals). However, there was one dude dressed in a full-body leopard skin garment that can best be described as a cross between a bathrobe and a pair of coveralls. I’ve yet to see that at Bodega.
Stop 3 – Hess Brewing
After leaving Ballast Point we drove a mile or so to our hotel, checked in and parked the car. We chose the Holiday Inn, North San Diego Miramar (9335 Kearny Mesa Road) because of its location and the fact that there are several breweries within the 5 mile radius served by the hotel’s complimentary shuttle (Ballast Point, Alesmith, Green Flash, White Labs, Intergalactic, Wet and Reckless, Hess, and a few others). This place makes an excellent base of operations for visiting great breweries in the “beer belt” as they call it. In fact there were way more breweries than time or sobriety would allow us to visit. (Editors Note: See the Beer Mapping Project San Diego Map to get a good sense of the distances between breweries.)
Based on a few good things I had read online, we decided the next stop would be Hess Brewing. The shuttle driver had a hard time finding the place, because it is set back in an industrial park and at Saturday night around 7 pm everything here was pretty dark. Just when we were about to give up, we spotted a light coming from an open garage door and a handful of people sitting around some picnic tables. The space might best be described as a big garage and it had the vibe of a casual backyard party populated by beer geeks. The beer styles were varied and most of the beers I tasted were high quality. Tom and I both went for a taster flight which consists of a custom pint glass (which you keep) that they fill up a little less than half-way five times, all for $14! Probably the best bargain of the night. The two beers that stood out for me were the Magna Cucerbita (almost all of their beer names are both hard to pronounce and hard to remember), which is an awesome pumpkin stout, and Grazias Induresco, which is their Vienna Cream Ale (Grazias) infused with coffee and poured on nitro.
In addition to pouring tasty beer the atmosphere here was the best of anyplace we visited. The manager, Wes, was super friendly and helpful. The layout was conducive to interacting with the other patrons and we ended up talking to about half the people there. It was here that we met a fellow beer lover who I will just call LA Beer Girl, because either she didn’t tell us her name or I can’t remember it (I’m pretty sure the former). She was down from LA for a weekend of visiting breweries and was seated with a guy we assumed was her boyfriend/husband. Anyway their next stop was Alesmith just like us. Because the two breweries are less than a mile apart we had planned to walk, which seemed to strike everyone at the bar as a theoretically possible but a never before tested experiment. Given the situation I thought we might get a ride with the two of them, but it turned out that was a no go because their car only had two seats. So near the 8 pm closing time we reluctantly said goodbye to Hess and set off on foot to Alesmith. It turns out the walk only takes about 15 minutes. Taking all things into account, I’d have to say Hess Brewing was my favorite overall stop of the trip. (Editor’s note: Hess Brewing has a newer much larger location in North San Diego.)
Stop 4 – Alesmith
Continuing the theme of the night this brewery is also set in a suburban commercial area. If you didn’t know better you could easily mistake it for a dentist’s office from the front. Inside the space is reminiscent of smallish pub with a partially visible, larger back area where the beer is made. What I loved most about Alesmith was the fact that they had something like eight different barrel aged/special release beers on tap (six of which were still on tap when we arrived). It was hard to choose but I ended up trying four ounce tasters of four different beers. I had their IPA, it was good but at that point in the night it did not stand out for me. I then had a barrel aged Doppelbock called Decadence 2013 (they brew Decadence in celebration of their anniversary and each year it is a different style). This beer is quite possibly the best Doppelbock I’ve ever had, so much so that I went back the next day to have an 8 oz pour and wrote up a full review in the beer reviews section, check it out if you are so inclined. Next I had their Bourbon Barrel Aged Wee Heavy. I have to admit my palate was not at its optimum at this point in the night, but my recollection is that it could hold its own with Backwoods Bastard or Wulver. I finished with a variation of their iconic Speedway Stout, this one made with Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. As you might expect this beer was brimming with dark roasted coffee aroma and flavor, it’s hard to imagine a more coffee forward beer. Among the San Diego breweries visited on the trip Alesmith had the best variety of special beers, and probably the best beer overall.
It was now approaching closing time, 9 pm, and we were having a pretty good time at this point. My original plan had us taking a cab to Societe brewing, but it was something like 7 miles away and closing time there was 10 pm. LA beer girl had made her way over to Alesmith and was now on her own. It turns out her partner was just a co-worker who had dropped her off. She also wasn’t ready to end the night so at her suggestion we agreed to go together to the next stop, Wet and Reckless brewing, which was only a few miles away. She arranged for an über cab (online ride share service) and the three of us were off to our next stop in the beer belt.
Stop 5 – Wet and Reckless Brewing
By this time of the night my ability to objectively describe the beers was completely shot and my ability to accurately describe anything else was faltering. I can tell you (because I took a picture) that on Saturday March 8, 2014 Wet and Reckless Brewing had ten beers on tap, several of which had names that are easy to remember even without the photo—Honey Badger Don’t Care, Oral Pleasure, and Golden Boy. Dave, the brewer/owner and the servers were very friendly and accommodating. Just as at Hess Brewing they made us feel very welcome. The tasting room was not very big, but reasonably full with fellow revelers who were in a mood to party. Our new partner, LA Beer Girl, knew someone at a big table in a room that was set off from the main tasting room so we joined them.
At this point the fact that we were two guys from Ohio, one of whom writes a beer blog, in town for a beercation, at this small nanobrewery, made us minor celebrities. Almost certainly celebrity is too strong of a term, but that’s how it seems in my ethanol impaired memory. At the least people were friendly and the conversation was flowing. Before we knew it closing time was approaching. A half-baked plan of heading down to Tijuana was discussed, but thankfully abandoned. Tom ended up booking an über cab back to get us back to the hotel. Because it was Tom’s first time using über cab he inadvertently ended up booking the most expensive option, a somewhat luxurious Lincoln Town Car that could pass for a limousine to a room full of drunken revelers. It pulled up and the driver got out and opened the doors for us. The kind of show of service you don’t get with a cab. Fifteen minutes and thirty five dollars later Tom and I were back at our hotel for the evening. I’d like to think that somewhere in San Diego County there is someone who is telling a story of drinking beer and swapping stories with a beer writer in from the Midwest for an assignment, but I realize that could only be true if said person had imbibed more than I had that evening, a plausible but unlikely scenario.
That wraps it up for day 1. Follow one of the links below for similar updates on the rest of the trip