In Craft We Trust: San Diego
WORDS & PICTURES: Richard Croasdale
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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Finally, we reach San Diego, the end of our journey and Holy Land of craft beer. Chuck a handful of malted barley in the street here and, instead of pigeons, you will be surrounded by craft brewers trying to turn it into a passion fruit gose.
Our first stop is the Eppig brewery, where I am meeting the owners and Daylen Dalrymple of Stone Brewing, who has selflessly volunteered as my guide today. Like many US brewers, Eppig is a great adherent to the German brewing tradition and very focused on producing great, traditional lager. The brewery itself is typical of so many Californian microbreweries; a tiny brewhouse and equally tiny taproom, but every bit as much pride as a brewery exporting tens of thousands of barrels across the world.
The building used to be a strip club, and founder Stephanie Eppig cheerfully points to the reinforced brackets in the ceiling where the poles used to be (the VIP lounge is now where they keep their malt).
Stephanie’s family emigrated from Germany in the 1800s, where they were involved in agriculture. The brewing tradition only began after they arrived in the states and her great, great uncle got a job in a brewery in Brooklyn, before opening his own in 1866. He brewed only lagers for the first five years, and the records of those original brews have served as inspiration for Eppig’s modern lineup.
“We wanted to innovate and put on a modern twist, but still stay true to those traditional German styles,” says Stephanie. “So we have all the German-style lagers, which are brewed very strictly, but then we have a Japanese-style lager too, which is light and dry for summertime, and also a festbier; a traditional Oktoberfest/Märzen-style, which is available all year round.”
While I admire Eppig’s dedication, I’m curious as to how these (albeit delicious) German-style lagers are received in the heart of IPA country. “San Diego is such an IPA town, for sure,” she says. “It’s what people come to San Diego looking for, so it’s pretty unusual to have this many lagers on the board. We’re very popular with the locals though, and these styles are coming back in. For example, our dry hopped, unfiltered lager recently won a silver medal at the California state fair.”
Happily, Daylen’s husband is on hand to drive us across town to our next destination, though not before a quick stop at White Labs’ own taproom. As a yeast nerd, this is a wonderful surprise for me, and I tuck into a flight of beers brewed with different yeasts (but are otherwise identical) while casually watching the white-suited technicians at work through an observation window.
Alesmith is just around the corner, and is one of the breweries I’ve been most looking forward to visiting. Its Speedway Stout and Nut Brown Ale are right up there on my list of personal favourites, and I’ve heard there is a VIP barrel tasting room somewhere in the building. Founded way back in 1995 by home brewers Skip Virgilio and Ted Newcomb, Alesmith is one of the oldest craft breweries in San Diego.
In 2002, Skip and Ted sold the business to Peter Zien, who had started his career washing out kegs there, but had through sheer talent and hard work risen to head brewer. In 2015, Alesmith moved from the industrial unit where Mikkeller San Diego is based now to the purpose-built 106,000 sq ft brewing playground it now occupies.
“Everything you see here Peter and his wife Vicky have created in the past 15 years,” says the brewery’s Chris Leguizamon, who is showing us around. "Today we’re distributing to 26 different states and seven countries, and have all the room we need here to expand even further.” This is certainly true.
Alesmith’s operation doesn’t feel small, but cavernous space currently dwarfs the pretty sizeable brewhouse and bank of towering fermentation vessels. Even the brewery’s extensive collection of barrels (which, incidentally, to a barrel nerd like me, includes some buttock-clenchingly exciting specimens) looks somewhat forlorn at this scale.
Chris also confides in us that the third of the three units is currently being fitted out for a ‘non-beer’ project, currently under wraps. He’s understandably tight-lipped, saying only that it will bring to fruition a long-standing personal obsession of Peter’s.
What’s striking throughout this whole conversation (and indeed, in all the San Diego breweries) is how at-ease Chris seems strolling around, talking shop with Daylen who, after all, works for what should be one of Alesmith’s main competitors.
Today, she also happens to be wearing an Alesmith vest. As we end our tour in the plush VIP barrel tasting room (the rumours were true), I question them on this. After looking at me blankly for a moment, Chris says, “well, yeah, I mean we know all of the same people anyway, and everyone in this town is all over everyone’s business, so we don’t really think about it in that way. I’m a huge fan of Stone, and have got a bunch of friends there. We’re all just making great San Diego beer, so of course we want each other to succeed.”
Finishing my 2016 barrel aged Speedway Stout (12%. Daylen went for the 2017 rum barrel-aged Old Rumskull at 11%), we decide the 15-minute walk to Alesmith’s old brewery, now home to the mighty Mikkeller, would be a good tactical move for both of us.
It’s probably worth pointing out that, although it sometimes feels like it, we don’t plan all of our beer adventures around the location of Mikkeller bars; they happen to be in some of the world’s coolest beer locations, and so do we. At the end of a road in a suburban industrial estate, the bar is pretty quiet at this time of night, so we join the brewer Chris Gillogly, who has obviously already finished for the evening and is enjoying a schooner of Raspberry Blush Berliner weisse.
I follow his lead. After a couple, we’re ready for a tour of the brewery, where we wander round sampling beers straight from the tanks and barrels. The pièce de résistance though (for us, at least) is a small cabin that houses the brewers’ experimental work. Unlikely containers clearly salvaged from a kitchen hold ominous, bubbling goo of various hues, while battered-looking barrels leak their unctuous, luminous contents onto the concrete floor. We have to do some climbing to all fit into the cramped space.
Returning to the bar, which is now closed, Chris pulls out a tray of glasses and proceeds to give us a very slick (and generous) guided tour of Mikkeller San Diego’s full range, including a couple of beers that haven’t quite been released yet. By the time we roll out of Mikkeller a little after midnight, we’re extremely grateful for the existence of Lyft (which everyone in California seems to use instead of Uber these days) and, back at our hotel, fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
For the final full day of our road trip, we meet up with Daylen again and ride out to Escondido, home of the magnificent Stone Brewing. Stone has a special place in our hearts at Beer52, as one of the first US craft brewers that many of us really got to know, so the idea of visiting it at home almost feels like an act of pilgrimage.
Even during one of the hottest weeks of the year, California has pulled out all the stops for us today, and the short walk from the air conditioned car leaves my lungs itchy and the top of my head somewhat scorched. This is quickly forgotten once inside the cool oasis of Stone’s on-site bar and restaurant though, where we’re joining a team of senior brewers, scientists and marketing folk for lunch and a catch up among the tropical plants. What comes through very clearly from these conversations is the ownership and pride that everyone feels in their own roles and in the brewery’s output.
As we tuck into our various wonderful salads (welcome to California) there is a genuine, unforced debate going back and forth across the table, with contrary opinions on everything from the necessity of filtering to the brewery’s Berlin operation and pursuit of its own new styles.
A few people have privately questioned me recently on whether Stone – with its huge international scale and success – could still legitimately be classed as a ‘craft brewer’. I wish such people could be a fly on the wall for this conversation, because I doubt there would be the slightest lingering doubt in their minds.
These are not just technically expert brewers, but clearly passionate advocates of craft beer in general, keen to take their art further every day. After lunch and a tour of the brewery itself (huge, well-organised – you know the drill), we’re invited to take part in one of the quality assurance lab’s regular sensory evaluations.
Run under carefully controlled conditions, this is pretty nerve-racking for someone who isn’t doing QA every day, as we’re asked to identify genuine ‘off’ flavours in several bottles of W00t stout. Aside from this being one of my favourite beers, we have no idea which of the samples is off, or what the fault might be. We’re also sitting with some of the people who may have been involved in brewing it.
The stakes, in short, are high. Somehow, we manage to get our scores into the right ballpark and not offend anyone, and the whole experience (which includes a detailed tour of the lab) is a fascinating insight into the lengths to which Stone goes to ensure its beers are not only fault free but also consistent over time.
As we’re walking through the beautiful landscaped garden on our way out of Stone, Daylen breaks the thoughtful silence: “Actually, I meant to ask, do you guys like Nick Cave?...”
That’s how, on our final evening in San Diego (and our last in California) Fraser and I come to be standing in an old theatre a couple of blocks from the hotel, with a bunch of our new friends (and 4000 other awe-struck San Diegans), listening to the Bad Seeds scorching their way through their back catalogue.
It’s an amazing, intense, intimate gig despite its scale, and an oddly fitting way to round off an unforgettable week. After an (albeit brief) sleep, we’re up with the dawn again, to cram in a couple of final breweries…
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