San Diego – King of the IPA

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Oct 15th, 2011
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I don’t claim to be an expert on San Diego or West Coast IPAs in general.  I do get to San Francisco once or twice a year, and I am a fan of northern California IPAs such as Lagunitas, Racer 5, and stronger versions such as Pliny The Elder.  In fact, I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it.

Last year around this time, I had my first taste of Sculpin IPA at The Monk’s Kettle in San Fransisco (a bar I highly recommend for lunch or an early happy hour … it’s a little on the small side and crowds up later in the day … just a short walk from the BART stop at 16th & Mission … but I digress).

Sculpin is from Ballast Point Brewery in San Diego, and it’s not a beer that we see in the Southeast US.  I do recall enjoying their Victory At Sea Coffee Vanila Imperial Porter at The Lodge in Hilton Head once, but that was my only previous exposure to Ballast Point.  Sculpin makes a strong case for possibly being the best American style IPA … a near perfect blend of hops.

San Diego is also home to Alesmith, who brews yet another world class IPA.

And in San Diego North County, of course, there’s Stone Brewing.  Ruination IPA is one of my favorite full frontal hop assaults, technically more of an Imperial IPA, although only a little stronger than Sculpin.  And they also have Sublimely Self Righteous, one of the best names for a beer ever, and the second best black IPA … being second only to Stone’s 15th Anniversary brew.

With a few nights in San Diego, I had some additional exploring to do.

My first stop was Beer Co., an oddly named brewpub with a convention center/downtown friendly location in The Gaslamp Quarter.  They’ve got a decent happy hour with $3 house pints.  Their regular IPA was not available, but they had a fresh hop beer, that they simply called “Fresh & Wet IPA”.  What can I say … it was well balanced and had a nice fresh hop aftertaste.  Would I put it up against the established San Diego IPAs?  Not quite … but for $3 a pint, it was pretty good.

Happy hour over, the descriptions of the other house beers didn’t catch my interest, and I wanted something with a little more body to go with some food, so I opted for Shark Bite Double Red Ale from Port Brewing.  Hmm … I do need to explore more of the beers from Port Brewing.

Eventually I found my way to The Toronado.  I’ve paid a fair number of visits to The Toronado in San Francisco (speaking of good happy hour prices), so I was curious how this one would stand up.  Other than excellent beer selection and the same logo, the two Toronados are very different.  I enjoyed getting  beer recommendations from the bartenders, and managed to successfully stick with west coast brews until my final round, when I had to give in to the Rodenbach Grand Cru on tap.

Once the clock hit 11pm, I was busy texting friends in the UK who were on their way to work at 7am, telling them how our next big world drinking tour had to start in San Diego.  But it would only get better …

Pizza Port Ocean Beach

The next afternoon, I kept thinking about Port Brewing.  8 miles from downtown to the Pizza Port in Ocean Beach … too far to walk, and a rather pricey cab ride.  I’ve never used the option in the iPhone map that shows public transportation.  Hmm …  just a half hour bus ride?  Worst case, hour bus/trolley journey to get back?  Let’s put the iPhone map’s public transportation directions to test.

Wow!  Why can’t more brewpubs be like Pizza Port?  I’m not surprised that Pizza Port Ocean Beach just won the Small Brewpub and Brewer of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival.  I also can’t believe that they brew so many great beers in such a small facility.  My tasting notes show that I enjoyed the place so much that I tried 9 different beers at Pizza Port Ocean Beach (thankfully more than one was just a half pint).  I did take one detour from their beers to have a Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black Ale … wow, a hoppier Sublimely Self Righteous … very nice.

Only in California would a brewpub have three of their own IPAs that they were serving.  And only in San Diego would all three be outstanding.  The Get Wet Fresh Hop IPA was my favorite of the bunch, although While The Wife’s Away IPA came close.

I also really liked the Spaceman Belgian Pale Ale, which had a floral taste like Orval meeting a nicely hopped west coast Pale Ale.  Just One More Scotch Ale was a little strong, but satisfied my craving for a good Scotch Ale (more brewers need to try this style).  Rhino Chaser was a very nice Imperial Red … strong malt smacking up against strong hops.  And who could forget the Old Viscosity … a delicious imperial stout with great roasted malt and coffee flavors.

If there was a Pizza Port anywhere near me, I’d go there everyday.


Pizza Port Carlsbad

At the GABA, Pizza Port Carlsbad won the Large Brewpub and Brewer of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival.  I wonder how accessible they are via public transportation.  And the answer is very accessible via the Coaster train that runs from San Diego to Oceanside.

So the next day I enjoyed their Poor Man’s IPA … another day, another fantastic Pizza Port IPA.  The fresh hop Plant to Pint Pale Ale was incredible … liquefy the smell of fresh hops, and that’s what it tasted like.

I don’t normally go for Brown Ales, as they’re usually boring, but I had to try the Great America Brown Ale which just won a gold at the Great American Beer Festival.  It tasted like a mix of a brown ale with an excellent porter.  The brown ale gave a hint of fruitiness and hops, and the port brought on the roasted malt.  Very good beer, but some day I’d love to taste just the porter bit on its own.

Words don’t do justice for Pizza Port … incredible beer and very good pizza.  If I had more time in the area, I’d rotate between Pizza Ports from night to night.

From Carlsbad, catch a bus or train to Oceanside and transfer to the Sprinter train to Escondido (Nordahl Road).  From there it’s about a mile and a half walk to Stone Brewing World Gardens & Bistro.  I understand they have plans to open a hotel on their property, which would be welcome (although the bus ride back to San Diego wasn’t too bad).

Tap Handles above Stone Bar

Stone’s Anniversary beers are always worth drinking when available.  (I still dream about the 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate, one of my favorite beers ever.)

However, the great thing about drinking at Stone is the incredible selection of beers that they have from other brewers.  While I couldn’t resist starting with Stone’s Cali-Belgique (one of the best Beligan IPA hybrids … Orval re-imagined as an IPA), I quickly found myself drawn to trying some of the other selections on tap.  Denogganizer from Drake’s Brewing, a cask version of Green Flash’s Imperial IPA, and how often is Pannepot on the bottle menu with a reasonable price?

Another highlight of the trip was a Smoky Indian … I heard someone else at the bar order it, and I had to ask about it.  It was a blend (from the different taps at the bar) of the Smoked Porter and Stone IPA.  I have to say it was a pretty good mix.

Unfortunately, getting back from Stone to downtown on public transportation was a bit more of a challenge.  The Sprinter Train doesn’t run in the evenings, but using the iPhone map I managed to come up with a bus that was mostly an express with one changeover at a bus station outside a suburban shopping mall, and that had me back to my downtown hotel in 45 minutes.

It’ll be a better journey when Stone opens their on-site hotel, (and maybe an on-site tattoo parlor?) but overall it was a pretty cheap and easy journey on public transportation.  The RegionPlus Day Pass was $12.  That got me from downtown San Diego to Pizza Port in Carlsbad on the Coaster Train.  Then a bus transfer to Oceanside, and the Sprinter Train to Escondido and Stone.  And finally a bus ride from Escondido back to downtown.  I wish I could have made this trip on a weekend when Port Brewing is open in San Marcos.  The Sprinter Train runs past San Marcos … but, I guess there’s always next time …

Stone Tattoo?