San Diego. My third time visiting, with the last time being six years ago. Each time was to attend a large GIS (Geographic Information Systems) conference , but this time was going to be a little different, as I was to man a booth in the exhibition hall for around three days, kissing babies and shaking hands with anyone brave enough to stray close to my lair. Actually, they turned out to be quite tiring, long days, interspersed with business meetings -- all very productive I must say -- and I knew that there would be late nights with excesses of food and beer. Yes, the charms and pitfalls of the San Diego conference scene, all rolled into one.
Before leaving, I had scouted out potential places to visit, but I knew I would be very unlikely to get out to the likes of Stone given the schedule, and indeed, I'm almost ashamed to admit that pretty much most nights were spent crawling 5th, the spine of the Gaslamp district, a bit of a tourist hellhole that I equate to Temple Bar in Dublin. But still, it was within spitting distance of the hotel, and anyway, even if most bars are dives, there was good beer to be had, and for me at least, some new ones to try. Let's deal with the bigger breweries first. Roll it there Colette...
Blue Moon Belgian White, apparently owned by Coors, of all companies, though I presume they just bought the Blue Moon Brewing Company, and hopefully left them to do what they do. With an orange-gold haze, it has a distinctive orangey aroma, although some of that may have come from the mandatory slice of orange that appears on the rim of practically every wheat beer you order here. It has a crisp bite up front, a little tart, but with a gentle orange twist, an earth middle-ground and a surprisingly warming and morishly dry finish. It's gassy though!
Shock Top Belgian White, another wheat beer from a mega brewer. I should point out that, more often than not, the way I was buying beer was to ask the server what they had, tune out while they listed Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Miller, Miller Light, Corona, Corona Light etc... ad nauseam, till they hit something I hadn't heard of before. "Stop there, what was that? I'll have one!" Anyway, I didn't know that this was made by Anheuser-Busch InBev, but in fairness, I thought it was ok. Kind of sweet in a fudge, banana and orange way with a slightly sour note to the finish. Satisfying enough, and I would have had another if we weren't getting bored in that bar in particular.
Nakhon, made by San Miguel, and pretty much the only choice at a certain Thai restaurant where the food was mediocre (apart from Christian E's Honeyed Duck), and the beer relatively tasteless. Well, it did have a slight citric nose, which was surprising, and a reasonably malty body. Meh. Why is it never possible to get a flavoursome beer in an Asian restaurant? Nice label though.
Ok, so much for the big producers, I was of course on the lookout for the local beers. Ballast Point Yellowtail Pale Ale was chosen at random from what I could see of the fridge. What they describe as "Yellowtail Pale Ale Kolsch" on their website, it explains why I wasn't getting the huge citric components I was expecting from an APA. Not that they weren't there, but far more gentle. More a light malty base with a twist of lemon. The flavour is similarly more malt-focussed, but it's light, slightly fruity and again with a refreshing lemon twist. Not the most thrilling beer in the world, but a damn good refresher after a hot day.
Of course Stone beers featured strongly. I think the Stone IPA was the first beer I had on hitting the bars, about an hour after landing. Served in a 12oz bottle that was shoved into a mini ice bucket (see above) in that Den of iniquity, Dick's Last Resort. Actually, they probably like to think of it as a den of iniquity, what with the sassy back-talk/mild insults from the bar staff and servers, and all that bloody napkin throwing, and the chap dressed like Hitler in a skirt with a riding crop, but it's just a tourist hole, and was surprisingly empty many of the times we popped in. Did I say many times? Ehhh... Well, anyway, the beer was good! The IPA, with expected thick, citric aromas delivered what I expected from it, with a decent malt base upon which was piled masses of hoppy goodness. Robustly bitter in that grapefruity and resinous way, with fruity and toffee undertones. Another great American IPA, although based on the back label, somebody should point Greg Koch over to Zythophile's IPA myth busting blog post.
Arrogant Bastard had to be sampled of course, this time while watching the very entertaining Stilettos with some great covers (Walk This Way in rockabilly style for one) all the while with things like Bettie Page movies playing in the background. But man!, those people in the audience could dance! The music was more balanced than the Arrogant Bastard, and although I enjoyed it for the extreme/novelty factor, I actually thought it wasn't well balanced and felt it didn't have the depth that the back label proclaimed. Clearly heavily hop driven, there is some dark malty undertones, but they are essentially wiped out. In fact, half way down I thought it was a bit of a one-trick pony, all aggressive bitterness, and that's it. Maybe I wasn't worthy!
I had the Stone Pale Ale towards the end of the trip, and frankly, I was disappointed. After the IPA I was expecting something along the same lines, but maybe just less bitter. Sure enough, there were those lovely hop elements, but I was mostly struck with a raw grainy taste that I'm not sure was supposed to be there. I'll have to try it again.
I did manage to have some Karl Strauss beers (well, i had to really), with the Red Trolley being the most memorable, and not just becasue I had been riding around San Diego on the real Red Trolley. An amber ale with a decent toffee-caramel base, light fruit notes and a balancing hop kick. Definitely not extreme, but a very nice beer with a large steak. Similarly, the Regatta Red from Rock Bottom, a fairly dark Amber Ale, heavy on the caramel malts and with a slight toasted/roasted note down the back, tempered with a reasonable bitterness. You wouldn't drink it all night, but it compliments a flame-grilled burger pretty well.
Not quite local, Fire Rock Pale Ale, from Kona Brewing Company, was my first ever Hawaiian beer. Possessing a nice malty aroma cut with a light citrus note, this has a well balanced flavour mixing a toffee-like sweetness with a solid, pithy bitterness and a touch of sorbet. At 6%, it's slightly warming, and is very nice indeed. I really need to get over to Hawaii. Every year I go to San Diego I meet up with the GIS Coordinator of Maui (What a job!) for beer and cigars, trying desperately to get invited to work there for a few weeks at least! I reckon he needs a few more cubans to swing the deal...
I wasn't very good in the note taking department this trip (I was too busy drinking, Hargh!) so there's lots of beers I'm leaving out, but who wants to read long lists of beers someone else has had? Just writing is making me thirsty!