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SAN DIEGO BEER WEEK: Good To The Last Drop

When planning this year’s San Diego Beer Week festivities, San Diego Brewers Guild president Adam Carbonell and his committee decided earlier on to focus on quality versus quantity. Thus, rather than commit their energies to creating a bunch of new events, they funneled the majority of their time and attention into making the most ofBeer Week’s opening and closing ceremonies.

The first of those bookend events was the San Diego Brewers Festival, which was moved to an outdoor site offering more room to move on top of other notable amenity upgrades. The second was Sunday’s Beer Garden event, which was similar to last year’s Chef’s Celebration of San Diego Beers. The latter was held in the outdoor courtyard of an almost hidden Qualcomm facility in the business-only hills of Sorrento Mesa. Needless to say, this year’s location—the renowned Lodge at Torrey Pines—was an upgrade. Unlike last year, the event sold out, and that had a lot to do with the top tier site as well as the variety of big name breweries and chefs that were more than happy to spend a sunny Sunday showing off two of San Diego’s fastest-growing industries.




San Diego Beer Week was good to the last drop.

Photo by Brandon Hernandez



“This is a great thing for San Diego and the craft beer industry,” says Gunther Emathinger, the chef responsible for menu development for Karl Strauss Brewing Co.’s restaurants. It was a sentiment echoed by locals and tourists alike chowing down on sumptuous dishes like Emathinger’s pistachio-crusted lamb chops with fig and root vegetable hash, which were served with New English Special Brown Ale.

Emathinger wasn’t the only brewery restaurant chef manning one of the dozen beer and food stations. Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens’ Alex Carballo and Jason Seibert created an awe-inspiringly broad array of house-cured meats, pâtés and tender roasted squab served with duck liver mousse atop a crispy walnut-flecked waffle. Then there was the foie gras bratwurst and warm potato salad served up by chef Paul McCabe from KITCHEN 1540 (a restaurant that’s about to undergo some exciting changes…look for news about that coming up in my weekly FOODfare column) and a creative take on “Thanksgiving Dinner” presented by Harney Sushi chef Anthony Sinsay that included turkey breast cooked sous vide with a creamy cornbread purée, a chicharrón-like truffle potato puff and a froth made from cranberries and Ballast Point Reef Rye. Of course, no day of foodie decadence is complete without dessert and bringing a tasty end to this progressive meal was a gluten-free chocolate cake with rich cocoa-infused tofu frosting from Cal-a-Vie Spa that melded beautifully with Karl Strauss’ San Diego Beer Week Licorice Stout.

There was a lot of excitement among the brewing professionals I spoke to at the event, not to mention a great amount of relief at having worked together to pull off a spectacular 10-day celebratory span. To a person, they felt good about how San Diego Beer Week turned out and were looking forward to going back to life as usual. To be sure, this Monday would feel like one of the easiest week-starters in a long time.

I, for one, wasn’t quite ready to call it quits. I hadn’t unleashed my inner beer geek since the very first event I covered (Stone’s Rare Beer Breakfast) and had a reservation to take in the literal final event of Beer Week, a rare beer tasting at O’Brien’s Pub conducted by one of the most famous brewers in San Diego (or anywhere), The Lost Abbey director of brewing operations Tomme Arthur.

Arthur and O’Brien’s owner Tom Nickel worked together as brewers for Pizza Port’s Solana Beach location in 1997 (or as they affectionately refer to it—50 pounds ago). During that time, they formed a lasting friendship borne of many hours in the brewhouse and a multitude of three-to-four day marathon trips that formed the basis for many a crazy occurrence; the type that help form lifelong relationships and equated to this event conveying a back-to-their-roots aura which added extra fun to an already plenty enjoyable evening. This was the duo’s third such collaboration and the second time in as many years they have closed out San Diego Beer Week with this event, which sold out at 40-plus attendees and packed what is one of San Diego’s oldest and most respected craft beer bars.

This edition included a total of 13 beers, none of which had been publicized beforehand. “We’ve found telling people exactly what they’ll get isn’t the best way for us to do promotions. There should be a reward for those who signed up not just because they’re ‘whale hunting,” said Arthur, noting an industry term for seeking out the most esoteric beers around versus exercising consistent patronage (plus, admittedly, a certain degree of faith).

Beers were served in seven different flights, the first four of which featured two beers a piece where one was an everyday commercially-available brew and the second was a beer from The Lost Abbey’s barrel program (which includes barrel-aged and sour beers) built off of that standard variety. A prime example was Amazing Grace, a low carbonated sour featuring notes of red wine-like dust and oak that was made using barrel-aged Lost and Found Ale plus a batch of Gift of the Magi, a holiday ale flavored with Frankincense and Myrrh. The current bottling of Amazing Grace has yet to be released and was served in label-less bottles. It doesn’t get much rarer than that and the opportunity to try it in its infant state alongside its base beer may never come around again.

That flight was followed directly by Red Poppy, a Flanders-style sour ale inspired by Arthur’s palate-changing experience of tasting his first bottle of Rodenbach, the world’s most popular brand of Flanders. Lower in alcohol content than most American-made Flanderseseses, Red Poppy has won three big awards over the last 12 months alone—a 2009 World Beer Cup silver medal, 2010 Great American Beer Festival bronze and Best of Show at the recent Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers in Chicago. Red Poppy was paired with Framboise de Amarosa, which is packed with an outrageous amount of raspberries to produce a fruity in-your-facedness that Arthur describes as “bombastic.” To find either of the two aforementioned beers at any point during one’s beer travels would be a big deal yet, on this night, they registered as speed-bumps of sorts due to the quality of the field and the incredibly rare beers still waiting in the wings.

Case in point was the next beer of the night, Yellow Bus, a peach sour that was produced just once in 2007 and has never been made commercially available. “When we made it, Terri and Sage [Osterfeld], who run tasting bar, brought us the peaches for the beer from their house. The tree died after they picked them and it’s a very special heirloom variety of peach,” says Arthur. “There’s something very special about having somebody bring you these peaches. We could buy some variety of farmer’s market peaches, but it just wouldn’t be the same.”

With 28 total bottles of Yellow Bus in existence, it’s easy to see why having the chance to enjoy five ounces as a sour beer intermezzo was so special. This is the most fanatical end of the craft beer event spectrum. People who are passionate about craft beer planning their lives around once-in-a-lifetime experiences that, thanks to brewing companies like The Lost Abbey, make for memorable experiences and the types of first-time taste sensations you thought you left behind in your teens. Think about it. How often have you tasted something taste bud-shatteringly new, much less half a dozen items that made you feel that way? It’s the thirst for that sensation that drives the beer geek (I can call them/us that…we’re very Comic-Con like that, sans the costumes) and of all the beers The Lost Abbey produces (and there are many), few are as coveted as their Veritas series, beers that are only meant to be experimental and, hence, are never released to distributors.

“No bar on the planet has poured all eight varieties of Veritas,” proclaimed Nickel before Arthur announced that he had brought not only Veritas 007, a sour brewed with Temecula cabernet franc grapes, but also the new Veritas 008, a sour brewed with lemon zest and black tea leaves, that had just been released at a very exclusive Barrel Night event the previous evening, and was brought along by Arthur as a special surprise gift for attendees. This “why not” gesture garnered a thankful ovation from the crowd, who likely could have died happy there, but were treated to two darker 12.5% ABV barrel-aged beers—a blended imperial stout dubbed Deliverance and a most special Grand Cru blending of The Lost Abbey’s barrel-aged barleywine, The Angel’s Share—that made for potent and fitting endnotes.

On top of the insane beer line-up, was a slew of tasty tapas-style offerings from a team of cooks including Vince Marsaglia (the co-owner of Pizza Port and a recreational commando-style event chef) and day kitchen manager Humberto Aguilar, co-owner Lindsey Nickel and bartender Tyson Blake of O’Brien’s. Among the dishes served were crab cakes, pork belly tacos, a duo of bread puddings (chocolate imperial stout and another with dopplebock caramel) and some of the best steamed mussels (pristinely plump gems plucked from Carlsbad Aqua Farms) I’ve ever had…talk about an added bonus.

Over the course of the night, Arthur took the time to talk to fans, answer their questions and explain the complicated processes behind his one-of-a-kind beers. He and Nickel also found chances to chat, exchange tasting notes and, like most contemporaries in the beer trade, give each other a hard time.

For beer drinkers who, like me, were sad to see San Diego Beer Week come to a close and are looking for the next chance to try a boatload of rare beers, you need look no further than to December 3 and 4 when the 14th annual Strong Ale Festival, an event featuring over 75 beers over 8% ABV (including varieties from across the country that aren’t typically available in our region), takes place at Pizza Port Carlsbad. This festival, along with Pizza Port’s annual Real Ale Festival and Belgian Beer Party, was conceived by Arthur and Nickel and has been carried out by them ever since. As is exemplified by Sunday’s event, when it comes to these two, you can trust in the quality and a big return on investment.

Ditto that for San Diego’s brewers and beer industry supporters, who came out in a big way to make the 10-day, 472-event extravaganza that was our second annual Beer Week, something our entire county can be proud of and the rest of the nation can point to as yet another reason San Diego is truly exceptional.