When I was growing up, I thought Southern California was all about surfers. Then I found stuff like this.
I quickly learned that there are a lot more craft beer drinkers in SoCal than there are surfers.
So in late August 2014, I packed my bag and hopped aboard a plane to obtain a first hand taste of Southern California’s beer culture, from LA to San Diego and back.
Me and about 150 beer bloggers from across this land met up to share our experiences around the craft beer universe. The Beer Bloggers Conference is a truly incredible invention —put together by a firm called Zephyr Adventures— at which we get beered and dined for three days straight and educated by some of the top talents in the craft brewing industry. If Zephyr’s other beer, wine, and food adventure travel and tours are even half this good, they would be the place to book your next trip. Just sayin’.
At the conference I found out these beer blogger types are a really well-informed and talented bunch. And most of them are just as smart or smarter about beer than me. That’s the kind of environment that gets me charged up. To see all the cool, innovative things these guys are doing makes me anxious to get cracking myself.
I think it’s good to get out of my Appalachian mountains every once in a while to see how the rest of America lives. I found out they are living quite well on the West Coast.
Here are my top 10 highlights of the conference and my travel before and after. In no particular order, they are:
- Visiting Golden Road in L.A.
I guess it was my lucky day to be hanging out between Meg Gill (left), Golden Road Brewing Company president and co-founder, and my colleague and friend Carol Dekkers (right). Over the past two years I have heard and read a lot about this three-year-old brewery. Trust me, they are doing a lot of things right to be on track to sell 30,000 barrels of beer this year. It was great to get to see it inside out and taste their brews. Especially enjoyed their Wolf Among the Weeds IPA. Now I know why they are such a major contributor to changing the L.A. craft beer scene.
- Getting into the barrel house at The Bruery
Fellow blogger Tiffany Adamowski waits her turn for a taste of Sour in the Rye. I hesitate to throw out such an overused simile, but we were like kids in a candy shop. There’s no better way to say it. I’ve been a fan of The Bruery since I first tried their beer at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival. Back then they were a tiny start-up that no one really knew much about. Since then, their sours, big stouts, and Belgian-inspired styles have proven to be as good as anyones. I learned during the visit that in the near future they will be labeling all their sour, barrel-aged beers under the new Bruery Terreux label.
- Learning San Diego beer history
I know history may not be your favorite subject, but if you have to learn history, you need to learn it from teachers like these. Seated from right to left are: Peter Zien, CEO and brewer at AleSmith Brewing Company, Chuck Silva brewmaster at Green Flash Brewing Company, and Tomme Arthur, head brewer at The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing Company. That’s a lot of San Diego beer history at one table. These guys probably have a hundred GABF and World Beer Cup medals among them. I learned that San Diego’s beer history goes way back, but its big-time craft beer success is a relatively recent thing.
- Trying a sour beer from Lagunitas
I’ve sampled many Lagunitas beers before, but never anything sour. (No, Little Sumpin’ Wild is not a sour.) Sonoma Farmhouse Sour Ale is a true sour beer and a real tasty one at that. The Lagunitas folks brought down some from the brewery especially for us bloggers. I loved the fruit-funk aroma and the pineapple-like fruit taste that perfectly balanced the sourness. Lagunitas has made a number of sour beers through the years, but most never strayed far from the brewery taproom. I don’t know if this one has a future as a production beer or not, but I’m giving it a big happy face. 🙂
- Hanging out with Stone brewers
Stone Brewing Company brews some of the most iconic West Coast beers and is probably best known for its hugely popular IPAs. So it was fun hanging out and talking with the Stone brewers as they hosted our group for a casual dinner at one of their beer gardens.
In the photo above I am having a Stone 18th Anniversary brown IPA with Mitch Steele, Stone brewmaster. And by the way Mitch, back here in West Virginia we are lobbying for finalist Columbus, Ohio as the location for Stone-East. It’s just right across the Ohio River and over a few cornfields from my home. Nothing like having a Stone brewery beer garden in our neck of the woods. I’ll be looking forward to the roasted brussel sprouts and fried olives, and, of course, to something sublimely self-righteous. (A Richmond, Virginia location wouldn’t be too bad either.)
- The Lost Abbey tasting room
Yes, I’m an East Coast guy but I have been a follower of Tomme Arthur’s brewing since I met him and heard him speak at a Belgian beer conference in January 2005. That was shortly before he started his gig as head brewer for The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing in 2006. The next year, he would bring home to Lost Abbey the title of the nation’s best small brewery from the Great American Beer Festival. Since then I always knew that someday I would visit The Lost Abbey brewery and tasting room. I did and I loved it.
- Visiting Ballast Point pilot brewery
About the only thing I knew about Ballast Point Brewing Company was that their excellent Sculpin IPA commanded a premium price back on the East Coast. I discovered it also sells for a similar premium in San Diego. That certainly says something about how much the market respects their products. I guess that’s why they are among the fastest growing breweries in the country. Colby Chandler, Ballast Point’s executive director and specialty brewer, was a super host to me and my friends as he showed us around his pilot brewery and sampled us on his stunning-good Smoked Serrano Kolsch, for which he had carefully selected the hops to complement the taste of the smokey chili pepper. It was a masterful, memorable touch.
- Feeling the great vibe at Smog City
Laurie Porter, pictured above, brought a lot of energy to our tour of her Smog City Brewing Company. It reminded me of small breweries in my part of the country. I enjoyed the vibe and the beer too—their Little Bo Pils, Porter, and Session Pale Ale, I especially enjoyed. Not yet three years old they are already finding success that is the envy of many. They are vibrant, experimental, growing, and yet maintain a laid back, fun, down home feel that I appreciate. They may be in the L.A. area, but I felt a nice connection with this place.
- I wish it were in my neighborhood
Societe Brewing Company is one of many small breweries stuck in neighborhoods around the San Diego area. I think if I lived in San Diego, I would definitely want to hang out here. They had serious beer. They had a good looking interior. They had friendly, interesting customers and bar staff. I loved their hoppy ales and Belgian-inspired brews. I felt comfortable in the place.
- A real southern style BBQ joint in SoCal
Beachwood BBQ & Brewery in Seal Beach was an unexpected treat. We’d heard about its beer from several brewers when asking for a recommended place to stop on the drive back to L.A. What I didn’t expect was the food menu—authentic southern-style BBQ and sides. I loved the brisket and fried green tomatoes that I washed down with a superb Beachwood Alpha Master Pale Ale. Brewery owner Gabe Gordon was a most gracious host, even sending us off with a bottle of the day’s special release—Pride of cHops IPA. I couldn’t imagine a better late afternoon lunch stop.
- Stellar Pacific Sunsets
I know I said 10, but I just had to include this as a bonus. We don’t get these kind of sunsets in my little part of the world. The hills and hollows of Southern Appalachia do not allow such a vantage point. West Coast folks are truly blessed to get daily doses of this. The photo was taken at San Clemente beach just before a visit to the local Pizza Port brewery for dinner. Thanks to Carol Dekkers for making me stop long enough to fully enjoy and savor this view.
— Charles Bockway Ⓒ 2014