GUEST BLOG--By Mike Shess, Publisher, West Coaster magazine--One of our main missions at West Coaster is to showcase the talented humans and businesses that create the San Diego brewing community. For this feature, we asked our readers for help.
The 15 in ‘15 covers 15 different categories, and answers were taken via an online poll that ran in November. 2015 was an exhilarating year in the county’s brewing industry, and this feature highlights just some of the movers and shakers that helped make it happen.
Best Beer Neighborhood: North Park
Once again, North Park was our reader’s top choice for Best Beer Neighborhood in San Diego County by an overwhelming majority of votes. It’s easy to understand why. The 92104 area added several new beer businesses in the year 2015. Both Barn Brewing and Home Brewing Co. opened across the street from one another, improving a historically sketchy area of El Cajon Boulevard. There’s now six total breweries in North Park, and they had a great year, too. Fall Brewing celebrated a killer first year in business in November, Thorn Street Brewing opened pub Home & Away in Old Town, Poor House has dramatically improved their beer’s quality and Hess Brewing expanded with a new tasting room in Ocean Beach.
Off 30th Street, Rip Current Brewing opened their satellite tasting room in 2015 (and then proceeded to be named Best Very Small Brewing Company of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival). Crazee Burger relocated their business to the corner of 30th & Lincoln, adding more draft handles to 30th Street.
The rich keep getting richer. Now ingrained into the DNA of the neighborhood, beer is seeping into other facets. Coffee roaster Dark Horse collaborated with New English on a brew for Bine & Vine (see Best Bottleshop), and Folsom Coffee will soon turn on beer taps adjacent to coldbrew coffee taps. Gourmet taco shops such as City Tacos, Tacos Perla serve Tijuana’s Insurgente. Streetcar Merchants serves sweets along with a small but thoughtful selection of local beers.
Although North Park’s the definitive choice for Best Beer Neighborhood of 2015, we’re looking forward to additional competition from the above up-and-coming neighborhoods in next year’s poll.
Best San Diego Brewery: Modern Times
Modern Times Beer has matured with equal parts skill and insanity in its two years of existence. More than doubling production from 6,500 barrels in 2014 to 16,000 barrels in 2015, the cans, bottles and tap handles of the “Lomaland Fermentorium” are becoming a common sight throughout the competitive shelves and draft lineups of San Diego County. Next year, the brewery estimates production will reach 33,000 barrels. Double-digit plus growth years in a row isn’t a fluke – the beer rocks.
West Coaster readers agreed. The core beers of Lomaland, Fortunate Island and Blazing World have gone over well, but the magic is found with the releases that started appearing this past year. 2015 was the first year MTB launched a new bottled beer each month. City of the Dead, Fruitlands Gose, Mega Black House were some highlights, and the brewery took notes on which bottles sold well. With that knowledge, expect to see a few new year-round offerings come 2016.
It’s not just beer, either. Within the brewery is also a coffee roasting operation, and plans are in the works for opening a brewpub in Los Angeles. Also, their first Festival of Dankness was focused on interesting/uncommon beers/breweries. In the words of brewer/organizer Derek Freese, this was a festival created for people that hate beer festivals. The first annual event saw over 1,000 attendees, 37 breweries pouring beers, and $10,000 donated to the charity BikeSD.
Modern Times is on fire. This dynamic brewery defines the essence of San Diego beer for the year 2015.
Best Local Brewpub: Abnormal Beer Co.
Abnormal is a part of a medley of operations that co-habitate what was once just another industrial suite in Rancho Bernardo. After a significant, transformative buildout, Abnormal Beer & Wine Co. opened early 2015. The restaurant component, Cork & Craft, has foodies salivating.
The in-house brewery is headed up by Derek Gallanosa and featured a 10 barrel brewhouse with 80 barrels capacity. With 30 draft accounts and counting, Debut IPA and 5PM Session Ale have been well received. Derek also curates the 41 tap draft program, which features guest taps and house beers.
Brewpubs are seldom known for their culinary flair. This is not the case with the Cork & Craft kitchen. Dishes with hand cut pappardelle noodles made in-house & slow cooked in a pork bolognese sauce, grilled octopus in Spanish-style ajoblanco sauce, or lemon ricotta agnolotti served with Buddha’s Hand are some of the items found on the menu. For the less adventurous, the bar menu offers jazzed up versions of brewpub staples like chicken wings, burgers and pretzels.
Although their first year in business, Abnormal has orchestrated 10 mind-blowing beer pairing dinners titled the Abnormal Dinner Series. The first dinner featured a vertical tasting with 11 different years of Cantillon’s Fou Foune. In May, AleSmith Brewing was hosted and 8 different courses were paired with 8 different AleSmith beers.
West Coaster readers were undoubtedly amazed at this factory of flavor that dropped in seemingly from space. Next year, the Abnormal Dinner Series will continue once a month, and a million dollar expansion for the brewery will boost production five fold.
Best Brewer: Cosimo Sorrentino
Cosimo Sorrentino is the head brewer of both Monkey Paw Brewing Company and South Park Brewing Co. Running a single brewery is tough. Cosimo managed to keep the beers flowing at ‘Paw while simultaneously helping open South Park in 2015 and bringing that new brewery online. Now, he splits his time between the two brewpubs, located in East Village and next to Hamilton’s Tavern, respectively.
Running two breweries is a behemoth undertaking, but Cosimo is stoked. “The opportunity in front of me can’t be ignored.” Cosimo replies when West Coaster asked him about how he manages his time. “I do what the beer needs me to do. If it means a 100 hour work week, so be it. There are people who would do anything for a shot like this. Luckily, I live between the breweries and don’t have any other commitments in life.” That dedication is reflected in the beer.
The 2013 Great American Beer Festival judges awarded Monkey Paw’s Bonobos a Gold medal in the American strong ale category, and in 2015 Scripps Pier Stout won a Silver medal. Beers such as Lup’d Up Single, a tart saison w/ Rhubarb and I5 brewed with coconut and salt stood out from Monkey Paw in 2015. Scripps Pier Stout + Lime In Da Coconut were fan favorites from South Park. Cosimo was also tapped to work with Stone’s 24 Carrot Golden Ale collaboration beer along with homebrewer Juli Goldenberg.
More cool beers are on the way. Monkey Paw will release Funky Sea Monkey Black Gose, a collaboration with Marin Brewing Co. brewed with squid ink. Caddy Corner Wit from South Park Brewing Co. will be a wit beer with neighborhood persimmons and oranges. Expect to see lots of beer pairing events from Monkey Paw and South Park in 2016, as well.
Best Homebrewer: Chris Banker
Oceanside resident Chris Banker has long been an active member in both Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity (QUAFF) and Society of Barley Engineers homebrew clubs. In 2014, he entered a beer that won the prestigious Stone Brewing Company American Homebrewers Association competition. Banker chose the Morales brothers of Tijuana’s Cervecería Insurgente to collaborate, and the beer was brewed at and released by Stone late 2014. The beer’s name? Xocoveza. Well, technically the full, proper name is Chris Banker / Stone / Insurgente Xocoveza Mocha Stout.
The beer was a runaway hit. The 8% chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg, chile pepper and Mostra Coffee-infused milk stout invokes the flavors of Mexican hot chocolate. The beer was so popular that Stone re-released Xocoveza in 6 packs and kegs mid-November 2015. Stone Brewing Co. also chose Xocoveza to be one of the three first beers brewed and released by Stone’s new Berlin brewery.
Aside from beer, Banker crafts cider, mead and wine and is also a skilled cheesemaker. An engineer by trade, Banker has a small, sophisticated half barrel homebrew setup fashioned from a hollowed out keg that doubles as his cheesemaking setup. A breakdown of this cool setup can be found online @ http://chrisbanker.com/homebrew.php.
Best Tasting Room: Green Flash & Cellar 3
Readers voted in equal numbers for both Green Flash tasting rooms. The 300 person capacity tasting room located in the Mira Mesa facility underwent a significant remodel in 2014. The remodel brought a bit more color and personality to the aesthetics, and added a standalone merchandise store, a separate growler fill bar, and stainless 30-tap draught system. Outside, there’s a substantial patio with picnic table seating, string lights, heating, and the Green Flash Gastro Truck serving food.
Mid-2015, Green Flash opened the doors of Cellar 3. Housing the brewery’s barrel aging program, there’s an elegant and spacious tasting room designed to showcase the brewery’s more limited & creative beers. Flanders Drive, Oculus Sauvage and Silva Stout are all barrel aged on location and then put on tap and into bottles. Still in its infancy, expect to hear and drink a lot more from Cellar 3 in the upcoming year.
Between the two tasting rooms, Green Flash moves 30 ½ barrel kegs a week and nearly 40 cases of beer. The large and open layout of each space allows for frequent events. Over 23 Hoppy Yoga sessions took place last year at the Mira Mesa location alone. In 2015, the brewery will begin a free shuttle service that stops at the Sorrento Valley Coaster Station, Cellar 3 and Green Flash.
Best Beer Bar: Toronado
Winner of last year’s Best Tap Rotation category, opinions shifted slightly this year. According to our readers, Toronado is now the Best Beer Bar in San Diego. Rotating about 40 kegs each week, the 56 tap handles of Toronado are frequently pouring the finest beer found on planet earth. The magic of Toronado comes from its versatility.
Monday through Friday in the early afternoon, Toronado serves as an embassy for visiting beer dignitaries and a rest stop for local industry. If an out of town brewer is visiting San Diego with time to only visit one bar, it’s usually Toronado. It’s not uncommon to find several brewery sales reps cooling their heels in-between meetings or furiously staring at a laptop/pacing out front on the phone. This quiet, gentle Toronado can be both a productive and deeply therapeutic space.
In the weekday evening hours, North Park gets hungry and thirsty. Neighbors begin to stroll in. The empty seats are filled and the din of chatter dances off the walls. This Toronado is for unwinding with friends after work over chicken wings and a few pints. Friday through Sunday, the energy level increases in step with the volume of the jukebox. Although it might be standing room only on loud, packed weekend night – it’s difficult to not have a good time. Weekend Toronado is for having fun and bumping into friends.
With only one modest TV screen that’s usually on mute and notoriously poor reception of cell phone signals, Toronado encourages conversation. Combine that with an outstanding tap list and this 2015 choice for Best Beer Bar becomes clear.
Best Beer Restaurant: Urge American Gastropub
Urge American Gastropub is a thoroughbred beer restaurant. Located in Rancho Bernardo, Urge opened in 2010 and has demonstrated a solid commitment to serving the best beer and food possible – often combining both (see: Sculpin-marinated Chicken Wings). On a regular day, Urge properly maintains 51 taplines that compliment a tasty menu served in generous portions.
And on non-regular days? Urge gets crazy. Special events frequently follow a creative theme, serve crazy beers and neat custom glassware. The restaurant celebrated their 5th Anniversary in late August, and breweries Mother Earth, Noble Ale Works, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada and AleSmith all created beers especially for the event. AleSmith’s 12% ABV Velvet Speedway Stout was the whale of 2015. Aged for a year in 23-year-old Evan Williams Bourbon Barrels, infused with a rye-whiskey/Madagascar Vanilla bean blend and bourbon barrel-aged cold brew coffee from Mostra, the beer was released for sales late July and sold out instantaneously. Urge throws regular events with similar panache year-round.
Sister operations include the wine-centric Barrel Room and restaurant/bottleshop/flavor emporium Brother’s Provisions – both are also in Rancho Bernardo. Coming up in 2016, the Urge empire will expand into brewing. Urge Gastropub Oceanside is presently under construction, and the 9000+ square foot space will include brewery Mason Ale Works, 41 taps and an extensive bottled beer and whiskey selection.
Best Beertender: Nate Soroko
Two years in a row, West Coaster readers named Nate Soroko as the Best Beertender in San Diego County. Having worked at Liar’s Club, Lost Abbey, Pizza Port Carlsbad and Alpine before settling into his current gigs at Modern Times and Toronado, Nate’s had a front row seat watching the culture of San Diego beer develop and mature. Perhaps no other human has poured more San Diego beer than Nate, and his work ethic, respect and passion for beer and the people behind it are contagious.
“I love watching people who love this industry succeed within it.” Nate elaborated, “Watching Fall [Brewing] blow up, AleSmith open their brand new facility, Bobby [Matthews] at Alpine getting a big promotion, Cork & Craft expanding, South Bay getting love and watching 30th Street continue to be the best beer street in America. It’s been a pleasure watching friends and colleagues follow their dreams or soar in their current positions.”
Best Homebrew Shop: The Homebrewer
West Coaster first wrote about The Homebrewer in February of 2011, when owner George Thornton announced he would be opening the shop on 2911 El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. Since opening the doors in 2012, the business has grown to much more than a simple supply store. The goal of The Homebrewer is to be a one-stop shop to get people brewing in a friendly, encouraging and educational environment. Our readers decided that there’s no better place to become a brewer.
We asked George why he thought readers chose his store against several other excellent homebrew stores in San Diego. His answer came quickly, “We have the best people in the whole world working for us. Selection, prices, cleanliness, organization… all of that stuff is a piece of cake. Our team makes us awesome.”
2015 saw the opening of Home Brewing Company, which is the small-batch commercial brewery and tasting room located within the store. Things to expect from the Homebrewer in 2016: a fourth anniversary celebration and a tasting room expansion. George is also keen to open a second and third location. “We’re always brainstorming and can’t wait to bring our vision to other parts of the county. We’re already scouring locations.”
Best Tap Selection & Rotation: Hamilton’s
Hamilton’s was our reader’s choice for the 2014 Best Beer Bar, swapping categories with Toronado and indicating a shift in our reader’s preferences. It’s a solid choice; even the most discerning beer-tickers can find an excellent, new beer any night of the week at Hammie’s.
Unlike other bars, Hamilton’s actively maintains a taplist online http://hamiltonstavern.com/, so one doesn’t have to physically present to witness what’s on the list. At time of press, 15 of the 28 taps are San Diego-based breweries such as Bagby, Hess and Abnormal. 22 of 28 are California breweries, with one tap usually dedicated to Russian River’s Pliny the Elder (an enduringly popular double IPA). Although the emphasis on local beer is evident, the only hard and fast rule is serving quality suds from independent brewers. Big Sky Brewing from Missoula, Montana, Left Hand Brewing from Longmont Colorado were also on tap at time of press. Owner Scot Blair & the hard-working Hamilton’s staff maintain a rigorous cleaning and maintenance schedule for his taps, and the bar’s well-earned reputation means breweries usually send the freshest, tastiest kegs when asked. An extensive bottle selection features both local and international breweries.
Hamilton’s organizes and throws legendary events. Each month, Second Saturday hosts a brewery for a tap takeover and free food is cooked up from the kitchen. In December, AleSmith Brewing was hosted and brought Velvet Speedway Stout (see our Best Beer Restaurant of 2015, Urge for more info on this whale), Hawaiian Speedway Stout and Double Hammerhead Speedway Stout along with staple beers Lil Devil and .394 Pale Ale. The complimentary food was holiday-themed with deconstructed shepherd’s pie casserole, beer-braised pulled turkey and duck. During football season, each Monday there’s a keep-the-pint night and each Friday there’s featured brewery & cask.
When it comes to serving beer, Hamilton’s is at an elite level few other bars match.
Best Beer Festival: SD Brewers Guild Fest
Two years in a row, our readers have named San Diego Beer Week’s Guild Festival as the best beer fest in the land. An official production of the Brewers Guild, the two day event once again took place on the Port Pavilion cruise ship terminal located on Broadway Pier.
Known colloquially as Guildfest, the festival serves as a state of the union for San Diego Beer. With 115 breweries and counting, this is an excellent way to try some of the newest beer talent in town as well as sample from more established breweries.
A little known fact: 2015 was the 13th Anniversary of Guild Fest. From modest beginnings at the World Beat Center with a handful of breweries, this festival has grown significantly. 2015 was the most polished incarnation yet. Over 1,100 people attended the Friday night VIP session, which featured not only unlimited beer tasting but also food. The following day, 3,200 humans packed the pier. Attendees from as far away as England, Norway, Spain and Switzerland.
Read more about Guildfest in last year’s 14 in ’14 feature.
Best Bottleshop: Bine & Vine
What does it take to have the best bottleshop in San Diego county? “We store all of our beer correctly. No direct light hitting the bottles and everything’s chilled,” explains Bine and Vine’s owner Geoi Bachoua. “We have a very manageable amount of beer (650 bottles) in-stock, so nothing ever gets old or out of code.” He continues, “Our staff is also extremely knowledgeable about beer styles and are 100% honest when asked questions.” Bine & Vine won our Best Bottleshop category handily.
Prior to opening Bine & Vine in 2011, Geoi and his family owned and worked at South Bay Drugs off Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach. Off the beaten beer path, the liquor store’s impressive craft selection made it a destination nevertheless. At what point does a liquor store become a bottle shop? When South Bay Drugs shuttered and Bine and Vine opened on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights is the best case-study we’ve seen.
In 2015, Bine & Vine celebrated their 4th Anniversary by teaming up with New English to brew Adams Avenue Imperial Porter. Brewed with beans from Uptown’s coffee roaster de jour Dark Horse Coffee, the beer was a worthy tribute. “We’re extremely proud on how the beer came out. It’s an ‘Imperial English-style Coffee Porter’ with a focus on balance”
Bine & Vine looks forward to a prosperous 5th year in business. When asked about the new year, Geoi replied: “Big plans are in-store for 2016, indeed. I can’t say much at this moment but it’ll fulfill a big need in Normal Heights.”
Best New Beer Spot: Second Chance Brewing
West Coaster was excited to break the news late 2014 that Marty Mendiola was going to open his own brewery. An exceedingly talented brewer, during his career Marty has earned six World Beer Cup awards and ten Great American Beer Festival medals for his beers. Together with colleague/former Rock Bottom GM Curtis Hawes and wife Virginia Morrison, the trio founded Second Chance Beer Company in 2015.
Second Chance opened to the public in September. “That first day we opened, at 3:40pm, butterflies in our stomachs, wondering if anyone would show,” recalls Virginia. “Sitting at my desk, I looked up and saw a parade of our corporate neighbors walking towards us from all directions. We built it, and they were coming!” A former San Diego Brewers Guild president, Marty’s worked hard to enhance the brand of San Diego beer with a quiet humility that’s earned him a tremendous amount of respect over the years.
Although a brand new brewery, the beer is excellent. Seize the Day IPA is modest by San Diego standards at 6.5% and 65 IBUs, but it’s a hoppy, sessionable West Coast style IPA that has been well received. Tabula Rasa is a roasty, dry porter that clocks in at 6.2%, and the Blonde is a clean, balanced 5% ale.
Second Chance opened late in 2015, and is just getting warmed up. All signs point to the brewery becoming the next “it” producer of beer in San Diego. West Coaster readers obviously concur, naming this spot is the Best New Beer Spot in the entire county. Keep an eye on this one in 2016!
Best San Diego Beer: #allthebeers
This category was too close to call. Votes came in damn near equal numbers for AleSmith’s .394 Pale Ale + Velvet Speedway, Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin + Grunion, Alpine’s Nelson, Karl Strauss’ Mosaic, Stone’s Xocoveza and Fall’s 2AM Bike Ride. While it sucks to not be able to name a definitive winner, it’s a pretty telling result. 2015 was a year for the record books for the San Diego brewing community, and neither our readers nor West Coaster staff could pick just one beer above all others.
This feature is dedicated to the memory Horace “Bix” Bixby. A talented home brewer, beer judge and active QUAFF member since 1995, Bix was also an accomplished cheesemaker. He will be deeply missed.