Giving Thanks to San Diego Beer
10 (beer) things that made life better this year
Every year for Thanksgiving Day, I post a piece about being thankful for beer. Now, I realize that, in the larger scheme of things, beer may not top the list of things you’re most grateful for. Family, faith, friends, and financial success may actually win out over beer on most people’s lists, but this little corner of San Diego Magazine is all about the brews, so that’s the lens I’m using to view thankfulness.
I spend a lot of time visiting breweries, tasting beer, and talking about San Diego beer; there’s an awful lot to cover in this town when it comes to craft, and I’m always grateful for the quality of the beer I get to taste, the enthusiasm of the fans, and the spirit of generosity I enjoy from our brewers and brewery owners. That’s thankfulness I feel year-round. But there are more specific things that, each year, make beer life a little more interesting, a little tastier and more exciting. Here are 10 of those things from 2018, in no particular order.
1. Brut IPAs: San Diego is an IPA town. Here, you can’t be a successful brewery or brand without having at least one or two good IPAs in your arsenal. While I love IPAs (and ours are particularly great and world famous), I’m also jazzed by brewers who look for ways to expand the style and give it new dimensions. Session IPAs mixed things up a bit, as did the fruiting craze and the hazy craze. The brut IPA, which originated in San Francisco, creates a beer with the usual hoppy aromas and flavors you expect from an IPA, but the finish is completely dry (akin to a brut Champagne). The lack of any residual sugar gives this beer a unique and intriguing profile; it’s one that also makes it an especially food-friendly companion for many dishes, which I love.
2. San Diego Hop Farms: I’ve known for a while now that there are farmers in San Diego County growing hops. Like most people, I assumed it was basically a novelty—that the quality of what was being grown couldn’t compare to anything from the Pacific Northwest, Australia, or New Zealand. This year, I got a close-up, hands-on look at a few local hop farms—Ramona’s Star B Ranch in particular—and found, to my delight, that really great hops can be grown right here in our backyard. It’s not only great to see the “budding” relationships between brewers and growers get stronger, it’s also great that San Diego brewers are able (once a year) to make beers that more specifically reflect the unique terroir of San Diego itself. It takes “drinking local” to a whole new level.
3. Collaborations: In general, brewers are a collaborative bunch, and collaborations are not a new trend. Still, in the past year or so it seems that more and more brewers are doing collaboration brews and putting them in the spotlight for their patrons. This is a good thing. Collaborations make better brewers; they’re often the result of sharing best practices and combining unique talents, and they inspire creativity. You can’t talk collaborations without also mentioning the Baja–San Diego collaboration boom that’s taken place over the course of the past few years. The Baja craft beer scene is exploding, and a good deal of the initial energy for that came from San Diego brewers (SouthNorte’s Ryan Brooks above all) sharing techniques with Mexican brewers and gaining inspiration from the culture and flavors found south of the border.
4. Homebrewers: If you know anything about the history of the San Diego brewing industry, you know that it owes a great debt to the talents, dedication, and persistence of homebrewers. The vast majority of our best breweries were founded by folks who got their start as homebrewers, and—for many of them—their professional success was due in large part to the ongoing relationships they maintained with the homebrew community. Homebrewers prize experimentation and innovation and, because they’re small, they can take chances and be edgy. In many ways, San Diego’s homebrewers have served as an essential support network for our pro brewers, and also as an invaluable R&D arm within the marketplace.
5. Unexpected food pairing epiphanies: Food and beer are meant to be together, and exploring new and exciting ways to combine the two is one of my favorite things to do. The most exciting pairings are the ones that either happen by accident or go against what are considered the established rules. If you’ve read this column in the past, you may be familiar with my love of IPAs and sweet desserts—that was an epiphany from a few years back. This year, my favorite mind-blowing menu moments include: pairing hefeweizen with brownies, drinking porter with wild mushroom gnocchi, and slurping Belgian pale ale (Benchmark’s Table Beer) with my bacon-fat ice cream.
6. Breweries with their own food: As much as I love the excitement of great unexpected food-and-beer pairings, I also love a great beer-friendly menu that’s been designed by the brewery itself. Food trucks are great, but most of the food is not designed specifically to be paired with a particular brewery’s tap list. I believe the food-and-beer experience is significantly better when you dine off a menu created with (and sometimes by) the brewers themselves. Stone, Pizza Port, Rock Bottom, Gordon Biersch, and Karl Strauss have been doing great beer-centric food for a long while now, and places like Belching Beaver, Bagby, North Park Beer Co., Amplified in PB, Ballast Point, and Mason Ale Works have followed their lead well. More recently, Coronado, Northern Pine, The Bell Marker, and Duck Foot have redeveloped or curated their own fare and now offer a menu that’s unique to their location and well tailored to their specific beer lists. Cheers to that.
7. Making cans a canvas: Cans are now cooler than bottles, and mobile canning lines and Crowler Machines have made it much easier and more economical for small breweries to package their beer; that, in itself, is something to be thankful for. Above and beyond enabling improved distribution and availability, more cans these days are serving as a unique canvas for graphic design and artwork. In many cases, such as recent releases from Modern Times, Duck Foot, Mikkeller, and Coronado, the cans have been designed as art objects themselves—and why not? A good can design catches your attention, is pleasing to the eye, and makes a statement; why not use cans to convey art?
8. Saisons: I’ve included saisons on my list before, but this is a beer style that bears having its praises sung repeatedly. Year after year, I’m amazed by how compatible saisons are with almost every kind of food. These Belgian-inspired beers are typically a restrained mix of fruitiness, spice, and breadiness balanced in a light, crisp, highly carbonated package that marries well with spicy dishes, rich dishes, salads, sweet desserts—you name it. When it comes to food, this is one beer that can pretty much do it all.
9. Tasters: All right, tasters might not be the most exciting thing to be thankful for, but they do perform a singular essential function that I prize highly: They encourage beer drinkers to try new stuff. There’s so much great beer being made in our city—so many different fermentation techniques and ingredients being used—that it’s a dereliction of duty not to try as many different styles and flavors as possible. Tasters enable you to explore the (beer) world!
10. Rideshares: Speaking of exploring the beer world, I feel a shout-out for Uber and Lyft is in order. Sure, they’re nothing new, but they have transformed the beer tasting experience all over the world by making it easier for folks to drink responsibly. I, in particular, was grateful for Lyft’s 20 percent discount offer for rides during San Diego Beer Week; it made it easy to attend more events, to stay longer, and to go with friends. Anything that can help me do those things is a winner in my book!