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Lightning Brewery Makes Beers Perfect for Summer

Chill out with some fruit-enhanced brews at the Poway tasting room


Lightning Brewery's Raspberry Wheat | Photo by Bruce Glassman

It’s been hot. So, naturally, my attention has turned to seeking out some of the lighter beers to be found in San Diego. In my opinion, one of the best breweries in town for wheat beers, lagers, and light lager-type ales is Lightning Brewery in Poway, and—now that summer is officially underway—I thought it a good idea to go pay Lightning a visit.

When I arrived, I found owner and founder Jim Crute toiling away in his hot office, a small fan barely moving the air enough to make it tolerable. It was then that I realized what a good thing it is to own a brewery. No matter how hot you get, there’s always wet, cold refreshment just a few steps away. I also realized that the heat is actually a good thing for Jim to be suffering through. It means he’ll stay inspired to continue creating light-bodied summer-friendly beers designed to be especially crisp, and thirst quenching. And we all benefit from that!

Lightning has a nice collection of lighter styles in its regular beer lineup, including a very tasty Hefeweizen (Thunderweizen), Pilsner (Elemental), Kolsch-style ale, and Helles (Biergarten). Unlike most other breweries in San Diego, Lightning has been focusing on these styles since they began brewing more than ten years ago. “We started out making beers that other people didn’t make,” Jim says, “and people in the craft beer trade have traditionally shied away from lagers.” This is generally attributed to the fact that lagers require more tank time and thus take longer to produce (tank turnover = money). It also has a lot to do with the fact that Pilsners and other light lagers are actually some of the hardest beers to make. Unlike many bold IPAs, stouts, or big Belgian styles, the Kolsch, Helles, and Pilsner beers are all about clean, simple, restrained flavors offered up in perfect balance; not too hoppy, not too malty. Their simplicity leaves no options for masking brewing defects. “Every step of brewing, fermentation, lagering, and packaging needs to be exactly correct,” Jim explains. “If one step in the process goes even a little bit wrong, the beer will not taste quite right.” (Other breweries that regularly produce these styles exceptionally well include Gordon Biersch, Fall Brewing, Karl Strauss, and Ballast Point, to name only a few.)

“We started out making beers that other people didn’t make, and people in the craft beer trade have traditionally shied away from lagers.”

Being a chemist by original trade, Jim has spent a good deal of time using the principles of science to improve his beers. He’s been particularly focused on creating maximum mouthfeel and body for his brews, something he says lots of other folks in town don’t tend to do. “All our beers are step mashed,” Jim says, “which means that the grain is mixed with hotter and hotter water in a sequence.” That means the water has longer contact time with the grain, which means that more non-fermentable carbohydrates are extracted, and that’s what contributes to mouthfeel.  “And the real thing to realize is that mouthfeel contributes to flavor,” explains Jim. “It makes the beer slower to sheet off the tongue, which means the flavor receptors are in contact with the beer longer, and you perceive more flavor.”

In addition to perfecting their straightforward lager-styles and wheat beers, the team at Lightning has spent the past few months creating a tasty collection of summer sippers by riffing on their base beers with a variety of fruits and other ingredients. “It’s summer, so we’ve come out with a raspberry wheat beer that we aged for about nine months in barrels,” says Jim. “That’s been really popular.” He explains that they took their Kolsch (which they brew with some wheat) and aged it for six months in chardonnay barrels. Then they added organic raspberry purée and aged it for another three months before kegging it. According to Jim, “It’s a little sour, a little fruity, and a little lighter. It’s perfect for summer.” Next up in the summer-inspired Kolsch series will be a cherry beer, and then a third release featuring a fruit yet to be picked.

Lightning barrel aging | Photo by Bruce Glassman

Also just released is Lightning’s super popular fig-honey wheat beer, which uses Thunderweizen as its base. “Figs are only in season for a really short time in San Diego,” Jim explains, “but when they are, we buy about twenty pounds along with about ten pounds of honey. Then we mix it all up in a big pot, split it between two barrels, and top it all off with some more Thunderweizen.” The fresh fig and honey flavors meld perfectly with the big banana, clove, and spice flavors of the Hefeweizen, creating a rich, complex, but light-bodied wheat beer that’s frighteningly easy to drink.

Another beer Lightning is soon to release reprises a success from last summer. For that one, Jim blended Thunderweizen with blood orange juice and created a slightly fruity but spicy beer that gained a wonderful citrus component and lightened the beer up perfectly for hot weather sipping (he also spent an afternoon mixing blood orange IPA cocktails at the brewery, which—needless to say—were not only super tasty, they were also a big hit with visitors).

Inspired by the results of playing with raspberries, figs, blood oranges, and honey, Jim and his crew are now creating new flavor combinations for Thunderweizen, and the Kolsch, and have also added their Helles to the mix. During my visit, they were preparing to offer the Helles on a randall (a chamber that infuses flavors such as fruit, hops, or other solid ingredients into the beer) with fresh strawberries and kiwis. A few weeks ago, they put the Helles on a randall and infused it with pineapple.

All this experimentation has not only been fun, it’s also convinced Jim that beer lovers should experience the joys of mixing and playing with flavors on their own, at home or with friends.

All this experimentation has not only been fun, it’s also convinced Jim that beer lovers should experience the joys of mixing and playing with flavors on their own, at home or with friends. “People don’t do that enough,” Jim says. “You can infuse a beer with any kind of fruit that you like—even chunk pineapple from a can. It works well and you don’t have to kill yourself cutting up a fresh pineapple.” As he speaks, Jim has another thought: “You could take blueberries or raspberries from Trader Joe’s or Sprouts or wherever—maybe cook them down a little bit to make a syrup or purée—and then put an inch or so at the bottom of a glass and fill it up with a Helles, Kolsch, or a wheat beer.”

The Lightning Brewery lineup | Photo by Bruce Glassman

Jim feels strongly that people should feel empowered to mix beer at home and to play around with flavors and styles. “If you want to try something different, you should feel really good about adding whatever flavors and components that you want,” he says. “If you have a bottle of Black Lightning Porter, for example, you might want to make it more sour and give it a fruit character. So, simmer some sour cherries with some water, put a couple of tablespoons in the bottom of a glass, and then just add the beer.” The fundamentals are easy and, as long as the ingredients are fresh, you basically can’t go wrong. In a similar fashion, Jim suggests you could take a bottle of Thunderweizen out of your fridge and add freshly cut-up strawberries or oranges (or fresh fruit juice or purée) directly to it, and in whatever amount suits your particular taste. Blonde ales also work wonderfully with fresh fruit or light syrups you make yourself.

For the time being, all of Lightning’s special summer concoctions are happening only at the brewery, so if you want to taste, you’ll have to scoot over to Poway. Jim likes the idea of making the brewery tasting room a kind of “experimentation station” where visitors can come and experience different flavors and enhancements and can decide which flavors they like best. Then, those same folks can take a bottle or two of the base beer home and add flavors in whatever ways they want. There are no rules. And you don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment. All you need is a willingness to try something new and a beer-lover’s thirst for true summer refreshment.

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