What Is San Diego Drinking?
Trends and tastes as seen from behind the Hamilton’s bar
Popular craft beer bars offer a unique perspective on what San Diegans like these days
I can usually tell what’s trending by looking at what’s popping up most on tasting boards around town. Once in a while, though, I like to go directly to a source and find out what the beer-drinking public is asking for, and what they’re saying about the beer they drink.
This time around, I pulled up a stool to chat with Hamilton’s Tavern owner Scot Blair and seasoned beertender Matt Cammack. These are the guys who see firsthand which kegs are emptying fastest, who’s asking for what, and which styles are starting to catch on. I learned a bunch of things from hanging with them: First and foremost, our talk confirmed that hoppy beers still rule the craft bar roost in San Diego. No shocker there. General consensus seems to be that—by and large—you can’t have too many IPAs on a tap list. In fact, Blair estimates that a third of all the beers on tap at Hamilton’s are IPAs, and roughly 50 percent of the draft lineup is hoppy beers of one kind or another (pale ale, IPA, double IPA, etc.). Even most of the new trends we’re seeing originate as a riff on the IPA. Hazy versions. Fruited versions. Brut versions. Double and triple versions. These are the trends that have shown the most staying power in recent years.
“The king of trends is hazy IPAs,” Blair says. “They aren’t really IPAs; they’re hazy hoppy ales. I don’t like to call them IPAs.” Clearly, what most people want these days is hazy and hoppy. Blair estimates that 55 percent of the IPA drinkers who come into Hamilton’s are asking for hazys—the rest are asking for tried-and-true classic IPA. The two most common questions asked of Hamilton’s beertenders reflect the two basic camps: “What hazys do you have on?” and “Do you have Pliny?”
Okay, so IPAs are still the stars of the bar, but what style places second? You may be surprised to learn that lagers are the second most popular—but not Mexican lagers. That trend seems to have faded a bit. These days, according to Blair, lager-loving patrons are looking mostly for pilsners and other light beers, like honey ales, Kölsch, and blondes.
The other styles that seem to be maintaining their popularity are “accessible” sours (mostly goses and kettle sours like Berliner weisse), especially those with fruit, and beers with adjuncts (special ingredients) like vanilla, citrus, coffee, chocolate, hazelnut, spices, and peanut butter. “Take a stout and add, like, three adjuncts to it and that’s what people want,” says Matt Cammack. He explains that the adjunct fans are the ones who are relatively new to craft beer, not the hard-core beer geeks or nerds. Those guys seem to stick with the classic, straightforward styles; the “beer-flavored beer,” as it’s affectionately known by some.
Cammack says what’s popular now in the sour category is “sours with fruit that aren’t necessarily complex and are less expensive. People want affordable but still sour and fruity.”
In the dark beer category, “pastry stouts” are definitely the current “in” thing. “Pastry” and “donut” are the most common words Blair hears now when it comes to stouts.
Both Cammack and Blair lament the fact that they don’t see breweries making “straightforward styles” that much anymore. Increased competition means breweries need to work harder to call attention to their beers on tap boards—they feel they need to do what Cammack calls “styles plus”—“I think the way things are going is away from simple, traditional kinds of beer and simple flavors. I mean, you can’t be sexy on a beer board or on any sort of shelf around town unless you have an imperial stout with this, that, and the other thing. I mean, why would I buy this stout for five dollars if I can get that stout with vanilla and coffee and oak and all this other nonsense in it for five fifty?” Before he can finish his thought, Cammack is beckoned by a customer. Ironically, he steps away to pull a pint of Blind Pig, the iconic and thoroughly classic IPA from Russian River. That order came from a Hamilton’s regular who doesn’t much care for what’s trendy.
“I get a lot of cats in here that come in every week and want a brown ale or a red ale, what they always have,” Cammack explains. “These are the guys that see us as a neighborhood bar more than a craft beer bar.” In general, that means those customers are content to pretty much have the same beer or style every time they come in. It’s only the craft beer “newbies,” evidently, who are looking for the “flavor of the day.”
Cammack and Blair may lament what they see as the waning popularity of the classic styles, but they still welcome the opportunity to expose their patrons to new craft beer experiences. I asked them, if they could turn their customers on to a style of beer, what would it be? Cammack answered without hesitation: “Anything you can’t pronounce. Anything from Germany. Anything from Belgium. Anything you don’t know and are intimidated by. I love nothing better than when someone comes in and asks, ‘What’s a weizenbock?’ I live for that!”
Blair agrees. He would love to sell more “incredible five-star Old World beer, like Belgian quads, old ales, Belgian tripels, English IPAs, winter warmers, best bitters, and maibocks.” He points out that, even though the non-IPAs don’t move as fast, the Hamilton’s draft board always maintains a mix of styles, with plenty of wheat beers, porters, stouts, Belgian blondes, strong ales, and schwarzbiers, just on principle. “My job is to offer everything,” he says.
In terms of educating his customers, Cammack likes to talk about Oktoberfest, which is his favorite time of year for that very reason. He says people seem more willing to “get out of their comfort zones” during Oktoberfest, to celebrate the season. “It reminds me why I love doing this. The fact that there are still people who want to have a dialogue, to find out about a style they don’t know, is the most satisfying thing. And maybe, after they try a few new things, they leave here knowing something they didn’t know before.”