Posted on May 26th, 2011
The second leg of my beer journey took me to the West Coast, visiting San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco area (Seattle and Portland had to be saved for a separate trip). But as far as California is concerned, the craft beer culture is thriving and the level of innovation and experimentation is high. It seems to be the trend in the West; in a culture of hop-heads and extremists, crazy big beers reign the tap lists.
I visited a small sampling of breweries when you consider that California is home to hundreds of them. Across the board, every brewery is focusing on re-defining the classic beers we’re used to, and coming up with some seriously complex and adventurous new beers to wet our palate. As always a few stood out amongst the rest.
Stone Brewing, notorious for their big crazy beers with names like “Arrogant Bastard,” has made a name for themselves in the vein of hoppy and aggressive brews. These big brews dominate the market out there, which is evidenced by Stone’s recent announcement of a $26 million expansion. The stand out for me was the Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, an American Black Ale coming in at 8.7% that starts with a yummy brown sugar aroma and pulls through with a nice balance between malty, hoppy, and a roasty toasty finish. With boldly hopped beers and equally bold marketing campaigns (“It’s not expensive, you’re cheap”) Stone has created a great deal of space in craft brewing for these irreverent beers.
Another SoCal brewery that deserves serious recognition is The Bruery in Placentia, CA. Being only three years old and producing around 2,700 barrels annually, The Bruery’s presence in craft beer culture across the country is impressive to say the least. Packaging in 750mL bottles (no six-packs for these guys!) gives them an edge of exclusivity, and it’s fitting since they are making incredibly interesting and innovative beers. The Loakal Red, an oak-aged American red ale, offered a round, woody, and malty experience, while the Mischief (a Belgian golden strong ale) cask-conditioned with saffron is a spicy, herbaceous, and citrusy kick in the head (in a good way). Or take their Black Tuesday, a 20% ABV imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels for over a year. Everything The Bruery is brewing is complex, delicious and pushes the envelope. You won’t find a flagship IPA from these brewers, they are more interested in developing a new definition of California craft beer, and doing a pretty good job at that.
If you head up north to the Bay area you’ll find some like-minded individuals, especially at a little brewery called Russian River. Located in Santa Rosa, you won’t find any of their beers distributed out east, to the dismay of many. Just like The Bruery, Russian River is pushing the boundaries, brewing with wild yeasts and bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus. The still have their signature IPAs to appease the hop-heads, as well as a triple IPA Pliny the Elder only released once a year. I was lucky enough to try the Elder at Toronado in San Francisco, and even at 11% ABV, the hoppy and citrusy triple IPA is clean and goes down oh so easily. They also have their Belgian beer series, which features beers like Defenestration, Supplication, Sanctification, Consecration, and Redemption. Without a doubt, my favorite was the Supplication: a brown ale aged in pinot noir barrels with sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. The cherries come straight through on the aroma, the barrels provide a nice oaky flavor while balancing the sourness from all the yeast and bacteria strains. Again, some crazy things happen when you throw wild yeast and bacteria in to the mix, but Russian River is nothing short of eager to cross those lines for the sake of great beer.
Going from the first part of my trip on the East to the West Coast was a bit of a shock to the palate, but also quite fascinating. A friend suggested that perhaps California crowds are more open to extreme beers because they don’t have to face the extremes of East Coast weather, which the more I think about, the more it makes sense. Regardless, these breweries are listening to and answering the call for creative and experimental beers that define craft beer culture on the beautiful left coast.