By Brandon Hernández
It's the Most Wonderful Time for a Beer
It's time to deck the (beer) halls, and San Diego's breweries are anything but Scrooge-y when it comes to getting into the yuletide spirit. Each year, several brew up specialty creations to celebrate the holidays (err... holidaze?), making great sudsy stocking stuffers for the jolly beerophiles on your gift list.
Five Wee Heavy Bells
Five years ago, San Diego's brewing elder statesman (aka Karl Strauss Brewing Co.) debuted the first in a line of a dozen beers to be released each winter over a 12-year span. The goal was and is to enjoy all dozen of them during the holidays on the 12th year. That's still seven years away, but now's the time to get this, the fifth brew in the group - an intense, high-alcohol (9% ABV) Scotch ale with a sturdy, caramely malt backbone and touches of smokiness from Scotch-soaked American oak chips. The beer's moniker references the "golden rings" of the bells at Mission de Alcala in Mission Valley. Karl Strauss Brewing Company, multiple locations, karlstrauss.com
Gift of the Magi
Another beer built for aging, this 10% ABV annual offering beats gold, frankincense or myrrh any day - well, two out of three ain't bad. The base style of this brew is a Belgian-inspired biere de garde, but what makes it special and fit for the cellar is a dose of Brettanomyces, a type of wild yeast that, over time, imparts dryness, spiciness and funkiness, making for an almost completely different beer from the one that was originally socked away. Buy two, try one now and forget about the second bottle for three or four years, and you'll see for yourself. The Lost Abbey, 155 Mata Way, #104, San Marcos, lostabbey.com
Merry Taj IPA
It took The Lost Abbey seven years to introduce its first India pale ale - surprising considering its sister operation, Port Brewing Company, is renowned for multiple versions of this hoppy beer style - but it was so worth the wait. Its big, boldness doesn't stop with its whopping 8.5% ABV. Big flavors of stonefruit and botanical spice come on strong from the taste buds on down the gullet. It's best to head to the brewery's tasting room to get a fresh growler full of this wintertime delight, which is available only on draft. The Lost Abbey, 155 Mata Way, #104, San Marcos, lostabbey.com
Old Tempestuous Ale
With a name more fitted for The Grinch than the usual cast of popular holiday characters, this brew offers deep, brown sugar sweetness and hints of familiar wintry fruits - sugar plums, figgy pudding and the like. It's a lovely New World take on an Old World "winter warmer," a style of warming strong ale hailing from ye olde English pubs. Lightning brewmaster Jim Crute excels at bringing such traditional recipes to life in San Diego, making this one to keep an eye out for as the holiday season rolls around. Lightning Brewery, 13200 Kirkham Way, Poway, lightningbrewery.com
Santa's Little Helper
When a beer's this good, there's no reason to consign it to year-round status. Rich flavors of chocolate and roasted coffee beans permeate this onyx, viscous brew, which reigns as one of the county's, nay the country's, finest imperial stouts. A barrel-aged version comes out during Port's Christmas in July fundraiser, but the standard version (which is anything but) is available on tap and in bottle all year long. One sip shows just how apt this hardy brew would be for sustaining the big man himself on a reindeer-guided tour around the globe. Port Brewing Company, 155 Mata Way, #104, San Marcos, portbrewing.com
Not so much into dark strong ales of European decent or West Coast IPAs? No problem. The award-winning brewers at AleSmith have a beer that's not only different, but also color-appropriate for the season. An imperial red ale with bright, piney, resinous hop intensity that's balanced by a substantial malt presence, it's the cold-weather-suited counterpart to a double IPA summer version of YuleSmith. But don't sit on this one. Because of its hop forwardness, it should have a tag that reads: "Do not open beyond X-mas." AleSmith Brewing Company, 9368 Cabot Drive, Miramar, alesmith.com
A Message from Uncle Sam
Grant Fraley and Marta Jankowska - Owners and co-founders, ChuckAlek Independent Brewers
Christmas came early this year for Grant Fraley and Marta Jankowska - owners of ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, Ramona's small producer of rare and historical beers - when Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co. (the makers of Samuel Adams) awarded the couple a small business loan and a promise to mentor them on how to advance their operation. These gifts were doled out courtesy of BBC's Brewing the American Dream Program, and awarded based on the couple's passion for what they do.
Brandon Hernández: What made ChuckAlek stand out
from the other Brewing the American Dream applicants?
Fraley/Jankowska: We emphasized in our application that we offer beers like no others in San Diego County and that we have a clear and unique mission characterized by our emphasis on historical and Old School-style revivals.
Please expand on that mission.
It always comes back to our mantra: Old School beers for New School palates. We are passionate about reviving old styles but want to present them in new ways to get craft beer lovers of today excited about the historical journey beer has gone through and how it is a part of living history. In the past, when a customer came in and asked for an IPA, we would apologize for not having one. Now, we are confident in saying we don't really do that here, but you shouldn't leave without trying one of our porters or stouts... they are some of the best and most unique in the County.
What do the "Experienceship" aspects of the award entail?
We'll fly out to Boston for two days of coaching and mentoring from a variety of Samuel Adams experts and brewers, including those involved in ingredient sourcing, sales and distribution, package design and more. While there, we'll also plan a collaboration brew with Samuel Adams, which will be distributed throughout San Diego.
What's on tap for the New Year?
For 2015, we will focus on a project that looks forward. We have started to lay the groundwork for a number of collaborations and events featuring breweries, restaurants, hop farms and wineries in Baja California, Mexico, where the beer and food scenes are exploding.
Miracle on 30th Street
Already one of the beeriest main drags in the country, North Park's 30th Street is set to ring in the Holidays with two more craft beer newcomers.
Fall Brewing Company: You can believe in a guy whose brewing resume includes stints at Mission Brewery, Maui Brewing Company, Left Coast Brewing Company and Saint Archer Brewery. Such are the LinkedIn entries for Ray Astamendi, an industry veteran best known for his incredible, easy-drinking kölsch and over-the-top passion. The latter will make Astamendi's first time working for himself work for everybody, while the former will join a wide array of ales and lagers produced in a former auto-repair shop. 4542 30th St., North Park, fallbrewing.com
Rip Current Brewing Company: This San Marcos-based operation is taking over a former corner Laundromat, replacing washers and dryers with tons of taps that will dispense not only Rip Current's super hoppy and otherwise interesting beers, but also the liquid assets of other standout San Diego breweries. The place also has a kitchen that will serve up brew-appropriate vittles cooked up by fellow San Marcos business, Sublime Ale House. 4101 30th Street, North Park, ripcurrentbrewing.com
One for the Books
The critical guide to all of San Diego County's 130-plus brewery-owned tasting rooms, restaurants, brewpubs, bars and retail outlets is dropping just in time for the holidays. Written by PacificSD's official beer aficionado, Stone Brewing Co.'s Brandon Hernández, the 2014/15 Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries was created using commentary and ratings by dozens of the planet's most knowledgeable brewery professionals, certified beer judges, Cicerones (the beer industry equivalent of the wine industry's sommeliers), quality control personnel, bar and restaurant owners, and well-traveled brewery tourists. Pick up a copy to see how San Diego's brews and breweries rank according to overall beer quality, service and ambience - and get the inside scoop on what the expert panel selected as the must-try beers at each stop. The guide is available for purchase in paperback at bit.ly/1415beerguide.
Brandon Hernández is a native San Diegan with a fervent passion for craft beer and the talented individuals who produce it. He is a Senior Communications Specialist for Stone Brewing Co., an editor for Zagat, has served as a consultant to Food Network and contributes to national and San Diego-based magazines including The Beer Connoisseur, Imbibe, Wine Enthusiast, San Diego Reader and more. The first publication for which he ever wrote about beer was PacificSD. Follow him on Twitter: @sdbeernews and @offdutyfoodie.