Once Mrs. BetterBeerBlog and I heard that the National Homebrew Conference (NHC) was going to be held in San Diego, we wasted little time in booking our lodgings for our time here. Despite getting such an early jump on the NHC, we completely whiffed when it came to pre-conference activities. We missed out on all the brewery tours as well as beer and food events. The only thing available to us when we arrived early Wednesday morning was the NHC pub crawl later on that evening.
The Town and Country Resort served as the back drop for NHC this year. From what I was able to see, it was a good site for the conference. There were lodgings on-site to accommodate many of the homebrewers in attendance. Town and Country also had the spaces necessary to host many of the larger scale events, such as Pro Brewers and Club Nights, as well as the many informative sessions and talks that would make up the bulk of the NHC.
When we checked in on Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. BetterBeerBlog and I headed toward the registration room where we picked up our conference bags. Filled with the conference program and other informational collateral, we also were able to pick up the three commemorative conference beers: a Black Double IPA, a Dark Session Ale, and a Porter. We also picked up our NHC commemorative tasting glass. Unfortunately the conference Hospitality Suite would not be open until 11am the following day, so with nothing else on tap to do, Mrs. BetterBeerBlog and I signed up for the NHC Pub Crawl.
For a mere $12, a huge tour-style bus would ferry us back and forth from Town and Country and to the corner of 30th Street and University Avenue. Arguably one of the greater beer drinking streets in the United States, 30th Streets boasts easy access to Toronado San Diego, Ritual Tavern and Hamilton’s Tavern. What we didn’t know at that time was that on the 3rd Wednesday of each month during the summer, there is an event called Drink About San Diego where shuttles provided by Brewery Tours of San Diego run along 30th Street and along several other adjacent streets to some of the area’s best beer bars. What’s better is that this is a free event open to the public and not just NHC members. I really like this idea; I think it’s a fantastic way to build and support a craft beer community as well as encourage responsible drinking. This is something other craft beer cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Philadelphia should consider organizing if they haven’t done so already. Here is a brief rundown of each bar we visited as well as the tasting notes of the beers we tried.
On the corner of 30th Street and University and right across the street from our drop-off point sits The Linkery. Despite the industrial feel with its roll-up garage-style doors, cement floors, chalk-board wall and simple metal and wood furniture, The Linkery still feels warm and inviting. They have a limited tap selection and I found the place to be more of an eatery with a good beer selection than a true beer bar. That said, we order a sampler of their beers that we haven’t tried before.
Orange Avenue Wit, Coronado Brewing
Orange Avenue Wit is brewed with habañero peppers and cilantro. It is a cloudy straw color with slight wheat and herbal notes. The flavor is wheaty with a noteable cilantro character, yet unlike your typical witbier, has a moderate spice kick in the finish. It’s not a terribly spicy beer but as someone who is not a fan of chili beers, I thought it was interesting to have tried it. Not sure if I could finish and entire pint though.
Pescadero Pils, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits
Pescadero Pils is a solid entry by Ballast Point into the pilsner category of beer. It has a soft, pils malt flavor that balances out the floral hop flavor and medium hop bitterness. It finishes clean and crisp and is a brilliantly clear pale straw color with a lasting white head.
Big Eye IPA, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits
Another entry from Ballast Point, Big Eye IPA pours out a clear, caramel color with amber highlights and a thin, off-white head. The beer has a caramel-ish malt flavors with some toastiness. The hop flavor is piney and citrus in nature. Surprisingly, I find this beer to be very balanced.
Trippel, Green Flash Brewing Company
Mrs. BetterBeerBlog found this beer to have tobacco-like aromatics that reminded her of her late grandfather. There’s also a strong fruity component with peppery phenolics in the aroma. The flavor is a balance between the light malt sweetness, pepperiness, fruit character and earthy hop bitterness.
The Linkery has a decent, if not limited craft beer selection, but they don’t really call themselves a craft beer bar. They also serve several wines, innovatively (or strangely) enough from a wooden tower with picnic taps sticking out. Not sure if all their vino is kegged based or not but it certainly is a curious way to serve wine.
While we received our beers fairly quickly it took about 20 minutes for someone to return and take our food order. Our original waitress never returned and we ended up being served by the bartender even though we weren’t sitting at the bar. The side of house fries we ordered were OK and saved by the spiced mayo sipping sauce while the short rib sliders we ordered were decent but nothing to write home about.
Normally I wouldn’t bat an eye to this and just let my feelings about their service known via the size of the tip I would leave. The Linkery unfortunately takes this option away from you by charging an 18% service fee. As we discussed with a friend of ours we met later on in the week, I don’t mind paying the 18% service fee if we received an appropriate level of service. We didn’t so that sucks for us.
True North is a sports bar located diagonally across from The Linkery. Like any sports bar, there are numerous flatscreen TVs all around and the bar also sports a few coin-operated pool tables. Despite the sports bar theme, True North doesn’t have that greasy, gritty sports bar feel; it feels spacious, clean, light and airy. The bar itself has 2 main tap towers with several beer bins directly below filled with all the macro stuff that probably pays the majority of their beers. I intended to bypass this bar once I heard it was a sports bar but heard they were pouring something interesting.
Double Barrel Ale (cask-conditioned), Firestone Walker Brewing Company
The cask-conditioned DBA from Firestone Walker has a caramel-ish malty character with some toastiness, a neutral oak character and balanced, medium hop bitterness. As is common for cask-conditioned beers, the carbonation is low yet creamy.
Alesmith X, Alesmith Brewing
A very pale ale, Alesmith X pours out a clear gold color with a white head. The aroma is fruity with a lot of floral hop aromas. The flavor has a very light graininess with a soft, malt profile while the hop flavors include guava, melon and pine resin. The beer finishes dry.
True North isn’t too different from the many other sports bars you will undoubtedly visit. They do have an OK selection of craft beer on tap mixed in with the macro lagers that most people still drink. So if you’re looking for good craft beer, you can pass up on this place as there are much better craft beer bars available. Speaking of which…
Blind Lady Ale House is the name of a craft beer bar just off 30th Street. Highly recommended, Mrs. BetterBeerBlog and I decided to make the effort to visit this bar even though it was pretty far off the central part of the pub crawl. It was totally worth it.
Blind Lady Ale House is your family friendly, neighborhood craft beer bar. Upon entering, you order your food and beer. If you just ordered beer, they will usually serve it to you at which point you can look around and try to find a place to sit at many of the tables within. If you ordered food, you will have to take your placard back to your table where they will deliver it. I’m telling you this upfront because Blind Lady Ale House is not a full-service restaurant, they will not seat you, nor will they take your order. Don’t say I never did anything for you.
Mrs. BetterBeerBlog and I heard earlier that Blind Lady Ale House was hosting a sour ale tasting at 11:30am that day. Thinking we missed it, we went anyway and were surprised to find it was still available. In addition, they were serving several other sour ales on tap not on the taster.
Festina Peche, Dogfish Head Brewery Craft Brewery, 4%
I’ve tried/reviewed this beer in the past. When compared to my past experiences, the draught version comes with a noticeable increase in peach character that I’ve found mostly lacking in the bottle. I’m sure this beer changes character depending on the quality of the fruit that comes in but Festina Peche continues to be one of the Dogfish Head beers I enjoy consistently. Love its refreshingly tart finish.
Bellegem Bruin, Brouwerij Bockor, 5.1%
This bruin has an acetic sourness that I still find to be refreshing. The beer also has a sweet-ish, dark fruit character with slight kettle caramelization. I found the beer to be thin-bodied and low in carbonation.
La Folie, New Belgium Brewing, 6.0%
The most tart of the sour beers we would try. La Folie has a lactic sour character that is more tart than sour. It is fruity, dry with a light oak note.
Echt Kriek, Brouwerij Verhaeghe, 6.8%
This is a kriek, or cherry, beer. The cherries are prominent in the aroma and have a medicinal quality to them, with a farmhouse-like character in the aroma. The flavor is slightly sweet with noticeable cherry flavor. The beer has a some astringency in the finish and some brett (brettanomyces) character in the flavor as well.
La Terrior, New Belgium Brewing, 7.5%
Another offering from New Belgium, La Terrior has a lactic sourness less biting than La Folie but I also pick up woody flavors. The biggest difference though is the huge hop flavors and aroma coming off this beer. I though I would like it more than La Folie because it was more hoppy but I’m not 100% convinced the combination brewed works. Still, I can see this beer growing on me like so many other beers I wasn’t 100% sure on.
Consecration, Russian River Brewing Company, 10%
With an acetic sourness, Consecration was the second most tart beer of the night. I tasted lots of dark fruit character, currants, some kettle caramelizaion in the malts, and some oak character in the finish.
In addition to the sour beers we tasted, we also ordered a charcuterie plate that ended up being a pretty solid pick. My only nitpick was I thought the coarse salt they added to some of the meats were unnecessary. Other than that, the place was pretty tasty.
Sour beers notwithstanding, Blind Lady Ale House has become one of my favorite places to grab a craft beer in San Diego. It has a very warm and inviting feeling to it and as the after work crowd poured in, you can tell this was the watering hold of choice for many of the locals. I would definitely recommend this spot.
Next stop on the NHC pub crawl for us was the appropriately named Small Bar. Owned by the same people who own Hamilton’s, Small Bar is approximately west of Blind Lady Ale House. When compared to all the other places we have visited so far, Small Bar is indeed the smallest of them all, but don’t let the size fool you, they have a good selection of quality craft beer.
I noticed that they were carrying a lot of Rogue beers on tap that night and from a flier we would eventually notice, Wednesday night was “Rogue Tasting Night”. I thought we missed another event but that’s when I saw Rogue brewmaster John Maier just standing to the right of me just hanging out an talking with some of the folks at the bar. I got a chance to talk to Maier and found him affable as he answered many of my questions. Turns out he was in town as Rogue is a sponsor of NHC and that I would be seeing him again in the NHC Hospitality Suite at Town and Country.
Collaboration Not Litigation, Avery Brewing Company
Kinda sweet, a little orange/citrus character with a medium/medium-high hop bitterness. Slight peppery phenolics as well. Noticeable alcohol character in the finish. This beer is a collaboration between Avery Brewing Company and Russian River Brewing.
Younger Special Bitter, Rogue Ales
Younger is a beer brewed in honor of the late Don Younger, craft beer pioneer, and former propriety of Crazy Horse craft beer bar (needs verification). According to Maier, this beer was brewed with a pils malt base, C60 specialty malt, Willamette, Amarillo and one other type of hop that I didn’t get the chance to write down. Younger has caramel malt flavors with a slight grainy character and medium hop bitterness.
Like Blind Lady Ale House, Small Bar is a favorite hangout for the locals. Rightfully so, they have a fantastic selection of craft beers and while we didn’t get a chance to try any of their food, some of the burgers on I was spying on looked absolutely delicious. I’d like to say “hi” to the SD Beer Geeks, a father-son SD beer blogging team. How cool is that to be able to share craft beer with your pops like that?
Live Wire is basically a dive bar that caters to bikers. The interior is darkly lit and is filled with the sounds of raging rock, or metal, depends on what people chose from the jukebox. There’s a coin-op pool table there was well. While the beer selection is greater than that of The Linkery, Live Wire is pouring nothing you wouldn’t be able to find at you better San Diego craft beer bars. The smell of the place reminds me a little of Toronado San Francisco.
Speedway Stout, Alesmith Brewing
Their flagship Russian Imperial Stout, Speedway Stout pours out a thick, dark brown, effectively black color with a tan head. The aroma is a mix of chocolate, deep roasted malts and slight sesame oil. The flavor is similar to the aroma with dark chocolate and deeply roasted malt flavors, some coffee and maybe even a hint of treacle. It’s rich and full-bodied beer worthy of all its accolateds.
Red Barn, Lost Abbey
This farmhouse-style beer is spicy and fruity with a medium hop bitterness and slightly bready malt character that finishes dry.
For the most part, Live Wire is a bar you can probably pass on if you’re looking for great craft beer. That said, if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s not a bad spot to come in and pick up a pint or two. As I was telling most people, if this bar was in San Jose, we’d be saying on how great the craft beer selection was but because it’s in San Diego, their selection is more along the lines of “meh”.
To finish the night off, we ended up at Toronado San Diego. Not much has changed from when we last visited. By this point, I had a pretty good buzz going on but my notes were going to shit. The last two beers we ordered were Ballast Point’s Sculpin and Alpine Brewing’s Duet. I remember both beers having such similar flavor profiles that I couldn’t tell them apart. Then again, I’m willing to admit that I don’t drink nearly enough of each to be able to really tell.
As we hopped aboard the big bus to drive back to Town and Country, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of envy regarding the San Diego craft beer scene. San Diego is a huge county, never mind city, yet their craft beer scene is as unified as I’ve ever encountered. Trips like Drink About San Diego and the upcoming San Diego Beer Weekend help to foster, unify and grow the craft beer community. When thinking about the craft beer scene, or lack thereof in the South Bay, I look toward San Diego for inspiration as I think there are many similarities geographically. Hopefully I can take some of the lessons I learned tonight, and hope to learn during NHC, and apply them to San Jose and the greater South Bay.
Regardless of whatever I am able, or not able to accomplish here at home, San Diego has a craft beer scene that is quickly becoming like no other. In addition to having a plethora of fantastic breweries, San Diego is cultivating a thriving craft beer bar scene. While many of the places Mrs. BetterBeerBlog and I visited weren’t true bars, it’s great to see craft beer in areas other than bars. Admittedly, some of the places we visited weren’t exactly my cup of tea but it just goes to show there are places for everyone. Make sure to pay these places a visit next time you’re in San Diego.