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San Diego Send-Off: Smoked Beer Dinner at Ballast Point

ColbyChandlerBPI have a bias to admit: I’m not really big into hype. Whenever I hear about a “must have” beer or brewery, I generally exert too much effort and find myself disappointed in the end product (read: my quest to find Heady Topper). It’s not that the hype isn’t warranted; many times it is. However, by the time I get around to “the real deal,” my expectations are so great that I’m invariably left thinking, “Is that it?”

The opposite can also be true: When I go in with diminished expectations, I can be truly surprised by what I discover.

Among the options on the APlus Limousine tour prior to the San Diego Beer Bloggers Conference were excursions to both Green Flash and Ballast Point. The majority of the group wanted to seek out beers that were not distributed nationally, so both these breweries were left off the pre-excursion itinerary. Thus, when a group of bloggers wanted to visit both these spots after the conference closed, I was happy to tag along.

The big surprise came at Ballast Point. We chose to visit the smaller brewpub in the Little Italy section of San Diego. We were warmly greeted by Tasting Room Manager Amber Crocker, who noted that she was preparing for a beer-pairing dinner later that afternoon. Seeing as I had yet to eat (and already been drinking up at Green Flash), I thought a beer dinner might be a nice change of pace. I asked her the menu: Smoked foods with smoked beers. Not The Bitch’s favorite combo. But when in Rome…

Executive Chef Colin MacLaggan mans the grilling station at the Ballast Point Smoke Beer Dinner on August 24, 2014.

Executive Chef Colin MacLaggan mans the grilling station at the Ballast Point Smoked Beer Dinner on August 24, 2014.

After a brief detour to the Salivador Dali Argillet Collection (which was amazeballs… if you are in San Diego, be sure to check it out at Meyer Fine Art; the installation has been extended through September 27th), I returned to the back patio at Ballast Point, where nine taps were flowing with recommended food pairings from Executive Chef Colin MacLaggan.

It wasn’t long before Ballast Point’s Specialty Brewer Colby Chandler joined me; while the rest of the group was inside the brewpub ordering off the menu, Colby chatted with me about the pairings and then took all of us on an ad hoc tour of the brewery where he poured the Pale Ale Infused with Smoked Serrano Peppers right off the tank. It was so much spicier without the food pairing (see below) and that’s what makes beer such a cool beverage: the fact that food can completely alter its flavor profile.

At $50, the dinner was one hell of a good deal, and the pairings ranged from interesting to intense. And if Amber, Colin and Colby are the status quo for staff service at Ballast Point, the company will continue to expand both in southern California and across the nation (and, yes, the Grapefruit Sculpin on tap is incredible).

The dinner was arranged as a walk-around event with five different stations, so I could start with (and repeat) any course I chose. However, the courses basically went in the following order:

An amuse hors d’oeuvers that was passed around on trays to pair with a can of Even Keel that was handed out at the check-in: A smoked onion, blue cheese tart with mustard seeds reconstituted in the same beer. I think I had five of these, they were so good (and about the dimension of a quarter… hey, I told you I hadn’t eaten all day!).amusetartBP

First course was freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell with a choice of three mignonettes:

  • Smoked shallots in a white balsamic vinaigrette
  • Avocado and cilantro
  • Raspberry

OysterBPHonestly, this was the least appealing of the courses for me, and the beer pairings didn’t really help the cause (somewhat surprisingly, this was also the only station that had a queue, with people coming back for multiple oyster servings). I tried three oysters, one with each mignonette, and paired with the Lung Fish Oak Smoked Helles. I know very little about west coast oysters, but I do know that August is not an ideal month in general for fresh oysters. For whatever reason, the bivalves were incredibly briny and, when combined with two of the three mignonettes (only the avocado/cilantro combination really worked for me), completely overpowered the delicate flavors of the Helles. I went back for a fourth oyster (avocado mignonette) to pair with the San Salvador Oyster Shwarzbier with Herbs, and this was a much better pairing, although the brine of the oyster was still very much the dominant flavor.

The second course (which I had fourth) was a perfect pairing: Chilled Cucumber Gazpacho with Smoked Foam paired with the aforementioned Ballast Point Pale Ale Infused with Smoked Serrano Peppers. This beer was hot hot hot… but I had no idea until I drank it a second time straight from the tank without the gazpacho. The cucumber completely neutralized the spiciness without diminishing the flavor of the beer. A+ to Colin and Colby on this combo.gazpachoBP

The third course was a revelation: Grilled Spanish Octopus with mushrooms, cherry tomato, Shishito pepper in a Banyals vinaigrette over garlic puree. This was paired with the Smokescreen Beachwood Smoked Helles. On its surface (and maybe this is where expectation really comes in to play), I should have hated this pairing. I mean, I am no fan of octopus, finding it too chewy and just damn weird to look at . And the Smokescreen was the closest thing to a rauchbier I drank all night (not a beer I ever enjoy). However, the chef treated the octopus for 48 hours before cooking it over an open flame. The result was a lobster-esque tenderness (Colby likened it to string cheese), and the earthiness of the mushrooms plus the smokiness of the Shishitos brought out so many subtle flavors that this was genuinely a gourmand’s dream come true. And the beer was perfect. Best in show for this pairing. I had two servings, I liked it that much.octopusBP

Another course being served by Chef Colin at the same grilling station was a Smoked Pork Rib served with a “Carolina style” smoked beer BBQ Sauce over honey slaw and cornbread crostini. Paired with Abandon Ship Beechwood Smoked Marzen, this pairing brought out both the salty and spicy notes, although I didn’t detect much Carolina in the sauce (that would be mustard based, I assume?). Either way, another excellent match between beer and food.smokedribBP

Finally, dessert was served with a trio of beers:

  • Sour Wench with Raspberries (too soda pop for my taste)
  • 2012 Sour Wench with Marion Blackberries (much nicer version of the Sour Wench)
  • 2011 Boob Check (the cancer awareness collaboration beer they made with White Labs)

dessert_BPThese were paired with a baked “crispy” shortbread over which was poured fresh berries and smoked rose petal curd, topped with a dollop of rosemary cream. The outside of the shortbread had been coated in sugar, and the rosemary cream was a delightful addition, particularly to someone like myself who doesn’t particularly care for sweet desserts.

There was a tenth beer that was supposedly available—the 2010 Three Sheets Barleywine—that I didn’t try to track down, so I don’t know how it tasted. By that point I was with Colby checking out the brewery, and I’d had quite my fill of great food and optimal beer pairings that this dinner offered. I liked this smoked-smoked idea so much that I recommended it to my NYC client, and he’s going to be hosting a smoked beer with food pairings dinner next month.

To see all my San Diego pictures, including more from Ballast Point, please visit (and like) my Facebook page.

 

Alan (far left) and Ryan (far right) on the per-excursion tour with Michael Puente.

The Bloggers Check In: Day 6 in San Diego

While a lot of participants at the Beer Bloggers Conference typically bail on Sunday morning (owing to too much beer or early transportation taking them out early), one of the more interesting features of the conference is the blogger reports from various writers around the country that wraps the conference every year. It’s a quick (each blogger has five minutes) check-in on the greater beer blogging community, and the reports range from funny to serious, informative to supportive. (Note: The titles are mine, but they sum up each of the seven presentations.)

First up this year, Emily Sauter of CT beer review blog Pints & Panels: Responsible Beer Reviewing

Clip art courtesy Layout Sparks.

Clip art courtesy Layout Sparks.

Like many of the bloggers, Emily posts beer reviews on her site, and she has three basic practices she tries to follow in her beer reviews that she shared with the attendees. These were:

  • Use Common Sense – all palates are different; what I like is different than you (Tip: don’t review what you don’t like)
  • Be Knowledgeable – Be concise, know where your beer comes from, become Cicerone or BJCP certified
  • Celebrate, Don’t Hate – Give the brewery the benefit of the doubt; if the beer tastes gross, try it again in a month or in six months and if still bad, try to find something positive to say (e.g. “this is the best beer they’ve produced thus far”)

And always end your Powerpoint presentation with a dinosaur (you had to be here to appreciate this joke).

Kendall Joseph of Beer Makes Three (where he blogs with his wife in Nashville, TN): How becoming a Certified Cicerone improves your blog

I got to know Kendall and his wife June a bit on our pre-conference excursion with APlus limos. Aside from being leaders in the Nashville craft beer community, the couple prides themselves on being well educated. While Kendall’s presentation about how “easy” it is to become a Certified Cicerone was a bit tongue in cheek (his tips included studying 2-3 hours per day for 9-12 months; and pay for the off-flavors kit), he outlined the merits of what being Cicerones (June is hold her Cicerone Beer Server certification) brings to beer blogging:

  • Credibility – “I’m a student who is learning, always; the more you learn the more you don’t know”
  • Access – “I get to know the people in the breweries, I get to know the distributors”
  • Opportunities – Kendall spoke of a new restaurant that is launching a beer and food pairing program, for which they’ve hired Kendall to curate

Among his more serious study tips: Learn all 86 styles in the BJCP manual, memorize the Brewers Association’s Draught Beer Quality Manual, do blind tastings, and read good books (Randy Mosher, John Palmer, Garrett Oliver, etc.). And have a healthy respect for the test.

Katherine Belamino of Passports & Cocktails: How to create a niche in blogging

Katherine works with a partner remotely (she’s a travel writer; Steven Grams is a beer writer) who relate beer, wine and spirits to travel adventures. They focus on the feature story that goes beyond one particular beer and its flavor and ingredients. Her main goals in writing include:

  • Why would someone want to go to a brewery when on vacation – Her features go beyond the taste to a feature story that will be meaningful beyond an individual beer
  • Her blog looks at events and programming and then gets hyper-local that is related to travel – e.g. if there’s an event, they write about the destination itself, but they also encourage visiting the breweries and distilleries/vineyards related to the event

A good spin on the beer blog, going beyond the taste and ingredients to know the story behind the brewery.

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Alan (far left) and Ryan (far right) on the per-excursion tour with Michael Puente.

Ryan Newhouse and Alan McCormick (from Montana Beer Finder and Growler Fills, respectively): How to launch your own beer week

Ryan joked that he and Alan “represent 100 percent of the Montana beer blogger scene,” but they’ve already made a huge impact by launching the Missoula Craft Beer Week. The beer week was a bit of a happy accident when Alan was inadvertently cc’d on an e-mail related to the Garden City Brew Fest on the 20th anniversary festival. They chimed in, “Let’s expand to a craft beer week.” With 45 breweries in Montana, they had only six weeks to put the 2013 beer week together. It was necessarily small with only 15 official events (a lot of tap take-overs and “visit your local bar” outreach). By year two, there were beer dinners and more creative programming (“how do we get hot yoga and cold beer together”). A mere year later, the late-April/early-May beer week launched the innaugural Craft Beer Cup as their marquee event: Nine bars, 11 breweries, and nine holes of putt putt – each bar built its own course – that raised almost $1200 to go to Missoula Food Bank.

Carol Dekkers of Florida’s Micro Brews USA: Bringing volunteerism and reaching your local beer scene

If Ryan and Alan are Montana’s craft beer ambassadors, Carol Dekker is Ambassador of western Florida (FL has 100 breweries). She started her presentation by quoting conference opening speaker Julia Hertz: “Make craft beer approachable.”

Crowler2In Carol’s St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay community, the demographic works against the Brewers Association’s norm with 25 percent of the populace over age 65 (the majority of craft beer drinkers are currently under age 45).

Her blog is more about bringing craft beer to the general population (Tampa-area beer gardens are both family- and dog-friendly) while dealing with controversial laws (no growlers larger than 32 oz.). She poured beer from Cycle Brewing’s “crowler,” a 32-ounce can that can be filled and sealed at the brewery. She also offered ways to gain more traction in the online beer community (her tips: Get a paper.li account, where you can create your ownenewspaper – hers is Brew News Daily – that gets populated from keywords; and join as many Facebook groups as possible and interact with them because one post goes out to thousands of viewers as opposed to only your personal followers).

Finally, Carol gave her spiel on the importance in volunteering, especially for events (March 7-15, 2015, is Tampa Bay Beer Week, you’re invited!), as volunteerism is a key part of bringing craft beer to the masses.

Brandon Fischer 365 beer.comHow to grow your blog with smarter posts

For most bloggers (Brandon’s focus is on beer reviews), there are two issues impeding growth: a small audience and past reviews that don’t “get the love” and pretty much disappear from your readers. His task was to address two main goals:

  1. Make content more attractive and accessible for the every-day beer lover
  2. Make content “stickier” without “selling out” to beer makers that just want product placement

He also didn’t want to forgo his creativity just in order to create more content. After determining that “everyone reads lists (e.g. buzzfeed),” he decided to to compile his existing reviews into lists (e.g. five beers of summer, five best regional beers, five beers to drink during a zombie apocalypse). This is allowing him to take old content and infuse it with fresh life with a minimal investment (the lists link to the previous review).

Craig Hendry of Raise Your Pints (among others): Using social media to affect beer regulation

While Craig began blogging in 2007, its his recent work in Mississippi on the legislative level that has made him a star in beer circles. It was through his organizing that Mississippi finally is able to homebrew legally (the 50th state to allow homebrewing), plus the relatively low 6.2% ABV limit was lifted this past year. Craig’s recommendations for ensuring success for craft beer in your state:

  • Look for legislative updates that might affect your local brewers (he suggested following the “Support your local brewery” alerts at the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer website)
  • Monitor your state’s legislative website (search for beer, brewing, alcohol)
  • Be vigilant and offer assistance to your local brewers guild (they are probably more involved in day-to-day operations of their breweries to stay on top of deadlines/changes in legislation
  • Understand your state’s legislative process (you can attend any session if you’re in your capital area); the more you know about the whole process of bills and strategies to get bills passed, the more advocacy you can do
  • Promote positive laws, work against bad legislation
  • Steer the discussion – help drive what’s being talked about in the public via Twitter/FB
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San Diego Day 3: A Six-Hour Tour

APlusLimoOne of the things I really enjoy about craft beer people is the age range (I wish I could say I enjoy the diversity, but with a few notable exceptions, we’re largely a majority-male, white, educated group). However, I’m certainly in the mid-age range and I remember Gilligan’s Island fondly, a sitcom based on the notion that a group of strangers head out on a boat for a three-hour tour, only to get caught up in a maelstrom and lost to a desert isle. Without going too far into the premise of the show, Thursday in San Diego was reminiscent, as about a dozen beer bloggers showed up a day early to take a six-hour tour courtesy of APlus Limos and led by our generous host, Michael Puente. Thanks to APlus, we could get around to see more of the amazing breweries San Diego has to offer, including:

  • Societe Brewing Company – A bit of a mash-up between old-world Belgian styles and new California hoppy beers

    The barrel aging room at Societe.

    The barrel aging room at Societe.

  • White Labs – The die-hard beer geek’s personal piece of heaven; had we been stranded here, I would have died happy
  • AleSmith Brewing – Arguably the best drinking spot in San Diego (and go ahead and argue, if you like), where I met Kevin who has offered to drive me to Lost Abbey on Sunday (hi, Kevin!)
  • Benchmark Brewing – With an emphasis on sessionable and table beers

Along the way, we also stopped by a Mexican fast food place; the verde burrito might have been the best I’ve ever had (dunno how I will be able to eat Brooklyn Mexican ever again!). While any of the venues (Council Brewing was also a stop, but I had already drank my way through most of the line-up on Tuesday) would warrant its own blog post, I have to say that White Labs was the most unusual and delicious stop.

For those who may not know, White Labs is the premier harvester of yeast in the U.S., possibly even the world. Their scientists have written the definitive book on yeast, and their tasting room offers up beers named by style and yeast strain (hence, the best beer I’ve had thus far, a porter on cask with the designation WLP028). You can also order a flight of a particular style of beer with four different yeast strains. My porter flight included:

  • WLP006 Bedford British Ale Yeast
  • WLP051 California Ale V Yeast (from northern CA)
  • WLP005 British Ale Yeast (maybe because it was a porter, this was the best of the bunch other than the cask)
  • WLP862 Cry Havoc pitched as a lager (licensed from the king of homebrew himself, Charlie Papazian)
  • Bonus brew: the cask porter made with vanilla soaked oak spiral (I had to ask: rather than aging in barrels, the soaked oak piece is added to the fermenter), vanilla beans, honey and cocoa nibs

BBC14_APlusI also drank the Frankenstout, an eighth generation beer that is made using all 96 varieties of White Labs yeast (don’t ask me how they manage, only that we joked about a sterile mop!). The thought that there are that many yeast strains in a single beer is somewhat outside the scope of my mind to encompass, but the beer was great.

In fact, White Labs (which has long been on my bucket list to visit, and partially why I decided to come to San Diego for the Beer Bloggers Conference) really illustrates the brewers axiom: Brewers make wort; yeast make beer. The variety of flavors among the same beer with different yeast was incredibly broad. I would happily go back to White Labs just to try their flights on a regular basis. As it stands, I have APlus to thank for getting me there safely and in comfort… along with 13 of my beer blogging buds.

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Here in Hop Heaven… My First Trip to San Diego

This is what 30 years... and 30 pounds... looks like! Living it up with my personal tour guide in San Diego!

This is what 30 years… and 30 pounds… looks like! Living it up with my personal tour guide in San Diego!

I ended up coming to this year’s Beer Bloggers Conference in large part owing to the location. While I thoroughly enjoyed BBC13 in Portland, ME, last year, the easy (and fairly inexpensive) transportation was a key reason for my being in attendance. There is nothing easy about getting to San Diego from NYC (okay, well, there are plenty of non-stop flights, so it’s not like I was gonna walk here), but I had never been to the city and it was certainly on my bucket list to get out here and try some local SoCal brews.

My initial impression of the beer scene here is that it’s light years ahead of NYC. The very first beer I had was at Council Brewing Co., a nano-brewer run by (female! yay!) brewmaster Liz Chism. Chism, who works the brewery along side her husband Curtis, is a sign language interpreter by day, amazing homebrewer by night. I was stunned to hear that she had no formal training, because her beers are truly outstanding. This isn’t to say that homebrewers don’t make outstanding beers, only to say that these beers would stand up against any eastern large brewers’ beers.

Council Brewing Co. brewmaster Liz Chism.

Council Brewing Co. brewmaster Liz Chism.

My friend Brian, who I hadn’t seen in 30 years, took me to the off-the-beaten-path brewery housed in an industrial park. I started with a flight that included three different IPAs. While their homonymic IPA, Chizzam!, was outstanding, it was their Quorum IPA with Jarrylo Hops that was bringing in the locals (it had just been poured). I’m a beer lover and not a judge, but this was the least IPA-tasting IPA I think I’ve had. There was zero nose; I mean, like, none! Even Liz admitted to a low-scent beer (it was getting busy at that point, and I was more interested in catching up with my friend than quizzing the beer maker, but I’m guessing no additional hops added to the fermentation). Even the flavor was not overly hopped. The Yakima Valley experimental hop (pronounced yar-I-lo with emphasis on the “i”) is very subtle, despite having a relatively high AA (~15%). I would have guessed it was a hoppy Belgian style ale, and not an IPA at all.

But it was the third entry, their Gavel Drop IPA made with New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops that made me feel like I was no longer in Kansas—er, Brooklyn—anymore. Very intense aroma and taste. Initially, after the subtlety of the Chizzam!, I was put off by it. But after finishing the delicious (and deceptively high in alcohol) Pirate’s Breakfast Imperial Oatmeal Stout, the Gavel Drop really grew on me.

BelchingBeaverMoving on, Brian took me to Tiger!Tiger! where I paired Hops of Hope by Noble Ale Works (again, outstanding) with a spicy house-made bratwurst and poutine (which was the only thing that was less-than-impressive). Already pretty tipsy at this point, I was escorted around the corner to the wickedly named Belching Beaver (sadly, they were out of the ladies’ tank tops), where I managed to chill my palate with one of their famous milk stouts (I had the Peanut Butter, a great dessert beer).

Brian told me that even though Council opened three months ago (their grand opening was a mere two months ago), they are far from the newest brewery in San Diego. I don’t know much about the politics to opening a brewery in California, but the quality and quantity of beer means that I will be able to dip my toe into the waters but slightly. I’m going to head out in a bit to explore some more (this is my only full free day, and I’ve spent the entire morning working). Can’t wait to see what further treats the craft beer world of San Diego has in store for The Bitch!