Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Beer in San Diego: An Ode to Karl Strauss

Drool over this Portland - trolley stop in San Diego. 

The big annual economics conference was held in San Diego over the first weekend in January, and I had to go to do some recruiting for some open positions at Oregon State.  This was my first trip to San Diego and though I was limited in terms of time and location I did get a little opportunity to sample a bit of the SD beer scene.

The Beer Co.  Marble bar, lots of huge TVs.
I started with the place closest to my hotel: The Beer Co. It goes for the sports bar theme, which was great for after a long day of interviewing I was in the mood to stop thinking and watch a little college football while sampling the beer. The beer was surprisingly good for the slightly corporate vibe, I had a very nice Warrior IPA (which is also the name of a Left Hand Brewing beer) made of 100% warrior hops that was half way between the NW and SD - citrus-y but face meltingly bitter.  ONe note, however, the service, in this pub that was packed on a Friday night, was exceptional. 

I also fond myself accidentally at the Rock Bottom SD location - lured in by the televisions showing the Packers.  I was pleasantly surprised but this may be because of already low expectations. Their IPA is a seriously old-school cascade hop bomb and I liked it quite a bit, not refined like the best modern IPAs but it took me back to the day.  The other beers were quite serviceable and unobjectionable beers inspired by the corporate bottom line. I would not go out of my way, but with the packers and a decent happy hour menu on the weekend, it did the job. In contrast to The Beer Co., the service here was friendly but quite poor for a half occupied bar - I waited long stretches with an empty glass for service.

But really my San Diego beer education came mostly on the last day when an afternoon flight allowed me to lunch at the legendary Karl Strauss.  Karl Strauss is legendary the way Widmer and Bridgeport are in Portland - they were early pioneers of craft beer, Karl Strauss began in 1989.  Because of the long history I expected to find beers made from recipes of the late 80s and not terribly inspiring.  

I was wrong.
Exterior of Karl Strauss
First the space of the downtown location was magnificent and familiar - all exposed brick and structural timber, very similar to the NW style.  It is in a nice part of downtown San Diego and right next to the trolley line.
Interior of Karl Strauss
Second, the beer was distinctive, modern and excellent.  The first beer I tasted, a wheat beer was an fruity ester bomb, first on the nose and then on the tongue.  The predominant ester was banana, it was in fact a banana explosion with a little clove in there for good measure.  They say they use an ancient weissbier yeast and though the banana was a turn off for me, I give them props for turning out a distinctive wheat beer that will displease many.  

Bar with brewery in back

My favorite of the bunch as the Pintail Pale.  This hits my sweet spot, it is a 5.3% ABV pale, beautifully balanced and it just explodes with an aroma that is a mix of pine and tropical fruit.  It is followed by a massive amount of flavor for a pale. They use Motueka hops from New Zealand’s South Islan, a variant new to me but one that has the characteristic tropical fruit note without being as in your face as Nelson Sauvin, and Cascades to achieve the mix of tropical and pine.  It is one of the finest pales I have ever had.

Food and beer: the bacon craze has not escaped San Diego

The IPA was also excellent, a classic three C: Chinook, Centennial and Cascades used to good effect, though I would have tuned down the bittering hops. It clocks in at 7% ABV.   In true San Diego fashion, it is a face melter, your palate will not survive a pint of this.  I found it a bit too bitter and also slightly astringent.  But these are quibbles, I enjoyed it a lot.

They had two reds on offer, their regular Red Trolley and a special "Off the Rails" double red. Neither was a big favorite of mine.  They were good beers but I am not a fan of the style.  Red Trolley was the better of the two but it was a bit malty and sweet for me.  It apparently started out as a holiday beer so it was made this way intentionally and will please those who like more malt and less bitter.  But that is not me.  The double variant was both sweet and very alcohol-y. 

Finally a note on the food.  Karl Strauss goes for a bit of a gastro-pub ethos with food prices pretty dear and some highfalutin menu items.  But what I had, the mesquite chicken sandwich, was very good as were the house made chips (American chips that is - crisps to you Brits).  I felt good about my choice - lean grilled chicken on a whole wheat bun with avocado - was ruined by the massive slabs of bacon on the sandwich, but my enjoyment of the meal was enhanced considerably.   

Fun times in San Diego and I have made a note to myself to come back soon.