Monday, January 19, 2009

Nurse the Hate: San Diego Micro Brew Weekender

Is there any better way of spending the first weekend of January than making a run to San Diego to attack some of the 22 microbreweries in the immediate San Diego area? Yes, 10 inches of snow and 7-degree temperatures have their virtues (or so I am told). However, I am more of a 76 degrees and sunny kind of guy. The plan was that I would meet The Enabler at the SD Airport, after getting The Stackmaster in Houston. A little quick background on my travel companions… The Enabler is so named as he has always been to guy to show up with that one extra beer, shot, or organic material and sells in the idea of the immediate injestion of these “gifts”. This has led to certain legendary nights out including (but not limited to) the Jukebox Incident in Champaign IL, The Barfing Cowboy, and The Questionable Load Out at a club in Fayetteville AK. He is a man that knows his microbrew and the various characters we would need to get in touch with in San Diego.

The Stackmaster was so named by his tendency to wager great stacks of chips in casinos across this great land. The fact that he may not know the actual rules of the game he is playing has never been the issue. He figures he’ll get to the bottom of it as he goes along. That was not the case during one brutal session of baccarat at the Mirage, but thankfully he has a short memory. His legend was sealed when he was finishing one of the most punishing ass beatings I have ever witnessed while in Las Vegas. He lost everything he played from the second he got off the plane to about 3 minutes before he had to be escorted to the airport 3 days later. I think he may have even lost 200 bucks on that stupid wheel with cash around the rim on it that only senior citizens and Russians play. We’re talking about tremendous losses that Charles Barkley would have been shaken up about. As we got ready to drag him out of the Stratosphere he pleaded to make “one more bet before I leave Vegas”, and dropped all of his remaining chips on 33 on the roulette wheel. He hits the 33, goes to the window, counts his money, and announces, “I’m up $26 on the trip”.

The Stackmaster and I land in San Diego via Houston and discover The Enabler will be delayed for 2 hours. Stacky turns to me and says, “Let’s go to a Casino”. Normally this is the kind of decision that can send an entire weekend spiraling into madness. However, The Stackmaster is very responsible about some things, and I knew he would leave the casino to go pick up The Enabler at the Airport. At least I thought he would anyway…

The Stackmaster does a little work on “the device”, and finds the closest casino is something called “The Lucky Lady” down by the Mexican border. I take the wheel of our shitty rented Dodge Avenger and we follow the computer’s directions. The route takes us further and further into some kind of Mexican/Asian Hood until we arrive at “the casino”. I will now attempt, but fail, to do the description of “The Lucky Lady” true justice.

Imagine a weathered storefront in a really bad neighborhood. There is a parking lot to the left of the small building. The bordering building on the right is a business with bars on the windows that slightly obscure a neon sign offering “Oriental Massage”. A dirty bulletproof glass door opens into the splendor that is The Lucky Lady. There are six tables in a shabby room that seems vaguely like an abandoned Chinese restaurant. Two tables are full with a collection of men playing Texas Hold ‘Em that look like guys that lost most of their government check at the Track earlier that day, and are now hoping for a good run of cards so they can buy a few bottles of off brand liquor. The only other occupied table is overrun with tiny Asian men and women excitedly speaking in some native tongue about their ups and downs in Pai Gow poker. We may be the only people here that speak English. It’s like we walked onto a Quentin Tarrentino movie set and we’re the only ones that didn’t study our lines.

Of course, we sit down and play at the empty blackjack table.

The most difficult part of the game was figuring out the cockeyed rules they had in place. You could win in a variety of ways despite busting, but it depended on how many cards you had, how much you bet, and maybe what day of the week it was. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. It would have helped if the dealer or “pit boss” spoke English. I was totally lost, but The Stackmaster was like a fish in water. I lost all my money in literally 14 minutes. The Stackmaster hung in there for a while, but eventually busted as well. Amazingly, I got Stacky out of there before a gunfight broke out, and we went to get The Enabler.

The plan was strong for our first day. Pick up The Enabler and immediately head out to Alesmith Brewing to taste their portfolio. Alesmith specializes in British style ales, and is not afraid to make BIG beers. The brewery itself was in a small industrial park setting next to a chiropractic supply and I think a landscaper. We’re not talking about a visit to Anheuser Busch. The brewery is about the size of your average Perkins. In the back of the place a simple tap system is set up on a wall, and a young woman is pouring sample beers for about 9 guys in their 30s. It’s like the very beginning or very end of a poorly attended graduate school keg party. I especially like their Alesmith X (which is an Extra Style Ale, whatever that means) and the Lil Devil Ale. We taste our way through about 9 different (and impressive) beers in small glasses.

It quickly became evident that the problem I was going to run into is that I have to drive The Avenger about 40 minutes back to the Westin downtown, and these are high alcohol motherfucker beers and ales. In an effort to stay in my shoes, I avoid the last 3 beers. These particular beers have things like an anvil and busted skull decorating the tap handle. I’m just guessing that if you have a beer with an anvil on it, it might have a pretty big alcohol content. This proves to be a good idea as we make the short drive to Ballast Point.

Like Alesmith, Ballast Point is in an industrial park. They are larger than Alesmith, but not by a lot. Due to some bizarre California regulations, they can pour beer in their tasting room on Friday afternoons, but only if you enter a certain door. If you went in the other door you could only be involved in their business of small batch whiskey, and clearly that would have ended in disaster. I didn’t understand the logic of any of it, but we quickly joined a small crowd of 20 or so people jammed into a room that felt like a rec room at a summer camp. We ordered a pint of their Big Eye IPA and attempted to find brew master Yousef Cherney.

Here’s the run down on Yousef. He’s a guy that probably did really well in chemistry class. I say that because being obviously detail oriented, Dude had built a still for small batch bourbon out of spare parts lying around the area. He is very focused and passionate about his beers. And I have to say; the taste is there in the end product. He was very generous with his time, and gave us all kinds of low down on the brewery and the San Diego micro brew community. We were very impressed by everything he poured us, but frankly after the sixth refill he gave us, we might have been impressed by a 16 oz Genny Pounder. The Enabler and Stackmaster flipped out over a limited run specialty beer that was a ginger infused IPA. Every sushi joint in town should pour that as their house beer. It would be absolutely perfect with an expensive plate of raw fish. I liked the Yellowtail Pale Ale made in a Kolsch style, stout and the Big Eye IPA, although there was a piney element to a pint of the Big Eye I had at another bar later that weekend. They also had an interesting specialty that was a 3.5% alcohol beer with plenty of flavor. That was perfect after knocking back the heavier part of the portfolio.

Yousef eventually split to go home, and he left us to our beers and gave us a growler of the ginger IPA and a case of Big Eye to go. We bought a bunch of Ballast Point gear as a thank you for the entire crew’s welcoming attitude towards us. Good people and really good beer at Ballast Point.

Incredibly, we made it back to the hotel.

Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to go to Karl Strauss Brewery, which was literally a block away. This is a multi location San Diego brewpub that has a lot in common with a Rock Bottom Brewery, but probably has better food. As I have finally rid myself of having to drive, I dive right into their Stargazer IPA. The Enabler then orders a pitcher of Stargazer and three glasses. These guys have had about 200 high alcohol beers by now, and I have to say I am impressed with how they are holding up. I work my way through most of the pitcher waiting for a table, and by the time we are seated the jet lag and IPAs have caught up with me. It’s time to regroup at HQ…

The next day our agenda was focused on Green Flash Brewing, and we arrive around Noon. This is my kind of place. They have a bit of a ramshackle set up in the now customary industrial park, with none of the precision of the places we visited yesterday. Rigged up tubing goes into mismatching tanks. An old pieced together bottling line sits in the middle of the small room. They serve the beers behind an old buffet table with a bowl of pretzels and a plate of homemade cookies on it. It’s like if your buddies opened up a brewery, and you discovered they knew what they were doing. Green Flash makes a slew of high-powered ales, stouts, and porters. I think the lowest alcohol beer on the board was a 5.7% red ale. The Enabler hooked us up with one of the owners Mike Hinkley. Mike was yet another one of these cool guys in the micro brew business. For some reason the craft beer business doesn’t attract a bunch of assholes like domestic car sales or securities trading. The brew must mellow them out.

The Green Flash line is all aggressively flavored, and not for the faint of heart. The Imperial India Pale Ale and the West Coast IPA might have been my favorite beers of the trip. As a disclaimer, I will add that it was about 78 degrees, and the sun was shining on me as I drank it. That doesn’t hurt the old taste test. There’s a real nice Double Stout at Green Flash too. I think I can say confidently the wheels would have come off completely if we had knocked back the Le Freak, Trippel Belgian, or the Barleywine in full pint pour. We got ourselves together and attempted to find Stone Brewing.

You probably know Stone Brewing. Their 22 oz bottles of Arrogant Bastard Ale are a staple at any good beer bar. They kick some serious marketing ass, and have good product to back it up. You could tell when speaking to other area microbreweries that there is a love/hate with Stone. They love that Stone makes high quality beer, but they hate how slickly (and to be honest, successfully) they sell their beer.

The Device told us Stone was located in some small housing development with an abandoned big wheel in the driveway, but it turned out that the facility was not located in someone’s garage. A word of caution, Stone is on Citracado Parkway, and for some reason there are 3 different Citracados in Escondido. I don’t know if this is some kind of California Mind Fuck or poor civic planning, but call the brewery for directions. You’ll know when you get there because this is the mother of all microbreweries. Taking a cue from a Napa Valley tasting room, Stone Brewing is an impressive structure with large clean stonewalls, dramatic layout, and an eternal outdoor fire pit. (They have spent enough money on this place, they may have moved JFK’s body underneath the eternal fire pit, but I cannot confirm or deny at this time. Maybe it’s Elvis…I just don’t know.)

A very expensive bistro menu and impressive 60 tap beer list await those that are seated at the old refurbished wood bar. Tours are scheduled, and end with a choreographed tasting in the gift shop with rock n roll soundtrack timed to the exit of the tour. Slick. Really slick. Maybe too slick. However, the beers are really good. To that there is no debate.

An interesting feature about the bar, they also pour plenty of other regional/world micros as well. The Enabler drank some crazy ass $12 aged porter with an alcohol content that would kill a goat, while Stacky searched for an IPA that he liked as much as the ginger IPA from Ballast Point. Some creepy divorcees checked us out, the bar tenders ignored us, and I had to keep in my shoes since I had somehow once again ended up behind the wheel of the Avenger.

The next stop was Pizza Port. Pizza Port is like a BW-3 if BW-3 brewed up serious suds and made really good quality pizza instead of fast food quality wings. The Enabler made a move to purchase some crazy beer he couldn’t get at home, and arrange shipping while I stepped into Pizza Port to check on my doomed wager on the Carolina Panthers. Seeing that Jake Delomme was single handedly destroying the dreams of all Panthers fans and recreational gamblers, I ordered a Fancy Pants Pilsner. It was OK. Stacky and The Enabler eventually showed up, but we were driven off by the sheer amount of unruly kids in the place. It’s a weird combination of microbrew/picnic tables/pizza/21 year old hangout/family joint. Whatever the combination, it works. They must be shoveling money out the back into wheelbarrows.

As we headed for the Avenger, some guy tried to jump on a rail on his skateboard and landed hard on his ass. I said, “That must have felt good.” He said “Why don’t you rub it for me.” I declined. Ah, those pesky skateboard pussy boys… So rebellious, yet so harmless….Skateboarding is not a crime Dude!

The rest of the evening consisted of finishing off the growler of Ballast Point ginger IPA and then heading out on what became a forced Bataan Death March through San Diego’s legendary Gas Lamp District. What a waste of time that was… We walked the 5-block area looking for a cool bar to grab a beer. The criterion weren’t exactly tough to fill. 1) Good beer and 2) no techno or house music. Sadly, we had a Guinness in a faux Irish bar with the worst live band I have seen since mistakenly walking into The Roundhouse in Put-In-Bay in 2007. While walking around I did see a lot of tiny Asian/Mexican girls in micro dresses and gigantic heels, and men with ill conceived Van Dyke beards and pink shirts waiting in lines to go into clubs with fog oozing out the door and throbbing bass. I didn’t like that scene when I was 19, and it hadn’t gotten any more interesting now, so we caught a cab to go to The Casbah. The Casbah was celebrating their 20th year as San Diego’s premiere live indie club venue. They had a monster 5 band bill including Deadbolt playing that night. Unfortunately, it was sold out and we couldn’t persuade the doorman to let us in. Perhaps he did not know what an important indie rock cultural figure I am… (I am, right? Right?) I’ll bet Nic Roulette or Dave Hartman would have gotten in.

I woke up at the hotel early to handicap the playoff games. After the debacle in Carolina, I needed a winner. Stacky and The Enabler snored away, and I became convinced the Chargers could pull off a win in Pittsburgh. The Stackmaster heard me clicking around the web, and sleepily asked what I was doing. After I told him, he says “Put the same thing down for me on whatever you bet. I just need some action.” Well, at 2-1 The Chargers were worth a shot anyway. After getting our action in on the Eagles and Chargers as dogs on the money line, I took my position in my bed for the weird sensation of the 10am West Coast kickoff. I had decided early on to go totally native. Today I would grab a cab; we would get fish tacos, and head to The Taproom in Pacific Beach to watch the game with The People of San Diego.

Watching a game in The Taproom has almost nothing in common with watching a game in NE Ohio. Here the crowd in the bar is fat, unattractive, and looks like they crawled out of a City Mission. There? It was 40% female, and all the girls were better looking than almost any woman within 250 miles of Browns Stadium. Every single person in the room was wearing powder blue old school Charger gear, with the exception of the Giants fans who’s dreams had just been crushed by the Eagles (winner!) and us.

The world is full of two types of people: cheetahs and gazelles. The bar had 40 local micros on tap, and like true cheetahs, we quickly stole three seats by the taps directly in line with a huge big screen HD. A retired Navy vet named “Big John” in complete gear convinced me that my wager was safe on San Diego. A season ticket holder, he put $500 on them himself. This was a lock. Clearly this would be a great day…

Within 10 minutes, it was clear that the Chargers asses would be kicked and we would be on the losing end. Unlike a Browns game (where fist fights, name calling, and dog kicking would ensue) this crowd good-naturedly took it in stride. We all hung out, felt the breeze blow in from the ocean, and met everyone around us. Why get uptight? It’s a sunny 78 degrees outside, and there are plenty of other bars down on the beach.

The Stackmaster and I made our way down to a bar that was on the beach itself that came recommended by one of the natives. The Enabler, burnt out, escaped to the hotel. The bar turned out to be little more than a trailer with permanent mooring, and beers on ice. The setting sun turned the sky burnt red, and we turned the corner into what can only be called “heroic beer drinking”. How heroic? I recall crossing a street and stumbling into a one-room shack for a carnitas burrito with two heavily tattooed guys on choppers. After careening out of there, the Stackmaster and I somehow flagged down a cab to get back to the hotel.

The end of the trip ended like so many of these things end. Groggily driving the rental car back to the well-concealed location at 5am, we managed to make our flight with moments to spare. Both Stacky and I were pretty banged up, and I felt pretty good about my future when the seat next to me appeared to be empty. Just seconds before closing the cabin door, one more passenger gets on the plane to (of course) wedge himself in next to me. The situation turned grim. I was crammed into an airplane next to a giant Mexican guy that farted on me for three hours. It was like if someone turned on a giant air conditioner that only blew out a smell like a condensed odor of the airplane bathroom. It was a long, long, long flight.

In summary, San Diego was outstanding. The return trip? Not so much.


At January 22, 2009 at 2:49:00 PM EST , Blogger Dadada Media G said...

Thanks for the invite.


At January 22, 2009 at 6:18:00 PM EST , Blogger Greg Miller said...

It only would have ended in tragedy for you. These men are true professionals that don't turn their heads at three days of very hard drinking. However, there is already talk of another ill advised trip this Spring. If you think you can hang...


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