This past Saturday Molly and I joined hundreds of craft beer lovers at the San Diego County Fair First Annual San Diego Craft Brewer’s Festival. The venue and weather couldn’t have been better â€“ the Paddock area of the Del Mar fairgrounds was transformed into a large circular beer garden and accompanied by sunshine, blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70’s, making the perfect setting for an afternoon of tasting outstanding beers.
While 60,000 people stuffed themselves on funnel cakes, spun in the tilt-a-whirl and wandered about the fairgrounds just beyond the garden walls, we mingled with other festival-goers (many of whom are now becoming familiar faces) and sampled hundreds of offerings of 50 or so craft breweries.
Many of the breweries (and brewpubs) were, of course from San Diego, Southern California and the Southwest. But a good number also came from places as far flung as Hawaii, New York and Maine, giving us the opportunity to taste an enormous variety of beers.
These were among my favorite surprises:
- Just Outstanding IPA from Kern River Brewing
An amber colored beer with excellent malt and hop flavors. At 6.8% ABV it’s not a strong as strong as a lot of other “West Coast” IPAs, so it’s better for what Molly likes to term “Day Beer”. We go camping a lot in the Southern Sierras (especially in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks), so the next time we head up there, we’re definitely stopping in Kernville for a pint or two.
- Skinny Dip from New Belgium Brewing
I DO NOT Like “Lite” Beers as I find them tasteless and generally weak. (Even beers like Sam Adams Light aren’t very good in my opinion.) But this beer was genuinely good. Light, refreshing and full of flavor, it was easy to forget that this beer was both low in calories and in alcohol. Beers like this may force the Coors, Buds and Millers of the world to change their “Lite” ways.
- Big Swell IPA from Maui Brewing Company
Dang â€“ who knew a canned IPA could taste so good? More of an English-style than an American IPA, it’s lighter and sweeter than the stuff I’m used to, but with a great flavor and finish. I’ll be looking for this stuff at my local supplier.
- Wee Heavy Scotch Ale by AleSmith Brewing Co.
Actually, this wasn’t that big of a surprise, since I already loved the stuff. I’m pretty sure they stick some crack cocaine-like substance in it (which is why it won the gold in its category).
And a few of Molly’s favorites:
- Coconut Porter from Maui Brewing Company
Normally Molly likes the smoky, black stuff and begs off on the sweet porters and stouts. But this one had her hooked. It’s a pretty classic porter but with the added punch of toasted coconut, which really gives the beer an interesting flavor (I don’t particularly like porters, but this one could make me a convert). Just another reason to look for Maui Brewing’s beers.
- Choco Latte Porter by San Diego Brewing Company
A nut brown ale with Chocolate. Way too “chocolatey” for me, but not for Molly. I’m just glad that they don’t bottle this because she said she’d give up sex for it.
- Alaskan Smoked Porter by Alaskan Brewing Company
While hit-or-miss availability down here, whenever we’re up at our hole in the ground in Idaho, Molly picks up as much of this stuff as she can. Smoky, and thick, I have to admit, she’s right, it’s delicious.
- Judgment Day by Port Brewing/Lost Abbey
Actually, no surprise here either. Since the day Tomme Arthur gave her a sip of this from a murky bottle, she’s craved its deep, rich flavor (more crack-infused beer?). Now she pretty much shows up at Lost Abbey and drinks it straight from the tap. The fact that she used one of her precious taster tickets to get some speaks volumes.
The Award Winners
What’s a beer festival without a beer competition? The festival had 275 entries in 29 categories, running the gamut from light lagers to strong ales. This being San Diego (craft beer capital of the world in my opinion), a number of heavyweights and industry notables turned out including Boston Beer Company, New Belgium Brewing, Deschutes Brewery, Brewery Ommegang, and hometown favorite Stone Brewing Company.
The medal announcements weren’t supposed to start until 2:30, but I guess everyone got exited because they started the ceremony half an hour early. (Who ever hear of an awards ceremony start early?)
Best of show went to Shipyard Brewing Company and its Shipyard Export Ale. As the Best in Show winner they received the Festival Trophy â€“ a real, working stainless fermenter (albeit only 3 feet tall). The plan is to have the winner keep the trophy for a year and then turn it over to the next year’s winner a la hockey’s Stanley Cup. With one caveat â€“ the winner brews some beer in the fermenter and turns it over to the next year’s winner and everybody gets to try some. (Pretty good tradition in the making if you ask me.)
The other big winners of the night were Firestone Walker of Paso Robles, CA, and local brewery (and a personal favorite) Port Brewing / Lost Abbey. Each grabbed five medals apiece. This is impressive, but especially so for Port Brewing as the brewery just celebrated its first anniversary in May.
A full list of the entrants and winners follows.
You can also download the entire list of winners in both PDF and Excel format from the San Diego Fair website right here
Want to see a slideshow from the San Diego Craft Brewer’s Festival? Here you go (click on the image to be take to the photo gallery):