Even if they weren’t terrific, I would love my in-laws for two simple reasons: (1) they live minutes from the Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, and (2) they love beer. Both of these facts are so stupendously true that I visited them without my wife (she was at a conference up north) so I could attend the Stone Anniversary Festival, which I hadn’t missed in five years. The event offers a chance to taste 10 beers from 40 breweries in three hours for $30. I’m far from alone in my love of all-beers-Stone: Eric Asimov of the New York Times called them one of “the best beers in the world.” And while Stone’s flagship-the brilliantly, accurately marketed Arrogant Bastard Ale-sums up the brewery’s approach, I actually like their other beers better.
Most festival-goers arrived early to exchange their tickets for a souvenir glass and a wristband with 10 little plastic stubs attached. Then it was time to wait in line in keen anticipation; the event is so popular it now has two sessions. As we waited, a worker walked the line and shouted, “I’ll be opening the gate in five minutes : and there are no IPAs : ha!” India Pale Ales, especially the aggressively hopped so-called West Coast style, are the hallmark of both Stone and the festival. The week before the event, Hollister Brewing’s head brewer Eric Rose explained, “If you go to the festival and don’t bring IPA, people just walk away from your booth.” Truly, this is a place where people believe bitter is better.
Once inside, and having secured a table under a tent, we headed out in search of what’s best. For me, that meant going to Craftsman Brewing, a small producer out of Pasadena (which is finally available in Santa Barbara at The Hungry Cat) that always makes one-of-a-kind beers (like a lager worth drinking). I tried the Bierre de Mars, billed as part IPA, part Belgian-style. Somehow, it was just that: from sip to sip, a tasty curiosity.
Next I headed to one of the reasons to attend each Stone Festival-Stone’s Anniversary Ale. Each year it’s different, and the 10th was spectacular, so I was anxious to see what this year brought. XI is a dark beer, but still an IPA. A worker in the tasting room the next day said, “It’s like the Smoked Porter blended with Ruination [one of the more high-powered ones from Stone], with the smoke taken out.”
Third up was Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Elder, a double IPA, which means exactly what you would think-double the hops. This beer is a favorite of mine, and the live bite received from getting it fresh is puckeringly good. Another person at our table had a Ballast Point double IPA, and tasting them side by side showed why Pliny is superb-the Ballast Point is all hop attack, while the Russian River has a complexity, a balance, the other beer lacks.
I did beer number four no favors by making it follow the Pliny. Alesmith’s Little Devil (“as good as heck”) is a refreshing Belgian-style beer, but no standout in today’s tough crowd. For beer five, I hit the hand-pump lineup from Stone to taste cask-conditioned ales that have no carbonation and were still fermenting in the cask. That makes for a much smoother beer, and the Stone IPA with added Centennial hops throws a sneaky sucker punch, almost sweet on first taste, but then awash in a hoppy finish.
Another brewery central to the northern San Diego County beer renaissance, Pizza Port, got to be beer six. (Actually there were three different Pizza Ports and a Port Brewing, but this beer is from the Carlsbad location and celebrates its 10th anniversary.) AtTENuation (brewers love their puns, one more reason I love them) is a Belgian-style that’s all about complex yeasts and lovely breadiness, so much so it’s easy to miss its 9 percent alcohol. At this point our table was so happy we almost opted to pummel a festival-goer wearing a Miller Genuine Draft T-shirt.
Beer seven took me to Pizza Port Solana Beach for a Sticky Stout, full of rich coffee-toffee notes. At this point my friend Steve, matching me brew for brew, said, “This is the saddest moment of the day-I only have three [tickets] left.” I used one of my remaining tickets (number eight) for a Green Flash West Coast IPA. If you think back to the West Coast versus East Coast Rap Wars, this one is NWA compared to some De la Soul East Coast brew.
For beer nine, I went back to the hand-pump station, where they had changed kegs, the sneaky devils. Stone XI Anniversary, cask conditioned, with added Simcoe and Summit hops, won best of the fest from our table-it is so full and balanced you can even detect different hop registers singing in harmony. Brilliant beer. And things got better, as my in-laws were greeted by a waitress they know from a bar near Petco Park; she had extra tickets so gave me some. Beer friendliness makes the world bearable.
Beer number 10 was North Coast’s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial. If you’ve only had it from a bottle, you’ve never had it in its fullest glory-even its foam laps up dark, and after tasting its deeply rich malts, its finish offers some pleasing sour that’s not just hops.
Thanks to my extra tickets, my beer count goes to 11 : and then 12. I returned to try another of Craftsman’s offerings, this time an Oktoberfest that is so German my watch started to run on time as I drank it. As the clock raced toward the festival shutdown of 2 p.m., I hurried over to Bear Republic to get one more glass. They took my ticket and just as they were about to fill my glass, a worker ran in back of the booth and said, “No more pours.” I pleaded, “But you took my ticket.” They acquiesced and I got my Racer 5, which I drank slowly, trying my best to feel each hop molecule wash its tangy way past my tart-tantalized tongue.