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Thursday, June 29, 2017

San Diego 2017 - Part 1: Entering the whale's vagina

According to Ron Burgundy, the words "San Diego" translate to "whale's vagina" in German. Aside from the beer, the climate, the vibe, and the fact that one of my oldest friends lives there, I knew there was something else about San Diego that I loved; I just couldn't put my finger on it. Yes, kiddies, it's time once again to trip the Left Coast fantastic with a visit to our favorite city - San Diego!

After an amazing trip to Portland, OR last year, we'd decided it was time to head back to Cali to witness first-hand how the craft beer scene had grown since our last visit (a mere two years earlier). I was on "blog hiatus" at that time, so unfortunately I didn't not document our trip with a "Pour Travelers" treatment (aside from Untappd check-ins a-plenty). This time, we flew out of Baltimore's familiar BWI Airport, and we used the later flight time to our advantage. Since we typically fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays due to cheaper flights, we sometimes run into issues with beer spots not being open earlier in the day, especially Tuesday (the "travel day" this year). A bunch of new breweries had opened in Baltimore since we'd last visited; unfortunately, only one was open for lunch on a Tuesday. Good thing it didn't suck!

...and so it begins!

We arrived at Brewhouse No. 16 shortly after opening time (11 a.m.), and we'd planned on getting some lunch as well as a few beers. Typically, we fast during the day, but since we were on vacation, lunch was in order. Besides, we wouldn't be fed on the plane, right? Situated in a century-old stone building in Baltimore’s historic district, Brewhouse No. 16 once housed a fire company. Now, it operates as a family-owned brewpub featuring food from scratch and some tasty house beers.

First beer of the trip!

Speaking of tasty beers, Brewhouse No. 16 had a small but respectable tap list for a brewpub, which included everything from a blonde ale to a barrel-aged pineapple saison. For my first beer of the trip, I went with Belvedere, a Belgian-style pale ale. An odd choice for me, I know, but thankfully it wasn't too heavy on the Belgian yeast and had a pretty nice hop profile. I really wanted the Barrel-aged Pineapple Saison, but I knew Brewslut would order it. Even though we share our beers, it's usually a 60/40 split based on who ordered the beer (in case, you know... it sucks)! Luckily, neither sucked and both were enjoyable. We were really digging the BA Pineapple Saison, which was pretty unique. It boasted moderate acidity amid the sweet/tart pineapple notes.

Interior of Brewhouse No. 16
After perusing the lunch menu, I was torn between a veggie burger and house-made falafel. I asked our waitress, and she recommended the falafel. I opted for it since I don't come across it all too often in our travels. Turns out it was the right decision. It was fantastic!

I wasn't sure what to expect from this place, but since it was the only brewery option open to us on a Tuesday, it was either Brewhouse No. 16 or nuthin'. I'm glad we stopped in. The beers were solid, the food was great, and the ambiance was spot-on. There's just something special about drinking in an old, re-purposed building that heightens the experience for me. Places like McMenamin's Kennedy School in Portland, OR, Church in Pittsburgh, and even Oakbrook in Reading (another old firehouse) all come to mind. I'm sure there are a ton more, but these were the first to enter my noggin.

After a pleasant visit to Brewhouse No. 16, it was off to perhaps the premier beer bar in the greater Baltimore area. Max's Taproom has been around the block. Boasting over 100 tap lines, five beer engines, and a collection of 1,000 well-curated bottles, it's no wonder why this place is rated one of the best bars in the U.S. (hell, even the world)! Sadly, we don't get to visit too often, but every time we do, it's easy to find something on tap that I've never had, and it's equally as easy to drink local.

I did, inf fact, keep it local during our visit and ordered a pint of Green Machine, a hazy IPA from Diamondback Brewing. Hopped with Citra and Ella, this was a juicy little nugget that hit the spot and scratched my IPA itch for the afternoon. Brewslut opted for the Charm City Sour from Brewer's Art, which didn't really jive with her, unfortunately. I have to say that I have such a love/hate relationship with "hazy juice bombs" or "NE-style IPAs." While I definitely prefer a well-balanced West Coast IPA over the newer, trendier model, I can't help but order one every time I encounter one on a beer menu. (Editor's note: You'll soon read about how the trend is migrating westward in subsequent blogs about this trip.)

I followed up Green Machine with Grays Papaya, a "milkshake" IPA from Key Brewing out of Dundalk, MD (remember... keeping it local, folks). The name of this sounded so familiar, and I can't believe I didn't make the Seinfeld connection (NOTE: Gray's Papaya is a NY-based hot dog chain that was mentioned in an episode of Seinfeld as "Papaya King," when Kramer jumps out of a movie line to grab a hot dog, then later spills mustard on Elaine's jacket in the theater.) Television geekery aside, this beer evoked actually drinking a fruit smoothie. These milkshake IPAs are quickly becoming more and more popular in the world of craft beer. Most of the ones I've had have been very enjoyable, and although the lactose used during the brewing process enhances the mouthfeel quite a bit, I sometimes feel it also mutes the hop character. This one, however, carried a sweet fruit presence backed with musky, peppery fruit rind notes, which was enjoyable.

Not sure why I took this selfie, but it's my only pic from Max's. 

Pre-flight beers have become a necessity for me when traveling, so much so that my usual frugal self won't blink at an $11.00 price tag of an airport beer. In this case, I went so far as to order a beer I really didn't want, if only out of desperation. Hey, it was the best they had to offer (not that it's a bad beer). The beer was Flying Dog's Doggie Style Pale Ale, and I once again came to the conclusion that "any beer is better than no beer at all."

Doin' it Doggie Style!

I was really hoping to have enough time to grab a beer somewhere at the airport in Minneapolis, MN, where we had a brief layover. Sadly, we did not. It was either grab a beer a chug it, or take a dump in the airport bathroom rather than in the cramped quarters of the plane's restroom... and we've all been there, right? Our gate was even right next to a "tavern," but I didn't look at the tap handles for fear that I'd see some Surly or something that would make me weep like a little bitch. So, onward to southern California!

When we landed in San Diego, I texted Dano (my friend and innkeeper of the "Lebowski Suite," where we'd be staying during our visit) to let him know that we'd arrived safely. He mentioned that he and his girlfriend, Jen, were just heading to bed, and that we should let ourselves into the house. I deciphered this statement as such: "You have time for a few beers!" Yes, even though we were travel weary after flying for the majority of the day, we were still on "PA time," so despite some unwanted swamp ass and the need to brush my teeth, we decided to B-line to nearby Toronado.

Pleeps was up for the challenge.
After perusing the board for a bit, I decided to go with a new IPA from one of San Diego's best, Pizza Port, called Pickleweed Point. I'm glad I did, because this one was another winner in a long line of fantastic IPAs. Hoppy, citrusy and dank with a slight whiff of cat box (I love that descriptor), this beer is usually what I'm after when I order a West Coast IPA. As Toronado approached closing time, one of the bartenders seemed to be in a hurry to get out of there, while the other guy seemed to be enjoying the company of we out-of-staters. The reason I say this is because he kept feeding us complimentary pours of beers like Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme and Russian River Perdition. Meanwhile, the other guy was corralling folks out of the bar as it was now clearly after midnight. We also enjoyed a small pour of Vanilla Fudge from nearby Beachwood Brewing, which I'm glad we sampled, because we never made it to one of its tasting rooms (which were a fairly decent drive away).  

Hamilton's tap handle collection.
Since Toronado was closing up shop (after all, we could have easily wore out our welcome, what with all the free beer), we decided to head over to Hamilton's, another great beer bar in close proximity to Dano's pad. They were open until 2 a.m. Remember... to us, it still felt like 9-ish p.m. thanks to the 3-hour time difference between coasts. So, Hamilton's it was for another round of IPAs, courtesy of Modern Times and Beachwood, respectively, with Accumulated Knowledge and Thrillseeker. We were digging the Modern Times a bit more (duh!) but both hit the spot and quelled our late night beer cravings sufficiently.

'Twas a long day, but there's always time for beer.

Obviously, we'd planned for an ambitious first day. I mean, two years had passed and many breweries had since been sewn into the tapestry that is the San Diego craft beer scene. Ocean Beach, Dano's old stomping grounds, was first on the agenda. He'd mentioned that OB had blown up beer-wise, and many established breweries were opening tap rooms, many on Newport Ave. (OB's version of South Street). Last time, there had only been Pizza Port and the new-at-the-time Culture Brewing Co. So we were anxious to check out a bunch of new places, all of which were in a radius of just a few blocks.

First up, a stop to arguably my favorite of the old guard, Pizza Port. When we're in San Diego, this place just feels like home. Dano used to live right down the street (something like 240 steps from his door to Pizza Port), which was decidedly convenient for us. One trip, we visited all eleven days we were in San Diego. Our MO was such: wake up, go work out at the gym (yes, we once got a temporary gym membership while we were on vacation), then go to PPOB for lunch and a beer. By the way, they have a killer lunch special, which includes a slice, a nice-sized salad, and a house beer for $7!

Pleeps was so excited to return to Pizza Port!
We kicked off the day with a pair of IPAs, me a pint of Da Mainliner, and Brewslut, a pint of Grapefruit Puncher. Both were tasty as hell, but man, the Grapefruit Puncher was aptly named! The smack of peppery grapefruit rind and puckery, citrusy hops provided a figurative bitch-slap across the palate. This was easily one of the most authentic grapefruit-infused beers I've come across. Da Mainliner was pretty much your every-day, straight-up citrusy West Coast IPA. No frills with plenty of thirst-quenching power. Up next was a pour of Barrel Roll for me, and Carlsberliner for Brewslut, the latter a Berliner Weisse brewed at Pizza Port's Carlsbad site. Barrel Roll sounded too good to pass up - an Imperial Stout with coffee aged in bourbon barrels. A risky beer so early in the day, I know. But I had to get it. Because vacation.

Just up Newport Ave. is one of the new kids in town. Kilowatt Brewing Company's production facility is actually situated in Kearny Mesa, which is north of San Diego proper. However, they'd just recently opened a new tasting room in OB, and none other than our buddy Luke (originally from York, PA and shares the same birthday as me, except he's 10 years younger) is the manager. We visit San Diego so frequently that we've accumulated a few additional friends outside of Dano. Luke's one of them. So I excited to see what was brewing up at Kilowatt. Turns out a lot!

Luke on the deck of Kilowatt.

For starters, they had a ton of variations of a Gose from its 3S series (Super Sour Series). So, we obviously had to try a bunch of them! We started with the blueberry, mango, and cherry variations, and all were enjoyable, refreshing, and had authentic fruit characters. I also was eyeing up a Gin Barrel Aged Tripel, which sounded tasty. I'd experienced a bunch of great gin barrel-aged beers while out in Portland last year, and it's a trend I'd like to see find its way back East. (Actually, it's starting to migrate, as GearHouse out of Chambersburg, PA has done some gin barrel-aged beers recently.) Starting the day off with a BA Imperial Stout followed by a Tripel, and we're only two breweries deep. Yup. That's how we roll! But it was worth it. Turns out it was one of my favorites of the trip (a long list, yes, but a list nevertheless). As I've said before, I'm not a fan of gin, but there's something about the way the botanicals work with the hops and/or yeast in beer that is a home run for me. This one was a winner! 

It's like a black light basement party inside Kilowatt!
Luke was kind enough to hook us up and, knowing I work for Tröegs, informed us that with so many breweries in San Diego, they all offer generous industry discounts. Good info to have in my back pocket, especially since we'd be hitting copious amounts of breweries on this trip, as usual. 

My view at Culture. I dig the Cheers logo knockoff.

Further up Newport Ave. is Culture. We'd visited on our last trip and dug the vibe of this place. I remembered that the beers were solid but not ultimately memorable, or at least mind-blowing. After checking out the tap list, we decided on a one-pint limit here. I opted for the RIPA Rye IPA, while Brewslut uncharacteristically chose a Wheat IPA. Perhaps I nudged her to try that one, as I love the style. Either way, both were pretty solid. Again, nothing too memorable. I was more enamored with the assortment of dogs in the Tasting Room during our visit. Yes, San Diego is extremely dog-friendly, so add that to the long list of things I love about the city.

No culture shock for Pleeps!

Just across the street is a brewery new to us. Dano had actually mentioned that Helm's Brewing was "skippable," but we decided to swing by for a beer since it was right across the street. Based on the beer I ordered, I'm really glad we stopped by.

My view at Helm's OB taproom.

After having some heavy beers so early in the day, I decided to scale it back a few notches and order a 3.2% ABV Berliner Weisse called The Cat's Pajamas (love the name). They had a few syrups available, and I settled on the lavender and lemongrass. Wow! This really hit the spot. I usually prefer woodruff syrup (a green-tinted, woody-flavored syrup to accompany by Berliner Weisse over fruity syrups), but this may have taken the cake. The flavor combination was spot-on and paired well with the blast of mouth-puckering joy brought on by the base beer. I wish we would have stopped back for another one of these when we returned to OB a few days later. Sadly, we did not. We also enjoyed some great conversation with the bartender and a few other East Coasters who were on vacation. PA represent!

Naked Pleeps enjoys the Cat's Pajamas.

By this time, we needed some non-liquid nourishment, so we headed back down Newport Ave. to a favorite spot of ours. No visit to San Diego would be complete for us without a trip to South Beach for fish tacos. No matter what time of day we visit, it always seems to be "happy hour." On this particular visit, the place was pretty dead. Typically, the place is packed or at least very busy when we arrive. This time, ghost town. Dano had mentioned that they were going downhill lately and mentioned there are much better places for fish tacos. Coming from a native, I don't doubt it. But getting fish tacos at South Beach has become a ritual for us. The tap selection is also pretty decent, and you can always find a tasty West Coast style IPA on tap. This time, we both decided on Bear Republic's Racer IPA, which we hadn't had in a while. While somewhat tame by today's standards, this beer literally was THE beer that introduced me to the world of West Coast IPAs back during our inaugural visit to San Diego (it was at the Yard House in the Gas Lamp district, I believe). So needless to say, it holds a special place in my heart.

Across the street is another OB staple, Newport Pizza & Ale House. We enjoyed some slices over pints of Gremlin IPA from Little Miss Brewing and Hit Me With Your Best Hops from Acoustic Ales (more on both of those breweries later). This place is a typical hole-in-the-wall bar that just happens to have great beer and some damn fine pizza to boot. Since we love OB and visit several times during each visit to San Diego, a quick stop for a beer and a slice is mandatory.

Inside Modern Times. Behold the comic book wall!

On to Modern Times, perhaps our best find from our visit two years prior. Earlier in the day, we'd arranged for Dano to meet us there after his work shift. When we arrived, it felt great to be back at one of our very favorite San Diego breweries. We loved this place so much that we visited four times on our last visit.

Michael and Bubbles mural rendered in Post-it notes!
I decided to stay light for a while and ordered Fruitlands, a variation of its tasty Gose with passion fruit and guava. Brewslut opted for Drop Art, a saison brewed with mango and orange zest. It was great to catch up with Dano again (although we'd just seen him at Selin's Grove a mere 5 days ago when he came home to Bloomsburg for a visit) and enjoy the ambiance (and great beer) of Modern Times. Before we left, I had to get a pour of the Black House nitro stout with coffee, coconut and cocoa. Hops aside, these are quite possibly my three favorite "C" beer ingredients. Enjoyable, to say the least. During this visit, we also discovered that Modern Times had begun canning its amazing cold brew coffee. Wha-wha-whaaaaat?! Yes, indeed! Now it would be possible for us to enjoy a cold brew whenever it tickled our fancy. Needless to say we drank our fair share of these puppies during the trip.

My vantage point at Modern Times.

Back at Dano's pad for the evening, I cracked open some cans of a 4-pack I procured from Modern Times called Clear and Present Dankness while we chilled out after a long day enjoying OB's recently expanded beer scene. I love me a good, dank IPA, and this one delivered. Great stuff, indeed!

Clear and Present Dankness!

We're just getting started, folks! Stay tuned for plenty of more beer-soaked memories from our recent trip inside the whale's vagina. Until then...

Pour Travelers family portrait.

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