Usually when you show up at a brewery and learn that they aren’t giving any public tours that day, you feel like a jackass. Especially when you’ve driven through traffic to get from LA to San Diego. But every once in a while, a missed opportunity turns into something really cool and special. My trip to the AleSmith Brewery turned out to be a bust, but a few miles down the road at Ballast Point Brewery, I had a really amazing time drinking and touring the brewery. Follow that up with a trip to Pizza Port Carlsbad and you’ve got a recipe for an amazing day of drinking and eating.
Okay, whatever. I forgot to check the AleSmith website to see if they’re open to the public on weekdays. That’s my fault. In instances such as these, I do not let my own jackassery dictate the rest of the day. I could have turned around and driven home and played Farkle all day. I didn’t. Instead, I pulled out my phone and looked up other area breweries. When I saw that Ballast Point was only three or five miles away, it was obvious where we were headed. To my surprise, we were also going to arrive at Ballast Point an hour before the day’s last public tour! Ordinarily I’d claim to be the world’s best back-up planner, but my initial fuck-up was so bad, even I wouldn’t believe myself.
Ballast Point Brewing Company is located just off the 15-Freeway in San Diego, on Old Grove Road, a industrial complex-looking area which contains a number of warehouses and large office buildings. From the outside, the brewery looks very unsuspecting. Upon entering, you face a small bar. There is a large chalkboard menu on the wall describing all the different beers currently available on tap.
There were two older guys and a family of three enjoying beers when we entered, all regulars. A young blond woman whose name escapes me asked if we’d ever been to the brewery before. We answered no. She recommended a flight of the 9 beers currently on tap, which cost $11. She did an excellent job of describing each successive beer for us, and was very informative in answering any questions we asked. Nicci was a great participant, and is becoming quite the aficionado herself. Here’s a quick rundown of all the beers we drank.
Wahoo Wheat – A Belgian Wit-style beer. Tasted and looked more like a hefeweizen than a Wit. Fruity and fresh, this would make for an excellent summer beer served with an orange rind.
Yellowtail – Pale ale, accounts for 60% of the brewery’s business. Nicci said it tasted like dirt. It’s…it’s a pale ale. So…
Piper Down – Scottish Ale. Nicci thought it was “quite hoppy,” but the flavor was a bit more on the malty side with some good caramel notes.
Even Keel – Another pale ale. Nicci thought it was very tropical, smelled like passionfruit and tasted like mangos. It definitely had a citrus/fruit aroma to it, with some hops up front and a light finish.
Calico – Amber ale, described by the bartender as unlike any other amber she’s ever consumed. Full-bodied, nice caramel malt notes and a bit spicy.
Big Eye – India Pale Ale. Aroma of piney hops, flavor follows through with big hop bitterness and good spice. Good mouthfeel.
Black Marlin – Porter. Nicci’s favorite of the day, which was somewhat surprising to me. Sweet, malty, a slight hint of hop bitterness. She didn’t think she could drink a lot in one sitting, as it was quite sweet. It had that coffee/chocolate aroma that usually precedes delicious beers. Creamy, balanced and filled with roasted goodness.
Victory At Sea – A “coffee vanilla imperial porter,” this beer literally tasted like cold coffee infused with alcohol. Nicci said it was “heavenly thick, syrupy, coffee and chocolate!” I thought it was the second best brew of the day, but since I’m not a huge coffee drinker, the dominant flavor would have to grow on me if I were to drink an entire pint. Still, that sample glass was the perfect size.
Dorado – Imperial/Double IPA. I thought this was the best beer we had. Almost 10% ABV, big hop aroma, citrus and floral notes. Flavor is well balanced, not nearly as bitter as expected, but great taste. Almost no taste of the alcohol, even though it’s an Imperial.
As we were finishing our final sample, a middle-aged guy with a lot of personality asked us if we were first timers. When we said we were hoping to take the next tour, he stepped up and asked if we wanted a private tour with him as our guide. I immediately took to his self-deprecating attitude when he stated that his tour of Ballast Point was like a “Cliff’s Notes” tour. Never ones to turn down an opportunity to try something new (hello, swingers!) we giddily accepted the man’s invitation. He introduced himself as Earl, and invited Nicci and I behind the bar to begin our tour. Before entering the brewery, the kind bartender handed us a free glass of Dorado to take along for the walk.
Our first stop was to pick up safety goggles. It was like high school wood shop all over again! Earl asked if we’d toured breweries before, and after we let him off the hook by saying “Yes,” his demeanor improved even more. There was no longer pressure in having to describe the brewing process, he could just show us the facility and let us ask questions. Earl only needed to point out little differences between the brewery and other like-breweries. Unlike Stone Brewing Company, Ballast Point works on a much smaller budget, and a lot of the equipment they use has been donated to them or bought on the cheap. For example, they have a bottling machine that used to belong to 7-Up. We talked a lot about distribution, as that’s Earl’s main area of expertise. The refrigeration unit at Ballast Point was already stocked with a full load of crates, all of which contained bottles that are being kept cold until the moment they will be filled with beer. Smart idea!
When I asked about water purification, Earl flagged down one of the main brewers — I think his name is James — and he answered a few questions for us. I think the water they use is filtered down to about 150 mppl. I asked about the old oak barrels being stored near the fermentation units, and James told us that he’s aging beer in 23 and 25-year old Pappy Van Winkle barrels right now. I immediately began salivating and asking about the process, and how I could go about finding the resultant beer. A PVW-aged bourbon beer could have orgasmic consequences!
Lastly, Earl showed us the brand new Ballast Point Distillery. So new is this venture that they had one worker there hand-labeling all the gin bottles that are soon going to be filled and distributed for sale. The brewery is going to start producing high-end gin, bourbon and rum in the near future. We didn’t score any tastes, but you can bet I’ll be spending a donation (maybe your donation!?) on a bottle of the Ballast Point bourbon.
Back in the tasting room, we bought Nicci a bottle of Marlin and chatted with Earl and a guy named Matt, who recommended to us a liquor store in Escondido that he said would provide us with a great selection of booze. Earl joked that I looked like his brother Phil, so we took a goofy picture to immortalize the moment. Noting that we still had to go eat at Pizza Port, we thanked them profusely for their kindness and generosity, promised to return in the future, and bid them farewell.
The drive to Carlsbad was quick, and parking was very easy near the brewery. This being the third and final Pizza Port in Southern California that I wanted to visit (until the fourth one is opened — which will be soon!), I’d like to say that the Carlsbad location offers the easiest on-street parking of any of the three locations. The lines to order food and drinks were small, but both picked up considerably almost immediately after we had placed our orders. After splitting an order of pizza buddies (garlic, with marinara sauce) Nicci ate a small pie with shrimp, garlic and pesto. I had a small pie with sausage, canadian bacon and jalapeno. She drank a Port Van Porter, and I had a Great American Brown. Everything was very filling, and, of course, delicious. If I had to compare the three locations, I’d say that San Clemente is in the best area (you can walk to the beach from there!), Carlsbad had the best beer selection, and Solana Beach had the best inside atmosphere.
On the way home, we stopped at the liquor store Matt suggested, Holiday Wine Cellar, and picked up some tasty beers and glassware. I’ll review those later, as one of the purchases was made with the $10 that was lovingly donated by angelic Swan Fungus reader Louise. Until that day… please drink good beers!
Kiss Inc. – Hey Mr. Holy Man
Memphis Willie B. – Honey Maker Blues
Celer – Stipulated Morning Beside The Wreckage (First Sight)