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Suds Surfin' In San Diego : 8th Annual Strong Ale Festival
By Rich Link

After a year of beer events, traveling around the country, even going overseas, it’s always nice to attend something local. Fortunately, San Diego is host to several of the year’s best beer fests. The Strong Ale Festival, held at Pizza Port’s Carlsbad location the first weekend of December, exhibited more than 70 beers with an alcohol content of at least 8% by volume. Although my allotted time at this eighth annual version of the SAF was limited, I was able to taste my way through about a third of the offerings. What a way to end the year!

I was unable to attend the Friday night opening of the fest, and I was worried that many beers may have been consumed come Saturday morning. Nonetheless, I grabbed my camera, water jug and notepad and made the 40-minute drive to Carlsbad. The weather was cool with scattered showers, so I grabbed my umbrella and stood in line at the gate. As the gate opened, I made my way, along with 50 of my new best friends, to the tasting bar, where I set up shop and set about my “work.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the SAF is the new beers that local brewers send to the event. San Diego is home to arguably the most passionate and inventive brewers in the country, and it’s always a treat to taste their latest creations. The beer menu listed the local beers separately from the out-of-town brews. There were 28 beers from 19 of the local-area breweries. Another 45 or so beers came from such places as Hawaii, Oregon, Belgium and Canada.

My first choice was the strongest beer on the local list. Alpine Beer Company’s Good weighed in at approximately 17% alcohol by volume. It had a huge hop nose and a big full body, with warming alcohol tones and lots of lingering bitterness. Owner/Brewer Pat McIlhenney brewed this huge barley wine with the intent of aging it in used Jack Daniel's barrels. He ran out of barrel space and sent some of the leftover beer to the fest. This beer was the result of a double-batch brew that was boiled for three hours with Chinook and Sterling hops. After a week of fermentation, he started adding sugars such as fructose, dextrose, honey and some other odd sugars he had lying around. After another 10 days, he added champagne yeast. A couple of weeks later, the beer had finished out with a specific gravity of about 1.011. Pat estimated the alcohol content based upon the starting mash yield and the added sugars. Look for the barrel-aged beer to go on sale in 16-ounce bottles late this spring.

My second sample was Caber Tossed Wee Heavy, a malty, chewy ale with lots of caramel flavor along with a slight peat aroma and finish. This beer was brewed by Jeff Bagby of Oggi’s Vista, and it had won the silver medal at the 2004 World Beer Cup. The last of Bagby’s Hop Whompus, a gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival, was also on tap. Festivus, brewed by Kirk McHale at Pizza Port Carlsbad, was an 11.5% abv barley wine brewed with 1,600 pounds of two-row malt to make 11 barrels. It was liberally hopped with Amarillo and Tomahawk hops, and dry-hopped with Simcoe and more Tomahawk.

Tomme Arthur from Solana Beach Pizza Port brewed an imperial IPA that took the honor for the best-named beer of the event. Lou P. Lin, named for the lupulin gland that makes hops so wonderfully bitter and aromatic, was served on a handpump and had a nice fresh aroma and lasting bittering from the Phoenix, Simcoe, Amarillo and Centennial hops.

Other local beers included Come About Stout, an imperial stout from Ballast Point Brewing; Stone Brewing’s Whiskey Barrel Double Bastard; and Green Flash Brewing’s Second Anniversary Ale. Some of the notable out-of-town beers were Eye of the Goat Double Bock from Craftsman Brewing in Pasadena; Da Kind Grind Buzz Kona Coffee Stout from Kona Brewing Company in Hawaii; Black Ice Imperial Stout from Santa Barbara Brewing Company; and The Beast, the 18% abv Belgian-style ale from Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company.

According to Tomme Arthur, more than 1,200 people attended the festival. Although the weather that weekend was cold and rainy, people were still pouring into the event late Saturday night, just a couple of hours before it shut down. Tomme Arthur, Tom Nickel and Jeff Bagby deserve a big toast for organizing such a great event. If you have never attended this festival, make sure you put it on your calendar for 2005.

Rich Link is an associate editor of the Celebrator Beer News. He lives in Santee, Calif., and has been brewing beer at home since 1980. He can also be reached via e-mail.


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