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Suds Surfin' In San Diego
By Rich Link

One of San Diego County’s more exciting brewery openings in years is Lightning Brewery in Poway. In a county with more than 20 breweries, you wouldn’t think that a new one would cause much excitement. But what makes this new brewery singular is the beer styles it is offering. In San Diego, you might think that all beers would be heavily hopped or based on a beer of Belgian origin. Lightning Brewery has decided to go another route and is producing flavorful lagers as well as some lighter ales.

Tucked away in an industrial center several miles east of Interstate 15, the brewery is economically situated in a 3,000-square-foot facility — which includes office space. All of the brewing equipment is enjoying at least a second lease on life. The 33-barrel brew system includes three horizontal lagering tanks and two vertical tanks. The mash tun is well-suited to single-infusion mashes, step mashes or decoction mashing. The last two options are used for the lagers that are Lightning’s flagship brews.

Jim Crute, president of Lightning Brewery, began homebrewing in 1981 while attending the University of Rochester in New York. He eventually moved on to Stanford and holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry. After years in the pharmaceutical field, he decided to enter the exciting if precarious world of brewing. Rather than try to compete with the multitude of hoppy ales in town, he thought he’d try some styles that are pretty rare in the microbrewery scene: lagers.

I met Jim Crute at the brewery one sleepy Saturday afternoon. Affable, eager to talk about his beers, and obviously very intelligent, Crute led me through a tasting of four of his beers. We started off with Lightning Kölsch. Very crisp, clean and fresh tasting, this instantly became a beer that I will seek out. It reminded me of the more flavorful kolsch beers I tasted on my trip through Köln a few years back. Slightly spicy and malty, this is certainly a worthy offering from a fledgling brewery.

Elemental Pilsner is made from German malts and hops. Authentic German ingredients result in a truly wonderful beer, malty-fresh and thirst-quenching. It’s a perfect beer for the scorching summer days and nights in Poway.

This was the most impressive selection of real ales I’ve encountered this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

We then moved on to Lightning’s ales, sampling Fairweather Pale Ale. This golden-hued ale was light in body, with little hop aroma and bitterness. It was very drinkable, fitting the mold for beers to be consumed in a hot southland location.

We rounded out the tasting with American Amber Ale, which I thought was more representative of a West Coast pale ale. With a bit more body, hop aroma and bitterness than Fairweather, this was another pleasing offering from a brewery that shows plenty of promise.

Crute uses some brewing techniques that most microbreweries shun. The aforementioned decoction and step-mashing are just two examples. Rather than simply mixing crushed malts with hot water and then sparging, these processes require lengthy “rests” at various temperatures, or the removal of a portion of the mash, bringing it to boil and returning it to the mash to increase the mash temperature. While most breweries find these processes unnecessary — and certainly very time-consuming — Crute believes they add tangible qualities to his beers.Most of Lightning’s beers are lagered, or cold-aged, for at least three weeks after fermentation has completed. And all of Lightning’s beers meet the Bavarian Purity Law and contain nothing but water, malt, hops and yeast.

Lightning Brewery commenced brewing this past March, and the first beers were sold in May. All of Lightning’s beers are sold on draught at the brewery or in selected locations throughout San Diego County. While inroads into Poway have been tough, I’m sure the locals will eventually be struck by Lightning’s flavorful beers.

It hardly seems possible that the San Diego Real Ale Festival has been providing the largest selection of cask ales west of the Mississippi for nine years. On a bright and sunny afternoon, I ventured to Carlsbad Pizza Port to partake in the offerings of the ninth annual festival.

This year, more than 40 beers were offered in casks, served via hand-pump or gravity. This method is the classic serving method used for centuries in pubs throughout Britain. Real ales are not “pushed” through taps using CO2, which can impart a biting finish on the tongue, leaving the drinker feeling bloated from the added gas. Real ales are naturally carbonated in the cask, and, in many cases, ample loads of hops are added to impart a hearty hop aroma. The end result is a smooth, easy-drinking ale, suited to a session at the local pub.

The one thing that differs among many American real ales is the alcohol content. The classic session beers of Britain rarely exceed 4.5% alcohol by volume (abv). Of the 45 beers at this fest, all but two exceeded this threshold (one was 4.5% and another was 4%). Furthermore, four beers were 10% or greater (the 13% Bourbon Barrel Imperial Oatmeal Stout from Firestone Walker took high abv “honors”), another 11 were 8% or greater, and 19 exceeded the 6% mark.

On one hand, it is very interesting and exciting to sample these high-alcohol beers in real ale form. On the other, it would also be pretty interesting to taste more American versions of the classic British session ales. Either way, a great day of sampling is ensured.

Alcohol levels aside, let me assure you that this was the most impressive selection of real ales I’ve encountered this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Sixteen of the beers came from San Diego County. The balance came from other Western states, including a contingent of new offerings from Washington. Brewers from Skagit River, Anacortes, Boundary Bay and Rogue’s Issaquah Brewhouse made the long trek south to enjoy some suds and surf in America’s Finest City.

Some of the beers that received a great of deal attention were the newly renamed Sculpin IPA (fka Northstar IPA) from Ballast Point Brewing Company; Black Silk Porter, aged with vanilla rum, from Back Street Brewery in La Quinta; Marin Brewing Company’s Marin IPA; and Organic Chocolate Stout from Bison Brewing Company.

Styles represented included the classics: ESB, IPA, pale, stout and porter — plus a couple you wouldn’t expect to find at a real ale fest, such as Razz-Fusion Red, flavored with red raspberries and oak from BJ’s Brewery - West Covina; and Saison from BJ’s - Woodland Hills.

Mark December 1–2 on your calendar, as this is when the 10th annual San Diego Strong Ale Festival will be held at Pizza Port Carlsbad (pizzaport.com). Other upcoming events include Stone Brewing Company’s 10th Anniversary Celebration on September 9 (stonebrew.com) and the 12th annual San Diego Festival of Beers on September 22 (sdbeerfest.org).

Lightning Brewery
13200 Kirkham Way, #105
Poway, CA 92064

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 be reached via e-mail at linkbrew2@cs.com.


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