AUG/SEP 2006 | REGIONAL | WEST
||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
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
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
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.
REAL ALE FESTIVAL
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.