SARA: More than just a great Fleetwood Mac song

Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, or SARA, is a small brewery in Capitola, CA, that makes some of the most sought after beers in the United States, with the beer trading community ravenously watching every bottle release. The reason for this is simple: they make some of the best beers in the country, or any other country for that matter. This isn’t just an opinion–according to BeerAdvocate users, their average beer rates 4.19 out of 5, behind only a handful of breweries like Cantillon and Hill Farmstead. While some could argue ratings are skewed, inflated, or otherwise flawed, it’s hard to argue with the notion that what’s brewed at SARA is nothing short of exceptional.

We all Grin for Lupulin

One of these things is beautiful…

I sojourned north to the Bay Area for a long weekend in which I would be pouring wine for an open house event at my friend’s winery in Sonoma on Saturday and Sunday. This left my Friday wide open to take the trip to Santa Cruz I’d always wanted. In the morning at Bluxome Street Winery (where my brother is the Cellar Master and I worked last Fall during harvest), I collected an empty growler, Ty (the associate winemaker), and my aforementioned brother, Kyle, and hit the road. The roads were clear and with an hour to kill before Sante Adairius opened, we stopped at a restaurant in Santa Cruz called “burger.” for, you guessed it, burgers and beers to whet our appetite. The burgers were nearly as awesome as their beer list, and I tried a double IPA from a local brewery called Hop Dogma. That beer (We All Grin for Lupulin) was an unfiltered hop bomb with no shyness about showcasing the citrus fruit flavors and aromas we’ve come to expect from West Coast IPA’s and Double IPA’s. As an added bonus, they give you a celebrity mugshot instead of a number when you order. It’s fun. After lunch, and a short drive down the scenic West Cliff in Santa Cruz, we were finally heading to Capitola.

Arriving just after the brewery opened, we had plenty of time to soak in the environment without other people there. It’s kind of surreal to know that in that moment, we could have been the only three people in the world drinking Sante Adairius beers. With such limited bottle releases, it being noon on a weekday, and their virtual lack of keg distribution, this definitely wasn’t unthinkable and made me feel rather privileged, to be honest. I had a two ounce pour of their most well-known beer, West Ashley, a sour saison with apricots, a few months ago at the Shelton Brothers Festival and was really impressed. It goes without saying that the experience set the bar rather high for my expectations, but the first whiff of their four grain saison, Little Quibble, assuaged any hesitation that I might be let down. It smelled of banana chips and toasted oats, and even though Kyle and Ty didn’t agree with me, I smelled lanolin as well. The flavor was malty, spicy, and yeasty, typical of a saison, with a hint of the banana found in the aroma. Light in color and body, this saison was incredibly complex for its drinkability. In addition to the tasting notes I have here, there were plenty of other aromas and flavors I couldn’t pin down, and I think that’s a good thing.

Little Quibble

Complexity gives beer character, and while I can appreciate beers that do a single thing really well, it’s far more interesting to me to drink something that’s not easy to unpack and figure out right away. It’s the reason a brewery like Jester King eschewed only using hermetically-sealed yeasts made in a lab for the ones floating around their farmhouse in Austin. To do things completely by the books is often safe, but it’s rarely interesting. Native yeasts impart nuance and originality to beers, making them unlike other beers of the same style or even offering variation from batch to batch. Subtlety is often lost in an era dominated by Double IPA’s and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, but is something to be appreciated. Flavor doesn’t always have to punch you in the tongue to be awesome. In wine, the same thing often happens when people refuse to drink reds that aren’t big, bold tannin assaults or won’t drink white wine because they “might as well drink water.” I use direct quotes because someone told me this once–someone who will never appreciate the beauty of a delicate Chablis or light-bodied red wine from a thin-skinned varietal. To me, this is nearly as sad as it is frustrating; if these people dug a little deeper, they’d probably like what they found. But back to beer, and the people who acknowledge a finely-crafted one.

After the saison, I switched gears to the 831 West Coast IPA. It poured a golden, hazy, almost orange color with white grape and tropical fruit notes begging to get out, with light but noticeable honey undertones. The flavor of this IPA complemented the aroma, with juicy citrus and hop dankness on the palate. It finished cleanly with a lingering bitterness that left me wanting another sip. I was really pleased to see how well Sante Adairius handled such radically different styles, and that pleasantness extended the my next beer, Brandy Palimpsest, a Flanders Red Ale aged in brandy barrels. Flanders Red Ales were the first sour beers I encountered and remain one of my favorite styles. This beer further entrenched me in that philosophy. The aroma was mainly honey and molasses, with a bit of tart funkiness, but not much. I was amazed at how much sweetness the brandy barrels imparted, with the flavor seeming full of honey, but with detectable sarsaparilla and pluot. I was happy to arrive at pluot after a few moments of thinking out loud; oftentimes it can feel silly or like guesswork describing a beer (or wine), but the “A-ha!” moments like this make it worth it. Being a sour beer, the Brandy Palimpsest had delicious tartness and a mouth-watering juiciness to it as well, with no discernible alcohol. In case you are curious (like I was), a palimpsest is a scroll or piece of parchment that has been washed of ink so it may be reused, much like the wine barrels Sante Adairius repurposes to hold beer.

Brandy Palimpsest: Hard to Say, Fun to Drink

After this, I didn’t order more beer because we planned on wine tasting at two or threes wineries after visiting the brewery. I did, however, enjoy multiple sips from Kyle and Ty’s beers, the Human Kindness milk stout and Vanilla Joe porter with local coffee and vanilla. We all agreed that Vanilla Joe was a truly exceptional porter full of depth, with a flavor that we described as undulating because it moved from roasted barley, to sweet vanilla, to roasted coffee, with a hearty finish and a vanilla aftertaste. I enjoyed the tasting room’s atmosphere more as I knew our time there was fleeting. The natural wood tables and bar help to emphasize the “Rustic” aspect of the name, and the empty bottles of other amazing beers that line the bar and the shelves let you know that they are serious about quality beer. There was a dog named Rooster who was running around the tasting room and the parking lot outside, occasionally letting us pet him. I was actually left with the same feeling that I get when I finish a really good book, which can best be described as “that was perfect and now I’m happy to be alive.” Not a lot of places can offer that experience, but if you want to know what it feels like and don’t feel like reading East of Eden, just take a trip to Capitola.

Get to Know: Alpine Beer Company

Note: This is my first post in the “Get to Know” series, which will provide you with enough knowledge to walk into the breweries I’ll be featuring like a pro. Enjoy!

Thinking of San Diego usually conjures images of palm trees, ocean breezes, beaches, and the Chargers underachieving year in and year out. However, if you are in search of the Holy Grail of San Diego beer, you must put these notions out of your head and set your sights to the East. Nestled in an old building 33 miles inland from the nearest beach, Alpine Beer Company quietly makes some of the best beers in the country in a chaparral environment more likely to remind you of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly than The Endless Summer. But that’s fine with the folks who populate the brewpub, who are either thirsty locals or beer aficionados who have made the pilgrimage in order to try the world-class ales.

Alpine Beer Company, usually just called Alpine, currently has eight beers on the BeerAdvocate’s user-rated list of the Top 250 beers. They have limited distribution; kegs sometimes make their way as far as San Francisco, but bottles are hard to come by outside of San Diego county, and when they are, they go fast. Alpine is known for their IPAs, Duet and Nelson, which are each excellent in their own respects. Duet is a quintessential West Coast IPA, employing Simcoe and Amarillo hops, which are outstanding individually but have a synergetic effect when combined. This hop-forward beer has crisp, fresh pine notes complemented by the zesty citrus flavors that the Amarillo hop provides. Nelson, so named for the judicious use of the Southern Hemisphere Nelson Sauvin hop, is on the other end of the spectrum as far as IPAs go. It pours a hazy golden-orange color and the aroma is bursting with tropical fruit—a hallmark of New Zealand hops. It is brewed with rye in addition to the standard barley malt, which adds a slight spiciness and a more delicate mouthfeel. These beers alone warrant a trip to East county San Diego if you’ve never tried them before.


She’s not much, but she’s home.

Such a trip becomes even more worthwhile when you arrive at the brewery, which might look more like a motel if you didn’t take a good look at it. The combination taproom/restaurant and the brewery are separated by three other businesses that rarely seem to be open, and the space between them is often populated with people waiting in line to fill growlers. By the way, growler fills and bottle sales must take place at the brewery itself while it is open; after hours, bottles are available at the pub. The pub, which is nearly always packed, has about a dozen tables, a bar with eight stools, and an outdoor terrace with a handful of tables. Waits for tables regularly exceed 30 minutes, but space at the bar or outside can usually be found. Alpine keeps eight to ten taps flowing most of the time, including one guest tap that seems to be a surprise every time. In addition to the two standout IPAs, beers to look out for include Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale, Keene Idea Double IPA, Good Barleywine (and Great, the Barrel-Aged variant), and their sour beers, which are usually gone in a flash.

The menu is barbecue centric and most of it fits into the categories greasy, cheesy, or spicy. This isn’t to suggest that it’s not tasty, but be prepared for red baskets and squeezable sauces, not narrow rectangular plates and aioli drizzles. The strong presence of hoppy beers complements the overall spiciness of the menu, and the ability to order half pints of beer makes trying many of them simple and affordable. Just remember to bring a designated driver, because after visiting the brewery, it’s a (relatively) long way back to San Diego.

What are your thoughts on Alpine and their best beer(s)? Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments!


The Best Fish Tacos I’ve Had (So Far)

I woke up dreaming of fish tacos—or rather, I woke up having just dreamt of fish tacos. Rarely do I spend my sleeping moments eating, although I would probably keep my stomach thinner and my wallet fatter if I did, and in such cases I take it as a sign. Luckily for me, I awoke in San Diego, which happens to be this country’s Mecca for fried fish in a tortilla topped with crema and cabbage. The craving was not completely out of thin air; earlier this month I finished reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must Have Been Something I Ate, a collection of essays from the acclaimed Vogue food writer, and in one of the chapters Steingarten recounts his search for the best fish taco in Baja California. I didn’t feel like crossing the border at Tijuana nor driving out of my way to the much further Tecate Port of Entry, so my fish taco was to be a domestic one.

We are quick to take the advice of others when it comes to food—especially when it comes to food. If someone tells me to check out a new movie or a band, I may remember it or even bother to write it down and hope for the best later, but if I catch wind of a great burger, it better be on a plate in front of me within a few days. As such, we give a lot of credence to food writers and reviewers and trust them to inform our gastronomic habits. So I googled the “best fish taco in San Diego” and looked for the first credible source. While I admittedly often rely on Yelp, this was not the time for crowdsourced reviews plugged into an algorithm that rewards businesses that pay for advertising. This was a time for a culinary guide, and as it turned out, Joe Satran of the Huffington Post would be my Virgil. Satran had fortunately done the hard part for me and visited nearly 20 taquerías and rated them. I chose the one that offered the best blend of quality and proximity and his runner-up taco was the closest to me at a mere five miles away.

The drive to Bahía Don Bravo was a short and pleasant one on this California winter’s day—the kind of 72 degrees and sunny that the Mamas and the Papas sang about. Though a road closure put an extra two minutes between my tacos and me, it was hard to be too broken up about it while driving along the coast. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” was playing on the radio as I found a parking spot. Bahía Don Bravo is an unassuming edifice on the corner of La Jolla Boulevard and Midway Street, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. While trying to be objective (and knowing full well that the idea of reviewing food is inherently subjective), I found myself set up to enjoy my meal based on the setting alone. After all, I’m sure the same fish taco tastes better along the California coast than it does in Duluth in February.

I ordered two classic fish tacos, each clocking in at $1.99, and a Negra Modelo on draft. I couldn’t help but notice that even at this little Mexican joint, with its six beer taps, one of them was reserved for Ballast Point’s Sculpin, the world-class IPA that has gone from specialty beer to near-ubiquity in about three years. While in hindsight, the citrus notes of that beer would have paired nicely with the tacos, at the time I was thinking auténtico and went with Mexico’s second best large-scale offering. For the record, they actually had our southern neighbor’s best mass production beer, Bohemia, but I felt inclined towards draft over bottle in this particular instance.


A Portrait of Perfection

Barely had that first sip of dark lager passed over my tongue when order number 17 was called and my tacos were ready. They certainly looked the part: yellow corn tortillas enveloping the golden beer-battered cod, the milky white crema, and the subtle verdant shades of shredded cabbage. As a bonus, Bahía Don Bravo adds a small dollop of chunky pico de gallo on top of the edible package. I appreciated the slight rigidity of the tortillas which held the tacos upright without human intervention, yet completely retained their softness. I took a bite. In an instant, the craving of my dream was satisfied. The first impact was the textural interplay between the soft tortilla and the crunchy exterior of the fried fish—itself giving way to tender, juicy cod inside. The flavors were exactly what I was expecting in the best way possible. Savory fish, zesty crema, a hint of bitterness from the cabbage, and a host of different sources of sweetness from the tortilla, onions, and tomatoes had my taste buds working hard to catch up with my appetite. And, as if the variation in texture and flavor was not enough, the temperature of the taco’s components ranged from the almost-sizzling cod straight out of the fryer to the cool cabbage and crema, which nicely calmed the heat of the fish.

I find that the most enjoyable meals are ones that either extract a maximum of flavor from three or four ingredients or contain various different elements working in harmony with one another. Although not extremely complex, this was the latter. How can you not enjoy such a commixture of different flavors, textures, and temperatures? The experience was so pleasant that I nearly forgot to enjoy sipping my Negra Modelo between bites, but thankfully, I did not. I finished, craving and hunger both satisfied, and watched the world go by as I basked in the accomplishment of my day’s only goal.

I’ve had other fish tacos at places much more swanky that Bahía Don Bravo in both Los Angeles and San Diego—ones served on a plate rather than on a styrofoam tray—but to me, they don’t compare. And that’s okay. I’m grateful to live in a place where I can extract nearly as much pleasure from a five-dollar meal as from a prix fixe tasting menu, and where such restaurants can exist only blocks apart. It’s a nice reminder that sometimes, dreams come true.

Are there better fish tacos out there? Do you have a family recipe I should know about? If so, PLEASE let me know.