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.

Alpine

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.

tacos

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.

 

In Search of Pliny

Drinking before noon is something usually reserved for holidays, brunches, and college football tailgates. Yet it’s a Monday morning in February and here I am, sipping a beer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Five hours ago I was waking up earlier than usual, having set the alarm and backup alarm generally reserved for situations of grave importance. I rummaged through my closet to find my Russian River t-shirt, because today I was getting the much-sought-after Pliny the Younger and I had to prove to everyone else in line that I was a fan of the brewery by wearing a shirt; waiting hours for a beer they brewed would not be enough. When I got in my car, still groggy from my early rise, I had a moment of panic when I saw that my low fuel light had come on just halfway down my own street. I had roughly twenty miles of range left and Hollingshead’s Deli, in Orange, was eighteen miles away. There was no time to stop for gas—every minute counted. My goal was to arrive at Hollingshead’s just before 8:00 AM so I would wait for about two hours and get Pliny the Younger at 10:00 when they opened. I pulled into their parking lot out of breath and nearly out of gas and saw that the line already wrapped around the building. So I jumped out and speed walked to the back of the line and began to wait.

Clear skies, full mugs, can’t lose.

It takes a special kind of person to wait hours in line for twelve ounces of a beer and looking around me I saw that such a person isn’t so hard to define. Most likely he (yes, he) is a 24-35 year old Caucasian or Latino with some combination of a beard, a brewery t-shirt, and a friend who fits the same description. Hollingshead’s graciously partnered with a local donut store and a Starbucks to provide free donuts and coffee to Pliny’s devotees while they waited for the golden suds. I gathered, from both walking to get donuts and some mindless time-passing ambling, that there were different tiers of beer fandom that comprised the line. I heard chatter from newcomers asking about sours, midrange beer fans bragging about other rare beers they had gotten their hands on, and seasoned aficionados discussing their latest trade hauls and comparing homebrewing notes.

I convinced my friend Jeff, who lives around the corner from this deli and loves drinking beer but not overanalyzing it, that he should wait in line with me and sample the flavors of this rare nectar. Unfortunately for both of us, Jeff and I had forgotten to bring chairs, books, a deck of cards, and iPads that other denizens of the line had remembered. We resorted to good old-fashioned conversations and met our neighbors, and before we knew it, four hours had passed. Wave after wave had been admitted into the deli, and upon seeing a larger group leaving, I knew Pliny was only moments away. I should now mention that I have had Pliny the Younger once before: two years ago, I drove over two hours with my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day to get a mere five ounces of it just before the keg kicked. Being patient, understanding, and a lover of hops herself, my girlfriend was okay with how we spent that February 14th. Yet my last impression of the beer was that it was great, but not phenomenal. And having it alongside Pliny the Elder, I actually preferred the double IPA to the much-rarer triple. Really thinking back, I even remember saying I would not go out of my way to get Pliny the Younger again. But here I was, on the tail end of a four-hour wait, about to drink a 11% ABV beer before noon.

Jeff agreeing with me.

The beer poured an extremely clear light golden color into a special “Hollingshead’s Deli Presents Pliny the Younger” twelve-ounce mug. I smelled it for a good minute before I took a sip. Its aroma was present from the moment the beer left the tap—a wave of pine and citrus that could have convinced me I was holding a grapefruit in the middle of a forest. When I finally did allow myself to try some, I quickly noticed how precisely the flavor followed the nose. It was wonderfully piney, with nice mid-palate sweetness from the heavy malt bill (beer doesn’t get to 11% ABV without some help from fermentable sugars), and a long-lingering aftertaste of pine sap and resin. The carbonation was flawless and the tiny bubbles contributed a great mouthfeel that really helped the flavors dance around on the tongue. The alcohol was nearly undetectable and the beer seemed to leave a resiny stickiness in my mouth that encouraged another sip. This was a damn good beer. Jeff seemed to agree with me.

The famed nectar.

Pliny the Younger season is now behind us and another chance at tasting the rare beer is another year away. With that said, is it worth it? Is it the best beer ever? What have I learned upon my second encounter? My honest opinion is that no, it is not worth it. It’s hard for any beer to live up to the hype of waiting hours and hours for a chance at a few sips. It is not the best beer ever as far as I’m concerned. I do not even think it’s the best IPA that Russian River brews. At the end of the day, beer is subjective and if I had the choice between Pliny the Younger or Pliny the Elder (a mere 8% ABV) for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the Elder. To me, Pliny the Elder is a more balanced beer with a refreshing quality that the Younger (probably intentionally) lacks. Many bars do not want to create a whirlwind hoopla around the beer, and quietly tap it so that regulars can enjoy it without the chaos found elsewhere. Others sell raffle tickets for a chance at a pint in order to raise money for charity. In the future, I vow not to get swept up in the hype and if I’m to drink this beer again, it will be through one of these two avenues. That is, of course, unless time changes my perception of how good it is and I convince myself to do this all over again next year. If that happens, please find me and show me this post.


Is it worth the wait? Are there better Triple IPAs out there? Share your thoughts in the comments!