Ballast Point Splashes into Long Beach

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Understated with Good Use of Wood. 10 Points to Gryffindor.

When Ballast Point opened its fifth location in Long Beach two weeks ago, I don’t think anybody was prepared for how quickly it was welcomed by the community. I would say it was an overnight success but it didn’t even take one night. I made my visit about three hours after they first opened their doors (which was 11:00 AM on a Thursday) and it was already packed wall to wall. As far as I could tell, the only advertising for the opening was two Facebook posts and word of mouth, but somehow the news quickly reached the entire East Long Beach and Seal Beach communities. When I first walked in, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of the design of the space–it’s open with large windows that look out to Alamitos Bay and the Pacific Ocean. You can see the the water from every table in the building (I checked) and it’s nearly unfathomable to think how much the space has changed since it was Khoury’s Restaurant. While I admit I didn’t come for the design and views, they will be what brings me back in the future, because I’m not confident the beer always will.

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Big Eye IPA accidentally dry-hopped with Sculpin hops. They called it Check the Tank, then Blunder IPA

Since Ballast Point sold the brewery to Constellation Brands, I have been drinking less of their beer for several reasons. The main one is that corporate-owned beer seeks to expand its market share and the only way to do that is to squeeze smaller or up-and-coming breweries off the shelves, which is not a practice I want to regularly support. The second reason is that the direction Ballast Point is taking most of their beer doesn’t jell with my taste. A few years ago, when they added habañero peppers to Sculpin IPA, it was a virtually unheard of move that was so novel it didn’t feel gimmicky. Now each main production beer has at least one fruit and/or pepper variant and they seem to show no signs of slowing. In my few visits, I’ve heard the bartenders pushing beers like Watermelon Dorado and Red Velvet Cake oatmeal stout. At the opening day, I tasted a few sips of Orange Vanilla Fathom India Pale Lager and it was clear what their intentions for the beer were. If we rate beer drinkers on a 1-5 scale with one being Bud Light drinkers and 5 being people who won’t imbibe anything that’s not either barrel aged or less than a week old, Ballast Point has shifted their focus from the 4s and 5s to the 2s and 3s. With beers like Orange Vanilla Fathom, they aren’t trying to impress craft beer drinkers with unique twists in familiar beers, they’re trying to convert people who don’t like beer or heretofore did not care about flavor to start drinking Ballast Point beers that taste like Popsicles.

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Their nautical theme is finally fitting!

That probably sounds harsher than my intention really is, and if they’re able to bring macro beer drinkers into the realm of craft, I think that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, if people start to identify with the Ballast Point brand specifically instead of craft as a whole, it’s a missed opportunity, because their dollars aren’t going to the craft beer market. Whatever they are doing, it’s working extremely well, at least for now, in their first LA area expansion. I’ve been three times (and attempted to go a fourth but the line to get in was 45 minutes) and both times I’ve seen at least a half dozen people I know. I’ve ran into friends from high school I hadn’t seen in nine years, locals normally seen around Seal Beach, and beer geeks recognizable from beer festivals and special bottle releases. It’s definitely the hottest spot in town right now, filling my Instagram and Snapchat feeds, particularly among my non-beer geek friends. It’s a fun place to hang out and drink a beer, and I imagine the food is good based on my experiences at the Little Italy location. And though people have made this gripe about Sculpin, there seems to have been no perceived dip in quality for Victory at Sea, the Imperial Porter that will always hold a spot on my favorite beers list. So while I won’t be lining up to try the next berry-flavored lager or blonde ale they produce, I’m sure I’ll be back at Ballast Point Long Beach in the future, sipping a Victory at Sea, and enjoying the view–inside and out.

Billion Dollar Beer

Get ready for a lot more of this.

Earlier this week, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits was sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion. With a B. I read the news on my phone just after I woke up Monday morning and audibly said “Holy shit.” The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the craft beer community, with the main reaction consisting of phrases like “selling out,” “never drinking their beer again,” “another one bites the dust,” and other vitriolic knee-jerk epigrams. I understand why, too. I, for whatever reason, felt a bit personally hurt by the news. Intellectually, it’s not hard to understand: you don’t turn down a billion dollars. Emotionally, however, I have felt strong ties to Ballast Point since my earliest days of drinking craft beer, when a Big Eye IPA made me realize what people meant by “West Coast IPA.” Ballast Point was my introduction to the San Diego craft beer world I have come to love and admire so much. My first (of many) craft brewery t-shirts was a black Victory at Sea shirt that my girlfriend gave me for Christmas. I remember visiting their Scripps Ranch brewery when they were still renting the space, and watching the expansion of the facility on each subsequent visit. I visited their second location in Little Italy the first week they opened, and then hung out there whenever I visited San Diego, excited to try all the R&D beers brewed at their pilot brewery. Of the 1,250 different beers I’ve tried, 50 have come from Ballast Point alone—more than any other brewery. Ballast Point was the first brewery I was actually passionate about, and the news of them selling the company took the wind out of my sails.

“Calm Before the Storm” was a pretty appropriate name for this beer seven months ago.

Of course, this was only my initial reaction. With time to think about it, let alone analyze the details of the buyout and read what the brewery’s official response has been, it becomes abundantly clear why this was the correct business decision for them. It provides Ballast Point with tons of capital to expand their brewing capacity and distribution networks, with my assumption that they will quickly enter the top ten or fifteen breweries in terms of barrel production nationwide. All news coming out of the brewery insists this is a hands-off sale and that the brewing staff and management will not change, but simply have more resources at their disposal. I hope this is true and that they continue to create quality beer for a growing market. The main fear, of course, is that with rapid expansion and production volume increases, quality will suffer. I’m not the first to point out that Ballast Point’s flagship beer, Sculpin IPA, tastes like it has dipped a few notches since they promoted it to their flagship beer about three years ago. It’s also likely that the beer has stayed the same, but over that same period of time, my palate has changed and grown more immune to hop bitterness, and the beer consequently seems to have more of a malt character than it did before. The other question, and one that people plugged into the craft beer community seem to care about, is whether or not the sale qualifies as “selling out?” While some have automatically labeled this as a move that directly puts money spent on Ballast Point products into the pockets of AB-InBev, the multinational colossus of a beer company, the details are a little more complicated. Basically, Constellation Brands owns the U.S. rights to the Grupo Modelo (who makes Corona, Modelo, et al.) because of antitrust issues that came into effect when AB-InBev acquired the Grupo Modelo a few years ago. So Constellation Brands went from merely importing these Mexican beers to opening large-scale breweries here in the States. It’s incredibly complicated, but should you be worried about supporting the king of Macrobrews by buying Ballast Point beer? The answer is: not really.

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The oldest photo I could find from Ballast Point. Back when Instagram filters were all the rage.

What this sale does make abundantly clear is the impact that craft beer has over the beer market as a whole. A growing market share each year would not keep going unnoticed by bigger companies with more money and resources. But one thing that I am certain of is that the folks at Ballast Point honestly love beer. Their original brewing facility, even before their half-warehouse in Scripps Ranch, is Home Brew Mart, which serves as a lasting testament to brewing. Yes, they serve increasingly mass-produced Sculpin on tap, but the employees are just as happy to show customers exciting new hop varieties and offer brewing advice to people who want to brew themselves. My hope for the company is they are able to keep their zeal for beer alive because of record profits, not in spite of them. I will continue to drink Victory at Sea regularly, as well as many of the other Ballast Point beers I have come to love, but not out of blind faith. If I feel a drop in quality arises because of expanded production, I have no problem relegating their beers to my fond memories instead of my refrigerator. What ultimately drives (or should, at least) the beer market is drinking what you like. If you like it, drink it; if you don’t, don’t. There are thousands more breweries where that one came from.


What do you think? Did Ballast Point sell out? Is this sale different from AB-InBev buying up other breweries like Elysian and Golden Road?  Let me know in the comments!

 

Modern Times: Two Years of Great Beers

First, let me say this: I am an unabashed fan of Modern Times Brewery and any attempts to be completely objective about their birthday party will likely fall short. I went to their Second Anniversary Soirée over the weekend and had a fantastic time. On Sunday, I arrived at the brewery (also known as the Lomaland Fermentorium) at noon for session three of the four-part bonanza. I was able to secure one of the few seats available at the bar and ordered a beer I had been eyeing on the taplist for a while. It was a Berliner Weisse with peaches added, and before I could take my first sip, the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place” started playing over the speakers. I knew then it was going to be an awesome Sunday afternoon. That first beer set the tone nicely: it was a bit tart, refreshing, and had some mouthwatering juiciness from the added peaches. The Dancing Plague (as it was called) left me wanting more, which was perfect because I had nine more beer tickets attached to my entry wristband.

Just in time for me to order a second taster, my friend Mike arrived and wasted no time asking for the Anniversary IPA. I stayed with another low-alcohol beer and tried the Blanc on Blanc on Blanc, a Pale Ale hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Nelson Sauvin hops, which each carry pleasant light and tropical fruit notes. The goal of this beer is to emulate white wine characteristics, and I’m sure it would have attracted quite a few Real Housewives and divorcées, had there been any present at the brewery. I didn’t love this beer initially, but revisited it at the end of the day and it was actually my second favorite of the afternoon. With Mike able to hold down the fort at the coveted bar seat, I was free to wander around a little bit with my third beer, the Anniversary IPA that my cohort was so eager to try.

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This Geofilter Seemed to Fit the Mood

If you’ve never been to the Lomaland Fermentorium, you really should. I’m confident that it’s the only active brewery in the world that has one wall decorated with a Post-It note mosaic of Michael Jackson and Bubbles and the opposite wallpapered with comic books. The bar itself is made of old hardcover books and topped with marble, and the rest of the tasting area looks like a minimalist vintage store. All of the bartenders were knowledgeable and quick to ask a brewer if I asked a really specific question (I did). In addition to the beer, the party also had a Louisiana cuisine food truck out front, unlimited free pours of Modern Times coffee (yes, they are also coffee roasters), and free savory Kind Bars, which were unusual but tasty. Lastly, the Anniversary Soirée served as a bottle release for the Monsters’ Park Imperial Stout variants that had been aged in 10 and 12 year old bourbon barrels. The 12 year version was sold out by the time I arrived but I happily snagged a bottle of the 10 year from the merchandise booth.

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Monsters Playground – So Fun, Its Scary

After milling about, I did what I came there to do and tasted the rare offerings without interruption. Of the various wine-grape-infused saisons on tap, I loved the color and the nose of the Funky Universal Friend with Pinot Noir, but found the taste a bit lacking, and had the opposite experience with the Zinfandel Must Brett Saison, which sadly lacked a proper name. My sixth beer was the one I was most excited about and the main reason I bought a ticket to the third session, as it was the only one to feature Monsters’ Playground, a sour stout conditioned on citrus. It was phenomenal. The aroma was orange and orange rind with a hint of chocolate, similar to those chocolate oranges that I always see but never purchase. The first wave of flavor was a distinct sour tartness that slowly revealed its roasty undertones, followed by lime juice. The back-palate was all orange and left a tart flavor that did not dissipate until long after swallowing. I loved every one of Modern Times’ sour beers from their first release last December and this sour stout proved that they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to those tart, microbial beers we all love so much.

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To Quote the Poet Ice Cube: It Was a Good Day

They had a few beers I decided not to try in order to revisit my favorites, which were the Dancing Plague with Peaches, Blanc on Blanc on Blanc, and of course, another pour of Monsters’ Playground. I keep a list of every beer I’ve had, as long as I’ve enjoyed six ounces or more, and these tasters wouldn’t have qualified unless I had two of each of them. I know it’s slightly ridiculous but I wasn’t going to bend the rules after 1,150 beers. After finishing all ten of my tasters and feeling immensely satisfied, I decided to try some of Modern Times’ cold brew coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker at all; in fact, I’ve only paid for a cup of coffee once in my life, and that was at a coffee shop that literally did not have anything other than coffee to drink. These cold cups of joe, however, were on the house, so I figured I should at least see what Modern Times was up to when they’re not turning water, hops, barley, and yeast into happiness. Of their two blends, I preferred their Secret Beach summer blend to the standard Black House, as it was a little bit lighter in body and had some fruit notes that surprised me. Maybe one day I’ll start drinking coffee and start picking up on the nuances of it, like I do for other beverages. Until then, I’m going to use that money for beer and the anniversary celebrations of the wonderful people who brew it.