US a happy beer-hunting ground

03:24, May 17 2012
Taps at Ballast Point
The huge selection of taps at Ballast Point

They say all good things must come to an end and by the time you read this I'll be back in God's Own.

If you've been following the column you'll know that, for the past few weeks, I've been beer hunting up and down the United States west coast.

After an all-too-brief three nights in Seattle, travel companion Graeme and I flew down to San Diego on May 6 to join the judging panel for the 2012 World Beer Cup.

While checking into the Town and Country Resort and Convention Centre, the cup's host venue, we spotted the familiar lanky figure of Derek Walsh. In recent years Derek, a Canadian-born Dutchman, has been a frequent visitor to New Zealand, where he has judged at our annual international beer awards.

With a free evening ahead of us, Derek, Graeme and I were soon off to check out one of San Diego's most famous craft-beer bars. The Toronado opened shortly after my last visit in 2008 and is the kid brother of its San Francisco namesake, a bar whose offhand service and grungy decor are as legendary as its ever-changing selection of obscure craft beers.

An anonymous looking and dingy bar in a run-down shopping area, we soon discovered there's a close family similarity between San Diego's Toronado and its older sibling. As for the beers, a bank of 30 or so taps and a couple of hand pumps dispensed a mouth-watering selection of heftily hopped pale ales, Belgian-influenced sour beers and potent, barrel-aged specialties. Needless to say, it was a long, liver-punishing evening. I was glad we weren't judging the next day.


At 9am the next morning, Graeme and I joined 50 other judges for a bus tour of three breweries, organised by Belgian judge Carl Kins. We first headed north to San Marcos where, as well as making the Port Brewing range of hop-driven West Coast-style beers, brewer Tomme Arthur specialises in Belgian monastic, barrel-aged, flavoured and soured styles which he releases under the Lost Abbey moniker.

Over an hour or so I sampled several beers and was deeply impressed with their stylistic variety and quality. One notable example was Red Poppy, an intensely tart, Flanders-style red ale made with sour cherries.

By coincidence, our next port of call was to the previous tenants of the Port Brewing-Lost Abbey building: Stone Brewing Company shifted to a large new site in Escondido in late 2005. I visited the new brewery in 2008 and remember at the time being blown away by the sheer magnitude of the operation.

Continuing double-digit growth has prompted Stone to order a second 120-barrel German-built brewhouse which, when installed, will double the company's already sizeable capacity.

Adjacent to the brewhouse and its multitude of shiny stainless steel vessels is the Stone Brewing Bistro and Gardens, a modern bar and restaurant with giant sliding windows which open out on to a large patio and half-hectare beer garden, which has been thoughtfully landscaped with plants, trees and rocks.

In 2008, Stone hosted a welcome reception for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, which drew 1700 people (35 busloads) to the centre. It's a remarkable place to sample from 32 taps of craft beers.

Our final stop was at Ballast Point Brewing Company where owner Jack White and brewer Yuseff Cherney showed us around. It's another brewery whose success – three gold medals as well as the champion small brewery award at the 2010 World Beer Cup – has forced it to move to larger premises. Ballast Point also operates a distillery and struggles with the demand. As if to emphasise that point, the day after we were shown around another huge new tank was installed at the rear of the brewhouse.

Having tried several beers at the brewery, I concluded that my favourites are the two fragrantly hopped IPAs, Sculpin and Big Eye.

After a calibration session back at the hotel, during which we were asked to assess samples of three unmarked beers, it was time to catch another bus for the official judges' reception at Green Flash Brewing.

Having opened only a decade ago, Green Flash is yet another San Diego brewery that's been forced to relocate because of ever-increasing demand for its beers. Although Green Flash undoubtedly made its name for robustly hopped ales, these days the brewery is broadening its appeal with a series of Belgian and wild yeast-influenced brews.

Although Stone Brewing and Port Brewing-Lost Abbey beers are not often exported to New Zealand, both Green Flash and Ballast Point send regular small shipments. If you can't find them at your local store try online retailers such as or

Next week I'll look back at the judging, the World Beer Cup results, and my last few days in the US.


The Marlborough Express