We have found ourselves unexpectedly spending a few weeks in San Diego, California. It's not a pleasure trip, but we have been able to plan a few meals and breaks around exploring the beer scene here in the farthest southwest corner of the country.
Fritz grew up in San Diego, but left before it had any sort of craft beer. Visiting over the years, we have observed it develop as the rest of the country has, with a few notable standouts like Karl Strauss and Stone Brewing influencing the country's craft beer movement.
Stone Brewing, a cornerstone brewery in the “second wave” of the movement, have just released their 16th anniversary celebration beer, and it's impressive to see what has happened here in those years. With the population of San Diego County around 3 million, it's kind of fun to imagine what New Zealand's beer scene might be when we are 16 years into our second wave.
Our overall impression is that craft beer in San Diego is quite mainstream. Plenty of commercial lager is still being consumed, but virtually everywhere you go you have a choice, whether it's the major sports stadiums, the corner stores, or fast food restaurants. It's a little more expensive, but not excessively, so it becomes just a matter of choosing what you are in the mood for.
And beyond being normal, craft beer is popular in San Diego. Over these few weeks, we could attend five beer festivals, six beer degustation meals, and over a dozen beer or brewery events and product launches. There were also monthly “beer shuttle nights,” with free bus tours of the craft beer bars in specific neighbourhoods. And this isn't even San Diego Beer Week - that's in November, when you would have to choose between over 500 events.
Beer tourism has also developed into a major competitive marketplace. Numerous companies promoting the best modern buses are offering any number of combinations of half or full-day tours for beer lovers. One website is devoted to sharing self-guided public transportation options as well.
A fascinating development is the gourmet food truck experience. While we are accustomed to good food in most US brewpubs, in San Diego people also expect good food at the brewery tasting rooms.
Most don't have kitchens, but it doesn't matter as the food trucks setting up outside outdo the common kitchen. Berlin Brats was offering kangaroo, rattlesnake or alligator sausages.
We had to queue for some time to order from the Miho Gastro truck - items like the beer cheeseburger or smoked lamb chili cheese fries with imperial IPA (IIPA) mustard. Many of the 71 trucks are advertised in the free local beer newspaper (yes, there is a beer newspaper) with regular schedules and special events.
And what styles of beer are they drinking? As we found in Northern California last year, IPAs, IIPAs, barrel-aged and sour beers are everywhere. We also see lots of collaborations, which seems to be part of a new trend for blending - releasing a mix of two beers with a separate label.
But the maturation of the scene really shows up in the inventiveness - straying away from style altogether to make something distinctive - efforts to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
At the moment, that seems to be creatively blending fruits and spices in Belgian styles. Or beers made with “Nelson” hops. Fritz caused a stir wearing his New Zealand Hops T-shirt to a beerfest. “I love New Zealand - that's where Nelson comes from,” said the security man as we approached the gate.
So, it makes us happy envisioning this level of saturation spreading across New Zealand, with premium locally crafted beers available for a slight cost premium at every event or attraction from the stadium to the zoo, and on every menu from a food cart to a gourmet restaurant. And we will be ready to jump on the bus when beer tours expand beyond the Nelson region.