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“I completely reject the notion of somebody that says, ‘I don’t like beer.’” Coming from Greg Koch, a man who has built an empire out of hops and barley as CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co., it’s not an entirely surprising statement.
“Usually that’s spoken by somebody who’s not familiar with the amazing world of craft beer, and for some reason decides to restrict their world down to the narrow and over-commercialized, and then decides that they don’t like that,” Koch elaborates. “Now, I agree with that – I don’t like the over-commercialized either. But to simply make your judgment on stuff of TV commercials? That’s a sad self restriction. I say: throw off those chains of oppression. We’ve been lied to, and it’s time to break free and let the clouds part,the sun shine, and the angels sing. Let the glory be come down upon us.”
It’s an inspirational speech, but for most West Coast natives, Koch is preaching to the choir – and with the abundance of craft breweries stretching from border to border, there’s no shortage of places to worship. It wasn’t always this way: when Koch and Stone co-founder Steve Wagner arrived on the Southern California craft beer scene in the early 1990s, there wasn’t a whole lot to see. While things were certainly more developed farther north, the region wasn’t on many national maps yet in terms of craft breweries. But over the past decade, this stretch of shoreline has swiftly grown into a top destination spot for beer enthusiasts both locally and around the world, spurred on mainly by fellow beer enthusiasts who took to garages and basements to build their own craft beer scene up from scratch.
“The home brewing scene is definitely one of the reasons the West Coast has become a hot spot for brewing,” says Yuseff Cherney, co-founder and head brewer at Ballast Point Brewing. “Stores in both the Bay Area and here in San Diego spawned a host of pro brewers who had great advice and fresh ingredients to experiment with. San Diego is also the home to White Labs, which revolutionized brewer’s yeast. Being a San Diego start-up, that meant we had access to their products before anyone else.”
Does all that background and spirit make West Coast beer somehow different than other regions? Not everyone subscribes to that theory. “I’ve never really gotten caught up in that,” says Brett Joyce, President of Rogue Ales. “There are great beers on the West Coast, the East Coast, in the Southeast, in the middle of the country – there are tons of great craft beers all over the country. I think it’s more ‘cute’ than real to try to create a West Coast/East Coast rivalry.”
But for some, West Coast craft beers seem to be imbued with a certainsomething that keeps them coming back for round after round. In most cases, that something is a fist full of hops.
“The West Coast beer scene is driven by hops,” says Cherney – truly, many of California’s most celebrated craft breweries have made their names on aggressively hoppy brews like IPAs and the Double IPAs, which Cherney points out is considered a San Diego invention. He also credits first-wave pioneers like Sierra Nevada and Anchor for inspiring the next generation of home brewers to push for even bolder flavors. “I’m not sure why we decided to use so many hops in our beers, but it most likely goes back to being able to be a little crazy with recipe design during our home brewing days.”
“Although,” he adds, “a bit cliché, but I must say that San Diego water (with all the chlorine removed) is very well suited to the hoppy beers we are famous for.”
Not a rabid hophead? Don’t despair – there’s just as much for malt fans to love. The flipside to the West Coast’s aggressive hops is an abundance of smooth, rich porters and stouts infused with bold flavors like coffee and vanilla beans, coconut, and even chipotle peppers. In short, there’s a lot of flavor experimentation going on in this region no matter what type of beer brewers are dealing with. With so much to choose from, it can be hard for those new to the scene to know where to start – but Koch has a good plan.
“Sample,” he says. “Sample, sample, sample. Don’t come in with any strength expectations or color expectations or bitterness expectations. Try to clear your mind from all that baggage, and just be open to new experiences. Accept that not all of the beers you try you might like. That’s perfectly okay. Not every beer is for every person – that’s the beauty of it. But in that journey, the more open you are, the more likely you are to find the beer that you love.”
In that spirit, read on for a few West Coast brewery favorites of our own:
BALLAST POINT BREWING
San Diego, CA
“During college I began home brewing after discovering some great craft beers such as Sierra Nevada and Red Nectar,” recounts Ballast Point head brewer Yuseff Cherney. The difference, however, was that his passion for the subject ran much deeper than the average college kid’s penchant for passing out. “After quickly moving into advanced all grain brewing, I began teaching a small home brew class at the Craft Center at UCSD. I would study brewing books, and ‘research’ beers during college, trying to break down the flavor components in commercially made beers. I would fill up a shopping cart of beer, sit down with a notebook, and make notes as I sampled.
It’s research we’re all thankful for, as it’s culminated in Ballast Point Brewing’s varied lineup. The brewery offers a well-balanced range of year-round beers, including its much-celebrated Sculpin IPA, but the seasonal selections are well worth looking out for with gems like Piper Down Scottish Ale and the extra-rich Victory at Sea Imperial Porter. The latest to look out for is a foreign style stout collaboration Cherney refers to as Indra Kunidra, touched with flavors of curry, cayenne, and Kaffir lime.
STONE BREWING CO.
“In the Mid 90s, craft brewing was on a well-defined track,” says Stone CEO Greg Koch. “We quickly derailed from that track – and yes, some malt and a lot of hops got very, very badly injured during that derailment. But we’re all wiser, and things are tastier as a result.”
That derailment (and all those hops) helped Stone develop into the small empire it is today. Already the largest craft brewery in Southern California, it’s still rapidly expanding with new expansions, a bistro, and even a hotel on the way. But despite all the growth, the brewery stays close to its roots through it all by lending support to smaller breweries and connecting with fans through various local events.
Most recently, Stone celebrated 15 years in the business with a Beer Fest at CSU San Marcos, as well as the launch of its15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA.
“Rogue was founded when I was 16,” says Brett Joyce, President of Rogue Ales. “It was a great age at which to pilfer beer from your dad’s cooler.”
When your dad is Jack Joyce, founder of one of the West Coast’s most influential craft breweries, chances are you’ll grow up with a pretty good appreciation of good craft beer. It’s a brewing education at its most organic, and one that’s led to some innovative thinking in terms of Rogue’s newest creations – right now, the brewery is experimenting with ancient malting techniques and homegrown hop and barley crops for its Chatoe Rogue line.
Still, your first love is always the sweetest, and when asked for a favorite, Joyce gets back to basics with Shakespeare Stout, a Rogue classic.
RUSSIAN RIVER BREWING CO.
Santa Rosa, CA
Want to guarantee a flash mob at your pub or tavern? Tap into a keg of Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder Double IPA and watch the hopheads swarm your counter in record time. Better yet, break out a reserve of Russian River’s revered seasonal brew, the fiercely bitter Pliny the Younger Triple IPA.
MAUI BREWING CO.
Lahaina, Maui, HI
In 2005, San Diego native Garrett Marrero decided to branch out from his main gig in the financial world and pursue his passion for creative craft beer. The result is Maui Brewing, a quickly rising brewery best known for preferring cans over bottles and whipping up deliciously quirky brews like pineapple-infused Mana Wheat and the award-winning Coconut Porter.
AIRDALE BREWING COMPANY
San Diego, CA
Founded in 2008, Airdale is a relative newcomer on the Southern California craft beer scene. That hasn’t stopped the brewery from picking up fans of brews like the crisp Horizon Hefeweizen and rich, almost sweet Dark and Stormy. In the autumn, look out for the seasonal Homecoming, a porter spiced up with warm hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.