The Toronado San Diego

The Toronado in San Diego is an expansion, if you will, of the temple of beer of the same name in San Francisco. I went with a long time friend I hadn’t seen in a couple years, so I was more occupied with catching up with her, then scribbling down notes and making observations for this post. So there isn’t a whole lot I can say about it, but what can I say having been there once?

Well, it’s kind of loud, as we had to find a picnic table in the corner at the back patio to carry on a conversation, which still required us to talk in elevated voices. I didn’t see a juke box, but late 70’s Clash featured prominently in the background music. And the wait staff could’ve been more patient and understanding with customers as they figured out what to get on tap, without getting into the really surely attitudes the Toronado in San Francisco has a reputation for. Maybe they should call this place Toronado Lite.

The tap list was full of Double and Imperial somethings, or stuff with European names most people, like me, have trouble pronouncing correctly, but there were still a few more accessible “gateway” beers that everyone should be able to find what they like.

Alpine Bad Boy Double IPA
The bartender who poured this referred to this as a Triple IPA (yikes!) but the Alpine website calls this a Double IPA. I like Alpine beers, it’s one not normally available so was willing to try it, but was bracing myself to get whacked in the mouth with this one. Instead, I got a really smooth, reasonably balanced Double IPA with a piney, resiny hop bitterness that kept building up in intensity over time.

Port Brewing 547 Haight
Named after the street address of the Toronado in San Francisco, the bartender told me this was an Imperial Red. It found it rather sweet, fruity and juicy, with some of toffee, roasty flavors also running around, with plenty of hop bitterness to balance all the malt goodness.

I’m Down with Downtown Johnny Brown’s

The first thing you need to know when going to Downtown Johnny Brown’s in San Diego is the place is hard to find. It’s inside the San Diego Civic Center Concourse and not visible from the street. The first time I tried to go there, I walked back and forth two or three times, trying to find it based on the street addresses which seemed to skip a few numbers, before I finally poked my head inside the concourse and found it.

The dark interior looks a little like a British pub crossed between an American Sports Bar. The walls are full of light, wooden framed pictures of San Diego sports starts and pictures of what look to be patrons of the place over the years. It’s a neighborhood look other establishments try to manufacture, but here, it’s grown organically for twenty years to create it’s own unique character. The tap list it highly loyal to the local craft brewing scene, with San Diego area breweries dominating the list.

Is Downtown Johnny Brown’s on a quest to support its local breweries? Is it trying to reduce their carbon footprint? Perhaps. But Todd Alexander, who owns Downtown Johnny Brown’s, seems more driven by common sense, than anything else. “…why waste the energy and money on shipping a keg 7000 miles?” he asks. Good question.

I found out how much thought goes into the tap list after contacting Todd before my most recent visit and asking how he comes decides which beers to fill his seventeen taps. Expecting a two or three sentence answer, he responded with a paragraph long, complex formula on his decision process.

In his own words:
“….in terms of how I go about putting together my tap list, I have a few general rules and then I fill in the blanks from there. I always try and have 8-12 local beers. Now we only have 17 taps so that is where I start. I love Belgium beers, but I tend to put domestic versions of the styles on first and I almost never have more than one import. To me when I consider how great beers are here in America in general, and in San Diego in particular, why waste the energy and money on shipping a keg 7000 miles?…..although we do carry some imports. I try and have 4-5 IPAs, one Pilsner, one hefeweizen, and one high abv. Belgium style and at least one stout and/or porter. In that mix of 9 beers usually everyone will find something they like. Currently I am trying to keep 30th St Pale Ale from Green Flash on tap at all times for two reasons; one I love it, two I like to keep one Pale Ale on at all times. Now that’s 10 of my 17 taps. We also participate in Sierra Nevada’s specialty program. In order to do that they want us to keep one of their beers on. So that’s 11 of 17. From there, I try to keep a balance, maybe an amber and a nut brown…..gateway beers for people that are not craft aware. That leaves me room for something special, like a sour.” Whew!

When I finally met Todd, he’s sitting at the bar, chatting away with the bar tenders and the customers like one of the many locals that frequent the place. Once he sees me taking out a scrap of paper to write down notes on the first beer I try, he probably figures this guy he’s never seen before scribbling down notes is probably the person who contacted him by e-mail about a strange beer-running blog he’s writing, he moves over to take a look. I figure out this guy moving over to check me out is Todd Alexander, and I’m right. He seems eager to tell me his story, and it soon becomes obvious why.

The concept of someone starting at the bottom and working themselves all the way to the top is such an American cliche’, we forget it sometimes actually happens. Todd Alexander is such an example. He started in the middle 80’s as a busboy when the John Brown owned the place, and then graduated to tending bar. During John Brown’s ownership, the place developed a reputation for introducing new beers from the growing local craft beer scene, but when John Brown moved down to Mexico about eight years ago, that momentum seemed to stall. After about four years of this, Todd was down in Mexico visiting his boss, when John asked if he wanted to buy the bar he founded. Todd took the opportunity, and over that time, has broadened the range of beers the place offers.

It seems exactly where Todd wants to be. Chatting behind the bar, talking shop with his bartenders, and figuring out the next beer to put on tap. Take the extra time to find this hidden place, a few blocks away from the touristy Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego, and you won”t be disappointed.

While there, I tried:

Coronado Brewing Lime Wit
Sour lime dominates the slight yeastiness of this Wit beer, which has a bitter lime peel finish. I prefer my Wit a little lighter and more subtle, but an interesting San Diego culinary take on the Belgian style, which is starting to become over-exposed and tired.

Alpine Duet IPA
I found this IPA to be quite refreshing with it’s light amount of malt, and a crisp, astringent hop bitterness. It’s light for an IPA, but the hop crispness doesn’t make it seem watery. A pilsner on steroids?

Port Brewing Pig Dog Pale Ale
I found this to be a fresh, complex Pale Ale with a little caramel and fruitiness to it, and a strong, astringent hops finish.

The Neighborhood in San Diego

This place seems to be trying real hard at being hip and arty. At the far corner of this bar are separate paintings of Jimi Hendrix and Jesus Christ eating a cheese burger. Next to these paintings is a sculpture consisting of an industrial, grey metal star placed surrounded on both sides by a row of four human skulls. I spent a couple evenings contemplating the deep meanings of this artwork and, sorry to say, failed to come up with anything. All I can really conclude after a couple short sessions is that The Neighborhood is a pretty good place to get a beer.

Looks like others have come to the same conclusion. It made the Draft Magazine’s list of one of the 200+ best beer bars in America in it’s August 2009 issue, and plenty of other local acclaim The Neighborhood proudly displays on their web site. The tap and bottle lists are written on chalkboards and mirrors in a hurried, sloppy script writing similar to gangster graffiti. I suppose it allows the residents from nearby high rise condos to get in touch with their inner gang banger. Given its close proximity to Petco Park, it does a pretty good business with people merely seeking to get a beer before or after a Padres game.

I really appreciated The Neighborhood’s tap and bottle lists’ wide variety of styles, which pays homage to the great local breweries San Diego has to offer, while including many unique and tasty brews from far away lands. Here’s a brief run down of what I tried there.

Victory Brewing Prima Pils
OK, it makes complete sense that the first beer I have in San Diego, is from Victory Brewing, 2,500 miles away in Downing, PA. Victory has long been one of my favorite breweries, and Prima Pils is a brew I’ve been wanting to try for some time. Thankfully, The Neighborhood had it. Like any good pils, it’s got a crisp grassy hops finish. Unlike most pils, I picked up some savory herbal character with all that hoppy goodness, giving it a rare complexity for a pilsner.

Stone Brewing Pale Ale with Coriander (Cask Conditioned)
Not what one normally expects from Stone. Tasted very light and feathery from the cask, and balanced between the malt and hops. A little floral, and the coriander gives this one a light, savory dimension. Well blended, and I found this very memorable.

Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale
From Kiuchi Brewery in Japan, one of the most unique beers I’ve ever tried, made with red rice and Hallertauer hops. It’s got a tangy, fruitiness this seemed cherry-like to me, and maybe a little strawberry in there. Or maybe it’s just this brew’s hazy pink color playing tricks on my taste buds. Light, bubbly level of carbonation. Is it just me, as does this seem a little like a Belgian sour ale? This intriguing brew poses a Zen-like puzzles.

Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck St. Louis Gueuze
VERY sour apple flavor with light, tingly champagne like fizzy carbonation, with a slightly lemony acidic aftertaste. Interesting beer, but not quite my style.

Alesmith Speedway Stout
A big, thick, rich double Stout with plenty of chocolate malty goodness, and a little aftertaste of bitter coffee, which has been added to the brew. It’s aged in bourbon barrels just to give it slightly more complexity. Just the barest whisper of sweetness, and the 12% abv is undetectable. Another excellent Alesmith brew and a great way to cap off my last evening there.

Announcing the Short Pour Film Festival at the Monterey Beer Festival

Do you have what it takes to be the Steven Speilberg of Craft Beer? Or perhaps Craft Beer’s Ed Wood? Here’s your chance to prove it.

Jeff Moses, who runs The Monterey Beer Festival announces the debut of the Short Pour Film Fest at the 2010 Monterey Beer Festival. It’s the first ever short-film festival on the subject of BEER and will take place at the Monterey Beer Festival on June 5th, 2010, from 12:30pm to 5pm. The film line-up for the Short Pour Film Fest will include Live Action Short Films, Animation Short Films, Music Videos and Commercials by established and emerging talent from around the world. All entries are on the subject of BEER and will run 3 minutes in length (or less).

It takes place during the Monterey Beer Festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Road, Monterey, California, 93940 and will be free of charge to Monterey Beer Festival attendees. Short Pour Film Fest honors both individuals who have achieved excellence in short film making and amateur filmmakers. This unique short-film festival showcases film making talent on the subject of BEER. Films will be shown in the historic King City Room, a 10,000 square foot building at the Monterey Fairgrounds (home to both The Monterey Jazz Festival and The Monterey Blues Festival).

For Submissions of Films, please go to the website for rules, entry and release forms. You can also contact Jeff Moses of MBF Company at 1-831-521-7921, jeffmoses(at)nightthatneverends(dot)com.

The Bayshore Trail in San Diego

The Bayshore Trail in downtown San Diego is one of my favorite places to run in America. Like Central Park in New York, Chicago’s Lakefront, or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, it’s where runners find rare long stretches to run, uninterrupted by auto or foot traffic as the would find in most parts of the city. Like most popular running trails, it’s character changes over the course of the day. In the morning, it’s full of runners and a few bikers getting in their morning workouts. As the morning evolves into the day vacationers and sightseers start taking over.

All the great views of the city, San Diego Bay, and the various ships of all shapes and sizes docked along the trail make for a run that’s a great way to start the day.

The Session #30 : Raspberry Lambic Gelatin in a Brain Shaped Mold

For this months session, Beer Desserts, David Jensen of Beer47 , asks “What beer desserts have you tried and liked? Disliked? What beer styles work well with dessert and which ones do not? Do you have any beer dessert recipes that you enjoyed and would like to share?”

Back in my beer swilling college days, I had some grasp of the concept of beer and desserts. One evening after knocking back a few cans of Busch beer, I filled a plastic tumbler with a couple more cans of the stuff, and then plopped in a couple scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream. After showing everyone on my dorm floor this beer float, and taking a few chugs on a couple dares, somehow, this dreadful concoction ended up in an out of the way corner of my dorm room, and was forgotten. When I discovered it a few days later, some sort of mold was growing in it, the ice cream had morphed into sort some of crust, and the whole thing smelled rather nasty. Since my roommate was also a runner, funky smells in our living space were rather common, a likely explanation for why it went undetected for so long.

Twenty some odd years later, the death of my grandmother in early 2007 provided an unlikely catalyst for new experimentation with desserts. After she was buried in Springfield, Illinois, her church provided a potluck lunch for family and friends of the departed, which included a few jello salads. At this difficult time, we all expressed our surprise that this traditional Midwestern comfort food seemed to be, well, quite comforting. We couldn’t quite understand why this culinary relic of the 50’s, with strange combinations like grated carrots mixed into orange jello had this effect on us. Perhaps, like any good comfort food it brought us to a simpler time of our youth.

After the service, Dad brought us to his mother’s apartment, and asked my sister, Leigh, and I to take one thing back home with us. I took Grandma’s Harry Cary beer coaster. Leigh took Grandma’s recipe box sitting on the kitchen counter, with several jello salad recipes inside. My sister mailed me photo copies of all the recipes, and Grandma’s Cherry Cola Jello Salad has become a popular dessert I’ve brought to many gatherings.

Seeing my interest in jello molds, a couple friends of mine gave me a brain shaped gelatin mold as a birthday gift, inspiring me to create a couple original deserts. First, I developed a Red Hot Russian Gelatin Brain, made with vodka and flavored with cayenne and cinnamon. And I put together a kid-friendly Blue Hawaii Jello Brain, using a package of Blueberry Jello, some crushed pineapple, and then my kids garnish it with gummy sharks.

So with this session topic, I decided to find the old brain gelatin mold and work up a new creation. I decided to use Lindemans’ Raspberry Lambic for this mold, thinking its sweet, fruity, and tart flavor combination would work well in gelatin.

I experimented twice with the recipe and technique, and settled on a formula which uses a 750 ml bottle of Lindemans’ Raspberry Lambic, which is about three cups of liquid, and 1/4 cup of water. The Knox gelatin powder directions call for one packet of powder per cup of liquid, but I found this made the mold a little stiff, so I used approximately 2 1/2 packets of powder for the 3 cups of liquid. I heated the 1/4 of water in a sauce pan and dissolved as much of the Knox gelatin as I could into it, about 2 packets worth. The idea here is avoid exposure of the lambic to the heat, which I feared could change its flavor. I had to pour in about a half cup of the lambic to dissolve the remaining powder, and then added the rest of the lambic in, slowly stirring it evenly distribute the gelatin, and then transferred it into the brain mold. The lambic foamed up a bit, so I let the foam subside before putting it into the refrigerator to set.

As for the taste, I found this technique did a good job preserving the lambic flavor in the gelatin. On the first try, I used a full cup of water and three cups of the lambic to dissolve four packets of gelatin, but I found this created a very stiff mold, that had a bit of a “washed out” flavor. Both times, I noticed the lambic gelatin picked up a slightly earthy bitterness, but the second run with less water, this bitterness was a lot less pronounced, and the lambic kept more of its tart, acidic character. Actually, I might add a little lemon juice on the third go around to replace some of lost acidity. I could also cut back on the gelatin powder a bit more.

Of course, since the carbonation and liquid sensation on the tongue is totally lost when the lambic is made into gelatin, the mouth feel and overall taste is unavoidably modified. I found it very instructive to drink the lambic while sampling the lambic gelatin to best understand how this process transforms the overall flavor and sensation of the lambic. I think the final result makes a decent dessert, although I’d recommend adding something like whipped cream, or some sort of chocolate sauce or ice cream, to give the dessert a little depth and contrast. Some sort of mint infusion into the lambic gelatin might also work.

Another beer I thought about using for a gelatin mold was a sweet barleywine like Lagunitas Brown Shugga. Any ideas for beers that might work well in a gelatin mold?

Prelude to San Diego: Green Flash Double Stout

Next week, I’ll be travelling on business to San Diego. I’ll be staying downtown without a car, so won’t have an opportunity to visit the many great San Diego area breweries, but I will have an opportunity to sample some of the local beers. And running along the inner harbor trail is some of the best urban running in America.

To get myself in a San Diego frame of mind, I decided to giving Green Flash Brewing’s Double Stout a try. I’ve enjoyed their West Coast IPA, an aptly named beer since that hop monster has a mere whisper of malt to pacify the mass quantities of hops Green Flash uses, the West Coast IPA style totally pushed to the limit

Turns out, the Imperial Stout is very much the yang of the West Coast IPA yin. Lot’s of rich, creamy, bitter coffee tasting malt in this bad boy, with the barest touch of any sweetness, and a little bitter chocolate character to it. The alcohol is really well hidden in this one. And as you can see, it pours a very thick, foamy head. Not really the beer to have during the afternoon at a San Diego beach during low tide, but works for me as an excellent late night sipping beer.

Hmmm…..what if you mixed Green Flash’s highly bitter, malt forward Double Stout with their West Coast IPA? Maybe I shouldn’t ask.