Tasting Notes from Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego
Having visited Stone Brewing’s out of the way location at an industrial park north of San Diego in Escondido, Green Flash and nearby Alesmith’s obscure industrial park locations in Mira Mesa, well south of Escondido and just north of the Miramar Naval Air Station, it was only fitting to visit the other major nationally known heavyweight of San Diego County’s 50 plus craft breweries: Ballast Point Brewing Co.
And where might you find the brewery and tap room for Ballast Point? No, not on the coast at some scenic spot with a lighthouse called Ballast Point. The brewery can be found of course in yet a different industrial park near Scripps Ranch, just east of the 15 Freeway. Apparently, the FAA has a major operation nearby.
It seems these days that the best cocktails to be found are at dimly lit, sign-less, below ground speakeasies. For terrific craft beers, at least in San Diego’s case, it’s all about the non- descript industrial parks. Pete Coors would always claim that it’s the pure Rocky Mountain streams that make Colorado beers so special. For San Diego, perhaps it’s the purity of the industrial parks.
Like with its fellow neighbors and rivals around San Diego, Ballast Point is best known for its IPA. There are some exceptional other traditional varietals and some eye-opening experimental brews to be found for the better, and for the habañero driven fiery worse.
Cutting to the chase, did the Sculpin IPA, Ballast Point’s regal flagship, live up to its exalted reputation on draught at the brewery’s tap room as one of the country’s premier beers period according to numerous beer sources? This is the beer after all that won the World Beer Cup’s gold medal for IPAs just three years ago.I’ve had Sculpin IPA on draught and in bottles numerous times. As is the unfortunate case with so many IPAs, the bottle conditioning diffuses the carbonation, leading to a pale, weak beer that is barely a shell of its riveting hoppy origins. That has always occured with Sculpin’s bottling. On the bright side, that never has been the case on draught.
Never has the Sculpin been crisper, more invigorating on draught before sampling at the Old Grove Tap Room. Initial notes of palm sugar and Meyer lemon burst forwards, followed by a cascade of wet hops balanced by orange and cinnamon. It’s one of the less dry, less bitter hops you’ll find on the West Coast IPA spectrum…certainly when compared with Stone and Green Flash.
That makes Sculpin immensely drinkable at its 7% ABV. It’s a beer that been treated with mythical status almost one tier below Pliny the Younger. If a bar has Sculpin, then that bar must be legit. Well, hey, Sculpin is a beautiful example of well balanced IPA. Ballast Point didn’t aspire to create a legend. They aspired to make a wonderful beer that you’ll drink. For that, they more than succeeded.
The puffy poisonous sculpin fish appears on each bottle label for the Sculpin IPA and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the brewery’s logo. Oh, there are far more fish in the sea though at this maritime themed brewery.
In fact, the Sculpin IPA isn’t even considered the flagship IPA from Ballast Point. That would be the more subdued, slightly more bitter Big Eye IPA. It’s no tuna of a beer. However, you just get less of everything than with the Sculpin: less citrus, less hoppy characteristics, less depth, less clarity. It’s more of an Amber meets an ESB, with some IPA thrown in.
Of the signature year-round line up, only the murky, too faint Pale ale caused me to roll my eyes. Indeed the Pale Ale is much more in a lighter style, inspired by Czech pilsners, but comes across as a weak, malty pilsner tasting strangely of whole grains. The Wahoo Wheat, Black Marlin Porter, and the Calico Amber Ale are all very faithful renditions of their genres. Nothing fishy going on.
Coincidence or not, Greg Koch and Steve Wagner founded Stone Brewing Co. in 1996. That happened to be the same year that Jack White and Yuseff Cherney started Ballast Point Brewing Co. (though White did start the Ballast Point Home Brewers Mart in 1992). White continues presently as the brewery’s CEO. Cherney serves as one of the brewmasters today, joined by Colby Chandler who runs the specialty beer division and will operate the soon to open Ballast Point brewery in San Diego’s Little Italy. Presently, the main brewery in what is known as Linda Vista can brew up to 120,000 gallons. Yep, it’s no home brewing experiment anymore.
That being said, for what a large total of beer that sounds like and for how well known Ballast Point is coast to coast, it is only the 46th largest U.S. craft brewery by volume. Saint Arnold Brewing Co. in Houston is 45th. Green Flash isn’t even in the top 50. Where is Stone you ask? In 10th place. Remember, you can find them all over Europe these days.
So, with Ballast Point’s continued growth, let’s hope for more of their experimental beer to grow as well. The Indra Kunindra Imperial Stout’s enthralling symphony of madras curry, cumin, kaffir lime, toasted coconut, and cayenne pepper was as mind-bending and impeccably executed amidst a dozen Ballast Point beers at its tap room, as the various times I’ve found it in San Francisco. It continued to deserve my label for it as the Trev’s Bistro 2012 Beer of the Year.
The tasting’s other stand out was the Dorado Double IPA, every bit as bright and slightly less lethal than its Portland and Seattle colleagues. This is the real hoppy, malty deal, with an exceptional limoncello- cornbread backbone. Lighter beers were not light on flavor here, especially the lovely, delicate Even Keel Session Ale with hints of oolong tea, and the Fathom Imperial Pale Lager. Ballast Point’s Kölsch is tied in my book for best California Kölsch to have at your BBQ this summer with Golden Road’s from Los Angeles.
Spice blends continue to be (mostly) forte for Ballast Point, beyond the masterpiece that is Indra Kunindra. I thoroughly enjoyed a jolting Serrano pepper infused Pale Ale, along with the Wahoo Wheat given ten times more excitement from Thai chile and ginger.
Though it wasn’t part of the tasting, the Habanero Sculpin IPA I had a year ago at a Ballast Point in San Francisco sadly remains as my standard for spice experiments gone bad. The entire was about to run out of water to put out the fire from that volcanic eruption. I have quite the spice tolerance. This was just plain too much.
Luckily back at the tasting, there was just the right amount of Bourbon to lift the Sextant Oatmeal Stout further ahead courtesy of Bourbon barrel aging. Another version of the Sextant was just as impressive without the aging, served on nitro draught.
The fickle nature of Black lagers (think porters with a light body) proved to be something that Ballast Point is doing very well, with the Winter San Salvador Black Lager and the Steamboat Black Lager. The Victory at Sea Imperial Porter continues to be one of the country’s heaviest and preeminent renditions, thick and creamy making you think of chocolate milkshakes at the soda fountain. Ballast Point regular version is terrific, as are versions with coffee and vanilla, or the benefit of barrel aging.
Ballast Point’s version of an Imperial Red Ale, the Tongue Buckler, won’t make you lose your tongue like some barleywines, but it has delightful toffee and coriander characteristics to compliment a strong body.
Though it’s brewed for a wonderful cause to fight breast cancer, the bOOb Check specialty fruit ale brewed with Oregon cherries, lime, orange blossom honey and hibiscus gave that same viscous, cough syrup palate feel of a Yellowtail Austrlian Shiraz. Somehow the tart fruits weren’t mellowed out. Instead, it became a disturbing, cloying combination.
That’s a rarity, luckily, at Ballast Point and all of the craft beer capital of California (and the country?). Sculpin and Indra Kunindra are a dynamic duo to rival any other across the craft brews nation. With the arrival of more brewing space, we can only anticipate eagerly more unique brews to come (sours? hefeweizen?). For now, it’s hard to declare a winner amongst San Diego’s many deserving craft breweries. I can say one thing still: Ballast Point makes the best single beer in San Diego.