This past weekend was alumni weekend for UCSB, and my girlfriend Kayla and I took the opportunity to drive back down to Santa Barbara, visit with friends that we haven’t seen in far too long, and catch up on the local brewing scene. Santa Barbara isn’t the biggest brewing scene, but there are a handful of small breweries in the area that dutifully provide the locals with their craft beer fix. Hollister Brewing Company in particular has been pumping out world class IPAs for the last three years, and has a couple GABF medals to prove it. In addition to the local micros, Santa Barbara sometimes seems to be overflowing with Firestone Walker. Although the brewery is up in Paso Robles, they also have a tap room just north of Santa Barbara in Buellton and it seems like every bar and restaurant in town has some selection of house beers from the Firestone private label line. I can’t complain on the last count, as you can almost always find one of their award winning pale ales wherever you may find yourself drinking a beer. What Santa Barbara definitely lacks is a good craft beer bar. Several bars around town stock a few solid craft selections, but the area still lacks a drinking establishment dedicated to fine beer not brewed within its own walls. Hopefully someday this might change, but Santa Barbara is mostly a wine area so I’m not holding my breath.
We started the afternoon after our drive down by meeting some friends at Giovanni’s in our old neighborhood of Isla Vista. Gio’s, as we call it, is one of the classic beer gardens in town for the student population, and the wooden picnic tables of its terraced patio were packed with alumni and students. Though they have always had a decent Firestone Walker draught selection, they have managed to step things up since we left town last summer. Double Barrel, Pale 31, Honey Blond, Union Jack, and Solace were all available. I had never seen Solace before as it is a new release, so I decided to give it a go. An awkward wit-hefe-saison of sorts, I can’t say that I was much of a fan. This makes me really miss Lil’ Opal, which it appears they have dropped in favor of this as their new summer seasonal. Anyway, it should be getting around right about now to most places where Firestone Walker distributes their beer. Of note during this session was a group of thirty-something alumni who managed to break a picnic table bench in half during some rowdy drinking games. You have to love the Gauchos.
Our next stop was The Brewhouse, which is downtown on West Montecito Street by the Amtrak station. The Brewhouse definitely has the feel of a neighborhood hangout, and always seems to be packed with locals. They brew up a wide variety of house beers, including a steady selection of Belgian styles under the “St. Barb’s” brand. I am definitely a fan of those, including the Abbey Ale, Double, and Triple, but I was here to try some new stuff this time. The place was packed when we came in, and we settled for a couple seats at the small bar in the side dining room. I tried four beers, starting with the Anapamu Amber Ale. Pretty run of the mill, and not very rich on the malt character. Up next was the Serachi Red Ale. I assumed that this was brewed with Japanese Sorachi Ace hops, but maybe the name was just a weird coincidence. Anyway, it had an interesting fruitiness to the aroma reminiscent of lemon zest and grapes. The third beer in the flight was Roco Joe, a coffee porter. Coffee and beer generally meld well in a fresh draught format when the coffee doesn’t have a chance to oxidize and stale the flavor. If you are a fan of iced coffee, this one is a good choice. The last beer was the Elephant Seal XX IPA, a double india pale ale. Unfortunately, it was plagued by diacetyl, a fermentation byproduct that can sometime stick around in the finished beer after less than ideal fermentations, giving an oily butter-like flavor and texture. Best avoid this one. Oh, and they still had the Habanero Pilsner “hot shot” available. I still haven’t worked up the courage to try that one. One of these days I have to get around to it. My tip for The Brewhouse: hit it up for happy hour for great drink prices, tasty appetizer specials, and a lively local atmosphere.
The last stop of the evening was the Santa Barbara Brewing Co. on State Street in the heart of downtown. Brew Co. as it is often called, definitely benefits from a good location on the main drag. The restaurant and bar are right below and around the brewing equipment, which is all encased in open brick. Despite the nice decor, I have always found the beer to be a little uninspiring, and the food nothing to write home about. I decided to try a flight of a few of their regulars that I had never before bothered with, and a couple specialties. The Blond and Wheat are pretty clean but boring examples of their respective styles. The XPA was a touch thin and boring as well. The Pacific Pale is definitely a serviceable west coast pale ale, but isn’t going to shake anyones world. The most interesting beer of the flight was the Mole Porter, spiced with chili peppers. I’m a fan of spicy anything, but this one struck be as a little too heavy on the heat, and I can’t imagine wanting to drink it again. The highlight of our visit was a pint of their IPA pulled from cask with a hand-pump. It’s nothing special in the west coast style, but a cask-dispensed IPA is never a bad find at a brewpub. After this visit, my opinion on Santa Barbara Brewing Company hasn’t really changed. If you are strolling down State street, it could be worth a stop, but I wouldn’t pick it over the other breweries in town.
The next day we hit the road back up to the Bay Area, but not before stopping at the Hollister Brewing Company. Hollister was probably my favorite place to drink beer while I was down at UCSB, and I look forward to each opportunity that I get to visit while in the area. Opened in early 2007 by the former brewer from Santa Barbara Brewing Co., they have already won two medals at the Great American Beer Festival for their Hip Hop Double IPA, a fantastic DIPA that anyone with a hop-obsessed streak should try to track down. Walking into the restaurant was like walking back in time to the early days of my craft beer experiences. Hollister has made some recent changes though. A new chef took up residence last year, and the revamped menu is definitely stepping it up in the food department, adding some more interesting ethnic choices to the standard pub fare. There still isn’t much for vegans and vegetarians, but it’s better than some breweries.
I decided on a six beer sampler and a delicious snack of fried pickles to go with. They typically have about 14 beers on tap at one time, with some rotating and some that are almost always on. Here were the new beers that I had never seen while I was down their before:
Sands Session Ale is a refreshingly light bodied cream ale, which is sort of a hybrid of a blond ale and an American lager. I don’t know if any corn or other adjunct was used in the brewing process, but there was a nice light malt flavor, touch of wheat, and just a hint of hop bitterness rounding things out. Hollister always seems to nail carbonation, and this was no exception–light bodied with soft yet ample bubbles. Not the most interesting beer, but very clean and balanced.
Rye ESB was up next. A somewhat curious beer, as the rye and an overall dry and hoppy profile took this squarely out of the strong bitter style as far as I’m concerned. A nice earthy, spicy and hoppy pale ale, but not the malty English ale that you might expect given the name.
Pencil Pusher Pale Ale is a strong American Pale that approaches IPA territory at 6.2%abv, but has a nice caramel and toffee malt balance to its generous peach and mango hop flavors. I was definitely a fan of this one. Hoppy pale ales are Hollister’s forte, and this is definitely getting toward the sweet spot.
Double A is an Amber ale of sorts that is primarily malt driven and has a rich melanoidin character that evokes the rich bready malt profile of some German bocks. A nice choice if you are not in the mood for hops.
Hippie Kicker IPA was definitely my favorite beer of the flight, and one of the best beers that I have ever had at Hollister (which is saying something as I’ve had 52 different beers from them so far). Compared to their regular IPA The Pope, it has more bright tropical fruit and pine character from the hops, and a lighter malt profile. It’s hard to pick a favorite between the two, but I was definitely digging the Hippie Kicker’s minimalist malt approach and bright, punchy hop flavor and aroma.
The final beer of the flight was Angry Sun, a big, bold 8.5%abv stout infused with Intelligentsia coffee. This is the first Hollister beer that I have had that has been brewed with coffee, and I think that this trend should continue. Pitch black with a tan head, it definitely looked the part of the menacing stout. The aroma was a great cup of coffee, straight up. The flavor blended creamy coffee with blackberry, wood, and bitter dark chocolate. Though it is within the imperial stout range, Angry Sun was definitely a beer that you could easily drink a pint or two of, with a nicely attenuated body and restrained sweetness.
Just as I was about to leave, I ran into Eric Rose, Hollister’s brewmaster. After chatting about the brewery for a few minutes, he poured me a sample of a new gose-style beer that was fermenting away in one of the tanks. Having just read the new book Brewing With Wheat by Stan Hieronymus, Eric got the idea to take a crack at this quirky old style of spiced, sour German wheat beer. All I can say is that I’m looking into planning another trip to taste the finished product. Eric is a great brewer and a great inspiration. Hopefully he keeps the Santa Barbara Area’s top spot for craft beer going strong for years to come. I just got my own copy of Brewing With Wheat as well, so I might have to take a crack at this obscure style and see how it comes out.
It feels like we packed a lot into less than two days in Santa Barbara, but we still didn’t get a chance to visit my friends Brian, Will, and Scott over at Telegraph Brewing Company on the east side of downtown. These guys pump out some quirky, unique beers at the little 15 barrel production brewery. The tasting room is only open during afternoons on thursday, friday, and saturday, but their beers can be easily found around town in 750ml bottles, and in other select locations around the state. If I were visiting Santa Barbara for the first time, they would definitely be my second stop after Hollister. The brewery is small and intimate, and you can talk beer with the brewers themselves as you taste a flight of their beers or get a growler fill.