Now that I’ve been living in San Luis Obispo for four months, I figured it was about time to catalogue my initial impressions of the local beer scene. Overall, we have a healthy amount of breweries considering the population and remoteness of the area. The biggest negative so far has been distribution; we just don’t get nearly the selection of good beer that the bigger population centers to the north and south do.
The big player in the area, which is the reason for me being here to begin with, is Firestone Walker Brewing Company on Paso Robles, about a 25 minute drive north of downtown San Luis Obispo (from here on out referred to as SLO in lazy local fashion). We are on track to brew about 100k barrels of beer this year, which puts us up in the realm of other mid-size California brewers like Stone, Anchor, and Lagunitas. We’re all plating catch-up to Sierra Nevada though, which is producing over 800k these days. Firestone Walker dominates the Central Coast beer scene. Almost every bar or restaurant with draught beer will have our Double Barrel Ale on tap, and possibly others like Honey Blond or Union Jack IPA. I’m thrilled to be working at such an award-winning brewery, which has won best mid-size brewer at World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival multiple times in the last decade, including our most recent wins at GABF this year, including six medals and mid-size brewer of the year. We have a tasting room at the brewery that is open every day from noon to 7PM and I encourage anyone to stop by to try some beers while in the area. After Firestone, things drop off considerably in size.
Up in the tiny town of Santa Margarita, on the way from SLO to Paso, is one of the smallest breweries that I have ever visited. Dunbar Brewing is situated in a new-ish building right on the main drag of town, and shares the building with the Ancient Peaks winery tasting room. Dunbar has a small nano-brewery system that I think makes 2 barrels of beer per batch, but don’t quote me on that. It’s small, and that’s all you really need to know. Dunbar brews mostly more traditional British-style beers and had only one house beer on tap the time I visited, an English-style India Pale Ale. They also had several guest beers. The brewery is basically a small bar with a nice carved wooden top and seats about a half-dozen people with some more seating adjacent and the brewhouse equipment off to the side. The fermentors are in a temperature controlled room in back of the bar. It sounds like they typically have one or two house beers on at a time, so you’ll never know exactly what you will get when you visit. An interesting little place overall, in an even more interesting location.
Down in SLO we have 4 breweries: Central Coast Brewing, SLO Brewing, Creekside Brewing, and Tap It. We also have several bars and restaurants that focus (somewhat) on beer, but nothing that I would call an uber-geeky beer place.
Central Coast Brewing is a mix of Brew On Premise, micro brewery, and tasting room. Their Brewmaster For A Day program lets you book a session with one of the brewers on their small pilot system and create your own batch of beer, complete with custom labels. They also produce a large variety of their own beers, with 8 on tap the first time I visited, including several that were also available in bottles. They had several pretty interesting selections including a ginger witbier, chai cream ale, and chocolate stout. They used to be restricted by their license to only serving tasters, but they can now serve whole pints, and their patio makes for a nice place to hang out and drink a couple of beers on a warm afternoon. I’ll have to make a point to visit again soon.
SLO Brewing is just off the main downtown strip on Garden Street, and has a music club on the ground floor with a restaurant/bar upstairs. You can see the copper brewing vessels behind glass to the left of the bar once you make your way up the stairs. SLO brewing has a long history in the area and was actually the original owner of the facility in Paso Robles that Firestone Walker now inhabits. They have since downsized and gone through two name changes, first going with Downtown Brewing Co. and opening two more locations in Paso and Santa Barbara, and then breaking off from those locations and changing the name of the SLO location back to the original SLO Brewing last year. Steve Courrier makes the beer, and is also a brewer up at Firestone Walker. I don’t know how he does it all, but the man loves to make beer. SLO Brewing hosts numerous top musical acts every year, and is probably the top venue in the area. Steve keeps a solid regular lienup on tap, as well as a random rotating seasonal or two. The most recent was a pilsner that was one of my favorite beers of the summer. His IPA is a standby for any fans of hop-focused beers, and I’m a fan of the hefeweizen as well. The only warning about the place that I’ll give it that it can be very popular with the Cal Poly crowd and can sometimes get overrun at night, especially on Tuesdays when they have “keep the pint” night wiht one dollar refills.
Creekside Brewing is a small brewpub on Broad Street, just around the corner from the main downtown strip and as its name suggests, overlooks the creek that flows through downtown. They brew on a two-vessel seven -barrel system and have two fermentors and two bright tanks. It’s almost a miracle that they managed to fit in even this small amount of brewing equipment in the small space that they have to work with. I want to say that they usually have like 4-5 beers on tap from their own brewery, with another 2-3 guest beers as well. They actually tend to have a very nice, rotating selection of guest beers that you won’t see on tap anywhere else in town. I’ve had a couple misses (an infected batch of weizenbock was the worst offender) but the beer tends to be good overall and the balcony over the creek is a nice place for beer and food on a warm day. Standards of the house lineup have looked to me like an IPA, blonde, wheat beer (hefe, dunkel, or bock), stout, and red ale. These guys are literally down the street from me so I tend to wander in every so often to see what’s new.
Tap It is the only brewery in town that I have yet to visit, though I have had both of their beers on tap at other locations in town. They only brew two beers: an IPA and an American Pale Ale. The pale ale is perfectly respectable, if a bit caramel-heavy for my tastes, and the IPA has potential but the pint I had seemed a bit beat up and faded. I really need to make a trip to the brewery tasting room soon to get a better look.
That’s it for breweries in town, but we have a few restaurants/bars that I have found to have good beer selections as well. Novo is an upscale fusion restaurant with a great outdoor dining area on the creek downtown. They seem to focus on a broad wine selection from the region, but also manage to have a respectable bottled beer list with at least a couple dozen domestic and imported craft selections. Killer food and good beer on the creek makes me happy. Original Spike’s Pub, also downtown, has a large selection of draught at bottled beer and has a few rotating taps that bring in new and interesting stuff regularly. I need to come here more. Last time in I had both Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA and Sierra Nevada Life and Limb on tap. And finally, Broad Street Tavern is a new place just off the main strip that is making an effort at a pretty good draught selection. They had about a dozen good taps when I went, including Old Rasputin on nitro, which was very tasty.
That’s it for now. We’re no Bay Area or San Diego here, but I think there is a respectable amount of good beer flowing on the relatively isolated Central Coast these days. I’m sure there are a few more places worth checking out that I have yet to discover, but I’ll keep updated with any worthy additions.