When I moved to Southern California just over a year ago, I had no expectations for quality beer; I didn’t expect America’s wine country to have any skill or interest for that matter in brewing decent ales. With an afternoon at the First Annual California Beer Festival in Ventura, CA, I was proven quite incorrect in my assessment of So Cal beer appreciation. The event provided a great selection of beer, great live music, and a laid back mood that the patrons created.
Upon arrival I was blown away at the turn out. I saddled up to the line, which snaked its way around the fountains across from the historical San Buenaventura Mission and moving, literally, around the block along Thompson Blvd. As I made an effort to get access to this event, I had come across the information that the event had been sold out on pre-sale tickets, with those interested at trying their luck encouraged to do so, but with no guarantee of entry. So, I tried my luck at the event gate and luckily, as a member of the press, took ‘cutsies’ in front of a few hundred people to get my cup and an arbitrary amount of tickets, which each counted for a beer. (Unfortunately, the ‘ticket’ idea did not fly and was not carried out too well. The tickets served as a meaningless item to hand out to vendors - who didn’t even ask for them).
Nonetheless, this first ever event in Ventura, CA provided fine crafted brews including Firestone, Pyramid, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and the ever popular New Belgium Brewing. However, these beers are perennial and national favorites that everyone knows and probably has in their fridge, so to prevent wasting my time, I decided to avoid these beers. What I was looking for was some of my local favorites and those that I knew of locally in Ventura, but had rarely, or never, had the chance to taste.
I have to admit that I was a kid in a candy store at this point. I am blessed by not having the belly to prove my love of beer, but trust me, I am a fan. I know what a lauder ton is, I know what hops are, a maltiness, and the big difference between a Lager and an Ale. Now, I could take the time to review every beer I tasted, and there are about a dozen, (I was trashed) but instead I want to keep this piece brief and tell you about my standout showings. There were all sorts of beer on tap, 2-5 at almost every vendor, but I was not going to taste them all for two reasons: one, I knew a lot of these beers intimately, and secondly, I would have been unable to write this piece if I had even tried to partake in them all. It would have been dangerous and stupid to have tried. I am a professional after all.
What follows are a few standout beers from what I put in my face and bloodstream. The beers mentioned here are local favorites and some interesting brews that deserve a mention for reasons from complexity, flavor, and because I am partial to a few of the breweries based on regular patronage.
Let’s start out with our biggest disappointment, and when I say disappointment it is simply based on the fact that I set a high bar and I want a different interpretation of classics. You could say that when I drink a beer I want a ‘cover band’ version of what you would traditionally find when you hear ‘Oatmeal Stout’. Sometimes, you just want to hear ‘Abbey Road’ with a metal/rock take, you know what I mean? With that said, Telegraph Brewing has been doing their dirty deed (meant lovingly) since December of 2006, so I chock their oatmeal stout up to being new. As a young brewery, I can understand going with some standards, but an oatmeal stout needs to hit you, and this stout I sampled was a bit muted; I need my stout using its ‘outside voice’. This classic oatmeal stout did not come up to par with my favorites put out by the likes of Rogue and Alaskan Brewing. I tasted a lack of body in their version and overall it came out a bit flat. I felt a brewery that had the same name as a street I drive on would give up a more full bodied stout with a more pungent roasted aroma and a stronger finish on the after taste where you almost breathe the beer after a sip. Bottom line, compared to other beers I have tasted of the same type and better quality, I was not impressed with their oatmeal stout.
However, I did not discount their brewery in its totality. In speaking with one of the boys on hand, having a smoke and pouring beers, I held out tremendous hope for their Reserve Wheat Berliner Weizen. It is their Cezan ‘flagship beer’ but sadly I could not confirm the quality of said beer as it was not up for tasting. Additionally, they only do it a few times a year; but it sounds interesting should you ever get a chance to go a few rounds with a pint or two. Look for that from Telegraph, and others as they tend to try and stay away from the standard things like blondes and pilsners and focus more on full bodied flavors.
Besides beer, the event also provided live music by ‘My Brother’s Band’, Orlando Napier, and Rey Fresco. Hundreds of people stood in line and roamed the grounds of Mission Park in a beer utopia. Noticeably, in Southern California, the overwhelming majority of beer is drinkable in quantity and served ice cold in part to the weather we experience. Rare is the person who wants a moderately cold stout at 2 pm on a Saturday, but that was me and I found two beers that fit the bill and then some.
Stone Brewery had one beer to taste when I got to them around four, but it was a wonderful Imperial Stout that rocked me. With a bouquet of almost licorice and a flavor that rolled chocolatey in the front and a roasted, smokey flavor on the finish, I was very impressed at the quality and complexity of the beer of such a dark persuasion. Right up there with the Stout by Stone was the beer I waited almost a total of 45 minutes to get. My initial trip in the line for the Fireman’s Brew tent was about 15 minutes to hear CO2 was out and it would be another 15, so I took off in another direction. When I returned to the ever-present line, I got my long awaited and now hyped up beer. I got to taste one of the well-crafted 10.8% ABV beers. Far too often, when you get your paws on a double digit ABV beer it can be like choking down the contents of a Ni-Ca battery, but this beer was almost dangerously smooth. The brew the Fire bugs had for me left me blown away, and after two glasses of this extreme brew, I was starting to buzz out, and needed a break. It is saying something for a beer that surprises you, and this dobblebock named ‘Brewnette’ crept up nicely on the mind, getting me buzzed on the quick and leaving a sour or acidic taste on the palate, even after two glasses for the good of proper journalism. If you are looking for a barleywine with the drinkability of a strong amber that mated with a porter, then you have got to find this well crafted little piece of brewing history. It’s beautifully crafted.
The big winner of the day, the big surprise and maybe most well crafted and balanced beer with flavor and drinkability to spare was the Karl Strauss Windansea Wheat Hefeweizen. I am a Hef fan, and a bit of a snob. I have had them from Alaska to Oregon to Wisconsin, and many have been great, but this traditional Bavarian unfiltered Wheat Ale was something to behold. First was the aroma with a shocking scent of clove and most of all...banana! The banana aroma took me by surprise and when I tasted the clove, banana, and the sense of vanilla or tannin I was floored. In speaking to the guys at the booth, this was a Hef that needed no lemon and frankly would probably sprout arms and stab you if you tried to put one on the rim of its glass. Far too often, in the world of Hef, brewers go nuts with the lemon, coriander, zest, and citrus of whatever persuasion that that you start to get a pucker face after a few sips. Great as it is, it makes the experience of a few brews tough to stomach, but getting my hands on Strauss’ brew, I knew I could drink them endlessly. This beer was medium bodied, subdued but not shy, and the finish was crisp and so refreshing. In short, Karl put out a Hefeweizen that was jettisoned to Earth from Krypton.
Others that deserve a mention are Creekside for a very flavorful and smooth American red, playfully called their ‘Ripoff Red’ for its funny origin. Usually, when you put the word ‘American’ in the name of a beer you are going to be disappointed. However, this was a great surprise in a beer I had never tried before. It had an interesting take on the traditional Irish Red, which can be very hoppy with a biting finish. Coronado Brewery has an India Pale Ale or IPA I was very fond of as far as to say that it might be better than the fan favorite Sierra Nevada Pale Ale you can get just about anywhere. It was very hoppy but in a softer tone and the drinkability on a 76 degree day, like Saturday, was superb. Lastly, a brewery close to my heart, and my front door, is Anacapa Brewery in downtown Ventura, CA. They had a large selection of beers for the event, plus an ever changing menu of funky beers (like a club remix of the classics) and with only a few blocks to get to the brewery, it was packed as the event let out. They had a wonderful Maple Brown and an Oktoberfest that might have been the best fall beer at the event.
Overall, this was Ventura’s first shot at the beer fest and I think it was a massive success. There was a great selection of beer, great live music, and a laid back mood that the patrons created. I met total strangers in line, chatting, laughing, and carrying on even as I walked around and ran in to people again and again; just the nicest group of people. People were dancing to the music, lounging on couches under what I can only think is a massive oak tree in the middle of the park, and enjoying good beer and food. With four ounce pours for tasting, no one got out of hand, no more so than the out of hand lines for bathrooms - need more of those next year. I would suggest a larger venue; maybe the fairgrounds can be justified with the overload of interest that was underestimated in planning. While the event was fun, improvements to think about include a way to expedite entry, a better way to monitor the drink and food tickets and of course more bathrooms.
In my time here, and especially from this event, I have found that there are breweries in my town, all over Southern California, and beyond that take great pride in the drinks they create. There wasn’t a bad beer on the day, not one I got to taste. Impressive was the caliber of the music, people, food, and most definitely the beer. California has once again surprised me with the abundance of culture, diversity, and sense of community that was exemplified by the California Beer Festival through the view of an empty beer mug. Skal!
Wesley is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He is currently a contributing photographer for the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (www.wesleybauman.wordpress.com) where he writes on political and social satire regularly.