If you're anything like me (and dear God I hope you are not!), you enjoy quality beer. Music connoisseurs are aesthetes at heart, and most of us enjoy the finer things in life: a beautiful sunset, a kempt lady, and delicious craft beers. I suppose there could be a fourth item included in that list. I just can't remember what it is.
I might as well just come out and say it: I'm a beer nerd. I hesitate to use the word "snob," because it's so pejorative (perhaps because it is). I've been to beer festivals, I enjoy a good brewery tour. When I lived in New Jersey I used to drive all the way from Livingston to South Plainfield to buy beer, even though there were two well-stocked liquor stores within a mile of my house. Here in Los Angeles, I like to buy booze at that creepy, otherworldly 7-11 in Eagle Rock with the standalone fridge stocked with rare beers from all over the world, and a cashier who looks like Nico's twin sister. The point is, I don't mind going out of my way to find new, exciting beers.
If I had to forumlate a list of my favorite craft breweries (Wikipedia) in the United States, it would include: Rogue Ales, Dogfish Head Brewery, Stone Brewing Company, Avery Brewing Company, AleSmith Brewing Company, and Port Brewing/Lost Abbey/Pizza Port. It is my goal to tour each of those breweries, plus all others. Like I said, I enjoy beer.
Yesterday I packed up my girlfriend and headed for the Stone Brewery in Escondido, CA. I had the day off from work, so I figured, "What better way to spend an early Wednesday afternoon than touring an amazing brewery and getting drunk?" Previous brewery tours (Magic Hat in Burlington, VT and Sam Adams in Boston, MA for example) have taught me that if you appear really interested in the facility and the process, you can get really loaded on free samples. Stone Brewing Comapny has actually one-upped their competition with a beautiful bistro attached to their brewery. Good food and good beer? Hell yes.
This corporate looking building is the exterior of the brewery. It's on a long and winding road that seemingly contains only industrial-looking office buildings, a power plant, and the brewery. The building is all brick and stone. The marble floors have giant boulders protruding through them. The building is very cool architecturally, and I say that as someone who once dreamed of becoming an architect, but later realized he couldn't draw and hated school.
What's more, the facility is situated on a large property that includes 1-acre of gardens. The hour before our tour began was spent roaming the gardens, enjoying the flora and fauna, winding pathways, small waterfalls, and peaceful nooks furnished with hand-carved chairs and tables at which to sit and relax. I contemplated the history of Stone, which was formed in 1996, and three years ago moved from San Marcos to this location in Escondido. The current facility has a capacity of 70,000 barrels per year (expendable up to 250,000 barrels). They have their own on-site bottling line, a distribution wing, and that 300+ seat indoor/outdoor restaurant with a menu consisting of organic, free-range local ingredients and over thirty beers on tap, only eight of which are actually brewed by Stone! I had to make sure we didn't contemplate this for too long, or else we would miss the start of our tour.
Upon entering the 55,000ft² brewery, visitors are faced with a row of huge kettles that mash, lauter, boil, ferment and condition the beer. As the tour began we gathered around a small table and received a very brief history lesson about agriculture and its relationship to brewing. Malted barley was passed around and consumed (yum!), hop pellets were smelled (but not consumed), and the process was explained for visitors who were otherwise unaware of the actual brewing process. Our tour guide was amiable, knowledgeable, and posessed a great sense of humor. Maybe he is constantly relishing the fact that as an employee of Stone, he is entitled to a ridiculous amount of free booze. He would not call this perks of the job "infinite," but they do include one keg a month, one crate a month, a two litre bottle each week, a case every week, two free glass fills a day, and a personalized glass (name engraving included) that can be filled twice a day. He said he calculated it to be at least 2,000 calories each day in free booze.
The tour continued with a lesson on water. Water that is too pure will not contain the minerals neccessary for extracting flavors from the other ingredients, and will inevitably taste bad, Stone combines charcoal-filtered walter with water purified using reverse osmosis. It is not completely distilled, but it is very clean. Next, we stopped at a long row of holding containers. Each one holds 11,000 gallons of beer. As the tour guide explained, "That's enough for you to drink a six-pack every night for the next 65 years of your life." My thoughts quickly turned to visions of older, balder me sitting on a porch somewhere in the middle of the woods in front of a house packed with fridges holding the remnants of those 65-years worth of six-packs. I was ony startled back to reality when the tour guide recounted a story that involved 5,500 gallons of beer accidentally spilling out of one of the containers. I was shocked that nobody on the tour yelled "Party Foul!" upon hearing that, but then I remembered I was on a brewery tour with a bunch of retired folks and nerds, not a collegiate pub crawl.
We then moved on to the bottling line, which was recently upgraded to include a new machine that closes and seals each case. The track was also made longer, which means production has increased from a mere 250 bottles per minute to 370 bottles per minute.
The last stop on the tour was a huge refridgeration unit (8,000 square feet) where casks and kegs are stored alongside twenty or so beers from other brewing companies that are distributed by Stone. See, brewing companies aren't run by drunkars! They totally understand the upside of vertical integration! Stone distributes beers made by Victory, Russian River, Avery and more. It was so cold, and the a/c was cranked so loud, I didn't really hear much of what the tour guide said. At one point he made sure to mention that the room was controlled by solar panels on the roof. Totally green!
The last segment of the tour, of course, was the free tasting. Each person on the tour was entitled to four free samples of Stone beers, plus one or two or three extra on the side if you made conversation with the tour guide and asked more questions. I asked about storing old batches of Vertical Epic, a beer that is bottle-conditioned and designed to be aged until after December 12th, 2012. Each year they are released one month later than the previous batch (starting on 02/02/02 and going until 12/12/12). Apparently Stone has been holding and aging a few of each year's edition, and there will definitely be an event at the brewery in 2012 to comemorate the conclusion of the process.
As for the tasting, I found absolutely nothing to complain about. Even brews that I had previously dismissed (Stone Pale Ale, for example) tasted shockingly fresh and really, really good. Stone IPA seemed to have even more bitter goodness than ever before. Arrogant Bastard Ale had stronger, more noticeable malt andcitrus undertones. Everthing was delicious. Sublimely Self-Righetous Ale, a generally beloved beer among beer nerds, was the most disappointing of the bunch. I got a nice buzz going, so we decided to head over to the bistro for some food.
The beer menu alone was enough to make one dizzy. One side for draught beers, one side for bottles. I was so excited by the list I had to call a friend and ask what the hell I should try first. I settled on a glass of Stone Imperial Russian Stout (2009 batch), which tasted ungodly. When I finally took a moment to look at the food menu, I was stunned. Ater some deliberation, my girlfiend and I decided to split an order of Spud Buds to start our meal: “Our Stone IPA organic garlicky mashed potatoes, balled up, and deep-fried in our Arrogant Bastard Ale batter. Served with a side of our Stone Smoked Porter-BBQ sauce for dipping.” The main courses were even better. She ordered the Grilled Buffalo Burger (“A tamarind-glazed buffalo patty with pickled red onions, roasted garlic mayo and a butter lettuce served on a Caramelized Onion Roll from Sadie Rose Bakery, with Chile-Lime Chips and Sriracha pickled cucumbers on the side)”, while I opted for the BBQ Duck Tacos (“With pasilla chile-Stone Smoked Porter BBQ sauce, corn tortillas, micro greens. Vella asiago cheese, salsa fresca & pineapple habanero salsa. Served with coconut black beans and Spanish style short-grain brown rice”). We ended up sharing both dishes, which were equally amazing. Hell, as a restaurant without any attachment to an amazing brewery, the Stone World Bistro would be a rousing success.
Of course, no visit to a brewery is complete without a trip to the gift shop. I picked up a two-litre bottle of Arrogant Bastard for a co-worker who offered to cover my shift so I can celebrate my birthday by not having to go to work (my 26th birthday is this Saturday, so your kind wishes will be greatly appreciated). My girlfriend purchased for me a hoodie, because one can never own too many hoodies. It took a massive amount of strength for me not to buy one of each beer they had displayed in the store fridge.
The trip turned out to be everything I anticipated and more. I highly recommend that anybody living in or visiting Southern California stop by the Stone Brewing Company (1999 Centracida Parkway, Escondido, CA). They offer two tours every day (2:00pm and 6:00pm), and the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens is open daily (lunch menu 11:00am - 3:00pm, dinner 4:00pm - 10:00pm). You can even make reservations in advance on the restaurant's website. For those of you who brew at home, their website actually contains recipes for brewing a handful of their beers. They are cleverly hidden, but they can be found! Now start your drinking, people!