7863 Girard Avenue, La Jolla
“Everybody’s doing the local beer thing, so we’re going another direction.” This was my introduction to the beer menu at Catania, the coastal Italian spinoff of the restaurant group comprising Whisknladle and Prepkitchen. Despite this statement, there is a local brew on the menu. It was the one that inspired me to check the venue out after reporting on it back in February. But besides Birra Catania — a basil-infused, Pilsner-inspired beer WNL Hospitality Group commissioned New English Brewing Company to produce — the rest of the suds on Catania’s menu hail from Italian craft breweries. This is unique to San Diego County. Thus, I felt compelled to order a flight consisting of everything on draft.
Italy’s artisanal brew scene has garnered interest from beer enthusiasts over the past three years. The first time I had an extensive taste was back in 2013 at Cucina Urbana. It was an interesting experience, but I wasn’t all that impressed. To be fair, living in San Diego makes one jaded. The quality and creativity of the ales produced in this county rate higher than anywhere in the world. So it’s harder for outsider ales and lagers to knock my socks off. Still, I enjoyed several of the Italiano beers at Catania.
A Pilsner-style brew from Birrificio Italiano was crisp and tight with an assertive bite. It would make sense that brewers in a country so close to Pilsner’s German birthplace should excel at this style. Also nice was a Belgian-style saison that led with a cornucopia of floral flavors and aromas and, as it warmed, revealed a slight tartness that went well with much of the restaurant’s seafood dishes, lending an extra touch of acidity. Less impressive was an oyster stout that felt a touch too heavy for the style; it had a bit of deep molasses sweetness that didn’t feel right, and an India pale ale. The latter is what local brewers specialize in, so San Diego drinkers know what to expect from an IPA — pine, citrus, tropical, and stone fruit flavors with bitterness, spiciness, and punch. All of those hop-borne features erode quickly, so getting IPAs to market as quickly as possible is key. That just isn’t possible with beers shipped in from Italy, so it wasn’t surprising that the beer tasted mostly malty and overly subtle.
There are a number of other Italian craft beers in small- and large-bottle formats. The gem of the bunch was Madamin, a sour brown ale from Marentino’s LoverBeer. But the New English beer is the best of the current bunch, which makes sense since it was engineered to pair with Catania’s style of cooking. There will be more commissioned beers in the future, but Whisknladle Hospitality intends to collaborate with different breweries each time. The time frame and identity of the next local brewing company has yet to be determined, but if Birra Catania is an indication of the quality patrons can expect, it will be worth the journey to the top-floor La Jolla eatery.