601 South Coast Highway, Oceanside
In writing an article expounding the positives at Bagby Beer Company (601 South Coast Highway, Oceanside), I can hear the collective response of my readers: “No duh!” When one of the most famous and award-winning brewers in the history of American beer-making is at a brewpub’s helm, one expects great things. Thing is, hype tends to affect a beer fan’s palate much as the moniker and year on a fine bottle of wine sways an oenophile or having seen a chef on TV makes the food at said toque’s restaurant almost inexplicably yet detectably better. In visiting owner and brewmaster Jeff Bagby, I feared succumbing to the legend of the man walking me through his quaffable catalog, but through self-checking and the corroboration of others with qualified palates, I can assure readers that the many beer-inspired compliments lauded on this enterprise are well-deserved. Bagby Beer is a bona-fide beer Mecca in a county known worldwide for ales and lagers.
The day I visited, a whopping 14 house beers were on tap. That’s impressive on its own, as is the fact so many different styles were represented: West Coast, Germanic, Belgian, English. For the most part, the beers were in low- to mid-range as far as alcohol-by-volume. That can be tricky territory for lesser brewers as it makes flaws more apparent. But when done justice, blonde ales, hefeweizens, and cream ales can be as delightful as the dankest IPA or most chocolaty imperial stout. Case in point, a “mini Blonde” that served as a yeast starter for a Belgian strain. It’s brisk on the palate, but comes through with a bevy of flavors and aromas — banana, rhubarb, lilies, pear, bubblegum. And its brawnier Belgo siblings bring a lot to the table as well. A strong ale called Golden Girl has more pronounced Bubble Yum notes mingling with lemony tartness and a pleasant sweetness, while a farmhouse ale dubbed Tis the Saison smells like honey and sage and tastes very much like a tripel with tropical fruit character and spiciness brought on by coriander, ginger, and grains of paradise.
A blonde called Worker Bee is brewed with Vista honey, giving it an earthiness sans sweetness that tastes like a mash-up of eucalyptus, wildflowers, and mint backed by light toastiness. Wiseacre Wheat is a fantastic hefeweizen that gives one all they could want from this banana-forward session brew. And on the maltier side, Upside Down Frown Brown (which made my list of the best new local beers of 2014) brings flavors of cocoa and a hint of blackstrap molasses while remaining light and drinkable. Meanwhile, License to Kilt Scotch ale goes down smoother than one would expect of an 8.4% ABV beer, offering up myriad taste sensations ranging from banana and caramel to nutmeg and pumpernickel, and Stout Your Engines is almost completely savory in its bittersweet chocolate expression thanks in part to cleansing hop bitterness.
Early on, Bagby says would-be patrons entered his brewpub and asked for IPAs. At that time, Bagby was sticking to less-hoppy styles as he dialed in his brewhouse. According to the brewmaster, many of those Humulus Lupulus seekers would turn right around and exit his establishment rather than sampling his other beers. The brewpub staff nicknamed those exhibiting such single-mindedness the “Dork Squad,” and when Bagby brewed his first IPA — a citrusy, grassy masterpiece that’s a bit spicy and balanced in its bitterness — they named it after those obtuse hopheads. Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, and Simcoe give the beer an evergreen nose, and lovely flavors of tangerine and grapefruit.
There’s still plenty of uncharted territory for Bagby to tackle, and he intends to. He is particularly excited about working with lager yeast and hopes to brew several bottom-fermenting beers, including a Baltic porter. And yes, "dorks," there are more India pale ales on the horizon. Which brings us to one of the most important factors justifying the whole “beer Mecca” label…plenty of reasons to keep coming back. No matter the brew, quality is as close to a sure bet as a beer fan can hope for.