Beer's still cheap in La Jolla

Rock Bottom has been doing this twenty years

Six tasters for $6.50, but at these prices, might as well order seven or eight.
  • Six tasters for $6.50, but at these prices, might as well order seven or eight.

I hit Rock Bottom on a Wednesday night — the one that’s been succeeding at the brewpub thing on La Jolla Village Drive for 20 years this year. The official name is Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, part of a 30-restaurant chain that’s owned by the same restaurant group as another familiar beermaking chain, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.

Rock Bottom Brewery

8980 Villa La Jolla Drive, La Jolla

It’s probably just happenstance that the word restaurant comes first at Rock Bottom, but as I approach the bar, it seems to more accurately describe the scene. Though the menu features illustrations depicting each step the brewing process, and several fermenting tanks are visible through windows at the back of the bar, the crowd filling its adjacent dining rooms don’t strike me as serious beer drinkers, the kind who keep up with the comings and goings of brewers and special beer releases.

These are UC students and staff, Sorrento Valley tech workers, sports fans, and a large crew here for trivia night. They’re as likely to order cocktails as house beer. While I’m examining the beer list, a couple of guys approach the bar to order for their incoming friends. “Four pilsners,” requests one.

My eyes scan the menu again: there’s no pilsner. But the bartender doesn’t blink, and fills four pints of the house blonde, called San Diego Sunset. Next come a couple of young women. “I like stouts,” says one, and the bartender offers a splash of Ghost on the Boardwalk, the dry Irish stout on the board, served on nitro. “Mmm, great,” she says, and they walk away with pints.

Fifteen years ago, my first beers at this spot were ordered in much the same way, and I don’t recall them so much as I do the blur that followed the fourth round.

But I’m an educated beer drinker now. I’ve got important questions about these brews, and fear they won’t be answered. No problem, though, my bartender kindly pauses in the middle of a busy shift to share what she knows and pour me a flight. Six four-ounce pours for $6.50.

There’s the benefit of a brewpub. This isn’t a small industrial park brewery struggling to survive on slim margins; it’s a busy restaurant with exceptional beer prices.

The flight includes the first five beers on the board: a wheat beer, red ale, and Mosaic IPA, in addition to the blonde and stout. It’s a smart board for a restaurant. It can satisfy just about every casual beer drinker’s taste.

But whether or not the crowd is generally curious about beer doesn’t matter to the brewer, who has peppered the menu with interesting options for beer nerds. For one, there’s a hazy IPA — enough said. There’s also a Chinook SMASH IPA, meaning Chinook is the only hop used, so drinking it lets you delve deep into the classic varietal known for its piney flavor.

My favorite: that blonde is being served on cask, Sterling dry hopped. Rock Bottom offers two cask ales, which is two more than most breweries do on a weekday. Cask beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized, and their only carbonation comes from live yeast that continue to ferment within the cask. As a result, they are a little flatter and warmer than standard draught beer, but incredibly fresh and flavorful, even compared to the same beer served conventionally. Here, the hop oils enriching the blonde’s slightly sweet malts with added fruit and spice.

You don’t need to be a beer enthusiast to dig what they’re brewing at Rock Bottom, but if you ask the right questions you may still drink like one.

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