Modern Times Beer has arguably become San Diego beer's most compelling success story. At the time it opened, in 2013, with design-savvy beer cans, a bartop made from paperback books, and a gigantic Michael Jackson post-it note collage, it was a phenomenon. Nearly six years later, it's a juggernaut, one that's graduated from San Diego brewery to a west coast beer brand.
470 S Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas
Last year, it opened a vegan brewpub in Portland, Oregon, decked out with comic book wallpaper, a bar veneer made from floppy disks, and massive string art installation. That came on the heels of another in downtown Los Angeles, featuring walls covered in comic book art and album artwork, a bar veneer of Beta videotape cases, and a Lite Brite inspired art installation. A Santa Barbara tasting room on the way, another in San Francisco, and sometime in the year ahead it expects to open a mixed fermentation brewery, coffee roastery, and entertainment complex in Anaheim so outlandishly ambitious it includes a swimming pool with its own movie screen.
Then there's Encinitas. That's where Modern Times spent the better part of two years plotting the vegan restaurant and tasting room it calls the Far West Lounge. For a coastal tasting room, it's a marvelous, design-savvy space. But compared to its aforementioned properties, it's turned out pretty tame.
The wallpaper wasn't made from manga artwork, or Alf collectible cards. It's merely wallpaper, tasteful wallpaper like you might find in an airport VIP lounge. The bar veneer, though inlaid with dominoes, is mostly patterned from wood remnants. The artwork is interesting, but hardly massive, instead the walls are peppered with cleverly kitschy references: plastic TV dinner trays, antique desk fans, cactus macramé art woven into the strings of vintage tennis racquets, and a Mondrian painting likewise recreated within a fireplace screen.
The room's most notable feature is a set of risers that creates a unique section of bleacher seating a few feet from the bar. Large, blocky steps illuminated with LED trim, creates a stacked seating option, where drinkers can sit on three levels, sipping beverages while facing the same direction, as though they were spectators in the old Roman Senate.
Does this predictably impeccable space, represent a maturing Modern Times? Did the company dial back its retro-soaked irony in deference to a more affluent north county coastal community? It hardly seems to matter. Like most of its venues, this Modern Times location spends the bulk of its prime hours at full capacity. Visiting on a Saturday, I couldn't even snag a couple of bleacher seats without hovering for twenty minutes, waiting for another party to depart.
Fortunately, a pair of bar stools became available first, and I was able to order a flight of beer, served within a Gran Habano cigar box.
As the above descriptions suggest, I could write an entire article about Modern Times without really discussing beer. But the 30-plus taps in Far West Lounge pour beers provided by all of Modern Times' breweries, and the most compelling part of my Encinitas visit was supplied by Los Angeles. That "Dankness Dojo" brewpub has been designated the brand's experimental or R&D brewery, so it's the one providing this bar with newer styles such as a brut IPA and a mango milkshake IPA, plus less trendy Belgian style, a grisette.
While none were as good as the best Modern Times beers I've tasted over the years, they were better than the first beer on the menu. Named Totally Open in Encinitas, my pour of the San Diego-produced hazy double IPA yielded dubious butterscotch flavor, making it my all time least pleasant Modern Times IPA.
Parties seated on either side of me at the bar had likewise come to Encinitas specifically to visit the Far West Lounge, and I was probably the only person in the room to leave with even a whiff of disappointment. But more than one beer, my moody response was psychological. I'd walked in hoping to enjoy a favorite San Diego beer brand, and walked out of a place that suddenly belongs to an entire time zone.