Bitter is back at Bay City Brewing

How can a hoppy beer stand out in a city full of good IPAs?

A flight on the patio of Bay City Brewing
  • A flight on the patio of Bay City Brewing

About 100 new breweries have opened in San Diego over the past five years, posing a significant challenge to any craft beer brand trying to distinguish itself. At least one has proven no slouch at getting attention.

Bay City Brewing Co.

3760 Hancock Street, Midway District

Since it opened in 2015, the sign for Bay City Brewing has been easily to spot from the 8 freeway. The Point Loma made do for awhile, but in 2017 really stepped it up. With the San Diego Gulls playing across the street at the Sports Arena, the brewery partnered with minor league hockey team to release Power Play IPA, cementing its status as a pre- and post-game beer destination for hockey fans.

Later that year, it partnered with the San Diego Tourism Authority to produce the city’s “official destination beer” (a session IPA dubbed 72 and Hoppy). It also enlisted a public relations firm, which aggressively pitched brewery updates to beer media. The effort paid off. From 2016 to 2017, Bay City tripled its beer production — from 375 to 1136 barrels — earning it a spot on Brewing Association’s list of the 50 fastest growing breweries in the nation.

I’ll admit to being surprised by that one. During that time, I found beer quality to be inconsistent, and rarely if ever spotted it outside the tasting room.

However, after reports last summer that Bay City had hired a new head brewer, I started revisiting that dog-friendly tasting room, and found the brews more consistent. If I was out to nitpick, the lagers still weren’t as crisp as I wanted them to be, and I found the tannins in a coffee stout too acidic. But the hoppy beers had something else going on.

As a rule, San Diego brewers have gotten pretty damn good at making IPAs. Fans can always cite a few exceptionally good or bad ones, but most at least pass the smell test: clean, crisp, and pleasantly aromatic. It’s testament to the collaborative spirit among local brewers that has made everyone better beermakers.

But in terms of marketing, it creates another hurdle. With thousands of distinct San Diego IPAs produced each year, it’s that much harder for any one in particular to stand out. Surprisingly, the hoppy ales at Bay City were standing out. More surprising, they did so with bitterness.

Of course, bitterness has always been a defining characteristic of IPAs, particularly in the early 2000s, when brewers pushed bitterness boundaries to reach 100 IBUs. Bay City’s ales aren’t anywhere near that — they’re mostly around 40 or 50, and Power Play measures around 65 IBUs.

But I found a compelling distinction in the bitterness of these beers: the presence of diesel aroma in the hops.

Most San Diego IPAs offer a similar palette of hop flavors: usually citrus, pine, and tropical fruit. As beer drinkers have collectively become accustomed to these flavors, we look for the arrival of new hop strains for excitement, such as cannabis flower in currently trendy Strata hops.

Diesel may not sound as immediately awesome as, say, stone fruit, but they’re both right there alongside the aforementioned aromas in the Brewers Association guidelines for a pale ale or IPA. Diesel just hasn’t proven as popular. Some drinkers are more or less sensitive to it, and some consider it undesirable.

I sensed it in Power Play IPA, the Bay City pale ale, and even a couple of hazy IPAs, which characteristically aren’t very bitter. I found pine, resin, and tropical flavors swirling around in them as well. But the diesel kept commanding my attention. It was offputting at first, but reminded me of the offputting way piney hops first caught my attention in 1990s IPAs.

I barely notice the bitterness in most IPAs these days, so I’ve found myself returning to seek it out. Partly to make sure I hadn’t imagined it, partly because I found myself wanting more. Just like that, Bay City’s beer has my attention. I wonder how it will play with lacrosse fans, now that new major league lacrosse team San Diego Seals calls the Sports Arena home?

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