During my last visit to Chicago I was so impressed by Forbidden Root that I was willing to visit the city even when I wasn’t able to take the time to visit other spots nearby that had truly impressed me. Before trying Forbidden Root’s beer, I used to drive to Transient Artisan Ales an hour and a half to the East in Southwestern Michigan. This trip was my chance to see if the brewery was able to make the same quality of beers consistently. They did.
i still haven’t found any of their beers with fruits or botanicals that grabbed me but I was very impressed during my previous visit with their hazy IPAs, specifically the hazy rye IPA called Radio Swan. During this visit I started with Radio Swan and it was thankfully as good as I remembered. The beer had intense notes of melon and citrus with a nice creamy pilowy body and light bitterness. Most San Diego breweries seem to get this same mouthfeel occasionally but I have not found any that do so consistently. My guess is that they don’t really care because the average consumer doesn’t know the difference. I would have left with a crowler of Radio Swan but the machine was having issues on the day I visited.
Besides the delightful Radio Swan I also tried a beer called Night Moth, a hazy IPA aged in oak barrels. This was one of the beers available in 4 pack cans during my visit. I found the beer to be overly sweet and primarily showcasing strong oak, notes of vanilla, and honey. It would work better with fruit as Untapped showed they have released different versions. But on its own, it lacked the drier finish and was too sweet for me.
I should also note that I was a bit let down by the lack of vegan options at the brewery on their standard menu. I was initially satisfied to order from their small plates because it sounded like one or two of those would be to my liking. But the roasted carrots with hummus dish was half the size I might have expected for $12. My server that day indicated to me that none of the main dishes were able to be made vegan.
Still, given the quality of the Radio Swan IPA, I still hold Forbidden Root as one of the best breweries in Chicago.
I had not previously visited Helix Brewing until they announced their Sourworx program. I was glad to see that they ensured they had a variety of beers available for the launch. Their goal of having the entire three boards full of barrel-aged sours is impressive. I tried two that were fruited and two that were aged for the longest to get a general taste of the quality of the sours released. From what I tasted, I would sooner make the drive to Helix over visiting my neighborhood California Wild Ales because they have the complexity and level of flavor that I crave. They also have enough to differentiate their sours from others on the market to draw visitors. They are one of the few breweries that allows for growler fills of sour beers and they currently have no plans to start bottling.
I started with a raspberry and a passionfruit sour. The raspberry was a light red color as expected while the passionfruit was hazy yellow and closer in appearance to a hazy IPA. The raspberry was a bit more subtle than I would have liked and restrained on the fruit. It had a good balance overall with nice caramel base and low acidity that at times resembled raspberry pie. I like the decision to add cherries to an already red base beer. The passionfruit sour was juicy with strong passionfruit flavor at the front and a nice mild funk on the finish combined nicely with medium oak and mild vanilla. This was my favorite of the day and I am excited to see how they work this style into future versions with other fruit.
On the non-fruited side, I asked for the two beers that were aged the longest and was suggested the Walking Through Windows and Betting on Stars. Walking Through Windows was intensely oaky, dominating over other flavors. In the back it had mild caramel and notes of brandy with a lingering tart finish. It was interesting to get the prominent oak when many breweries choose to blend various beers together to reduce it somewhat. Betting on Stars, a dark sour aged in port barrels, was smoky on the nose with notes of cherry and roasted malts. Flavor wise, it resembles more of a sour stout than anything else and the wine barrel gives it a unique flavor. It is refreshing that they chose not to simply make their attempt at a Belgian style Lambic but instead chose to do their own versions of an American Wild Ale.
Clean beers next door
After the four sour beers I was ready for some more classic styles. With my palate already used to the sours, I found both beers to be quite sweet, likely more so than I would have if I started there. I decided to order a half pour of Prague Nosis, a red lager in the style brewed in Prague, and 1492 IPA, the freshest IPA they had and also one they described as the most balanced.
The Prague Nosis was delicious and easy drinking with notes of crackers and caramel and a light sweet finish. The IPA was nice and balanced with notes of pine and light herbal hops with a subtle bitter finish. I enjoyed seeing the contrast between the two buildings next door to each other. This allows for a welcoming atmosphere that the sour fans can drink with others who may not be interested in sours. The Sourworx side had a much more sophisticated feel to it as compared to the homey tasting room feel of the main brewery.
Future Futures, passionfruit sour
Walking Through Windows, golden sour
I started at Astronomy brewery where I had a few pints with my husband and friend who writes for Beer Alien. Because it was Black Friday they had $4 pints of their dark beers, which was where we started. I ordered the cocoa habanero stout and my husband ordered the coffee porter. Both were well made if not particularly strong flavors. The coffee porter was nice and dry with mild notes of coffee and roast. The cocoa habanero stout had lots of chocolate flavors with mild habanero that was extremely subtle even after warming up. Both beers were nicely balanced.
I next ordered the Hawking Hazy Pale while my friend Terry ordered the lemon vanilla version. The base Hawking hazy pale was bursting with citrus notes on the nose and had a nice mix of tangerine and vanilla notes with a good thick body and mild lingering hop acidity. For such a young brewery, this pale was impressive in how much better it was than a lot of San Diego attempts at hazy pale ales. Few San Diego attempts are as flavorful. The lemon vanilla version was like drinking lemon cake. The hop aroma was mostly covered up by the lemon and vanilla, making it a decadent beer to savor.
Next time I am in the area I look forward to seeing how Astronomy grows. They have a fairly standard mid-sized tasting room and hopefully will grow into their theme further as they get more established.
Hawking Hazy Pale
Hawking with lemon and vanilla
I wouldn’t try to compare Astronomy to Crafthaus considering Crafthaus has been open much longer, around 4 years, and is fairly established now on the local scene. Though of the few hazy beers I tried at Crafthaus I think Astronomy is doing them better as is Hop Nuts. Though I didn’t love the IPAs at Crafthaus, I was quite impressed by some of their other beers.
I started with the gose, which was complex and thick with an excellent balance of flavors and a light tart finish. This was so enjoyable that I left with two six-packs to bring home. I followed it with their saison, which was incredibly dry with light notes of pepper and that thankfully did not taste like white wine as many of the style do. This was also quite nice.
Crafthaus was also pouring some frozen beers, where they add beer to a slush and other things. We tried the Frozen stout with chocolate. The base beer already had some strong coffee flavors so it blended nicely with the chocolate, making it similar to drinking a frozen mocha. It was a bit sweet for my tastes so I ended up adding extra beer to balance it out. I ended with a pour of the base Belgrade stout. It had intense coffee flavor with a nice dry roasty base. I prefer this style of prominent coffee to the balance at Astronomy.
Belgrade coffee stout
I finished my rounds with Bad Beat, just around the corner. Since I had already enjoyed a few beers, I only had one pint here, of their amber lager. It was nice and dry with mild bread character.
These days it is hard for me to get excited about every new brewery. Many small breweries barely launch with average beer. Thankfully, the team behind Gravity Heights, including Skip Virgilio, the original brewer behind Alesmith, knows about quality. It shows in both the lineup of beers and the beers I tasted.
Gravity Heights is a massive brewery restaurant that is close to the size of Ballast Point’s big Miramar location. This immediately suggests that there is some big money behind the project. Though big money doesn’t always translate into understanding the local beer scene and what people want to drink. In this case, I can say that someone involved knows exactly where the market is headed.
Gravity Heights launched out the gate with four lighter style beers, a variety of IPAs, three darker beers, and a few collaboration beers. I was glad to see that they had both a house amber and a German style Alt beer. Beers are priced to push the consumer into ordering a pint with $3 tasters and $4.50 half pints. Thankfully most of the pints are $7 with some of the more expensive beers at $7.50 and a few at $8 a pint.
Alt is a German style Amber known for letting the flavor of the malts shine and occasionally some hop character to balance it out. The Alt served at Gravity Heights had prominent notes of coffee and hints of raisin and plum. This is a satisfying beer that blends the lines between amber and brown ale. I would recommend this personally over the dry stout, which I had at the end of the night. Though flavorful for a dry stout, and sporting notes of coffee and roast, I found the dry stout less to my liking.
I next ordered their hazy IPA to see if it was done properly. A lot of breweries are making beers they call hazy though a lot miss the style mark completely. This hazy IPA was a delight, bursting with tropical fruit and tons of citrus and citrus rind notes. It had enough haze to fit the style and a nice citrus rind finish that helps balance everything out and avoids it tasting like orange juice. If they can keep this beer consistently as good as I had it on my first visit, this will become a popular local favorite in no time.
I enjoyed the beers at Gravity Heights and also quite liked their back patio where they have a variety of seating options and not just the usual picnic tables. With plenty of businesses within walking distance, they should have no problem attracting visitors. I look forward to returning as the weather warms up.
Alt Beer (German style Amber)
Indian Joe Brewery is in Vista and I didn’t get up to visit the brewery until recently, mostly because I don’t really hear much about them. What made me want to stop by was their choice to expand into a larger facility. I tried a few tasters and while I was drinking a few beers I was invited to check out the beers barrel aging in the back. That was where I realized that they are a real hidden gem.
I started with two berliner weisse style beers. One with dragonfruit and guava, and another with apricot and peach. Both were a bit sweet for the style and also stronger than usual at almost 6.5% abv. The guava dragonfruit was not particularly fruit flavored but mostly sweet with a light tart finish. The apricot peach was also pretty sweet with a white cake base and some mild apricot notes. I didn’t really care for either but thankfully I was introduced to their proper sours shortly after.
The head brewer took me and one of his regular visitors back to the barrel aging area where there were a variety of sours and imperial stouts in different manner of oak barrels. What impressed me for most of the barrel-aged beers was how dry they all were. Lots of beers over 9% alcohol tend to be thick and sweet with all the residual sugars. All the beers I tasted in the barrels were fully attenuated and had a dryer finish more like wine, both stouts and big sours.
Two that most impressed me were the dark sour aged in cabernet sauvignon barrels, which was incredibly balanced and had lots of red wine notes. Another impressive beer was the imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with chocolate. It was also incredibly dry and had tons of fudge notes.
My experience with the barrel aged beers led me to order a strong dark barrel aged sour immediately after finishing. This beer was brewed with blackberry and blackcurrents. It was incredibly dry with lots of jam and berry notes with a light tart finish. While tasting the beers, I asked the head brewer why these beers aren’t released in some sort of online pre-sale or as limited bottles in the tasting room. He answered that he wants them available for the regular visitors so they simply tap them when ready..
I finished with Indian Joe IPA which was dry with notes of cirtus and pine with a mild bitter finish. The beer had a nice balance and was properly west-coast style. Beer geeks I suggest avoiding the various fruited berliners and stick to the IPA and stronger barrel aged sours and other barrel aged beers if they are available.
Indian Joe is one of the few local breweries that impressed me where I hadn’t heard much about them before hand. To me this makes them more underrated than most local spots.
I tried four tastes while at Battlemage. I liked the RPG theme, which made it stick out among the other similar breweries in the area. They appeared to have completely moved from any West Coast IPA to brewing full hazy IPAs based on the tap list.
I started with the alt beer, a german style tending towards the malty flavors. This version had notes of cherry and caramel with light hop notes. While it was fairly authentic, it would be even more so if they served it on cask. If you missed it, I recently posted my experience visiting Dusseldorf to try the alt beer at its source. The brown ale was roasty with notes of cherry and light smoke. The beer had a dark red color and mild bitterness on the finish that balanced with a nice roast.
The hazy pale had tons of tropical fruit and citrus with a good thick body and medium hop acidity on the finish. It was the best balance of the two. The stronger hazy IPA had notes or herbal hops with melon and pine and a lingering bitterness. While they nailed the mouthfeel on this one, it was a bit too bitter for the style. Both hazy beers were well done and up to the level of most local versions.
Battlemage had some solid beers and is a great spot to visit if you are up in the Vista area. They seem to have the hazy mouthfeel down even if they tend towards a bit of a west coast style by giving them additional bitterness.