Karl Strauss Celebrates 29 Years With their Annual Changing of the Barrels

Karl Strauss has been putting on a big anniversary party for a number of years now. I talked to quite a few beer nerds at other events who always told me that this was one to go to. Some said they had been attending the Changing of the Barrels every year for four years or more. I quite enjoyed it this year though mainly because I really liked the new anniversary saison aged in wine barrels with pink peppercorns. It should be tasting great at next year’s event too assuming they save some for that. If you missed the event, the saison may be available at the breweries for a week or two after.

Karl Strauss has a large tasting-room location off the 5 freeway a few miles north of Balboa and Garnet. I would have enjoyed it more if they had not sold so many tickets because the area got incredibly crowded and the lines were somewhat long both for beer and food. If you grab a beer before getting in line for food, you likely finished your beer before you get to the front of the line. Same thing if you eat your food in the line for beer. They had two stations for beer as opposed to festivals I’m used to where the beer is spread out among 20+ tents. The lines did move fairly quickly thanks to everyone having their own glass already.

Waiting in line inside for beer.

For the beers they had three sour beers, three versions of the new saison (standard, cask with strawberry, and nitro), two barrel-aged imperial stouts (a third variety was consumed by the VIP group), a 14% imperial stout, and the rest of the list was mostly their standard year-round beers. There were a few new beers that they recently released and most people probably hadn’t tried yet, including two new IPAs. As someone who visits Karl Strauss fairly regularly, I come to an event like this for the barrel-aged stuff and I found the options a bit limited.

I was the biggest fan of the new saison, which was incredibly balanced with a mix of funk, red wine character, and just a hint of peppercorn. The fruit in the cask version was quite subtle though it was a nice variation. Fear of the Tart, a barrel-aged dark sour was also quite nice and a lot lower alcohol than I normally see for a dark sour. This would make a nice year round sour if they could produce it more regularly. Another favorite of mine was the wild ride, a sour that uses Red Trolley as a base and is aged on raspberries. I had previously rated this beer quite highly at a sour festival and it was equally impressive here with a restrained sour finish. Sadly it ran out half way through the evening so I couldn’t go back for seconds.

Outdoor beer line.

As for the stouts, the 30th anniversary stood out as nicely attenuated for 14%. It hid the alcohol well and wasn’t overly sweet or syrupy as is common with beers that high of alcohol. It reminds me of the imperial stouts at Red Horn in northern Austin, which is quite impressive. It should age quite nicely between now and next year and I can hardly imagine how crazy it could get if aged in bourbon barrels. The barrel aged rye imperial stout was quite tasty and similarly dry though surprisingly thin for 12% as well. The 27th anniversary ran out before general admission got inside so I didn’t get to see how it was holding up. They had two newer IPAs including their Boat Shoes, a slightly hazy un-filtered beer they recently canned and Isomerizer, a mosaic IPA that is being canned soon.

I wasn’t sure what to expect for the food but with so many people they decided to have each food truck offer three different courses, separated by 45 minutes. Each individual serving was quite small and each time a new item was ready, people lined up to grab it. I would have assumed a wider variety of available food when buying the ticket. All of the food was meat-focused. Both food trucks did a great job with the food. Beer people didn’t seem excited by the salad so I got to get quite a few of those. Mastiff won the day for me with the delicious pig fries (potato served with pulled pork, sausage, and pork belly) and the pork nugs (crispy pork belly squares). Biersal served a delicious tri-tip sandwich with a tasty jalapeno chimichurri sauce.

As a vegetarian, I had no choice but to eat the meat served or miss out on a significant part of why I bought the ticket and drink on an empty stomach. Thankfully I don’t have any health conditions that prevent me from eating meat but not all vegetarians have the same luxury. I don’t expect breweries to have vegetarian options at all events but it would be nice if they made a note on the site that food was likely to be all meat-focused. I would have been able to adjust my expectations accordingly. Of course they did advertise two meat-focused food trucks but Mastiff does make some amazing vegan sausages.

As for the overall experience, I found the lines much longer than ideal. However, without setting up jockey boxes around the seating area the only way to change that is to sell less tickets. Since both my general admission ticket and my mom’s designated driver tickets included a bottle of the barrel-aged saison, a beer that I quite enjoyed, I was still overall satisfied. It had a unique taste from other local barrel-aged saisons. We got to taste next year’s beer as a preview which I assume will be aged in some sort of barrel for next year. Even if they don’t barrel age it, the 30th anniversary imperial stout should age nicely by next January.

Considering the reasonable ticket price of $45 for general admission including food, beers, and a bottle the Changing of the Barrels event was a solid value. Though I was slightly irked by the lines they could have been a lot worse. And the lines for the food somewhat stopped me from over-eating.

Paul McGuire

Paul McGuire is a craft beer enthusiast. He likes to travel with his husband and enjoy the great outdoors. In his day job, Paul is a divorce attorney serving clients in San Diego California.

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