The day after I visited Toolbox for the first time I stopped by Culture Brewing to see what they had available. Though there were a number of lovely specialty offerings available because they had an anniversary party the preceding two days I tried a few of their core beers as well because to me solid core beers are the most important to a brewery’s long term success. Sadly, the Mosaic IPA was out so I tasted a specialty version instead.
While I was there, I tried the Keyhole IPA, milk stout, brown, black IPA, coffee IPA, oaked saison, and triple IPA. Starting with the keyhole I thought it was a solid grapefruit/citrus IPA but it didn’t really blow me away or make me want to order a pint. Next came the black IPA, which I thought was too bitter for the malts. Mostly I got a ton of pine flavors from the hops but couldn’t taste much roasted malts or other flavors that I expect in the style.
The brown ale was an easy drinking beer with a nice light roast flavor and good caramel flavor. The light body makes this one you would want a few pints of. Then the milk stout was interesting because it had a light mint flavor that I wasn’t expecting. The mint combined nicely with the roast flavors that reminded me of coffee and the sweetness was not overpowering either.
Then I moved on to the coffee IPA on nitro made with coffee beans. It really had a strong coffee taste to it that reminded me of a fairly bitter cup of black coffee. This is one for the coffee drinkers for sure, and not those who feel the need to add sugar. The Oaked Saison was my favorite of the bunch, offering a delicious spice and mild pepper that was mellowed out by the oak. Later I learned that this batch was mixed with some of the regular saison to reduce the barrel aged flavors that were quite strong at first. I ended up having a bigger pour of this later and quite enjoyed sipping it.
Finally, I ended with the triple IPA, a sweet beer that had plenty of delicious tropical fruit, mango, and citrus flavors and wasn’t overly boozy despite a strong 11% alcohol. If I didn’t have to drive back I might have gotten a larger pour of this one instead.
Culture also had fairly loud music playing through a pair of studio monitors on the ceiling. It made it difficult to order a beer because the bartender couldn’t hear orders the first time. Also, being close to the beach be prepared for some cool sea breeze that might come in through various open doors and windows. They also have food trucks occasionally parked in the back where there is an enclosed outdoor area.
POST UPDATE: This post was written almost a year ago now and there was a big change towards the end of 2015 that resulted in a change of brewers at Toolbox. More updated information is available on my new post Toolbox Revisited.
To the uninitiated you might think that having a bunch of brett beers (short for brettanomyces, a wild yeast that brings out some interesting flavors in beers) would mean pointlessly tart and funky brews. I certainly fell into that trap when I first heard that most of their beers were moving over into the brett family. Thankfully, as others have so nicely told me, my ignorance has proved incorrect and the resulting beers are delicious.
I don’t fully understand the things that make brett a favorite among certain sectors of the craft beer fans. But from what I got to taste today at Toolbox, they are doing a great job getting the right flavors from it for each beer such that it enhances the already delicious flavors. Yes there are some tart beers here and some of them might not be your thing right away but they are still very tasty and complex in just the right way. And they might be what turns you into a tart lover.
Toolbox isn’t the easiest brewery to find either, hidden away in a tech park that I happened to pull into just as I was beginning to wonder if I had passed it. Luckily for me I turned at the right time and Google informed me that it was in that very parking lot. Like most locations of breweries you wouldn’t guess when you pull in that this is the sort of place to encounter a brewery, but as soon as you see the food truck outside you know you are in the right place.
Tart and sour beers are becoming a bit of an obsession to a small portion of the craft beer community in San Diego where complexity and quality of flavor trumps bitter hop bombs. In San Diego these beers are mostly limited to Council Brewing, which has built up a following around its flavored varieties of the tart saison, Lost Abbey, with its sours and farmhouse ales, and more recently Toolbox and Latitude 33.
I split my tasting at Toolbox into two sets of 4 tasters. Sadly, they don’t have a discount for having multiple tasters so you can easily spend $18 before tip on 8 tasters. But after you taste the beers you aren’t going to mind because all of them are high quality even if some might not be for you. The first round included the IPA, pale ale, saison, and milk stout.
I started with the IPA and immediately I was overwhelmed with an intense grapefruit flavor that I assume was enhanced by the brett yeast. The beer was mildly tart and got close to being too mouth-puckering but it overall resembled a typical west coast style IPA and did so nicely. Next came the pale ale and it also had a mild tartness to it but combined with more of a pineapple flavor. This combined with a nice light sweetness made this a very solid pale ale. This didn’t have any of the typical dark malt colors or flavors you usually see from the style.
The saison was quite an impressive version boasting great amounts of spice and pepper with a good balance among everything. The addition of the brett made it a bit more harsh than the Lost Abbey saison but it still was nicely balanced and very tasty. The milk stout was so deliciously roasty that I would have sworn it had coffee added. Turns out it has none so I was all the more impressed. Despite being a milk stout it was not overly sweet as some can be and would satisfy those dark beer fans who accompany friends to toolbox.
My next flight included the Tart X, the sweet baby trey (a farmhouse ale with brett) and My Cousin Strawberry and Purple Drink, two fruit flavored beers. Purple drink was a boysenberry beer. Tart X took a while to get used to, being much more tart than anything I had in the first flight. After adjusting a little bit I found the lemon flavors to be quite nice and actually enjoyed it.
Next came sweet baby trey, which was my absolute favorite of the day. This famhouse ale mostly came at me with sweetness though nothing overpowering or cloying. It had a nice spice flavor that reminded me of Belgian yeast and overall was the most delicious of the bunch.
Next came my cousin strawberry, a beer that had just the right combination of strawberry and kiwi with a very mild tart flavor. The color of the beer was very interesting as well, almost a light pink. The purple drink was a nice dark purple color and was mildly tart as well. This one was based on the saison and had plenty of good berry flavor. Fruit beers being what they are most of these are smaller batch and so the flavors available might be different when you visit the brewery.
Some may have seen me call Toolbox bold for moving their beers to mostly brett. I can safely say that the beers were all very well-made and balanced. I was also glad to hear that there is another even more traditional west coast style IPA in the pipeline as well, which should satisfy some who don’t like what I got to try. Having now tried the beers available at Toolbox I can say that they made the right decision and the complexity of flavors helps them stand out.
This post has been updated now to reflect some changes that took place in May of 2015. Update is at the bottom.
The area around Alesmith, Green Flash, and the new Ballast Point is increasingly becoming crowded. Recently added in that area is a new brewery called 32 North. The owner partnered up with a brewer who previously brewed for Karl Strauss and White Labs and opened up with a nice-looking tasting room and a solid selection of beers to start. The Karl Strauss influence is especially noticeable in the peanut butter cup porter and imperial stout, both very similar to Karl Strauss’ offerings of the same style.
One thing that sets this brewery apart from many of the places around the area is its operating hours. They are open every day from Noon to 10PM. For a while most breweries closed on Mondays and many also close on Tuesdays. Plus this is one of the few that remains open until 10PM. Also impressive is the lineup of beers to start. I didn’t get to try everything in my first visit but I came back the next day to try the other three. I always like to see a brewery that focuses on a few core beers.
The four core beers are a 3.8% berliner weisse, a 5.5% pale ale, a strong 7.5% IPA, and a 6% coffee milk stout. Also on tap when I visited on October 28, 2014 was a 4.5% toasted coconut English mild, 6.3% rye pale ale, a 5.5% peanut butter cup porter, and a 10.5% imperial stout.
The berliner weisse is an interesting light-bodied beer that is quite tart. It really isn’t my thing but I was glad to see something from a wheat beer that is a bit different than the usual. Since there has been some mention of future sours in the works, I expect this would be the basis for those sours. The pale ale is quite tasty with a lot of peach and citrus flavors going on. It is lightly malty, which sets it apart from many of the malt bomb pale ales around.
The rye pale ale was a little strange tasting to me. It had plenty of the rye flavors but the hops used didn’t seem to mix properly, giving it a really herbal flavor. There is some room to tweak this one, maybe with a different type of hops. Especially when comparing this to something like Aurora from Modern Times there is a way to go. The IPA was solidly flavorful and bitter. It boasted plenty of tropical fruit and citrus and a powerful bitterness. This is a great start and a solid beer to have as a core.
The peanut butter cup porter was very similar to the Karl Strauss one and had a good mix of nutty flavors and sweetness. The milk stout had some solid coffee flavors and a little more sweetness than I typically prefer but that is balanced by some roasted malt flavors. I would personally prefer a little more pronounced coffee but then I did try it after the imperial stout, mostly because I didn’t realize the milk stout had coffee in it until I chatted with the bartender. The toasted coconut mild was especially tasty on nitro. The mild underlying beer takes on the flavor of the coconut really nicely, giving it a strong lightly sweet coconut taste.
The Imperial Stout is very similar to the fantastic Karl Strauss Imperial Stout sporting plenty of coffee and chocolate flavors. 32 North uses fresh roasted local coffee from Dark Horse Coffee Roasters in both the imperial stout and the milk stout, and it tastes great.
With a spacious amount of seating inside and a good set of core beers, 32 North is off to a great start and seems poised for great things. The initial lineup seems to indicate a recognition of the demand in the local market where a solid IPA and solid imperial stout are both essential.
Update May 23, 2015:
I hadn’t visited 32 North in a while so I thought I would drop in to see how they are doing and I was surprised by the lack of core beers on tap and the number of sours available. I had dropped by previously to try some of their fruit flavored berliner weisse beers before but found that they were way too tart for me before. This time when I dropped in the tap list was pretty sparse but they had a Black Currant Berliner Weisse, a Passion Fruit American Sour, and a key lime gose.
I got a taster of each of the three sours on tap to see how they were. I started with the Black Currant Landfall, which was my favorite of the three. It had a nice blend of sweet and sour with a bit of citrus tart flavor and sweeter berry. The Key Lime Gose was pretty much like drinking limeaid. It was interesting for sure but surprisingly not very tart and mildly sweet. Finally the passion fruit had a nice wild flavor going with a mild passion fruit flavor and very little tart going on. I think both the key lime and passion fruit could be a bit more tart while the black currant was the right balance.
As for how regularly we will see the core beers around, it seems that they are doing smaller batches now and many of them don’t stay on very long. Hopefully these sours will continue to become a main thing for them because it is nice to have someone so close by doing sours.
In my previous post, I mentioned how close together Arcana and On the Tracks are to each other. Arcana has a much bigger selection of beers to choose from and a bigger tasting room as well. I was surprised by the beers I enjoyed here because some of them were not what I normally like.
Arcana had so many beers on tap that I didn’t get to try them all. It was early when I stopped by and I had things to do later. I ordered a flight of six beers and then was brought some small tastes of two others. I got to try the Honey Pale, the Headbasher Wheat IPA, the Voyager English ale, the coffee Anabelle, the coffee Marley, the Infinity Milk Stout, a special mix of two beers, and the Mead.
The first beer I tasted was the Honey Pale. I don’t normally like honey beers but this one is made with honey malts, not actual honey, so the flavor is not as intense as it is in other beers. It had the perfect amount of sweetness and went down really nice. My husband really liked this one as well. For those curious, honey malts are not simply malts flavored with honey, but a variety of malt that has a sweet flavor that is similar to honey.
The Headbasher Wheat IPA was also quite nice. It had a lot of tropical fruit and citrus hop flavors with a good light sweetness from the malts. The Voyager was a bit plain for me. It was mostly a heavy malt flavor with a little bit of bitterness. The coffee Anabelle was a special version of the Anabelle made for Bacon Fest the day before. By the time I got to try it though, the coffee had mostly gone. I would have liked to have tasted it the day before.
The coffee Marley was also a bit light on the coffee flavor but it had some really great caramel and vanilla flavors. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this one was barrel aged because it had an oak taste similar to many barrel aged beers. My husband finished most of this taster before I got to try more because he loved it. The Infinity Milk Stout was also quite nice. Flavors were mostly roasted malts with a light sweetness.
Before I left, my server brought over a special mix of two beers. She combined the apple ale and a cherry beer, resulting in a nice combination of tart apple and sweet cinnamon. This would be a nice drink to have for dessert. The mead was also quite interesting. It reminded me of a sparkling white wine and would be fun to share a bottle with friends.
Considering that Arcana has only been open for a little over a year and a half, I was quite impressed by their lineup. They are working on a rye IPA for the future, which should be a nice balance to the wheat IPA. I could certainly see the honey pale becoming very popular. Have you gotten to try any of the beers from Arcana? Do you disagree with me about some of these beers? Let me know in the comments.