San Diego, part three — The best beer tour that almost wasn’t

Posted: February 2, 2016 by amyotravel in Beercation Destinations, Out-of-Town Brews
Hello again, San Diego breweries!

Hello again, San Diego breweries!

Hello, beer lovers. Our friends from Oregon and Las Vegas meet up with us regularly when we can all arrange a convenient location. A couple of years ago we started doing beer tours when we meet in San Diego. Last week, our third San Diego beer tour got off to a bit of a shaky start. I usually do not have bad things to say about Southwest Airlines compared to other carriers, but they were for sure having an off day. I will not bore everyone with all the ugly travel details, but let’s just say it was a nightmare due to their mechanical failures and they were not even close to their usual helpful selves. Luckily, some stellar customer service later in the day from some other people made up for the rough beginning.

Our re-booked (four hours later and no longer non-stop) flight, that we had to fight with Southwest tooth and nail to even be allowed to arrive at the same time as the tour’s start time, was not our favorite part of the trip. But, our wonderful friends at The Drunk Driver Van Service/Brewery Tours San Diego took it all in stride. They picked up the other six of us at the hotel at the scheduled time and then came to the airport to get my boyfriend and I. Wow, that was close. Every time we book with this tour company, I am blown away by their professionalism and willingness to go above and beyond. We are always happy to see their van pull up, but never more so than this time. As we jumped in the van, owner Steve handed us a special surprise, their coolest, hot-off-the-press T-shirts as a present from his co-owner/wife Breanna.

That's (almost) all the breweries in San Diego County. Still think Albuquerque is over-saturated?

That’s (almost) all the breweries in San Diego County. Still think Albuquerque is over-saturated?

In Albuquerque, we often talk about how quickly new breweries here are popping up, but the Brewery Tours San Diego T-shirts demonstrate how many more of these are happening there. The shirts list all the breweries in San Diego County — purposely upside down, so you can look down and read them when you have been drinking! Between the time the shirts were designed and ordered, and their arrival, there were new breweries that did not get included. This is just in a couple of weeks’ time. There are 111 breweries listed on the shirts, but if the shirts were printed today the list would include 117. By the time this story posts, even that number could be outdated.

Our selected breweries on the tour for this day included Duck Foot, Ballast Point’s Miramar location, AleSmith, and Mike Hess. These breweries are all located in Miramar (a.k.a. “Fighter Town USA,” the former “Top Gun” fighter school). The Miramar area now has a new nickname of “Beeramar.”

The gluten-removed beers at Duck were popular.

The gluten-removed beers at Duck Foot were popular.

Like us, most of our friends on the tour either do or have at one time lived in Portland, and some are die hard Oregon Duck fans. So, off we went to the first stop of Duck Foot. I originally picked it because of the name, but it does have a unique history. The unusual thing about this brewery is that self-proclaimed “Head Quack” Matt DelVecchio discovered he has Celiac Disease. Instead of letting his dream die, he worked with White Labs to make gluten-reduced (since they start with grain, they cannot call it gluten-free) beer. They use a natural enzyme that does not change the flavor, but reduces the gluten down to some crazy low amount like 20 parts per million. Our tour driver had been there before, but he didn’t even know the beer was gluten-reduced. In fact, the brewer told us, many people don’t know. (Unless you are bringing a group of your Duck friends and had done your prior research, I guess!) One person in our group said these beers were actually his favorite of the tour.

Some of that might be bound for New Mexico!

Some of that might be bound for New Mexico!

Then it was time for the big brewery of the day, Ballast Point. What my friends didn’t know is that prior to the tour I had been in contact with our favorite hometown hero, beer guru Thomas DeCaro. Now that Tom works as the New Mexico sales representative for Ballast Point, I asked him if he had a contact name to talk to up there at the Miramar location. He did much, much better than give me a name. Tom actually offered to arrange a private VIP tour for all of us.

The place is massive. I can’t even tell you how great our tour leader Zach was or how much everyone enjoyed the exclusive tour, the free beer, and the hefty discounts in the gift shop. I wonder how many T-shirts were even left in the place after our group nearly bought out the store. We also bought quite a bit more packaged Ballast beer to drink in the van and at the hotel. After all, we had all reserved hotel rooms with refrigerators and needed to stock up for the next few days.

Best. Vending machine. Ever.

Best. Vending machine. Ever.

My favorite photo of the trip shows what perhaps the best employee perk is — and there are a lot of them — a vending machine in the employee break area. Each employee gets a gift card that is reloaded every month to spend on whatever package items, merchandise, etc., they wish. The machine shown in the photo also takes these cards for “payment.” Of course, now we are all extremely jealous and want one of these in our houses, if not our offices.

Yeah, that's a big taproom.

Yeah, that’s a big taproom.

Our next stop was AleSmith’s brand new tasting room. On our first San Diego tour, we loved the beers at AleSmith, but we found the tasting room was much smaller than anticipated given the quantity and quality of their beers. That situation has been remedied as they now have the area’s largest tasting room (at least as of this story, because things are changing so fast). The move has not changed the quality of the beer. It is still absolutely fabulous.

The final Miramar stop was Mike Hess. Mike Hess is known as the original nano-brewery in Miramar. Mike Hess is an innovator in many ways. Even after slamming our palates with all the beer at all the other stops, most of us thought the Habitus Double IPA (8% ABV, 100 IBU) at Mike Hess might be the best version of the style we have had. It was crisp, but not sweet at all despite the ABV. This beer was a gold medal winner at the 2014 World Beer Cup in the rye beer category.

Hess might have had the best single beer on the entire trip.

Mike Hess might have had the best single beer on the entire trip.

One provocative side note from our tour driver — there is a company in this area of San Diego that designs turn-key-type breweries. They do the build-out completely, then after completion of the design and construction, they shop for a brewery to occupy the space. We found that to be a very interesting concept.

As we usually do, we asked for the tour to end with a drop-off at Stone Brewing at Liberty Station. By this time, we all needed some good food and a comfortable place to relax and discuss the wonderful day we spent together. After dinner we grabbed a couple of Lyft rides back to the hotel where there was one final surprise for everyone.

Ballast Point had an all-hands employee meeting the next day, so coincidentally Tom was in town and was actually staying at our hotel. It was not planned this way so just had to be fate, right? When we returned from Stone, Tom met up with us in the lobby. All our friends were excited and happy to meet the guy who made the VIP tour happen. Everyone wanted to take him out and buy him beers to thank him. Being the hero he is, Tom instead offered to walk with us over to Ballast Point’s Little Italy location. Then he proceeded to get us more beer. Seriously. Tom definitely has some dedicated fans in other parts of the country now as well as Albuquerque, and Ballast Point could not ask for a better person to represent them in our state. Our group has had some outstanding tours before, but this one was the best yet. I can’t imagine how we could top this.

Hella cheers, bro!

— AmyO

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