Building a Beer Community

Years from now the Dale Bros. Brewery 11th Anniversary Celebration held Jan. 25 might be remembered for more than the successful beer festival that brought together more than two dozen craft breweries from the Inland Empire and beyond at Cable Airport in Upland.IMG_0778

It may have introduced the region’s residents to a new publicly embraced beer community.

In bringing together craft breweries from throughout the greater Inland Empire and a few from Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties on a warm, sunny Southern California January afternoon, Dale Bros. gave locals a taste of what craft beer enthusiasts have seen for years in beer-rich areas – an industry in which so-called competitors find greater success by working in concert and not in opposition. Collaboration is the name of the game in the craft beer world, where the rising tide seems to be lifting all boats.

Although it has been more than a decade since Dale Bros Brewery poured its first brew, the craft beer industry is still relatively new and small in the Inland Empire, especially compared with places like San Diego County. Yet it is growing rapidly, as evidenced by Saturday’s anniversary beer fest, which was the first under this “everybody welcome” format. Last year’s Dale Bros. anniversary celebration was held at the new brewery site just north of Foothill Blvd., but there were no guest brewers pouring that day.

Julie. one of the event organizers from Dale Bros, said this year’s invitation list targeted smaller local breweries rather than bigger operations from outside the area (although Escondido’s Stone Brewing Co., the king of West Coast craft breweries, also was represented).

Among those pouring Saturday was Rök House Brewing Company from Upland, which has not yet opened the doors to its new tasting room on 11th Street just east of Central Avenue. Expected to open in March, the brewery will be walking distance from the Dale Bros. Brewery adjacent to Cable Airport but south of Foothill. It also is not far from Claremont Craft Ales on Claremont Blvd., which is about a mile to the west, giving beer lovers a convenient “triangle” of nearby watering holds. In addition, there are rumors of another brewery possibly launching in an industrial complex off Benson Ave. to the east of the airport. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume more new breweries will be dotting the nearby landscape in the months and years ahead.

Cable Airport was the perfect setting for the Dale Bros. festival, which figures to grow in future years if organizers opt to make this an annual event. It has the potential be especially extraordinary, much like the annual Stone Anniversary celebration held each August on the Cal State San Marcos campus. Stone attracts breweries from around the country, with a “meet the brewer” event on a Friday evening and two separate sessions on Saturday (along with a more exclusive “rare beer” area requiring a higher-priced ticket). Stone will hold its 18th anniversary event on Aug. 15-16.

Besides exposing new audiences to craft beer, the festival was truly a community gathering with proceeds benefitting the Claremont Educational Foundation. Many friends and familiar faces filled the vast airport grounds, while my favorite local band, The Dogs, entertained during the opening hours. Powerflex 5 followed through the rest of the afternoon.IMG_0779

As is the case each year at the Stone event, I wanted to sample brews Saturday that I haven’t had before. My first stop was a Belgian-style with notes of banana from Aftershock Brewing Company from Temecula. La Verne Brewing Company offered an interesting Scotch Ale made especially for the Saturday festival. After that I found the St. Mawes American Stout from Claremont Craft Ales. Carrying mild notes of chocolate and coffee, this might have been my favorite beer of the day.

I was pleased to taste very nice IPA from Yucaipa’s Brew Rebellion. Not overly bitter, it was a nice pairing with Brew Rebellion’s other offering, a red amber that had many qualities of a Belgian. Unfortunately, I was too late to sample what was probably the most unique beer of the day, Brew Rebellion’s S’more Porter with graham crackers and marshmallows.

IMG_0777I enjoyed both the “6 Killer Stout” and “Devil Within” Double IPA from Ironfire Brewery in Temecula, and I also found a couple of brown ales to my liking from Alosta Brewing in Covina and Wicks Brewing in Riverside, as well as the Hullabaloo Winter Beer from Hangar 24 in Redlands.

There is a long list of others that I never had the chance to test, and as we got deeper into the afternoon, a number of the stations ran out of beer. Nevertheless, the food lines remained long and the grounds were crowded until the end.

Hard to argue with spending a beautiful Saturday hanging out in my own town with good friends, drinking good beer and listening to good music.

Walking In LA

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It had been many years since I last went into Los Angeles specifically to go drinking at a bar. I honestly didn’t have a desire to make a special trip into the city for a few drinks when there is no shortage of watering holes locally. But after my recent mixology education and the resurgence of the downtown area following the addition of Staples Center, LA Live and other venues, I wanted to check out some big time old style places and find some bartenders who are truly masters of their craft. We weren’t going out for gin and tonics. I wanted to capture some of the flavor of Los Angeles’ history, while embracing the revitalized downtown establishments.

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Leave it to our friends the Descombes to come up with a plan to tour some of the best bars in the city. A recent USC graduate who lives in the heart of downtown, Kristen Descombes had the experience and knowledge to lead the way. She and mom Susan did additional research, and narrowed the list to something manageable for us to try to tackle in one evening.

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At the inside bar at Perch

After Beth and I met up with Sus, Gordon, Kristen and Lauren at Kristen’s Apex apartment overlooking LA Live, we climbed into an SUV from the private driving service Uber, which took us to Hill Street and our first stop at Perch. Billed as “an elevated resting place,” the rooftop outdoor lounge provided the perfect view of the LA skyline at sunset, looking down on the ice rink in Pershing Square. French-inspired cocktails fill the drink menu, from which we all took our chances. Both Kristen and I had the Penicillin, a mix of Famous Grouse, lemon juice, agave nectar and ginger liquor. Sus and Lauren opted for champagne cocktails featuring St. Germain elderflower liqueur and Peche peach liqueur.  I don’t remember what Gordon had.

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Gordon on a private “cell” at the Crocker Club

We hit the streets and headed toward the Crocker Club, located in the basement of the old Crocker Bank on Spring and 5th Street. The club maintains the design of the 1920s, including the original bank vault. We arrived before the crowds, so after admiring the Ghost Bar and the private drinking areas that were once chamber rooms where bank customers examined the contents of their safe deposit boxes, we hit the road again toward Cole’s, originators of the French Dip sandwich. Housed in the Pacific Electric building on 6th Street, Cole’s has been a Los Angeles institution since 1908, and still has its original glass lighting, penny tile floors and a great collection of historic photos. Cole’s Red Car Trolley Bar offers a full menu of classic cocktails to go along with great French Dips. While all the others in the group ordered Moscow Mules, I was drawn to the “Draft” Old-Fashioned, a pre-mixed Old-Fashioned that had time to blend and age. Served over two-inch ice cubes hand cut from a crystal-clear ice block, the Cole’s Draft Old Fashioned is a must-have for all whiskey drinkers. Delicious.

IMG_0707About the time we wrapped up dinner, the door in the back of Cole’s was unlocked, leading to the Prohibition-style speakeasy called The Varnish. Rated as one of LA’s hottest bars (as were most of the others on our journey), the hideaway lounge is where bartenders are mixologists – meaning they are artists who take their craft seriously. Even the servers are astute in their comprehension of what goes into the cocktails at The Varnish. Our server, Gladys, inquired about our spirits of choice and what kinds of drinks we typically prefer, then offered her recommendations. Sus and Gordon each had a French 75; Lauren a Raspberry Vodka Fix; Kristin a vodka with mint, simple syrup and bitters; and I had a Pop Quiz, an Old-Fashioned-style cocktail made with bourbon, Ramazzotti liqueur, chocolate bitters and orange zest garnish. The bartender created a virgin drink for Beth that was delicious and looked and “felt” like a normal cocktail. Just watching the people behind the bar was entertainment as they carefully constructed beverages for the very discerning crowd.

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At the speakeasy The Varnish with our fabulous server Gladys.

We could have spent the rest of the evening at The Varnish, and it will definitely be a destination the next time, but it was time to move on with our journey, so we were back in the Uber car and headed toward the east side of town near to Villains Tavern. Located near the Los Angeles River, our ride took us past the city of tents that lined the sidewalks of Skid Row. Villains is an outdoor bar, partially covered by a circus tent, and as we enjoyed our final cocktail of the night and the band continued to set up for a late-night performance, we decided it was time to for our highly-anticipated visit to Seven Grand on 7th Street.

Unfortunately, by that time the place was packed and the first of our downtown drinking tours was complete, but not without a stroll down the street to Bottega Louie Restaurant and Gourmet Market on Grand for some colorful (and flavorful) macaroons for the road.

IMG_0718Our December bar tour will serve as the model for future outings, and we’ll be back downtown in the coming months to make this a regular occasion.

Cheers!

Swirl, Sip and Spit (or Swig)

The first time Beth and I went on a wine-tasting adventure we felt we had to get to as many wineries as possible. We tookIMG_0645 the approach that we needed to either buy a bottle or join a club at every stop. This isn’t a bad strategy, but it can get expensive in a hurry. Still, if you’ve never been on a true wine tasting trip to a great California wine region, then you really should visit many as places as you can to get the true, unique flavor of that particular wine community.

We visited Paso Robles to celebrate our 25th anniversary several years ago, and after touring nearly 20 different wineries over three days, we swore we’d return again soon. It took until this past year for us to go back, but we more than made up for the three-year delay by staying in Paso Robles twice in a four-month span.

IMG_0644To fulfill our mission of exploring as many wineries as we could in 2010, we chartered the Wine Line winery tour bus. The service allowed for multiple stops and a built-in designated driver, who provided a nice education about California’s Central Coast region. The next day we boarded a van operated by the Wine Wrangler to get a different perspective and a tour of a different set of wineries.

We took a different approach on both trips in 2013. We still sampled plenty of great wines at a generous assortment of fine wineries, but we didn’t rush, and spent much more time enjoying each stop along the way. The key to our happiness centered on our favorite winery.

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The Van Horns, Seligmans and Robinsons at the fun Tobin James tasting room

Tobin James Cellars has the best wine club that I know of, and the Tobin James tasting room has a well-deserved reputation as the most fun in the region. Just looking around the jam-packed room every evening in the final hours before closing time is evidence of the winery’s popularity among locals. There is no tasting fee, and sampling isn’t restricted to just the lower-priced wines, as you’ll find at other places.

Among the perks of being a member of the James Gang, aside from discounted twice-yearly shipments of eight great wines and a surprise gift, is the opportunity to stay in the guest house on the grounds. There really isn’t a better deal around. While the cost of a one-night stay isn’t necessarily a deal on its own, it isn’t outrageous, either. But the true benefit is that you are able to make a selection of wines equal to the cost of your room. So if the cost of your stay comes to $300, you take home $300 of wines. That’s at discounted club member prices, so the value is increased.

Our two 2013 Paso Robles wine excursions each took on a similar pattern, and that was to pick out a few targets and plot our route. It’s been more enjoyable to not rush, and to truly enjoy each stop. For example, this past summer we made a point of going to Daou Vineyards, which sits at the highest point in Paso Robles, providing breathtaking views of the entire valley below. We also found Dunning Vineyards, which was hidden far off the beaten path in west Paso.

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The group outside Opolo

We returned to Veris Cellars this past fall after discovering their wines in 2010. It was then that we came across the Ben Hogan Tribute Series Zinfandel, a big, jammy Zin that has been one of our favorites. Located adjacent to Castoro Cellars, Veris has a nice selection of good wines, and its location was perfect for our picnic lunch with our fellow travelers Len and Jeannie (Stoll)  Seligman and Stan and Priscilla Van Horn.

Another “must-stop” is Opolo Vineyards, which claims to be the “Tobin James” of west Paso. No doubt Opolo offers a fun wine tasting environment with excellent wines.

Along with great wineries spread all over the region, there are many tasting rooms located in small, charming old-West downtown Paso Robles. If your palete needs a break from the grape, the Firestone-Walker Brewery and its new Taproom Restaurant are just down Highway 101.

After a day of cruising the countryside, our plans took us back to Tobin James to make sure we got in at least an hour or two there before the tasting room closed at 6 p.m. It is the farthest-east winery on Highway 46, and the best place to end the day – especially if you’re staying there. However, if you are, be aware that there are no restaurants nearby, and you’ll either have to bring food with you or go back into town. There’s also a service that will deliver food from most of the local restaurants for a nominal fee.