While the craft beer industry has been thriving for years in places like San Diego, Denver, Portland and the New England states, the eastern part of the Inland Empire was a relative craft beer desert up until fairly recently. That all changed when Hangar 24 Brewery in Redlands launched in the wide-open spaces across from the small Redlands Municipal Airport six years ago.
Founded by Cal State San Bernardino biology graduate Ben Cook in 2008, Hangar 24 introduced the craft brewery model to the Redlands area, separating from the previous brewpub approach that never took off without a foundation brewery behind it.
“Hangar 24 started up (in Redlands) and there were a couple others that tried and didn’t quite make it,” recalled Curt Dale of Dale Bros. Brewery during a recent visit to his Upland brewery. “For a long time they had brewpubs that kept trying to start up and they would go for about a year and then fold. And then Hangar 24 made it and now it’s the place to go.”
So last month Lenny Seligman, Beth and I set out to Hangar 24 to get a taste of its award-winning offerings that have helped establish the brewery as one of the top draws of the growing Inland Empire craft beer movement. While we were in the area, we toured two other Redlands up-and-coming breweries as well – Wild Donkey and Ritual Brewing Co.
One of the good things about craft breweries is that they offer sampler “tasters” as well as full pint glasses (or slightly smaller, depending on alcohol content, or ABV). Most offer 2- to 4-ounce tasters for a buck or two, and may “package” them in a flight of four or five tasters. The problem comes in determining which beers to select for your flight.
Some establishments do the work for you and have pre-curated flights, which gives the brewery a chance to showcase a variety of beers they would like you to sample, from light to dark and everything in between. This is actually a nice option when you don’t know where to start, or when you want to cover a wide variety. It’s also easier on the people behind the bar pouring the beers, because they really don’t know customer tastes and whether they should direct them toward hoppy IPAs, heavy stouts or flavorful Belgian styles. My beer-tender son Sid occasionally shows off his sarcastic side when a customer says they prefer beers that are similar to Coors or Bud. He quickly points them toward the water cooler across the room.
Having never been to Hangar 24 before, Len and I set out to taste small samples of many different offerings, while Beth volunteered to handle the driving responsibilities. We split the pre-curated “Tasting Flight” of nine of the brewery’s year-round beers, along with a “Special Flight” featuring six different brews from their seasonal, special release and local fields collections.
Hangar 24’s signature beer is “Orange Wheat,” and it was a refreshing sessionable beer with nice notes of orange. However, I preferred a pair of the hoppy beers on the tasting flight (three IPA varieties were included, with international bitterness unit ratings ranging from 35 to 118). The IBUs typically don’t provide a full gauge of a beer’s bitterness – the type of hops that are used offer different aromas and flavors, and dictate whether a beer takes on qualities of citrus, floral, tropical and so on. Both Len and I gravitated to the Amarillo Pale Ale, which has a distinct hoppy aroma from its Amarillo hops. We also liked the Columbus IPA, a hop bomb loaded with Columbus hops.
The special flight included a couple of lighter brews in the seasonal California Spring Beer and special release Ballpark Beer. European stood out in the Hullabaloo Winter Beer and the Palmero abbey dubbel. The highlight was the Nitro Chocolate Porter, which is a nitro version of the signature Chocolate Porter, a coffee porter brewed with raw cocoa nibs and whole vanilla beans. While both were enjoyable, the nitro version seemed to have a fuller feel and taste.
From the region’s best-known taproom, we headed across town to an industrial park hosting the recently renamed Wild Donkey Brewing Co. (formerly known as Donkey Punch), a small but friendly tasting room offering some creative and tasty brews. The standout of our brief stay was a chocolate porter called The Oreo that was loaded with vanilla. All of the beers here were nice, but we only had four tasters apiece and were headed across the street to Ritual Brewing Co.
While Ritual still not yet widely known outside of the area, it was my favorite stop of the day. The wide-open space lends itself to plenty of future growth, and based on what we sampled, they will need it.
Ritual also offered pre-curated flights, and so Len and I split the “Year-Round” and “Big Flavors” collections. Both offered very nice tastes, but I was especially drawn to the Fat Hog American Barleywine, a sweet full-flavored ale; Extra Red, a malty and caramel-touched red ale; and the Big Deluxe Imperial Oat Stout, a big, rich Russian-style Imperial Stout
Beyond these delicious offerings, Ritual also brews its own root beer and orange sodas. Both are fantastic and loaded with rich flavor. The orange cream soda was the best I’ve ever had, and was a nice treat for Beth, who was able to enjoy those for free because she was our designated driver.
While these three breweries give Redlands residents plenty of high-quality craft beer options, there are others cropping up nearby as well. I hope to venture to a few others soon, including Brew Rebellion in Yucaipa; Main Street Brewery and TAPS Fish House and Brewery in Corona; Sons of Liberty Ale Works in Norco; Kat Daddy Breweries in Moreno Valley; and Inland Empire Brewing Company, Packinghouse Brewing Company, Wicks Brewing Co., Thompson Brewing Co. and Area 51 Craft Brewery in Riverside. Just ahead, too, will be tours of the Temecula area, as well as a number of San Diego County breweries that I have yet to visit.