San Luis Obispo, California:
Festival of Beers, Connoisseurs Tasting Evening
Friday 25th May 2012
San Luis Obispo is a medium sized town nestled in a fold in the mountains around about half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's around ten miles from the Pacific Ocean and is the location for a Beer Festival, which was in its twenty-sixth year when I visited. It was held at the Madonna Expo Centre in the foothills about a mile from the downtown area. If you are intrigued by the name, it is the surname of the man who established the Madonna Inn near to the Expo Centre; nothing to do with the singer!
The whole festival is held over the Memorial Day weekend and this year, for the first time, it was extended to last over three days. This Friday evening was a so-called Connoisseurs Tasting Evening. Now, I'm no connoisseur, but I do know a good thing when I see it. The concept behind the evening was that restaurateurs from the area would offer food that could be matched with beer. On the beer side there were about fifteen brewers represented who were mostly offering special one-off brews that wouldn't be available at the main festival the following day. Incidentally, Sunday was given over to a home brewers meeting with free samples.
I was a bit rushed as I arrived by train from Los Angeles. I had left that city on the Coast Starlight at 10.20 in the morning and luckily it arrived in San Luis Obispo (referred to as SLO) at 15.30. The train continued on to Oakland, Sacramento, Portland and finally Seattle in Washington State where it would arrive in the evening of the following day. Eventually I got a taxi to my hotel and booked it for a journey to the Beer Fest thirty minutes later.
I arrived outside with five minutes to go. I had pre-booked so it was just a matter of exchanging a ticket for a glass then climbing the stairs to the venue.
When I arrived I noticed that the weather wasn't perfect as there was a considerable wind and there were many threatening clouds but luckily it didn't actually rain.
I thought they hadn't prepared the seating area as all the chairs were leaning against the tables but this was to prevent the table cloths blowing away!
The festival had a set-up not unlike those you find in Belgium and the Netherlands where each brewer has their own corporate stall. So I went walking around and started sampling the brews. I made notes of a number of them so I'll offer some comments.
When I came in I was very pleased to see that Tap It brewery were represented as this was the only brewery I would be unable to visit in SLO as they were a few miles out of town.
So I started with Tap It (SLO, CA) American Pale Ale which I found to smooth with a good bitter taste. The next was a real Special as it was Stone (Escondido, CA) Bourbon Barrel-aged Stout 2011. I thought it was wonderful with, of course, a strong whiskey taste. Now a brewery first, Dunbar Brewing (Santa Margarita, CA) Scottish Heavy, which I found true to the style being quite malty with little bitterness.
It was back to whiskey again with Firestone Walker (Paso Robles, CA) Bourbon Barrel-aged Stout, which was great, only having a hint of bourbon but with beautifully bitter taste.
From the same brewer came Wookey Rye Black IPA. If you couldn't see what you were drinking, you wouldn't know it was black. Nor could I taste the Rye. To me, it was a typical West Coast IPA, and there's nothing wrong with that.
It was time to try the food. There were some good small Italian cold meat dishes and there was a truck offering sliders (small burgers) of various kinds but for me the best were the ribs. Deeply marinated before cooking and with no additional sauce they were just sublime with the meat falling off the bone. Anyway, that's enough food, now back to the beer. Next was Central Coast (SLO, CA) Bourbon Creek Stout which I thought had a very creamy taste. It was all right, though. Another from the same brewer was BAM (Bourbon-aged Mild) which was good with the same vanilla-like taste of the previous beer yet there was not a lot of malt in the taste as you'd expect with a mild. (I noted this as a Mild but later, when I visited the brewery, it was revealed to be a Red Ale, so that justifies my comment above.)
Among the many other beers tasted that evening three others stood out. The first was Mendicino (Ukiah, CA) White Hawk Select Ale which is described as an English IPA and it was an extremely good example. Green Flash Brewing of San Diego, CA had Rayon Vert (7.2%) on offer and for a Belgian inspired beer I have say that I liked it a lot. In fact this brewery produces nothing but Belgian-style ales.
The last one to get a mention was a revival by of all breweries, Coors of Golden, CO. The story is that they discovered a recipe from before prohibition in their cellars and they now produce it as Batch 19 Pre-Prohibition Lager. I didn't know its provenance when I drank it at the festival, only gaining this information whilst researching this article. So here are my notes made when I tasted it: "Very good, could be German, slight hoppiness in finish." The hops used are Hersbrucker and Strisslespalt. So there you have it, Coors produce a good American beer!
Apart from the weather this was a good visit and I returned the next day for the main festival.
The event is held annually, please see: www.californiafestivalofbeers.com for more details.