I was in San Diego, so I thought I would review Ballast Point Sculpin, the iconic IPA, at the source. And…I couldn’t help being a little disappointed by both beer and brewery…
Style: India Pale Ale
Numbers: 7% ABV, 70 IBUs
Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA is one of the best beers in the world. Fact.
It won the World Beer Cup gold for IPA in 2010 and 2014, a Great American Beer Festival bronze in 2007 and silver in 2009 and has taken home a further 22 medals from top tier beer festivals around the world in its life. It’s rated 97/100 on Beer Advocate and 100/100 on RateBeer. It has a legion of fans, leads the charge of the IPA brigade in San Diego and, arguably, the whole of California, and commands an imperious price of $15-17 for a six pack on grocery store shelves.
When my wife and I were in San Diego county visiting friends and we figured we could squeeze in just one brewery visit, Ballast Point was top of our list. I’ve visited maybe five other San Diego breweries in the last year, and all were excellent. (There are 120 breweries in San Diego county, and you will bump into a score of fresh IPAs in every bar you enter.) And Ballast Point is considered the ace of spades in the San Diego deck.
We jumped on some rented bikes (shout out to Ride CYCLERY in Encinitas – possibly the best bike store in which I’ve ever set foot) and cycled down to La Jolla for some fish tacos (duh), then labored up hills and through the UCSD campus to hit Ballast Point’s main brewing and distilling facility in an industrial park in Miramar, about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego.
(Note: don’t do what we did. The ride to the brewery was horrible. Just horrible. You have to ride on freeways and stop at lights every 30 seconds. Take an Uber.)
Outside the brewery you see several HUUUGE scarlet fermentation tanks – one emblazoned with “20 years – 1996-2016” – and, in our case, a lot stuffed with cars. This is a big brewery: 107,000 square feet according to the website, with a 150 barrel brew house and who knows how much capacity. (Ballast Point knocked out an estimated 250,000 barrels in 2015).
It’s the biggest of four locations Ballast Point operates – soon to be five, as it was announced this week there will be a taproom and restaurant in Long Beach CA “soon”.
Now, a caveat: we arrived at the brewery at 5pm on a Friday, so the enormous crowd we encountered is probably not the norm. But boy, what a crowd. Several hundred folks filled the tasting “bar” (it’s really not a taproom), attached restaurant and outdoor beer garden. I kind of felt like I walked into the lobby of a busy, modern, city center hotel.
And while there were a handful of bearded, brewery-shirt-wearing (I was proudly repping LA’s Monkish, for which the bar tender gave me a high five) beer aficionados there, this was a very mixed bunch. Not to be too discriminating about identifying beer geeks by appearance alone (although, let’s face it, you kinda can), this seemed like a metropolitan after-work crowd. There were guys in suits, girls in going out dresses, a couple of birthday parties, replete with balloons, and plenty of tourists out for dinner. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this didn’t feel much like a brewery.
(The brewing facility is off to one side, fenced off from the casual wanderer, with gleaming copper kettles on display. Tours, we were told by the welcome desk as we entered – yes, there’s a welcome desk – leave every two hours, and we had just missed one.)
I’ve been to many breweries, over a hundred I’d guess, and from the tiniest to the St James’s Gates and Carlsbergs of this world, this was the least beery. The restaurant was huge and busy. The wine list vast and well-used by customers, and of course plenty of cocktails featuring Ballast Point’s rums, gins, vodkas and whiskeys were being sipped around the room. This is clearly a place to meet up, gather a group of mixed tastes and start your weekend.
If you’re intimidated by the craft beer crowd, you needn’t worry about visiting Ballast Point.
After a long wait for service, I gleefully ordered a pour of Sculpin, Ballast Point’s flagship. The definitive balanced West Coast IPA. I first tried this beer back in 2010, and have enjoyed it many times since, on tap and from cans and bottles. It’s a world-beater, a finely honed expression of hoppy deliciousness, redolent of the bright color and sunshine of coastal Southern California. When you visit the brewery, you order the beer you love most – it’s a known fact that the brewery taproom is always where a beer tastes its best.
Except in this case.
First up, look at the pictures of the pint I drank above. It’s a crystal clear burnished tawny, with a thin head – a head which skedaddled about 20 seconds after it was poured. Now Google images of Sculpin – you’ll see glasses filled with a delightfully bright amber beer, hazy with hop residue, and proudly topped by a thick, pillowy foam. That’s what the beer looks like when I pour it from a can (I’m a can snob) into a glass at home. In New York City! Yes, 3,000 miles away from the brewery, I get a better looking beer.
When I had sipped off the precarious top finger of the pint to prevent it spilling (look again at that image at the top of this page), I took a deep nose of the beer.
And got next to nothing. There was some straw-like hop aroma, but there was also a slightly tired bready maltiness, and a touch of metallic pine. Again, I’ve drunk Sculpin many times before, and I’m used to a wonderful symphony of hops: mango, lime, fresh cut grass, gentle pine and apricot, all balanced out by a slightly salty flour-like maltiness. This beer is hop-head heaven. Or at least it should be; the beer in my glass in the brewery taproom was not.
Now I’m not calling myself a Randy Mosher-esque beer-tasting samurai, but, with all due humility, I am a Certified Cicerone®, and I passed my tasting section pretty comfortably. I have critically tasted hundreds if not thousands of beers.
This beer was old. Not ancient by any means, but at least six or seven weeks. And for a beer that’s been heavily dry-hopped, that’s a long time. Did that feel weird while sipping the stuff in the very place it had been expertly made by one of the best brewing teams in the industry? You betcha.
Suddenly, like the scene in a movie where a character realizes he’s been drugged, the chatter of the post-work wine-drinkers around me grew to a deafening crescendo, and my eyes desperately darted from side to side seeking the reassuring presence of a plaid-shirted brewer hauling a sack of malt, only to find the branded Hawaiian shirts of the clean-shaven bar tenders. I had not cycled up seemingly endless hills and across busy freeways for this.
I’m being a bit harsh of course, but disappointing experiences are always the more bitter when one’s expectations are high.
Ballast Point is one of the most authentic, powerful brands in beer. This is the brand that was bought last year by Constellation Brands for – Dr Evil pinky to lower lip time – one billion dollars. This deal shook the global drinks industry like a high magnitude earthquake, such was its boldness and scale. (Ballast Point was started by two homebrewers – in the backyard of a homebrew shop – in 1996, and until about five years ago was a minnow of a microbrewery.) This. Place. Makes. Great. Beer. Dammit!
I could and perhaps should have complained, and ordered another beer. Who knows how a keg at the bar had become oxidized, or was too old to tap. But – owing to the demon bike ride – we were running a trifle late, so I settled my tab and struggled through about half my beer before leaving through the gift shop.
On the way out, as yet more folks arrived to kick start their Friday evening, I was lifted from my gloom by some pretty opportunistic marketing by neighboring Reckless Brewing Co. It made me smile. “Probably should have gone there,” I only half joked to my wife.
Then we saddled up and rode off into the sunshine. There were fresher pints of IPA to be had elsewhere in San Diego county.