In San Diego, the IPA reigns supreme, no doubt. It is evident in the number of IPAs available even within a single brewery. IPAs, the all-important (and dominant) beer style, has helped build the San Diego beer scene. There is a style that flies under the radar, especially in the North County breweries. A style that can go underappreciated in more than one way — blonde ale.
Firestone Walker has branded their blonde ale, “805,” as a lifestyle beer that defines a bucolic central coast. But the I Like Beer the Podcast Team has found that San Diego North County blonde ales offer excellence and variety in the subtle, nuanced manner of the style.
805? No, thanks. I’ll take 760.
Blonde ales may seem innocuous and maybe even mundane. And many fans of the style like it for its perceived simplicity and drinkability. But just while many West-Coast IPAs taste the same (seemingly) but are quite different to the discerning consumer, the blonde ales in North County offer a similar array of flavors, approaches, and experiences.
I toured North County tasting blonde ales, discussing the style with local brewers, and discovering what delightful, delicious options can be found right here at home.
The first stop was to Oceanside Ale Works to speak with Mark Purciel. His Buccaneer Blonde is possibly the oldest original blonde ale craft-brewed in San Diego. It offers a fuller body than some of the others I tried, with notes of honey, almond, and (if you close your eyes and search for it) hazelnut. The balance of slight hop bitterness and malty sweetness is exceptional.
“It is a delicate balance,” says Purciel. “I don’t want it too big, so I lager it in the Brite tanks at 38 degrees. It’s one of the more difficult beers to make because any imperfection is distracting.”
Next, I headed to the coast to try the newest blonde ale in the county: South O Brewing’s Beauty College Blonde, named for their historic venue. This beer, which was released the day I came in, offers more breadiness than Buccaneer, with subtle notes of stone fruit and pear from the El Dorado hops.
“We are pushing the boundary between blonde ale and pale ale by playing with the hop profile,” says Head brewer Maurey Fletcher.
On my quest to discover the nuances of the style, I spoke with Mackenzie Graham of Burgeon Beer Company, which of course, meant sampling another excellent blonde ale at the Carlsbad venue. The Burgeon version offers a slight taste of cracker with herbal notes. I wasn’t sure what “herbal notes” were, but under Mackenzie’s guidance, I quickly noted the almost herbal tea flavor beneath the slightly sweet maltiness.
“Our blonde ale pairs perfectly with food, especially spicy food,” explains Mackenzie. “It’s true to style, but you can definitely tell it’s a craft beer. It’s made on a scale that maintains the integrity of craft beer.”
Moving back east on Palomar Airport Road, I checked in with Mike Stevenson at Culver Beer (Carlsbad). Culver’s blonde has long been a personal favorite, and the name behind it, Mad Neighbor, is as good as the beer itself. Christened Mad Neighbor over parking issues, this is the “beer-flavored” of the local Blonde Ale offerings.
“Mad Neighbor is our core and year around blonde ale and offers a well-balanced and refreshing pint without any aggressive flavors. Finishes dry with a very slight sweet nutty malt presence that quickly fades,” explains Stevenson.
Sweeter variances of the blonde ale can be found in Pizza Port’s California Honey Ale and Legacy Brewing’s Strawberry Blonde. Pizza Port’s take on the style has the most crispness with a Kolsch-like smoothness. The honey, harvested locally, is much more prevalent than the subtler hints in Oceanside Ale Works ale. For palates that prefer a sweeter beer, it will delight.
Legacy Brewing Company, located in Oceanside, tweaks its traditional blonde ale by adding plenty of strawberries. The result is a refreshingly light, crisp beer with plenty of strawberry flavor–no subtle hints on this one.
These beers represent a sampling of the amazing non-IPA varieties found in North County. Each brewer has taken the core style of the blonde ale, that seemingly innocuous brew, and found ways to craft the beers into something surprising for the discerning drinker willing to investigate subtlety and nuance. In North County, the blonde ales are having plenty of fun!
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