CARLSBAD — This festival is not for the faint of heart.
Beer lovers and craft brewers from all over the county, and further, will descend on Pizza Port Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 for the 23rd annual Strong Ale Festival.
The unique event features brews of 8% alcohol content or higher, along with ales, porters, stouts, pale ales, IPAs and more from all over the country, Pizza Port owner Gina Marsaglia said. About 60 guest beers will be featured during the two-day event at the Carlsbad Village location, while festival-goers get to taste up to eight different selections.
“We didn’t even have the Bottle Shop yet,” Marsaglia said of the inaugural festival. “What’s funny about it, is it’s our 23rd anniversary and we’re only celebrating our 22nd anniversary of Pizza Port. We opened this in June, had our Strong Ale the first year, then had our one-year anniversary in June (2017).”
The event came about one rainy night in 1996 when Marsaglia and several others were discussing a unique way for the infant brewery to kick off the Christmas season. So, they hustled up as many strong brews as they could, drank, had a blast, thus birthing Strong Ale.
It started with more barleywines and spicy dark ales, to name a few; although Strong Ale has now, and the industry, has expanded to other selections such as IPAs, hazy IPAs, Belgians and more.
Strong Ale stands out in two ways, she said, by highlighting those high alcohol content crafts not typically seen at most beer festivals; and securing beers from other craft breweries not available in San Diego County.
For example, this year showcases the likes of Fat Heads, Middleburg Heights (Ohio), Red Barrel, Berkeley Boneyard (Oregon) and 3 Floyd’s (Indiana) and Pint House Pizza (Austin, Texas), which beer connoisseurs in the region will not find this far west outside the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
Also, Strong Ale has grown into an expectation every year and with its unique characteristics, outlasts other festivals. Marsaglia believes her festival may be the longest running strong ale festival in the country.
“One thing that separates it from other festivals … this puts everybody on an equal playing field,” she added. “This is more about tasting the beer and comparing the beer to the beer. It’s not about the brewery, it’s about the beer the brewery made.”
Sean Thomas, who lives in Oceanside, has been to most of the Strong Ale Festivals over the past 23 years, including at least the last eight. Once a big fan of beer festivals, now he just reserves his place with Strong Ale.
He said the craft brewery industry has mostly turned festivals into one-off selections of local breweries, whereas before, he had a selection from a variety of breweries across the country. As for Strong Ale, he still gets those rare and exotic brews from regions outside San Diego.
“I used to go to festivals because it was a place where you could get beers you haven’t had before,” Thomas said. “Now, that has changed and every beer that comes out from a craft brewery is a one-off. This is the only one I truly go to anymore. Strong Ale gets beer from all over the country that normally doesn’t come into California.”
Of course, being at Pizza Port, Strong Ale wouldn’t be complete without its own dedicated pizza, which is rolled out once per year specifically for the festival. The pie consists of a rye crust, bratwurst, sauerkraut and a honey mustard drizzle. Thomas said it’s one of his favorite pizzas, and just another reason he keeps coming back.
As for the beers, Belgians, stouts, dark beers and ales will be featured. Another new emerging player in the industry, which has only been part of the festival for two or three years, has been the hazy IPAs, Marsaglia said.
General admission tickets are $50, while VIP runs $75 or $100 for a two-day pass.