In the Hotbed of Craft Brewing

Highway 101 LA

Here’s a hypothetical situation for all you craft beer fans. You have the chance to spend a day—only one—in a veritable hotbed of craft brewing. That was my opportunity, or dilemma, recently when my husband had some business in southern California. Whether or not I’d be up for the 3-day, 1000-mile road trip from our home in Monterey, California wasn’t even a question. We went straight to the conditions.

Your travel and hotel are free. You have your own car at your disposal. You’re on your own until 8:00 p.m.. (No chance your spouse will go out after his business day that started at breakfast and ended with dinner.) Of course, you can’t find many pubs or breweries open to the public before 11:00 a.m., so your “day” has shrunk to nine hours, tops. Since there are far more breweries than you can possibly visit, what do you do and where do you go?

Two very different breweries were at the top of my list: Stone Brewing and The Lost Abbey.

Stone's patio

Stone’s patio (Photo pirated from Trip Advisor)

Since Greg Koch and Steve Wagner founded Stone in 1996, they and brewmaster Mitch Steele have grown its brands into some of the most popular and best known beers on the West Coast. The current brewery, where production began in 2006, includes a large restaurant with upscale organic, locally-sourced fare and a winding patio surrounded by extensive gardens in Escondido. Stone’s destination brewery status was apparently when our tour guide asked where we hailed from. Calls of “Texas,” “Delaware,” “Canada” and more came from the group of 25.

Stone tour guide Alec Goldbery

Stone tour guide Alec Goldberg

Note that number: 25. Multiply that times 4 tours a day, Monday through Friday and 7 each on Saturdays and Sundays. Like the rest of the brewery and grounds, the store is ample and well-designed. And, boy, were the masses buying!

Stone's store and main entrance

Stone’s store and main visitor entrance

When it comes to 1) reservations, 2) charging for tours and 3) beer samples, destination breweries are all over the place. Stone encourages reservations and charges $3.00, similar to Firestone-Walker in Paso Robles, California. However, Firestone Walker charges for each sample. Stone’s website and our guide said our ticket included a sampler glass and 4 four-ounce samples. While most breweries keep track of the free samples, Stone’s bartenders seemed more interested in chatting with visitors than counting their pours. Those wanting more could slide around the curved bar and pay for pints or, in my case, a Crowler to go.

Stone bartender Perry Schmittdiel fills a Crowler

Stone bartender Perry Schmittdiel fills a Crowler

In some ways, The Lost Abbey, with its obscure sounding name, is at the other end of the brewery spectrum. It specializes in Belgian-style and barrel-aged beers with far less production than the fast expanding Stone. Ironically, The Lost Abbey moved into Stone’s old brewery, located in San Marcos, just three miles from it’s current facility.

Entrance to The Lost Abbey

Entrance to The Lost Abbey

Located in a non-descript industrial park, The Lost Abbey’s garden, if it can be called that, consists of a strip of dirt with one tree and some small agaves. The taproom at the entrance to the warehouse/brewery includes some shelves stocked with Lost Abbey and Pizza Port swag. The taproom offers no food, although I hear there are food trucks on weekends.

View of The Lost Abbey from the parking lot

View of The Lost Abbey from the parking lot

There were plenty of seats at the bar when I walked in the open door around 2:00 p.m. A woman at the bar turned around quickly and took a couple of steps before we almost collided.

Me: (Mental, if not audible, gasp) “Oh, my gosh, you’re Gwen Conley!”

 GC: (Questioning look) “Yes.”

Me: (Gushing) “I loved Beer Pairings!”

GC: (looking pleased and more confused) “Thanks! Who are you?”

From there, Gwen and I had a great conversation that included a photo op with the book (conveniently on sale behind the bar) that she co-wrote with Julia Herz, the director of CraftBeer.com. Gwen herself is the director of Production and Quality Control for Pizza Port and The Lost Abbey. She teaches brewing classes at UC San Diego and is a long-time judge at top beer competitions.

Gwen Conley, Beer Pairings and moi

Gwen Conley, Beer Pairings and moi

Our chat was interrupted more than once by employees. A brewer on his way out, stopped to hug Gwen and thank her. Once he was in the parking lot, she smiled and shook her head. “I’m like the mom around here. Sometimes I have to practice tough love, sometimes soft.” She shrugged. “Yesterday he was mad at me. Today he hugs me.” Watching Gwen interact with other employees, there appeared to be a lot of respect for the team mom.

Some 10 minutes later, Gwen apologized that she had to get back to work. We were now on good-bye hug terms and promised to see each other at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia. She turned to the guys behind the bar, pointed to me and calls out, “Open tab!”

Check back next week to read how The Lost Abbey came to be, how much and what I drank with an open tab, did Gwen and I meet up in Philadelphia and does the elusive Elder Viscosity really exist?

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