A Lost Abbey and an Open Tab


So, last week’s post ended with me almost literally running into Gwen Conley when I walked into The Lost Abbey and Gwen calling out, “Open tab!” to the bartenders before heading back into the brewery after we’d had a great chat.

Before I get into the amazing beers that followed, a little history on how a place that sounds like a retreat for monks owes its inception to a sister-brother pizza partnership. . .

In 1987, siblings Gina and Vince Marsaglia opened their first Pizza Port restaurant in Solano Beach, north of San Diego. In 1992, homebrewer Vince went pro and started offering his brews at the pizzeria. Inspired by Belgian beers styles, including those brewed at Trappist monasteries in Europe, Vince came up with the idea of his own “lost” abbey in California where Belgian-style beers could be brewed.

But it wasn’t until 1997, when Tomme Arthur came on board to brew at Pizza Port, that Vince’s idea came to fruition. After Arthur brewed a Dubbel Overhead Abbey Ale, a series of Overhead Abbey Ales followed. Other craft brewers around the U.S. were starting to experiment with Belgian ales, and Arthur soon earned a reputation for his unique, single-batch brews.

By 2003, Pizza Port’s successes had grown to the point that they won the ‘03 Great American Beer Festival’s “Small Brewpub of the Year” award. And they were only getting started. In 2006, Port Brewing took over the newly vacated former Stone brewery. In 2009, they won 9 medals and “Large Brewpub of the Year” at GABF.

Today, the Marsaglia’s holdings include 6 Pizza Port restaurants, the Port Brewing/Los Abbey facility and tasting room in San Marcos and The Confessional tasting room and patio a half hour away in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. At last fall’s GABF, 1552 breweries entered 6647 beers. Only 242 breweries shared a total of 275 medals. The Lost Abbey took one gold while Pizza Port earned 4 medals. In short, Arthur and his crew brew damn good beer.

So what did I drink? Bartender Chris Sisson recommended Track 8, a previous GABF medal winner. Basically, the brewers aged their quadrupel-style Judgement Day in oak bourbon barrels, adding some cinnamon and chilis. (For more details, click here.) I asked Chris what style Track 8 was. After a few seconds, he declared it a “specialty ale.”

Bartender Chris Sisson

Bartender Chris Sisson

You might wonder why a bartender at an exceptional brewery couldn’t name a beer’s style. Well, Track 8 isn’t that easy to pin down. The Lost Abbey website lists it as a “Barrel-Aged Strong Ale,” but it also falls under the brewery’s “Non-Denominational” category, as in Seasonals, Year Rounds and Non-Denominationals. This last group is for barrel-aged beers brewed in no particular style. What I can say is that I totally respect Track 8 for the kind of beer it is. At a whopping 13.7 ABV, it was fantastic—smooth and nicely balanced. And that’s from someone who doesn’t generally care much for this type of beer.

By the time I finished the Track 8 taster, I’d decided on Galaxy + Comet, a Pizza Port IPA, for the next sample. This was my kind of beer. At a relatively mild 8% ABV compared to Track 8, this beer was bursting with hoppiness in a mix of fruit, citrus and pine flavors that wouldn’t overwhelm even when drinking a pint without food.

Lost Abbey/Port Brewing beer board

Lost Abbey/Port Brewing beer board and taps

Next I asked for Road to Helles, a Lost Abbey lager. The female bartender served it up, saying, “I love this. It’s like my favorite all-day drinking beer.” The 5.5% ABV listed on the board menu, more in line with a Bud, did make Road to Helles almost a session beer. (Session brews are usually under 5% ABV.) The malt backbone came through full and biscuity on this crisp, clean lager.

I left The Lost Abbey with a T-shirt, glass, several bottled beers and a promise to bring my copy of Beer Parings to the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia for Gwen to sign. The only thing I forgot was to try to confirm for a friend that Lost Abbey made a beer called Elder Viscosity, a supped-up and aged version of Old Viscosity and Older Viscosity.

Steve Burchill and moi

Steve Burchill and moi at CBC in Philadelphia

Several weeks later, at the CBC opening reception at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I spotted a guy wearing a Lost Abbey hoodie. Soon, I was telling Steve Burchill all about my great afternoon in San Marcos. “One question, is there such a thing as Elder Viscosity?”

While a Google search found nothing, turns out the elusive brew does exist. As I understood from Steve, and from Gwen when she signed my book the next day, this barrel-aged version of Old Viscosity has yet to be sold to the public. Both spoke glowingly of the smoothness and silkiness of Elder and said it should be available for purchase at the brewery within a few months.

If you stop by The Lost Abbey and actually get to sample Elder, shoot me an email to say if you agree with Steve and Gwen!

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