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IslandThe last of our Santa Barabra-area brewery visits takes us south along the coast to Carpinteria, home to Island Brewing Company. Just a short drive off the 101-freeway, tucked into an industrial complex, we find a lively little storefront with a distant ocean view across the railroad tracks and over the green fields of a park just beyond. Dozens of patrons, a few bringing along their babies and dogs, congregate around 5 p.m. inside at a simple bar and outside on the asphalt patio wrapped in a bamboo fence. There is a laid-back vibe here, casual conversation over pints and pretzels (just about the only items served here), with the California sun and surf providing the only needed atmosphere.  You can just imagine Jimmy Buffet hanging out here after a hard day at work… wait a minute, does Jimmy really ever have a “hard day at work”?

Six beers are available on tap, with 22 oz bottles of most offerings avaible to take home. We skip the light lager, and start with the Kolsch, a relatively light German-style ale that with its light color and body most casual drinkers would mistake for a pilsner. Island’s version has an aroma nearly identical to Heineken (from the noble hops), but a richer taste of bready malt and clover-honey sweetness. A nice alternative to a lager on a warm summer evening.

ParadiseBoth their Paradise Pale Ale and IPA have a distinctive “tropical” taste with hints of guava and passionfruit resulting from similar hop varieties used in both beers. This flavor gives Island’s beers a signature character to make them memorable among literally hundreds of Pale Ales and IPA’s produced by most American breweries. While the pale ale is more balanced with biscuit and caramel flavors from the malt, the IPA is more assertively hopped with grapefruit flavor and aroma, and a more pronounced lingering bitterness.

JubileeAnd while the Pale Ale and IPA are all about the hops, their Nut Brown and Jubilee ales are where the malts take center stage. The brown has a deep rich caramel flavor, with a sweetness offset by roasted and bitter notes of walnut and peanut shells. The Jubilee is made in the style of an Old Ale, a big rich dark malty beer that one patron described as the extreme take on the Nut Brown. We found Jubilee to be extrememly smooth and very drinkable despite its relatively high alcohol content, and the best beer overall of this very fine bunch.

Definition: Old Ale

While many think of Barleywines when it comes to high-alcohol beers that are meant to be sipped and savored, and can be cellared much like wine, the British Old Ale style also falls under this definition.  Old Ales are big malty beers, often having flavors of dark fruit (dates, raisins, figs), and a noticable warming alcohol note in their finish.  Even with their high alcohol content, there is still plenty of residual sugar in these beers, and their low carbonation and somewhat syrupy mouthfeel make them ideal for slowly sipping out of a brandy snifter.

Beer Quote:

“Of hard old ale… according to my mind, is better than all the wine in the world.”

                                                                                           – George Borrow

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HollisterWhile the wineries surrounding Santa Barbara have been slowly growing in both popularity and reputation over the past ten years or so, the quirky comedy Sideways has brought even more attention to Southern California’s answer to the Napa Valley. And while visitors to Santa Barbara are constantly reminded in almost every restaurant, bar and tourist publication of the vast array of local wine available, there is some great beer to be found here if you know where to look.

The LA Times recently featured a great article about beer in wine country, and I was lucky enough to check out a few local breweries for myself.

Surrounded by a sea of big-box stores in the Santa Barbara suburb of Goleta, the recently opened Hollister Brewing Company is not exactly what one would consider a tourist destination. However, for a change of pace after a day or two of wine tasting, their house-brewed beer is well-worth seeking out. Skip over the relatively mundane Sands Session Ale, and let your palate explore their more robust and flavorful offerings. For hop-heads, the White Star XPA has a big grapefruit aroma that carries through the flavor, finishing with a moderate but palatable bitterness. It is served on a nitro-tap, typically used to give stouts their creamy head and mouthfeel, an unusual twist that makes this Extra Pale Ale even more enjoyable.

For those who enjoy maltier beers, both the Table 42 Red and the Milk Stoutare excellent choices. The red ale is a very drinkable session beer, full of caramel and bready flavor with just a hint of butterscotch. The stout is smooth, creamy and sweet, which is exactly what makes a milk stout more approachable to those who find dry stouts, like Guinness, too bitter and sour. Imbibers who like a bit more “funk” in their beer will enjoy the yeasty, slightly tart Farmhouse, a saison-style ale that can is excellent with spicy Asian-influenced cuisine.

And while all the beers I’ve mentioned so far are very solid offerings, the real stars here are Holister’s two wheat beers: Hollister Hefe and Magic Clamps Weizenbock. While the German hefeweizen style is common in many American brewpubs, few acheive the right level of banana and clove aroma and flavor that make a hefe much more than a wheat beer. Hollister gets the flavors here just right, along with a spritzy, lively carbonation that makes this an excellent refresher on a hot summer day.

Weizenbock is a much less commonly found style both here and abroad, maybe due to the fact that Germany’s Aventinus Weizenbock is so close to perfection that few will attempt their own take. I’m very glad that Hollister took on the challenge. Their Weizenbock, in both aroma and flavor, with its spice, fruit and richness will remind you of both banana bread and fruitcake. And for as strange as that may sound for the taste of a beer, it really works here. I daresay it is the best American example of this style I have ever tasted.

Hollister is a brewpub and restaurant, so I shouldn’t forget to mention the food. They offer a wide variety of unusual pizzas, but for as delicious as the menu descriptions sound, the pizza is merely average. Maybe this was because it was overshadowed by the appetizers we enjoyed beforehand. Their tortilla soup is rich in flavor without being too spicy, and their mac & cheese made with pancetta and gruyere is just simply delicious.

We’ll continue with two more Santa Barbara beer stops in upcoming blog entries, so stay tuned…

AventinusaventinusDefinition: Weizenbock
A richer and stronger (i.e. higher alcohol, Bock strength) version of a Dunkel Weizen (a German dark wheat beer). It has the signature banana and clove aroma and flavor typical of German weizen beers, along with flavors of darker fruit (raisins, cherries, figs) and rich caramel malts. Aventinus is the most famous and best example of this unique style.

Beer Quote:

“Beer that is not drunk has missed its vocation”

                                                    – Meyer Breslau

I recently had the opportunity to have a sneak-peek of Brooklyn Brewery’s new still-fill bottling line, along with a preview tasting of the first beer soon to be released from the new bottling line, “Local 1”, courtesy of brewmaster Garrett Oliver.  This excellent bottle-conditioned Belgian-style ale is due to be released at the end of February.

My account of this great event can be found in February  issue of the Malted Barley Appreciation Society newsletter.  Just click on the link below:

http://hbd.org/mbas/pdf/feb07.pdf

Cheers!