My personal beer preferences are mostly for British ales. While I do enjoy a good West Coast IPA — hoppy, malty and bitter is often just what the doctor ordered — I prefer a porter or stout almost any time. If I could get reliably good ESBs in San Diego, I’d be a happy camper.
And if any local brewery regularly made an English mild that came close to Fuller’s London Pride, I’d be a daily customer.
I love the malt, caramel and fruity flavors that are typical in a mild. I especially love that milds are almost always low alcohol beers, in the range of 3% to 4% ABV. That means you can enjoy several while talking with friends. That’s a perfect fit for British pub culture, of course, and something I wish more San Diego breweries would embrace. I’m a bit tired of having one 8% ABV Double IPA and then having to go home for a nap.
Everyone’s beer preferences are different, and so my affinity for British beers is an explanation (or perhaps a cause) of why I have never been an enthusiast for Belgian style beers. That makes me an outlier among many beer aficionados, especially those who helped launch the craft beer movement in America. But since I’m about to leave for a trip to Brussels, I figured I needed to get up to speed.
In San Diego County, there is no better place for an education in Belgian-style beers than Lost Abbey. Founded in 2006 by Tomme Arthur and the Marsaglia siblings, Vince and Gina, Lost Abbey’s focus has always been on Belgian-inspired beers. In Belgium, some of the most famous beers are brewed at monasteries, which is where the “abbey” reference originates.
Arthur was brewing at Pizza Port when the original Stone Brewing location in San Marcos came free, and he convinced the Marsaglias of Pizza Port to help him open a brewery of his own. It was a good decision: The very next year Lost Abbey won the Great American Beer Festival’s Small Brewery of the Year award. Then in 2008 Lost Abbey won Champion Small Brewery at The World Beer Cup, the most prestigious international beer competition. The awards kept on coming from major beer festivals, and Lost Abbey acquired an international reputation. It is worth mentioning that Arthur had previously won the GABF brewer of the year twice before when he worked for Pizza Port Brewing. It wasn’t a great surprise, then, when he won the 2018 Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing from the World Beer Cup, a kind of lifetime achievement award held by only 21 other major figures in the beer world before Arthur.
Today, there are two Lost Abbey locations, both in North County. The main brewery in San Marcos was joined in 2014 by a tasting room in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Named “The Confessional,” it is a pleasant place to enjoy a beer — it made my list of the best brewery patios in North County, too.
On the day of my visit, Devin Patterson-Hall was behind the bar. I told him I wanted an education in Belgian brewing and he set me up a flight of four beers. It was designed to take me from lighter, less intense beers to stronger, darker and more intense beers. He talked me through each one, letting me know what is typical of the style each was based on, teaching me about Belgian yeast and brewing practices, and explaining how Lost Abbey has innovated on those things. For example, where Belgian brewers commonly use candy sugar to add flavor and color to their bigger beers, Lost Abbey uses raisins for their complementary flavors as well as sweetness and color.
The yeast in Belgian beer does a lot of the work, not just converting sugars to alcohol but also producing chemicals called phenols and esters that add complexity to the flavor of the beer. While the ones I seem to be most susceptible to lend clove-like and banana-like flavors to the beer, some Belgian beers are sought for their pepper, apple and even “barnyard” characteristics. In British and German beer traditions, these extra flavors are generally thought to be flaws, but Belgian brewers have mastered the art of getting just enough of them in just the right ways to create beers that fans love for their depth.
Belgian brewers are also unafraid of adding flavor in other ways, too: coriander, anise, ginger and other spices, orange peel, whole fruit, even bacterial strains. Many Belgian beers are also aged in oak barrels to allow even more flavors to develop.
The great news for me is that after visiting Lost Abbey, I feel more educated and I’m much less nervous about jumping into Belgium’s beer culture.
I have to admit, though, that after my flight of Belgian beers, I did order a pint of a West Coast IPA. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Photo Caption: Devin Patterson-Hall, beertender at The Confessional by Lost Abbey in Cardiff, about to enjoy his shift beer.
Bill Vanderburgh writes the Craft Beer in North County column for Coast News. He started his award-winning blog, CraftBeerInSanDiego.com, in 2016 and has since reviewed every brewery and tasting room in San Diego. He loves sailing almost as much as beer.