CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> 5 Southern California Pubs

Previous Pint Pleasures - February 3, 2003

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Library Alehouse, 2911 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA, USA

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Father's Office, 1018 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA, USA

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BJ's Pizza, Grill and Brewery, 6424 Canoga Avenue, Woodland Hills, CA, USA

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BJ's Pizza, Grill and Brewery, 5258 East Second Street, Long Beach, CA, USA

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Huntington Beach Beer Company, 201 East Main Street, Huntington Beach, CA, USA

Yes, I'm still in Southern California -- "SoCal", as I like to call it -- and badly missing my home in Yorkshire. And along with my friends, the gorgeous landscape, and the British lifestyle I'm missing my beer! I should be returning very soon to research more columns on English pubs. In the meantime, however, I may as well throw in a review of what I'm finding here in the Los Angeles/Orange County area.

I'm afraid this will be a rather sad story. For one thing it seems nearly impossible to find a pint of cask ale in Southern California. And for another thing the average "English style" microbrew that you'll find is relatively tasteless. I say relatively simply because if you've lived in Southern California all your life and have never tasted real British beer, or even the full-flavoured microbrews from the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, you'd think the microbrews here were perfectly fine.

But for somebody like myself, who's delighted for years in the spicy hoppiness of Pacific Coast micros and then refined her tastes in the wide and wonderful world of British real ales, these fizzy SoCal pints tend to be a real letdown. I'm not saying they're all awful; but the pleasurable ones are few and far between. And, as I already mentioned, the dearth of real ales (known in the US as cask-conditioned ales) is disheartening.

But within these limitations some places do try. On Main Street in Santa Monica there are two well-known pubs which my Bay Area friend Mistah Rick used to frequent in his Santa Monica-dwelling days. The Library Alehouse features microbrews from all over the coast as well as draught hard cider, draft Belgian ales, and a wide range of bottled beers. When Mistah Rick and I visited a few months ago they had 23 microbrews on tap. Sadly they're all served on CO2. and they all cost a rather hefty $4.75 for a measly 16 ounces. (If you prefer more of an Imperial size a 23-ounce glass will cost you $6.00!) Besides the domestics there was Strongbow Cider, Stella Artois, a perry, and 2 other Belgian ales. The food is very expensive as well -- the cheapest thing on the menu, an appetizer quesadilla, was $8.50 -- and chips and salsa are served whether you want to eat or not.

I had a pint of Andersons IPA. It's difficult for me to get used to this ice cold ultra fizzy beer. Still I could detect that this is a pleasantly hoppy brew. Rick had Stone Brewery's Arrogant Bastard, which features a similar hoppiness but with a deep malt character. To me it doesn't seem arrogant at all: more irritated, I would say. Or is it simply pompous? Or perhaps it's a legend in its own mind? The Boddingtons beermats which adorn the tables advertise Ye Olde Cask Inn in Manchester. But they're distributed by Labatts in Connecticut. Ah, well...

Down the road is Father's Office. I remember stopping in here about 13 years ago with Mistah Rick and my formerly-English-but-now-Australian friend Dave. Back then the pub was dark and cosy and felt like a real pub, and it featured at least one cask conditioned selection. Now it's been remodelled, all bright and plain and high-tech light wood with no sign of a traditional ale. Mistah Rick had a pint of Hop Rod Rye (8.0% ABV, Bear Republic), which is a nice San Francisco-tasting ale. At such a high strength is has a distinctly alcoholic taste but with a good hoppy finish. I had a pint of Racer 5K, also by Bear Republic. It had the same character with a lot of hops but was definitely a bit safer tasting. This seemed like a good driving beer as opposed to M.R.'s choice. Both our selections were good pints for photo browsing, as we'd brought along our respective shots of the East Bay and Yorkshire to share. I don't know how the food is at Father's Office, but the chips - sorry, French fries -- are served in little table-sized shopping trolleys, so at least you can have fun eating them.

The only place I've found real ale in Southern California has been at the BJ's Pizza, Grill, and Brewery in Woodland Hills. Mistah Rick researched this for my birthday recently, when he drove down from the Bay Area and we made a special trip out into the famous San Fernando Valley to find this chain brewpub. It was a busy Friday lunchtime just before the Superbowl when we stopped in, and the place was filling up fast with office lunch groups.

Basically a chain of family restaurants, BJ's has little to offer in the way of atmosphere. Since it was lunchtime we seated ourselves in the bar and shared a pizza which was of the deep-dish Chicago variety. (I prefer thin-crust myself.) But we were happy to find they did in fact have one of their beers on cask: BJ's Nutty Brewnette (5% ABV). Although advertised as a bitter beer this is extremely malty, and the bitter character is imparted from the malt as opposed to from the hops. And even though it was a cask ale it tasted and felt rather sticky on the palate, not unlike Pepsi. After this pint we had a taste of the famous Samiclaus, which was also on tap. Touted as the strongest beer in the world, this brew has a wonderfully historic, archeological aroma, but the taste is soooooo sweet: a sweet dessert sherry comes to mind. I think I'd rather smell it than taste it; but then, at 14% ABV, that's probably not a bad decision.

We finished off our visit with pints of Piranha IPA on CO2.. This was the best tasting of our afternoon's samples -- it would be nice to try it on the hand pump. While we were drinking our beers I noticed we had been supplied with one beermat for the two of us. And our napkins disappeared a bit prematurely. Was the Marmite Theory of Evolutionary Migration in effect here? Probably not, because Mistah Rick's shorts were still intact...

On a previous beer-tasting excursion the two of us met my friend Marymary and her husband Toep at the BJ's Pizza, Grill, and Brewery in Long Beach, located on the main drag that runs through Belmont Shore. As opposed to the Woodland Hills BJ's, this one is a restaurant with no sign of a bar anywhere. Since we just wanted a pint and nothing to eat, we felt a little strange being assigned by the hostess (yes, you cannot seat yourself!) to a table surrounded by large groups of families with children eating their dinners. Ah, well, I suppose the Germans do this all the time. But the fact that they kept trying to get us to take food menus and order something was a bit disconcerting. Is there some sort of Southern California law that requires pub customers to eat something before being allowed to have a pint of microbrew? I suppose in a state with such a draconian smoking law anything is possible... So we firmly explained to the third waitperson who came over brandishing menus, "Listen, we're all sitting at this table which you have assigned to us, but we just want a pint of beer -- no food, all right??? JUST A PINT!" I think they finally got the message.

Earlier Mistah Rick had spoken with somebody who worked at the BJ's in Burbank and was told that the BJ's in Long Beach and the one in Woodland Hills both featured cask ale. But no such luck -- in Belmont Shore they haven't even heard of the concept. And they even have a classic World War II beer poster on the wall, the one with the strong-armed barmaid saying WE CAN DO IT! Um, guys? Might I point out that her arms are that strong from pulling hand pumps?

Ah, well, at least the BJ's Brewhouse Brand IPA was good for a fizzy beer, with a nice nutty, woody character and lots of hops. But it was way too cold and fizzy -- I could taste the CO2. On the plus side it was only $3.50 a pint, which is finally a reasonable price for a SoCal pint.

Just over the Orange County line and down the coast is the famous surfing town of Huntington Beach. I ventured down here one recent evening with my Unkletom, the first time I'd been in this town since 1985, when my band Better Homes played our final gig at the Huntington Beach Surf Festival. Main Street -- which used to be a little beach drag of surfboard shops and cafes leading to the Huntington Beach Pier -- is now ultra trend£, and the widened sidewalks were bursting at the seems on this Saturday night with fashionable young people, all wearing shoes and shirts. This was definitely not the style 20 years ago.

We popped into the Huntington Beach Beer Company and headed for the quiet back balcony. On the way we ordered a couple pints. Since SoCalians can't really understand the concept of bitter I asked the waitress for the "hoppiest" beer they have. She suggested Pier Pale Ale. My pint turned out to be pretty bland, and it wasn't hoppy or bitter at all. Surprisingly, though, there was a little hint of some sort of pleasant flavour to it. I can't tell you what it was exactly, but I could describe it as a bit of respite in the midst of neon Friday night trendiness. It's like taking off your shoes (and possibly your shirt) and fitting your toes into Corky Carroll's footprints on the nearby Surfer's Walk of Fame while all these trendily-dressed young Orange County suburbanites rush to spend their parents' money on overpriced drinks in all the pounding, pulsating clubs and restaurants.

My Uncletom's pint of Brickshot Red, on the other hand, tasted like Coca-Cola. Yet another in a continuing trend of failed SoCal microbrews...