Wild Barrel Brewing. Needles in the Haystack.

by BeachRock Bill

The ” Wild” barrels in action

With a September of Haziness and an October of Festbier out of the way, it was time to decide on the next San Diego brewery to visit. Our friend Guillermo asked if he could accompany Wife Helen and me on our next adventure. Guillermo has a storied beer history–a long-time homebrewer, brew club member, and BJCP Judge, Guillermo courageously took the plunge a decade ago and opened a brewery. His brewery quickly became an underground success with an original Schwarzbier and a Dunkelweissen as the crowd favorites. Despite critical success, Guillermo became uneasy with how crowded the San Diego marketplace was becoming, and eventually sold out after a few years in business.

Needless to say, Guillermo knows a ton about beer, especially the old-world stuff. I had my work cut out for me finding something that not only had boozy choices for Helen but also European stuff for Guillermo.

Scouring San Diego brewery tap lists, I recognized Wild Barrel Brewing in San Marcos from store shelves around town. One of the top 20 breweries in San Diego in terms of production size, Wild Barrel derives its name from the “wild” yeast cultures that are typically introduced to a finished beer and then barrel-aged. Depending on the base beer, barrel type, and the yeast involved, the results can range from gently fruity to deeply complex and funky. The defining trait of these beers is their sour or tart character, which comes from the wild yeast. This tartness replaces hop bitterness as the counterpoint to the malt and alcohol sweetness.

With over 30 beers on tap, half being sours, the other half including Imperial Stouts and various styles of IPA, I was hoping Wild Barrel would be the perfect spot to please all three of our palates. We stopped and grabbed Guillermo along the way in the Turbo Civic, and headed through Friday night traffic to Wild Barrel’s brewery and tap room at the far reaches of San Marcos.

First Impressions: the cool, the scary, the weird

Signpost with notable landmarks.

The cool thing about Wild Barrel’s location is it’s right on the main road, a block away from Lost Abbey’s brewery. I’m sure many Lost Abbey sour lovers see the sign and stop in. The scary thing is the brewery and its parking lot are a mere 200 yards away from the North County Sheriff’s station. One has to wonder if any surveillance is kept as people drive off after a visit. The weird thing about the location is the entrance shares a hallway with a batting cage, where high schoolers and Little Leaguers with their parents work on their swings for the big games. Do Mom and Dad ever sneak across the hall for a quick pint?

There are two large screens over the bar, each showing an equal number (16) of beers on tap. The left screen consists of the more typical offerings–Lagers, IPAs, Hazys, and Stouts–while the right screen is all about the “wild” stuff. With so many beers to choose from, we were pleased that Wild Barrel offers 4-ounce tasters. We perused the two menu screens to pick what we hoped would be a good assortment for our first round.

Knowing Guillermo would gravitate to the sours on the right menu, I zeroed in on the left side’s four hazys. Wife Helen looked no further than an Imperial Stout with the name “Rye Bourbon Chocolate Soft Serve.”

Guillermo Goes Wild

As expected, Guillermo went wild, ordering up a chardonnay-aged Sour called “Aged Upon Oak,” a barrel-aged sour named “Gourdy,” a 3-year-old rye barrel-aged Old Ale dubbed “Not Last Year’s Fruitcake,” and a GABF gold medal winning Berlinerweisse cleverly named… wait for it… “Vice.”

The 16 “wild” right-screen options

Another round

We grabbed our flights and chose a table close to the bar to sit down. I love that WB serves its small pours in regular-sized snifters, which allows swirling and sniffing for optimal aroma projection. As we began to sample our selections, I enlarged pictures of the menus on my phone to get some information on what we were trying. I quickly realized that the vast majority of the “wild” offerings (12 of 16) were just different fruited and slushee-ed takes on the GABF-winning Vice. Understandably, Vice turned out to be one of the most solid beers of the night, and any leveraging of its tastiness as a base beer is a simple no-brainer. So by going back and ordering just a few representative fruited and slushee versions, we would get a pretty good idea of the entire “wild” side, which would allow us to turn our attention to the left menu and still stay relatively sober for the trip home.

The 16 supposedly non-wild left side

Being dinner time we were starved. So the next order of business before we delved deeply into our tasters was to order burgers and fries on the app from that evening’s rotating food truck–Copper Kings. While we waited for our food, I figured I might as well get in the bar line developing for the additional samples that would round out our exploration of the evening’s tap list.

Following a few of the Beertender’s suggestions, I ordered two fruited Vices–one with prickly pear and one with papaya orange guava (POG)–and a Pastry Sour fruited with papaya and mulberry. Wife Helen chose our Slushee Vice–again going mostly by name, and “Blueberry Jam” sounded right up her alley. With the “wild” side of the board pretty much taken care of, I ordered a Witbier, two West Coast IPAs, two Double IPAs, and a Cold IPA from the other side. As the food arrived, the table was getting crowded.

A crowded table of rapidly vanishing food and lightly touched samples.

Crave Factor Low

We proceeded to dig into our baker’s dozen of representative brews with 4S gusto (swirling, sniffing, sipping, and swallowing). As our tasting progressed, the consensus with sample after sample was that the majority, while drinkable, were as a group striking us as pretty much Crave Factor Low material. There were a few that we could have enjoyed more if not for some noticeable issues getting in the way — the crystal clear Hazies, the over-coriandered Wit, the IPA and Imperial Stout with sour notes (intended or infected?), and one of the barrel-aged sours with a slightly unpleasant green apple aroma.

Our burgers and fries quickly disappeared while many of our samples languished in their glasses.

Needles in the haystack

Wife Helen finds her prickly needle.

Thankfully all was not lost. There were some true nuggets that redeemed Wild Barrel in our eyes. The flagship Vice is an outstanding beer worthy of its accolades. Very pale, Vice has a wonderful clean maltiness that supports the perfect level of sour tartness, finishing with a subtle level of fruitiness. I can see why Wild Barrel has decided to derive 1/3 of all its menu offerings from this one beer alone. We only tried two, but I’m sure many of Vice’s fruited offspring have similarly high Crave Factors. The Vice Prickly Pear was the standout–in fact, Wife Helen deemed it her favorite sip of the evening and moved it to her side of the table to finish off by herself.

Guillermo and I both agreed the best beer of the night was a barrel-aged sour called “Aged On Chardonnay.” With the servers too busy for queries, a quick visit to the WB website gave us a wonderful description of this perfectly crafted beer

“Twin blond beers aged in French oak barrels with two different cultures, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces for 48 months, then reunited and cold cellared for an additional 6 months. Soft French oak and wood vanillins give way to tart barrel notes that linger as you sip and then slowly transition into soft blond citrusy flavors reminiscent of chardonnay as the glass warms in your hand. Looking for something new, look no further!”

Right on, right on, and I’d love to get a crowler of this to bring to Thanksgiving dinner!

All in all, it was a very pleasant and worthwhile evening for the three of us. The Copper King’s burgers were delicious, the Wild Barrel facility is well done, comfortable, and inviting, and the large tap list has many fun and interesting choices as well as a few memorable nuggets. Helen even got a Prickly Pear four-pack to take home as a memento of our evening.

As we hopped in the turbo Civic for our long drive home, I couldn’t help but take a quick glance over my shoulder towards the Sheriff’s station before I pulled out of the lot.

Until next time,

Cheers,

BeachRock Bill

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