Coronado Brewing And The Beauty of Growlers

July 13 2011 - 8:40 AM

Out in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of San Diego, little Coronado Island rises out of the cold waters as a tree-lined village of earth tones.  About half a block from the water's edge on Coronado Island is a red brick building adorned by palm trees, modestly suggesting a tourist trap.  That is Coronado Brewing, described as having been founded by four brothers.   It's 1, 736 miles from Chicago, which, besides Siberia, is about the last place the sun spoiled denizens of this laconic paradise think about on a daily basis.  That's a long journey for a growler of beer.

A friend of mine and I went out to Coronado Labor Day weekend, 2010, after having "discovered" the brewery's divine Idiot IPA as a guest beer at Stone Brewery which we toured the day before.  Idiot was so distinctive with its hops bouquet, and we became so quickly acquainted with it, that a proud San Diego native could not fool us in a Pepsi challenge between Idiot and the popular local fave, Green Flash West Coast IPA. 

Our visit to Coronado treated us quite well.  It feels like a Rock Bottom Brewery if your hometown pal's mom and dad owned a Rock Bottom.  A local sat at the bar drinking an Islander IPA in an "official" club member mug.  I recall drinking an Islander and an Idiot.  The freshness was stunning.  Nothing but good vibes enveloped the room as we met some cool Air Force pilots looking to navigate a few awesome brews.  I left Coronado that evening thinking that I could go there every day and never get tired of their beers and hospitality.  Even after having been gone for only a few moments, I longed for a future return, never imagining that Coronado would soon be dropping in on me.

The growler's journey began with a simple text message, "Growler or six pack?"  A friend of mine in L.A. recently made a trip to San Diego and, on my encouragement, made it down to Coronado for some food, company, and, of course, the incredible tap.  I naturally asked for a sixer of the Idiot, and within a week, this large brown box had made its way to my Lakeview doorstep.  Opening the box must have taken 20 minutes and seemed like an hour for my kid-on-Christmas-morning hands.   Finally, after I had removed that last obstructing piece of tape and accessed the contents, I expectedly found the sixer of Idiot, and a pint glass, but also a surprise.  Behold, I was the proud recipient of a dark growler containing the Coronado signature mermaid logo, commemorating their sturdy Mermaid Red Ale, probably their original brew. I presumed the growler to contain Idiot and salivated at the thought of those hops on my tongue.  But this would not be.

My friend had actually sent me a different Coronado brew in the growler, the Four Brothers Pale Ale.  I'm normally not a fan of pale ales, which are often blander and less hoppy than IPA's, thin-bodied, and not as crisp as pilsners or kolsch's. Too many brewers think they have to make one.  I didn't know what to think.  BeerAdvocate has about 9 or so ratings for the Four Brothers dating back to 2003, most of which rate it as pretty average although the reviews suggest that this beer has gone though several revampings over the years.  Had I read these reviews before popping the growler, the ultimate shock which I'm about to describe would have been overwhelming.  The growler spent a week in my fridge as I contemplated when to open it, and in the interim, partook in an Idiot IPA, which poured relatively fresh from a 12 oz. bottle. Unfiltered, it was fun to watch the particles cascade to the bottom of the glass like descending seahorses.

Then came time for opening the growler, and a backyard birthday barbeque proved the perfect venue for unveiling this well-traveled jug of brew.  I made no promises to the birthday boy and his pale ale loving friend who had gleefully shared a growler of a coffee-colored IPA filled at some small Michigan brewery.  Getting the tape off the growler's lid proved challenging but the decision to apply the black electrical tape indicated that somebody really had a clue; I'm not sure whether this idea owed to my friend or the brewer, but it was well-played. My excitement grew as I wiped bits of cooler ice off the growler's cold metal. 

Picture sunshine and three empty Dogfish head pint glasses. I'm pouring the first round from the black growler that offered no hints of its contents beyond the sea damsel on the logo.  The Four Brothers Pale Ale emerged with billowing foam that quickly settled atop a tan, light brown brew, about the color of an Alpha King.  Virgin hops exploded on your nose; the freshness was jarring, as if CBC had somehow packed that growler with the Pacific Ocean, La Jolla sand, Pacific pine trees, and just about every other indicia of West Coast nature. 

The pale ale was intensely fresh, robust and crisp with a medium body enhanced by opulent carbonation. It does what a great pale ale is designed to do, erases your palate and leaves you refreshed with little aftertaste.  It bit the palate hard.  I tasted pine, resin, some citrus, and stone.  A gentle layer of malts were more implied than detectable.  Most remarkable was the overall feel of freshness as if I was drinking it from the barrel after having been first opened the day before.  The water, the hops, every element had uncanny purity. The beer clearly got major thumbs up from the partakers at the party and was easily up to the challenge of satisfying us on a hot afternoon.  Like all great beers, it announced itself and prevailed upon our attention without becoming tiresome or overwhelming. 

As for lessons learned, I plan on bringing growlers far more often in the future. They feature the nuances of beers far better than bottles and can lead to the type of memorable experiences as described above.  This is a path I'm especially likely to pursue with local beers such as Revolution, Half Acre, whose lineup is rapidly expanding, and perhaps Argus or Wild Onion.  Growlers are much more of a hassle to acquire and are more expensive, and harder to transport, but if you wish to fully experience a beer, they are far more rewarding than buying bottles.  And they don't mind a long journey. 

Have growler, will travel. 

–Mark Sheppard