Craft beer enthusiasts are always in search of great beer, whether in their home region or out of town. One area close enough for a weekend getaway is the City of San Luis Obispo. Already a haven for fine wine, it has quickly become a destination for quality craft beer. SLO award-winning breweries include Tap It Brewing Company, Central Coast Brewing Company and SLO Brew. We’ll focus this issue on SLO Brew, followed by a recap of the many awards received by So Cal brewers at October’s Great American Beer Festival GABF competition.

SLO Brew

SLO Brew has roots in San Luis Obispo that date back to 1988. Having experienced expansion and subsequent contraction in its earlier history, ownership changes and even loss of its name for some time, SLO Brew is back, stronger, rejuvenated and underway on an impressive pathway. Much is in the works at SLO Brew’s new Higuera Street location downtown and its production brewery a few miles south near SLO County Regional Airport.

Let’s begin downtown.

The Brew

In mid-2016 SLO Brew moved from its original location on Garden Street to the nearby historic 1905 Carissa Building at 736 Higuera. The renovated building incorporates two venues, The Brew and The Lofts. The Brew occupies the first floor. It houses SLO Brew’s original brewpub system and a pub-restaurant with sizeable stage for music. Chef Thomas Fundaro oversees the kitchen. He and his team create fresh and flavorful selections in a very approachable menu. My wife and I began by sharing an aperitif, the Barrel Aged Manhattan. SLO Brew’s very own rye whiskey combines with Carpano Antica, Luxardo Maraschino and orange bitters for a remarkable Manhattan. Through a joint venture with Alex Villicana, owner of Villicana Winery and Re:Find Handcrafted Spirits in Paso Robles, SLO Brew wort is fermented, distilled and aged at Re:Find’s facility. The result is a smooth and flavorsome rye. An onsite distillery is expected to be installed at SLOs new production facility in 2017.

Jan ordered the Bistro Steak Salad. I opted for Hatch Green Chili. Expecting a few pieces of meat tossed with greens, we were both surprised by a presentation of perfectly cooked Wagyu beef slices alongside locally sourced fresh hearts of romaine, red pear, walnuts and Point Reyes blue cheese dressing. My chili came replete with chunks of tender pork shoulder in a hearty hatch sauce that provided just enough heat to enhance flavor without overpowering. Tastes and pints of SLO signature brews would follow to complete our experience. 14 taps dispense SLO brews along with a couple of guests.

SLO’s Brewmaster Steve Courier has been brewing at SLO since 1998. After Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s purchase of SLO’s former production brewery in Paso Robles, Courier was also able to season his brewing chops at Firestone Walker. Now that SLO’s new production facility is up and running Courier is exclusively brewing and directing brewing operations at SLO Brew, along with brewer Luis Lapostol and the rest of his team. Each beer we tried was very well-appointed, especially Feelin’ Your Oats Oatmeal Stout, a beer that would just days later be awarded a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Core beers include The Original Blonde, Wave Wrangler Session IPA, Reggae Red, and Cali-Weisse.

The Lofts

At the end of the evening we didn’t have to venture far. The Lofts on the top floor of this historic building feature a selection of upscale one, two and three bedroom apartment-style suites with mega amenities, including full kitchens and impeccable appointments. Each room also comes with a record player, with a large selection of albums just down the hall. Whether you are in SLO for the beer, music or an event at one of SLO Brew’s venues, wine tasting in the region, or visiting your kid at Cal Poly, the lofts make a great headquarters. These luxury accommodations offer the choice of one, two and three-bedroom suites; many with decks overlooking the river and one with rooftop terrace. Large parties can even rent the whole floor.

The Rock

Three miles south of downtown, SLO Brew’s new complex at The Rock will soon be complete. Co-founder Hamish Marshall showed us around the property. The brewery is up and running. As for the rest of the property, an initial vision for a modest adjacent tap room pub has expanded into a destination complete with an expanded taproom, restaurant and beer garden, plus a 600 person event-space for concerts, weddings and special events.

Approachable in presentation, the taproom-restaurant will have views of the brewhouse beyond. A long bar with stained concrete preserves the industrial look. The perimeter area will consist of rollup garage-type doors opening to the patio that abuts a sizable natural rock formation that gives The Rock its name. Beyond the beer garden is the event space. Casual dining will feature SLO Brew food with a smokehouse theme. A large smoker has been secured for slow-smoking of brisket and other meats, offering a great deal more than just Santa Maria BBQ. The ample kitchen will serve onsite and supplement the brewpub downtown.

Upon entering the brewery the smell of mashing grains made it evident that the brewing team was hard at work. The substantial 30-barrel brewhouse and brewery tanks have been arranged to allow for easy expansion within SLO’s massive complex. All brewing equipment brewhouse, tanks, filter systems and canning line came from Italy’s Criveller Group, a leading brewery fabricator. “It’s cost a lot to do what we’ve done up-front, but it was with a vision of five years down the track. I think we will be able to sustain ourselves and provides us the space to grow,” Marshall shared. He went on to emphasize that the talented and dedicated teams in place on both the brewery and restaurant sides are key to sustaining and growing the business. “You can do whatever you want but if the product isn’t good it doesn’t mean a lot.” SLO’s first shipment of cans will hit local markets on November 11th San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. Soft opening of the restaurant is expected by November 15th. “Once we get up and running by the end of November it’ll be pretty sweet. It will be a great space for us and the community,” Hamish offered.

GABF

With over 7,000 entries coming from over 1,700 US breweries, So Cal brewers came away with 45 medals at this year’s GABF. San Diego’s Karl Strauss Brewing Company was Mid-Size Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year. Karl Straus received four medals, something almost unheard of these days. Gold came for Windansea Wheat in the South German-style Hefeweizen category and for Queen of Tarts, an American-Style Sour Ale. Team Karl was awarded bronze medals for Mosaic Session IPA and Liquid AC English-style Summer Ale.

13 other San Diego County breweries received medals.

SD Gold Medals: Bagby Beer Company Sweet Ride Bohemian-style Pilsener; AleSmith Brewing Company Old Numbskull Barley Wine; Second Chance Beer Co Tabula Rasa Toasted Porter; Culture Brewing Co’s Solana Beach American-Style Brown Ale; Rip Current Brewing: Breakline Bock.

SD Silvers Medals: Benchmark Brewing’s Oatmeal Stout, Duck Foot Brewing’s The Contender IPA with Fresh Chiles and BNS Brewing & Distilling for Gatling Gun Imperial Stout.

SD Bronze Medals: New English Brewing Co Zumbar Chocolate Coffee Imperial Stout, Societe Brewing Co’s The Volcanist American-style Stout, Alpine Beer Co HFS Strong Pale, Mother Earth Brew Co ESB and Pure Project Roes Red Belgian Style Lambic.

Inland north from San Diego, three breweries were awarded: gold for Temecula’s Wiens Brewing Co for Apricot Wheat, Belgian-style fruit beer, bronze for The Packinghouse Riverside Riley’s Irish Red and bronze for Belgian Honey Blonde from Rancho Cucamonga’s No Clue Craft Brewery.

Orange County brewers received seven medals. The Bruery Placentia came home with gold for Mischief American-Belgian-style and silver for the experimental beer, Wineification II. TAPS Fish House & Brewery Irvine, Brea and Corona also received gold for Silent Warrior Barrel Aged Strong, brewed at the team’s Corona location. Trevor Walls and his assistant Jon Eckelberger, earned their first Pizza Port San Clemente GABF medal, silver for Dusk ‘til Dawn Imperial Coffee Porter. Evan Price and Team Noble Ale Works Anaheim scored silver for Nobility Imperial IPA. Nano-brewery RIIP Beer Co Huntington Beach was awarded silver for Super Cali IPA in the highly contested 312 entries American IPA category. RIIP will soon be expanding to a 10 barrel brew system.

Working north to LA County, Highland Park Brewery and El Segundo Brewery both received gold medals: Bob Kunz and HPB for his delicious Good Green, and Casa Azul Dark Lager for El Segundo. Beachwood Blendery Long Beach earned its first medal in the Belgian-style Lambic/ sour ale category for Chaos is a Friend of Mine.

Two LA Arts District breweries, both barely a year old, also won first-time medals: silver for Arts District Brewing Co Cowboy Curtis smoked beer and bronze for Iron Triangle Brewing Co Jawbone Imperial Stout.

Jonathan Porter and the Smog City Brewing team in Torrance received a bronze medal for Sabre-Toothed Squirrel in the Amber/Red Ale category.

Lancaster’s Kinetic Brewing Co also earned bronze for 4th Gear, its 4th Anniversary chocolate beer.

Continuing up the coast, Island Brewing Co in Carpinteria also received a bronze medal for its anniversary beer, 15th Anniversary Ale, a session beer.

Three Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company locations received a combined total of four medals: Buellton: gold for its dunkel-style beer and bronze for its dark lager; Westlake Village: bronze for Figtoberfest fest-bier-style lager; and Arroyo Grande: bronze for its German-style schwarzbier.

Including the aforementioned Fig Arroyo Grande and the SLO Brew medals, breweries in San Luis Obispo County received five medals. Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company earned bronze for its well-decorated DBA Double Barrel Ale. Central Coast Brewing in San Luis Obispo scored gold for General Shwartz schwartzbier and bronze for Monterey Street American Pale.