For a minute I thought the main reason for all the happiness might be the little peekaboo window. It looks out from the curved brick shower into Room 2 at the new hipster boutique hotel La Granada (805-544-9100) in downtown San Luis Obispo.
The other aspects of the room – the little iron balcony, the vintage fixtures and puppy-soft bedding – are immaculate themselves, but c’mon. Where else in the country can you talk through a porthole to pals while scrubbing your bum?
But then I thought it might be the slick cruiser bikes with baskets and racks that come with the room ($249-$299). Or Chef Spencer Johnston’s fried squash blossoms stuffed with herbs and cheese ($14) in the hip (and eponymous) bistro next door.
It could have been the student-friendly deals on Chorro Street: $5 sangria plus chorizo-stuffed-bacon-wrapped dates on the sunny patio at Luna Red; $2.50 big, rustic foccacia plus $4 off craft-draft pitchers at Sal Paradise Bakery; and free live music with massive English-style pasties at SloCo Pasty Co.
Then again, it might be the giant rocks poking through the walls of the bathroom at Madonna Inn Expo Center, where Modest Mouse played last week, or the Devil’s Mess ($10.95) breakfast at Big Sky Cafe.
But turns out it’s not. On the way out of town, ironically – in the neighboring city of Paso Robles – I found the real reason San Luis Obispo was named happiest city in the country by National Geographic: great beer.
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Last fall at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, the most competitive of 84 categories – with more than 200 expert entries – was American-style pale ale. The champ: Westin Joy by San Luis’ Tap It Brewing (805-545-7702).
Tap It is one of a growing family of area breweries – including SLO Brewing, Creekside, Barrelhouse, Central Coast Brewing and Molly Pitcher – stamping our neighboring county on the beer map. The biggest and best among them – 2012’s Best Midsize Brewery at the World Beer Cup and a 2012 GABF gold medalist too – is Firestone Walker Brewing Company. That’s fortunate for us, since FWBC has been the SLO suds most available here and an increasingly enthusiastic participant in Big Sur foodie fests. Now, the experience at their recently improved brewery and still-new beer-bar-and-grill across the street is better than it’s ever been.
A semi-circle Visitor’s Center bar (805-225-5911) welcomes guests for tastings 10am-5pm daily, and for tours by appointment during the week and 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm and 2:30pm Friday-Sunday.
Articulate and enthusiastic assistant manager Jason Schmidt’s tour through the cellar, lab, brew deck and packaging reveals why the beer makes people happy: The patented double-barreling system – the only one like it in the U.S. – imparts round toffee-vanilla-oak flavors on flagship beers like the unfiltered Double DBA Imperial Special Bitter (12 percent alcohol by volume, 30 international bittering units).
The barrel breakthrough was a natural nexus, as brothers-in-law David Walker (the English lion on the label) and Adam Firestone (the California bear pictured too) wanted to incorporate what they learned at Firestone Winery decades before barrel-work became one of the dominant trends in craft beer.
“That’s what makes Firestone Firestone,” Schmidt says.
The tour also shows why there is more beer flowing now: The new-this-summer, massive, stainless steel, electronic-brained GEA Huppmann tanks double daily output (and self clean).
Back in the visitor’s center, the hoppy Pivo Pils (5.3 ABV, 40 IBUs) proves a study in authentic German style pilsner, clean and crisp but not sharp at all. The dry-hopped Pale 31 (4.9, 38) is a textbook iteration of the Cali pale itself. The UDBA (5, 30) earns its rep as the oak barrel union system poster beer, with all the best vanilla notes a nice barrel can bring. The super-fresh, lively, good-skunky Wookey Jack (8.5, 80) was so tasty an unfiltered black rye IPA that I bought a t-shirt. (I can see how it claimed a GABF gold.) The bourbon barrel aged Parabola (13, 82) is a big Russian imperial stout with espresso and smoke flavors flowing. The Velvet Merlin (5.5, 27) uncarbonated oatmeal stout brings a creamy chocolate character that gets Guinness on freshness and fun.
Each beer name has a story behind it – the Wookey wasn’t a Star Wars shout-out, but a nod to the Englishman Walker’s favorite bar – but the real story behind the clear identities of the diverse styles is Matt Brynildson (nickname Velvet Merlin), who brings in local winemakers to find the very best blend of beers for the strictly limited circulation of anniversary ales, of which insiders say this year’s may be the very best. (That was available at Post No Bills till it sold out; fortunately a range of other FWBC beers are stocked, as they are at better beer outposts across the county).
A few tastes are only poured at the V.C. and the 1-year-old Tap Room next door, which is almost as shiny and impressive as the brewery, with fermenters working as the hostess desk and entrance to the rest rooms. FWBC 22-ounce beers move along a conveyor belt above the bar, four-snifter wood tasting racks roll out to one of 75 or so tables and, much like the setting, the menu is beer-infused, stylish and minimalist: balsamic-portobello pizzas on DBA beer crusts ($14), ground chuck burgers from cows fed spent grain from the brewery ($10) and Beto’s fish tacos ($14) perfect for Pale 31 pairing. We pounced on a truffled maple bacon grilled cheese on brioche bread ($13).
While our wines can compete with SLO-Paso’s, for now our beers can’t. And while we can claim it as our sibling to the south, what I’d really like to see shared is SLO-style teamwork between Monterey County winemakers and brewers. The barrels make the beer, and we’ve got some barrels around here.
And, while we’re borrowing some of SLO’s happy aspects, more local love for bikes would help too. And more hip hotels and college-student-style deals. And little portholes, please.
: : QUICKBITES : :
• Big Big Sur news: Former GM at Big Sur Bakery and all-around South Coast stud Matt Glazer is giving Big Sur Roadhouse (667-2264) new life starting mid-summer. “It will be a hybrid of light fare and hearty soulful options,” he tells me, “and some New Orleans flavors – an homage to my home.” More on the blog.
•Pho King (899-1424) in Seaside is largely vacated of life. The folks at the liquor store next door say they’re bye bye. So I’ll be wearing black – maybe my black “Pho King Delicious” hat. Pho King bummer.
• Phat Burger (394-7428) says it’s getting booted by its landlord. No more until they find another spot. Last day is this Friday.
• A Piece of Cake (682-2683) is now without a home after its own landlord evac. They’re hoping to find a commercial kitchen on the north or south side of Salinas. As the team writes via Facebook, “Salinas we love you and hopefully we meet again… ”
• Amir’s Grill & Bar (642-0231): Only place I know where you can have mantu ($5.95), prawn, salmon and lamb kebabs ($18.95), the best basmati rice in town, explosive green house chutney, a Scrimshraw draft ($4 during happy hour) and a front row seat for bellydancing every other Friday night at 7:30 and 9pm (including April 26). Beaut.
• The reality is cruel: One in five Monterey County residents needs food assistance. This response is inspiring: Tarpy’s, La Balena, Le St. Tropez, Basil, Patisserie Boisserie, Cypress Inn, Ventana, Wrath, Scheid, Trio Carmel, Cima Collina and Chesebro collaborating on Small Bites for Big Hunger Friday, May 3, at All Saints’ Church. Tickets are $40 right now at 334-9026 or www.allsaintschurch.org ($50 after).
• The Indy Dinner Series at The Independent Marketplace (750-9579) goes boho Big Sur style May 2 at 5pm to benefit Henry Miller Library: pig porchetta from PigWizard, beautiful breads from The Big Sur Bakery, Sierra Mar sommeliers, and Magnus Toren showing off his tattoos. Great value at $10/kid; $20/military; $25/adult.
• 1833 (643-1833) welcomes some of Oregon’s best grapes, courtesy of Janie Brooks Heuck and Brooks Winery for another wow wine dinner ($85) Monday, April 29, with four Levi Mezick courses like lacquered quail and salsa verde pork loin.
• Community improvement gets cracking at the VFW hall in Spreckels Saturday, April 27, for the Salinas Northeast Rotary Club’s (759-9553) 1st annual All You Can Eat Crab Feed (757‐5324), with a cocktail reception, silent auction and dinner. All proceeds benefit Rotary charities.
• Baby goats, electric cars, native plant and organic start sales and La Bicyclette’s James Anderson doing pizzas in the outdoor kitchen, all at MEarth Day ($5) 10am-4pm Saturday, April 27.
•“A fine beer may be judged with only one sip,” goes the Czech proverb, “but it’s better to be thoroughly sure.”