Origin: San Diego, California, USA
I first heard about the buzz around beer in San Diego from some itinerant locals who struck up a conversation with me at Belgium’s Zythos Bierfestival in 2008. They also very kindly gave me a bottle of AleSmith’s celebrated Speedway Stout, which placed one of the city’s numerous highly admired breweries firmly on my map.
Like many new US craft breweries, AleSmith – in the northern suburbs of San Diego not far from the US Marine Corps air station at Miramar – is firmly rooted in the homebrewing movement. Founded by home brewers Skip Virgilio and Ted Newcomb in 1995, it was bought out in 2002 by another home brewer, Peter Zien, also an experienced beer judge, though brewer Tod Fitzsimmons, who has been there almost since the beginning, remains a major influence on the products. The preference is for strongish beers in big, smart bottles that are especially bold and distinctive even by southern Californian standards.
Wee Heavy, originally named J P Gray’s Wee Heavy after co-founder Skip Virgilio’s grandfather, was a relatively early American craft foray into the 90/- style of strong Scottish ale that is now all too rare in its homeland. It’s since become recognised as something of a benchmark, with several awards to its credit.
The beer derives colour and character from dark roasted malt, pouring a rich deep ruby brown with a fine yellowish head. A smooth, winy, slightly woody and chocolatey aroma has notes of rich raisin-tinged malt.
The palate is also full, smooth, rich and winy, but notably dry, balanced by roasted malt, more woodiness and generous hops lending bitter herb and fruit notes. A long and warming finish has bitter herbs, chocolate, a burr of roast malt and tannic cherry-inflected wood. Overall it’s an outstanding example of how US craft brewers have reinterpreted endangered European styles with flair.
My notes are based on a 750ml bottle from City Beer in San Francisco.