Top Tastings 2012 (The Pupil)
ABV: 9.8%, 6% and 7.7%
Origin: San Diego, California, USA
San Diego, a naval and university city in California’s far southwestern corner, is also a top craft beer producer, boasting heavy hitters like AleSmith, Port and Stone in the immediate vicinity. But there’s clearly still room for more, particularly when they’re as fresh and vibrant as Societe, with its smart new brewhouse and taproom among malls and light industry in Kearny Mesa, just off a freeway in the northwest of the city.
Societe – it’s tempting to pronounce it French-style but apparently you just say “society” – was set up in 2011 by Travis Smith and Doug Constantiner, who got together while both working at the Bruery in Placentia, though Travis gained previous brewing credentials at Russian River.
The range of styles is no longer any great surprise in Californian brewing – modern hoppy pale ales on the one hand, big Belgian-inspired monsters on the other. A collection of refill oak casks is already stacking up beside the cylindroconicals. But the considerable subtlety and deftness of touch with which those styles are executed marks Societe out as one to watch. So do the slightly puzzling names with their obligatory definite articles, which make any list of their beers read like the title of something on the Booker Prize shortlist.
There are a few surprises too. Reflecting the growing interest among US craft brewers in more everyday beers, The Harlot was inspired by Westmalle Extra, brewed at the West Flemish Trappist brewery for the monks’ own consumption though occasionally bottled and sold commercially. I’m not sure if there’s any satirical intent in giving a monastic-inspired brew such a provocative name, but it might raise an eyebrow among the Fathers.
At 6% the beer is still rather pumped up from the 4.8% of its inspiration, but it shares the latter’s subtlety and easy drinking character. It’s a golden beer with a fine white head and a light coriander accent to a spicy, flowery, creamy and very authentic aroma, with notes of waxy honey and spice.
A smooth lemony palate has grass, spiced orange, roses and violets, with light and gentle but fresh hops taking over in the finish. There’s perhaps just a little too much sweetness to make it truly refreshing but it’s a decent brew nonetheless.
More typically immense and Californian, though reassuringly well-integrated, is imperial stout The Butcher, a serious dark mahogany beer with a lacey brown head staining the glass yellow. There are already some autolysed gravy notes in a dark, intense and ashy aroma, with an emphasis on roasted grain yielding little fruit.
The huge and slightly phenolic palate has cocoa syrup, roast and tingling hops with an emerging fresh tropical fruit touch, dominated by coffee flavours. The finish is warmly alcoholic but stays smooth, with piny rooty hop resins on the tongue, hints of mature cheese around the edges, and thick cocoa bubbling like larva all over. Grapes and tropical fruit make a late reappearance.
There are several pale ales that share an approach to hopping favouring aroma and fruitiness over too much bitterness, and all those I tried were cheerful and interesting. Two IPAs were on offer when I called – The Apprentice and its milder counterpart The Pupil. And while I rated both highly, the latter was just my favourite.
It’s a hazy light yellow beer with a fine white head and an alluring tropical fruit aroma – New Zealand Nelson Sauvin is used alongside Citra and other US hops. Freshly squeezed lime also reached my nostrils, alongside a light note of fried egg protein.
That slight but not distracting egginess persisted in a full palate with clean citrus and lychee flavours, and inevitably some bitterness too, but staying rounded and fresh. The finish was squeaky clean and lingering, finally gently warming with a note of pepper and fruit – impressively easy going for such a hoppy beer.
I’m grateful to local expert and beer tour organiser Bill Snider of Ciao Travel who happily made Societe the first call of an evening’s whistle stop San Diego pub crawl.