As I type this, I’m taking shelter from the wind that is offering another merciful reprieve from the inevitable heat to come. When the heat does arrive, you can bet I’ll be looking to get the hell (no pun intended) out of the Coachella Valley when I can. Thankfully, there are many escape options, all within a two-hour drive—many with treats for the craft-beer lover.
Julian is a little mountain town, founded by a former Confederate soldier; Julian later saw a gold rush started by the find of a former slave. It’s about 100 miles from the Coachella Valley, a good way to the northeast of the more-densely populated parts of San Diego County. The first I heard of the town was due to the opening of Julian Hard Cider, which is fitting because—as many area signs will inform you—the town is known for its apple pies. There was also the lesser-known Julian Brewing Company that was started by Vince Marsaglia (co-founder of Pizza Port Brewing) and Tom Nickel (owner of the legendary O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego). I visited 2013 and was very impressed by the handful of highly drinkable beers they had on tap. During a tour of their three-barrel brewhouse, the highlight was the view of the horse next to a tree on the hill from the nearby window. To call it “rustic” would be to exaggerate.
That same year, Tom Nickel sold his stake in the company and opened Nickel Beer Company just a few minutes away. Julian Brewing Co. eventually closed (only to be reopened in 2017), while Nickel continued to take inspiration from local ingredients and was able to sell his wares at his own bar to boot. I was finally enticed to drive up to the brewery three years ago with a newsletter’s promise of “wet hop” ales. “Wet hops” are hops harvested from the bines (fun fact: hops grow on bines, not vines) in the fall and thrown into the kettle (or “dry-hopped” in the tanks … somehow, that is not an oxymoron). Wet hops give off different characteristics than their dried and pelletized counterparts—usually bright grassy flavors, but it can run the gamut. When you find a good one, the difference is noticeable, and the hop flavors and aromas seem a little more alive. Nickel didn’t disappoint: I tried at least four different beers all utilizing the wet hops, and every one was tasty and very quaffable.
When the latest newsletter promised beers using South African hops (a newer and brilliant hop-growing region whose hops are locked down pretty tightly thanks to AB InBev—truly the evil empire of the beer world) and a collaboration with New Hampshire’s Moonlight Meadery, I figured it was a good time to take another drive up the mountain. This was the Monday after the last weekend of the shitshow we’ve come to endure every year called Coachella, so I decided to head the opposite way, past the Salton Sea and up through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I like to try to work for my beers if possible, so I hiked up to Cuyamaca Peak (a mere 20 feet from being the highest peak in San Diego County). It’s paved, but the views—even of the once fire-ravaged landscape—are well worth the haul. After a bite to eat at the top (thank you, TKB Bakery and Deli, for making the beautiful sandwiches that you do!), it was time to head back into Julian and claim my prizes.
As you pull up to the brewery, you see just how small it is and how bucolic its surroundings are. The patio-seating area is almost as large as the entire building in square feet. But as we craft-beer fans know, it’s not the size of the ship, but the motion in the brew kettle.
I began with a few tasters to get the lay of the land. There was just too much I wanted to try, and a two-hour drive home awaited me. I tried the aforementioned pale ale containing the very tropical South African hop goodness. I can’t find this beer’s name (I failed to record it), but there is a wet hop version, and the hops for that were acquired from Star B Ranch in nearby Ramona.
Meanwhile, Dark Side of the Moonlight was decadent. This is the previously mentioned meadery collaboration; it’s an imperial honey porter using more than 100 pounds of local avocado honey which is dangerously drinkable for its 10.3 percent alcohol by volume. The grapefruit version of their Volcan IPA was filled with citrus character without being too big of a bitter bomb. But the winner of the Get in My Growler Prize was the Tahoma IPA. Tahoma hops were new to me (but then again, most hops are; there is a dizzying number of strains, with more coming out all the time); they impart a wonderful melon and bright citrus aroma and flavor. With the delicious malt base underneath, this got me ordering a full glass to accompany my view of the scenery.
A few beers I wanted to try, but couldn’t, are worth mentioning here. On the list is the Pickel Weisse. From their website: “Our Berliner Weisse is blended with our house made Spicy Garlic Dill Pickel Juice to create a very unique beer with a definitive pickle flavor and aroma. Great with Bloody Mary mix. Four percent alcohol.” I really want to try it and need to drop what I’m doing the next time it goes on tap. Sour Apple Pie Ale has me thirstily curious as well.
I feel like I could copy and paste the “Our Beers” section, and most of them would be on my wish list, but I think you get the point that I’m trying to make here: You should take your own trip up the mountain, and see for yourself.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.