Downtown San Diego’s Old Columbia Brewery & Grill, the city’s first “pub brewery,” actually looks like it should.
Neither cute nor suburban, the long room stretches back under a barrel-vaulted ceiling, the brick walls and utilitarian furniture giving it the appearance of a late Victorian warehouse.
On the right side of the room, the salient features are the highly polished brew kettles and beer tanks that squat behind plate-glass windows, and the bar that runs in front of them. Although the place opened just a month ago, sundowns find the bar jammed with patrons, most of them locked in conversation and downing brews with names like Gaslamp Gold and Old Columbia Amber Lager. The sight of so many people enjoying themselves is a real pleasure.
Old Columbia (which of course is new, not old) joins a group of about 75 independent microbreweries that have sprung up recently across the country; the idea actually is a rejuvenation of the old-fashioned practice of brewing in small batches for consumption on the premises. Old Columbia intends to produce about 46,500 gallons annually, an amount unlikely to put Miller Brewing Co. or Anheuser-Busch over a barrel when it comes to competing for the American beer dollar.
Consumers who value flavor in beer--an essential element that gradually has vanished as major brewers have cut back on hops content and have introduced watered-down “light” beers--will not only applaud Old Columbia, but will cheerfully look forward to two more microbreweries expected to open in the county later this year.
Old Columbia features “handmade” beers brewed according to recipes developed by Karl Strauss, retired brewmaster of the Pabst Brewing Co. and uncle of Old Columbia partner Christopher Cramer. Two--a golden ale and a lager--have been available recently, but plans call for the introduction of other types.
Critiquing a beer is not the easiest task. But consider Gaslamp Gold a beer of pronounced but mellow bitterness, with a strong finish and a rich, chewy body. The Amber Lager similarly is full and rich, but heavier, and is rather challenging to taste buds accustomed to more weak-kneed brews; it stands well on its own or as an accompaniment to strongly flavored or highly seasoned foods.
Food is a very strong element of the business at Old Columbia, but now it seems mostly an adjunct to the business of brewing and serving beer. The menu runs to some length and is well-designed as an accompaniment to the house brews, but the execution, by and large, is shaky. In truth, the one dish that really stood out among the many sampled on two recent visits was a dessert called “chocolate on tap,” a fudge brownie buried at the bottom of a goblet under vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
This dessert, of course, is not a dish meant to accompany beer. Among those designed for that purpose, the best bets are the beer-battered onion rings and the fish and chips. The batter used both for the onions and the fish is yeasty and perfumed with the beer that gives it its essence, and it puffs to a wonderful crispness in the deep fat.
The onion rings can start a meal; another happy starter that could double as a light entree is the sausage and cheese platter that pairs triangles of Jack and Cheddar with slices of cold bratwurst. French fries also are listed in the appetizer category, both plain or in a plethora of guises that include spuds draped with melted cheese, drowned in chili and, for die-hards, buried beneath slatherings of both.
The chili could have been hotter in temperature when sampled, but spice-wise, it made the mark. Leaning more heavily on minced beef than on beans, this one had a good tomato base and a relatively deep flavor, and was garnished on the side with chopped onions for those who don’t know when to quit. The menu also offers baked onion soup and a soup of the day, which recently was a “seafood bisque” of uncertain parentage that seemed like nothing so much as thickened clam juice garnished with a few snippets of shellfish. It was eminently forgettable.
Some entree-sized salads include beer in their dressings. The Cobb instead is moistened with a Champagne vinaigrette, which may be its best feature. This salad, to be correct, must be chopped, but the greens were in too large pieces; the worst part was the cubed chicken, which had been grilled over charcoal and had a strong, smoky flavor that fought all the other elements. Other choices in this department include Caesar, chef and vegetable salads.
Among heartier items, the meaty short ribs were interesting, not so much for their flavor (the menu claimed they were marinated in a “secret blend of herbs and spices,” a secret that must have been guarded from the cooks), but for their texture, which resembled that of a properly done pot roast. A hamburger (there are several varieties) was plump, but not particularly juicy or notable in other ways, except for the creamy, dill-flavored potato salad that accompanied it. The “Brewmaster” sandwich was much more interesting; it layered thinly sliced roast beef with Jack cheese and sliced chilies on a toasted roll, and made a hearty, savory meal.
Oddly enough, Old Columbia offers a good selection of California wines by the bottle and glass, and at prices that should make many San Diego restaurants blush. But the real interest here is the product that flows from the shiny vats in the back room, and San Diegans who like a decent beer should find that Old Columbia’s offerings have vintage qualities of their own.