The “Chain” Conundrum: A San Diego Experiment

I admit I have a thing for Starbucks. I like the burnt bite of espresso in my mocha. I frequent local coffee joints too. If they produce a similar deep, rich espresso bite, I’ll be a repeat customer. Where Starbucks excels is consistency. My favorite independent joints share this trait and add quality atmosphere to the mix.  Starbucks actually ticked me off when corporate “retrained” all their employees a couple of years ago to try and turn Starbucks back into a “neighborhood” coffee shop.  No! I’m perfectly happy getting the consistently good beverage I’m wanting without being peppered with ten questions about how my day is going in a false effort to replicate my favorite independent joint. Accept who you are Starbucks.

But I digress.  Sort of. The beer world has its own chains. We recently took a trip down to San Diego to escape what has become the longest winter in Missoula’s history. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)  The sun was as warm and the sea air as pleasant as you’re imagining while reading this and I’m perfectly happy to make you a bit envious for a minute. I like getting an urban fix every once in a while.  I really like having a wealth of new things to check out. Particularly if there might be beer involved.

San Diego has roughly 32 breweries in its extended area, though that number includes multiple sites of a couple of them.  It is a thriving beer scene with many bars and taverns dedicated to local craft brews.  So, with a choice like that, would you step into “chain” brewery or restaurant to grab a beer?  We did.

I suspect your gut reaction to that question is the same as mine – a strong “heck no!” Nevertheless, it is important for someone to do the research and bring you thought provoking information.  It might as well be us. The two we picked were Rock Bottom Brewery and Yard House.  The “why” is a combination of factors.  Curiosity is one of them. Convenience is another. In the Yard House’s case, the lure of 130 taps is pretty strong for a craft beer writer. As you walk San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter on a busy night you’re endlessly bombarded by people hawking the attributes of one restaurant to the next.  Trying to choose can become paralyzing and it is almost easier to look for the familiar. Until you get the scoop from insider information or your own experimentation, it can be tough to know where to go to find the gems.

Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery has 35 locations across the U.S. with a relatively familiar menu of good brewery restaurant standards. Each location has a core selection of the same beer, but the beer is brewed on-site and the brewers have flexibility to brew their own signature beers. A bartender at a hip nearby joint that features local beer sneered a bit at the idea that Rock Bottom would have beer worthy enough to compete with San Diego’s finest. It is a sentiment held by many beer connoisseurs that goes along with the “chain” conundrum.  Thus, with curiosity and perhaps a few preconceived expectations we stopped in to give it a test.

I don’t profess to have enough experience with the 32 breweries of the San Diego to be knowledgeable of the whole scene. We did try enough local brews to know they run the gamut from the marginal to the exceptional.  The two we tried at Rock Bottom were Hop Bomb IPA and Sunset Imperial Stout.  The verdict?  Both were very good, exceeding expectations and far better than a few local, non-chain beers we tried. Hop Bomb IPA (7.6%, 68 ibus) was a medium gold color with a thicker, white head and a strong pine hop aroma. Flavors of spicy pine hops dominate with a big hop bitterness punch up front that backs off to a nice balanced finish.  I didn’t keep notes of the stout but remember it having a creamy smooth mouthfeel with tons of chocolate flavors. Would Rock Bottom become a favorite destination?  Probably nothing more than an occasional visit given all the other great places to go, but any notion that a “chain” can’t brew good beer was certain dispelled.

Yard House bills itself as the world’s largest selection of draft beer and has 29 locations with seven more on the way soon. Our friendly bartender told us San Diego’s location has 130 taps and, that night, 116 different beers (the picture below isn’t even half of them).  There were a few “house” beers but the majority were a combination of standbys from the larger craft breweries and a number of local and regional brews.  We were told only two of the taps rotated. Really? Out of 130?  The extensive restaurant menu has something for everyone and we found the food quite good and the atmosphere lively and fun.

But here’s the odd thing.  We had trouble finding beers we wanted to try.  Many are familiar ones we’ve tried before or can regularly get at the grocery store.  Several of the ones we sampled seemed mainstream with no “wow” factor or enough to hold our interest.  There IS good beer there. Lost Coast Downtown Brown (Eureka, CA) is a very good brown ale with quite a bit of character.  Locally brewed Green Flash West Coast IPA provided a huge hop aroma to go with excellent citrus (and a touch of pine resin) hop flavors. Our conclusion of Yard House? Quality still beats quantity. There’s no reason to shun Yard House because it is a chain and the large draft selection provides a great opportunity to explore a range of beer styles, particularly for someone just catching the craft beer bug.  But for the more advanced craft beer lover, the lack of rotation provides little chance for exploration.  Plus, with a few exceptions the “wow” factor beers aren’t present, even though there’s plenty of support for local breweries.

None of this should be taken as a complaint. Just a reminder to keep an open mind and you’ll run into some unexpected finds from time to time.  And did I mention the warm sun and pleasant sea breezes of San Diego?

Rest assured, we definitely made it to some great local joints and found some fantastic local brews which we’ll write about soon.  Plus, we made a list of places we did not have time to check out for our next trip.  If you find yourself walking around the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego looking for a bite to eat, we recommend the Urban Bar & Grill and Searsucker.  Neither are beer destinations, but the food at both is excellent as is the atmosphere.