By Frank Sabatini Jr.
10 Barrel Brewing settles into the local beer and dining scene
I’m going to take a stand that won’t sit well with San Diego’s homegrown brewers and their diehard fans: The beers produced by 10 Barrel Brewing in the East Village fall squarely into the craft category. And many of them taste just as good, if not better, than the suds flowing out of our esteemed local breweries.
Because the company was founded in Oregon and came under the ownership of corporate giant Anheuser-Busch — the makers of savor-less Budweiser and Bud Light — its 10 Barrel subsidiary landed on the public guillotine.
Several local breweries crowdfunded a banner that was flown over the East Village brewery-restaurant last year during opening weekend, which stated 10 Barrel is not a craft brewery. Since then, the company has been banned from local beer festivals, and it still repels a slice of San Diego’s beer-drinking population because of its parent company.
“I haven’t any doubt they’re making quality craft beer,” said one-time customer Daniel Hicks of nearby Golden Hill. “But knowing that my money will ultimately end up in the coffers of Anheuser-Busch is reason enough for me to go elsewhere.”
Ben Shirley is the master brewer for 10 Barrel’s San Diego location. He produces nearly a dozen beers onsite through a 20-barrel brewing system and insists that Anheuser-Busch is “hands-off” when it comes to the varied beer recipes. Ditto for the food menu, which is headed by chef Tommy Fraioli, who hails from Beaumont’s Eatery and the former Sea Rocket Bistro.
“We are our own brewery, and we chose San Diego because it’s where people know beer,” said Shirley while citing the range of hops he uses in beer-making, such as those from South Africa for his light, crisp Sasquatch ale; American Northwest Chinook hops for achieving grapefruit-like overtones in Brickdust red ale; and English target hops, which play into the robustly roasted flavor of Boneriver double black ale.
For Shirley’s Airstrike IPA (created in response to the protest banner that flew overhead), an aromatic trio of cascade, comet and Chinook hops impart a quasi-tropical flavor perfected beyond any you’ll find in the commercial beer aisles.
Beer aficionado Mark Scott of Little Italy cares less about territorial antics than he does how the suds taste and feel in his mouth.
“I’ve tried around five different beers from 10 Barrel and I liked all of them enough to go back and drink more,” he said, referring in particular to the Cali Love IPA, which stood out to him as “quintessential San Diego.”
Shirley says it’s become a top seller.
Visiting as a twosome, one of our favorites in an 11-beer sampler was the Night Cap porter on nitro, which Shirley designed to taste like German chocolate cake. Its creamy notes of coconut and baker’s chocolate indeed hit the mark.
In comparison to our diverse and satisfying beer intake, the food we ordered was hit and miss.
A starter of smoked corn shaved fresh from the cob proved satisfying with the inclusions of cotija cheese, sour cream, lime and cilantro. Conversely, the Baja Caesar salad, which substituted desirable baby gem lettuce for that week’s recalled romaine lettuce, was overly tart due to a heavy hand of Tajin seasoning afflicting the dressing.
An order of “party wings” were rubbery, despite our plea to have them cooked extra-extra crispy. They arrived to the table in five minutes, a telltale sign our request had fallen through the cracks.
With enough good beer in our sampler lineup to wash down more grub, we encroached on the jalapeno popper burger featuring a hefty patty of coarsely ground wagyu beef adorned with cream cheese, fried jalapenos, bacon and veggie fixings. It was served on a jalapeno-cheddar bun. I was craving something deliciously busy — and got it.
A pair of tacos encasing beer-battered cod lacked oomph, despite the fact the fish was in the good company of radishes, smoked-scallion crema and feta cheese. But as I’ve learned in this town, playful enhancements don’t always send the classic flavors and textures of fish tacos to a better place.
We lastly tried a house-made pizza carpeted in well-spiced pepperoni. Most of the pie came home with us, at which point we discovered it completely lacked tomato sauce under its thin layer of mozzarella. A full ladle of sauce was needed to bring it up to par.
Other food options include shrimp Cobb salad; pan-roasted free-range chicken with broccolini, roasted garlic and mashed potatoes; short rib mac and cheese; carne asada street tacos and a chimichurri steak sandwich.
For dessert we chose a big, square piece of butter cake, which was accented with tart berry sauce. My companion compared the flavor and consistency to a fluffy pancake, which didn’t appeal to her. Just as well because I fell in love with how nicely the sweetness of the cake contrasted the tangy sauce.
Seating at 10 Barrel Brewing is available on two levels. The ground floor greets with a retail-merchandise area and offers views into the semi-open kitchen and looming steel tanks. The upstairs features a roomy bar and plenty of tables under open skies.
The brewery has supplied some of its beers to other local bars as well as to events such as San Diego LGBT Pride and Oktoberfests in La Mesa and Oceanside.
“We’re doing our best to be part of the community,” Shirley added while shrugging off the local beer community’s noisy opposition to 10 Barrel when it first opened. He acknowledges most the commotion has died down while pointing to new brews soon to be introduced — chi spice on nitro, a dark Mexican lager, and an agave sour — beers that are technically classified as “craft.”
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of“Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.