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 BEST RESTAURANT MICROBREWERY

We had no trouble finding volunteers for this assignment -- sampling beer and food to determine which is the Best Restaurant Microbrewery In and Around Tustin.

For purposes of this review, we decided to include only places with beer AND food. Stand-alone breweries will have to wait for another day. We also decided to do this in two or three passes, because you don't want to rush to judgment when there is beer involved.  Our first pass will review just the beer.  We want an undistracted sampling of all the beers, with no introduction of food variables.  To win the title of Best Micro Brewery, the beer has be top notch.

On our second pass we'll take in more of the food so we can also opine on the food and surroundings.  Of course, while we're there, we'll confirm our opinions on the beer and make sure they stand up to the food.  Tough duty.  We've decided to post our results as we go, to involve you in the experience.

On the first night we visited Tustin Brewing Company and Oggi's Pizza and Brewing Company.  We sent two veteran beer drinkers, AP and ST, to do the deed, and they will also participate in the remaining samplings to keep a constant among the reviewers, although we may add other aficionados as we go.  BS went along as the designated driver.  He is not a beer connoisseur so his comments are not included since they would be mostly, well, BS. 


TUSTIN BREWING COMPANY

Secret Reviewer AP has imbibed at Tustin Brewing Company many times, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi to do some writing while quaffing a brew.  He went in knowing that a few of the beers miss the mark, but kept an open mind, treating each beer as if it was his first encounter.  This was especially appropriate since Tustin Brewing Company recently brought in a new brewmeister, Andy, and his treatment of the beers will likely result in some variations from earlier formulations.  This was ST's first exploration of the beers there, so she truly was untainted. 

The sampler at Tustin Brewing Company includes five beers for $6.50, served in small pilsner glasses.  The server rattled off the order of the beers when she brought the sampler, but we would prefer something to indicate which beer is which.  Note to Tustin Brewing Company:  Go to BJ's Brewhouse and adopt that manner of presentation.

On a scale of 1 to 10, ten being highest (keeping in mind there are no tens, and for a nine the angels must sing), AP and ST rated the beers as follows:

A nice, if not very complex, light colored American Lager/Ale.  No unpleasant aftertaste.  This would be a good choice following a baseball game, when you just want a refreshing, not heavy, beer.  Tustin Brewing Company's Golden Spike Light Ale is comparable to Sam Adams Light.

AP - 6
ST - 7

Medium copper body with a slight aroma of malt.  We don't know what they were going for with this American Pale Ale, but they missed.  Nasty aftertaste.  We'd like to offer a scenario where this beer might be acceptable, but our minds immediately go to natural disasters with nothing else to drink, so we'll leave it alone.
AP - 5
ST - 4

The Lemon Heights Hefeweizen is an unfiltered (cloudy) wheat beer, with 30 percent malted wheat.  It is not a great Hefeweizen, but it has good mouth feel with a nice, dry aftertaste.  I could see slipping this in once as a change up during an evening of beer drinking at the Tustin Brewing Company, but only once.  Squeeze in a lemon wedge.
AP- 6
ST- 6

The Red Hill Red was unavailable when we visited, replaced temporarily by Boogieman Red.  The Boogieman was full bodied with a very distinctive caramel taste.  Not at all complex, but a nice refreshing red, comparable to, but more full bodied than, George Killians Irish Red.

AP - 8
ST - 7

The brewery's own description of Blimp Hangar Porter is spot on:  "a medium bodied dark brown ale with roasted malt flavor."  Not exactly complex, but it does afford some sensory treats with a mixture of nut, chocolate, molasses, and is that . . . banana?  On future visits to Tustin Brewing Company, this will be our beer of choice.
AP - 8
ST - 7

The brewery's Old Town IPA was not being served on our visit.  IPA is a challenging beer type to brew, attempting to find that sweet spot where the strong bitterness translates as a pleasant dryness, not God-awful bitterness.  We surmise the new brewmeister may have wanted more time to find that spot.

 

 

TUSTIN BREWING COMPANY
13011 Newport Avenue, Suite 100
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 665-2337

 

 

 

Conclusion:  Tustin Brewing Company is a good destination for food, friends and beer drinking.  The American Pale Ale is the only beer that truly misses the mark, with all the others being eminently drinkable.


OGGI'S PIZZA & BREWING CO.

Of the four breweries reviewed here, Tustin Brewing Company is the only one that actually brews beer on site.  Oggi's and the others all brew their own beers, just not at the Tustin location.  For a brief moment we considered whether that fact should disqualify these breweries from the competition, but after realizing that overlooking this violation would permit us to drink more beer, it was not an issue. 

AP and ST were both neophytes at Oggi's.  We've both eaten there before, but never properly focused on the beer selections.  Oggi's offers an impressive sampler, including all eight of the standard beer choices for just $8.95.  The presentation was better than that at Tustin Brewery, because the samples ring a laminated card that identifies each of the beers you are drinking. The following are our fresh impressions of the beer at Oggi's.

This pale yellow ale has a pleasant nose, consisting of a sweet corn with a hint of malt.  Flavor confirms the initial impression, with a light grain flavor. Nice dry aftertaste.  Oggi's California Gold Blonde Ale is a definite step up from Budweiser or Miller, but not by much.

AP - 6
ST - 5


A rich, malty Scottish-style Ale brewed with small amounts of dark grains for color and flavor.  Just enough hops to keep down the bitterness.  Nice taste of fruit and molasses, with an almost buttery finish. We really liked the smooth McGarvey's Scottish Ale, so much so that we went on line to see if there was any buzz about this great beer.  Our very positive impression was confirmed, with a 2008 Gold Medal at the World Beer Cup (out of 24 entries in the Scottish Ale category), and consistently high reviews elsewhere.  Good job Oggi's.  A real find in our burb.

AP - 8.5
ST - 8.5

The Left Coast Duck Dive is a Hefeweizen, a cloudy wheat beer.  As is customary, Oggi's serves it with a lemon wedge that helps to cut some of the wheat flavor.  Have a few sips before you squeeze in the lemon, to enjoy the unadorned complexity.  This is a nice wheat beer, with a good mouthfeel, finish and pleasant aftertaste.

AP - 7.5
ST - 7

This red-colored ale was light on scent with only sweet citrus coming through.  That perceived sweetness follows through upon tasting, but finishes with a nice, dry flavor of the hops.  The uninitiated may find Oggi's Sunset Amber Ale on the harsh side, but we enjoyed reveling in the well managed bitterness.

 
AP - 7
ST - 7


Beer is closer to amber than the "pale" moniker would denote.  The nose is light overall, with grain, citrus and a note of caramel.  The taste was a controlled blend of sweet malt, finishing with a citrus flavor.  Not bad, but the Paradise Pale Ale is not one of the better beers at Oggi's.

AP - 6
ST - 6

The Black Magic Stout is a dark, almost black beer.  The nose has a very roast nut and malt tone, not unlike an espresso.  The mouthfeel is very creamy, with a taste and finish of chocolate and coffee.  If you have shied away from stouts because of their heaviness, give this one a try.  This is what a good stout should be.

AP - 8
ST - 8

Before proceeding, a note about IPA-style beer is appropriate.  IPA beers, standing for India Pale Ale, find their roots in the 1700s, when English shipping companies were trying to find a way to ship beer to the troops and civilians in India.  The standard English beers, dark ales and porters, did not keep on the long, hot voyage to India.  To create a beer that could stand up to the challenge, an English brewmeister greatly increased the hops in one of his recipes in order to raise the alcohol content.  The result was a very bitter, high alcohol, sparkling ale that could survive the voyage.  The recipients drank it with zeal, willing to overlook the nasty taste because they at least had beer (and the quicker buzz from the higher alcohol was a bonus).

Since historically the IPA style was always considered a compromise -- giving up taste in order to get the beer to market -- we have never understood why it holds a place among modern beers.  It appears to be a case of the Emperor's new clothes, with the beer so bad that many feel compelled to comment on how good it is, lest they be accused of not appreciating its nuances.  It is an inside joke among breweries, competing to make there's the worst tasting beer, so that it will receive even more praise, with some creating "Double IPAs" and raising the bitterness of the beer to over 100 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) and the alcohol level to 20 percent.  On the other end to the spectrum, some breweries are dropping the hop content and alcohol level to make the beer more palatable, so drinkers can actually enjoy the stuff while feeling cool for being able to stomach an IPA.  What is that expression about putting lipstick on a pig?  

We are not afraid to speak the truth about this nasty stuff, but you should understand our point of reference.  If you have been caught up in the hype and think that the more bitter the beer the better, then our ratings will not match your experience.


The grapefruit and grass nose is pleasant, unlike the taste.  You are greeted with a sour brew, with extreme mouthfeel and a bitter finish.  The after taste is strong and unpleasant.  Hopheads will respond to the Torrey Pines India Pale Ale by proclaiming, "wow, that was really bad; let's have another!"

AP - 5
ST - 4
 

Oggi's Hop Juice Double IPA is a novelty beer in our estimation, like bringing a six pack of malt liquor to a card game so everyone can see how bad it tastes.  With enough hops to generate over nine percent alcohol, the mouthfeel is extreme, like someone packed your mouth with cotton.  Very bitter.

AP - 4
ST - 4

 

OGGI'S PIZZA & BREWING CO.
13612 NEWPORT AVE
TUSTIN, CA 92780
(714) 731-6444

 

 

 

 

And the winner is . . . Oggi's Pizza & Brewing Co.  Well-crafted beers with a lot of heart, not seemingly a sideline as was the impression at JT Schmid's.  With four beers ranking at 7 or better, and a complete home run with their McGarvey's Scottish Ale, you find a pleasant night of beer drinking at Oggi's.


BJ'S BREWHOUSE

Secret Reviewers AP and ST were joined by JB and JL for this night's reviews of BJ's and JT Schmids.  For the record, JL is a beer drinker, but she is a self-described "beer rookie" whose tastes have not yet matured to the level of heavy stouts.  Her insights are useful as representative of how someone who has never graduated beyond the standard light, commercial fare responds to these beers.

Going to BJ's Brewhouse on a Friday or Saturday is always insane, with waits of up to two hours, so we long ago developed the procedure of putting our name in, taking the pager, and going to do something else.  If we get back long after the page, no biggie, they always accommodate us.  So on this night we put in our names and then beat it over to JT Schmid's.  But we digress.

BJ's is huge, and as you enter you will see two large stainless steel vats that give the impression of an on-site brewery.  Don't be fooled; there is no brewing taking place, although the server represented to us that those vats are used for storage and aging.

Of all the breweries we reviewed, BJ's wins the sampler presentation test hands down.  A laminated card is placed on your table which provides information about each of the beers, then the server places each beer on the card while identifying and describing it.  The seven beer sampler is $8.95, and each beer is served in a generous five-ounce pilsner glass.  Doing the math, that's 35 ounces of beer -- the equivalent of three 12 ounce beers.

Almost no nose, with a very light hint of malt.  Nice mouthfeel, smooth finish with no unpleasant aftertaste.  No complexity, but as JB put it, "my mom would like this."  AP wouldn't waste his liver on another BJ's Blonde.

AP - 6
ST - 6+
JB - 6
JL - 7


If you like beer on the hoppy side without going so far as an IPA, the Piranha Pale Ale may be a good choice, although none of our reviewers were impressed.  Nice smooth taste with a bitter finish.

AP - 6
ST - 6-
JB - 5
JL - 5


The Jeremiah Red is an Irish style ale.  Higher alcohol content of 7.3%, but doesn't taste like it.  Nice mouthfeel, smooth nutty, malty taste with nice finish and aftertaste.  Pleasant enough, but ST said it made her want to go back to Oggi's for their Irish Ale.

AP - 7
ST - 5+
JB - 6+
JL - 5

 

The Harvest Hefeweizen has the expected wheaty nose, but it is very subtle.  Some complexity, smooth, with a fruity, citrus taste and a pleasant aftertaste that none of us could put a name to.  They forgot the traditional lemon slice, but not needed to cut the wheat taste like many Hefeweizens.

AP - 7
ST - 7+
JB - 5+
JL - 8


This dark selection greets you with a pleasant chocolate and coffee nose.  The taste is of caramel and molasses, but all described it as watery.  The PM Porter is not at all a good porter.  JB said, "all show and no go."  Back to lab with this one, BJ's.

AP - 5
ST - 5
JB - 5+
JL - 5



The Totonka Stout is very dark, but does not come across as heavy.  It has a nice, roasted grain nose with a rich, complex taste.  Too bitter for the women folk among us.  "Not for beer rookies." -- JL.

AP - 7.5
ST - 4+
JB - 7
JL - 2


The Nutty Brewnette has an appropriate name.  Akin to an English brown ale, it has a strong nuts and malt nose, with a very nutty taste.  Nice, smooth complexity and mouthfeel, with a nice finish and aftertaste.

AP - 7.5
ST - 6
JB - 6+
JL - 5

 

BJ'S BREWHOUSE
13130 Jamboree Rd.
Irvine, CA
(714) 665-8595

 

 

 

In sum, not a single real stand-out at BJ's Brewery, but a couple of pleasant alternatives on the dark end of the spectrum.  AP recommends the Buffalo Chicken Deep Dish Pizza with the Tatonka Stout.  The dark beer nicely compliments the spicy pizza.


JT SCHMID'S

JT Schmid's is the new kid in Tustin.  The chain has just two location; one in Anaheim, across from the Honda Center and the other in Tustin in The District at Tustin Legacy.

JT Schmid's sampler presentation finishes dead last among these four breweries.  True, the Tustin location is fairly new, but they have certainly had enough time to figure out how to present a sampler.  If not, may we suggest they head over to BJ's and see how it is done.  We ordered two complete samplers for the four of us, and they brought us a mish mash of small glasses, with no consistency between the measures.  We had perhaps as little as three ounces of some of the beers, and nothing to indicate what we were drinking.  We had to ask for bar napkins and write down the names of the beers.  The sampler is listed on the menu, so it's not as though we came up with some new concept, but you would have thought this was the first time they had ever had to put one together.  The sampler is priced at $7 for apparently arbitrary quantities of five beers, although we got to taste a sixth seasonal beer they had added.

  • JT Light

    This light bodied ale has no nose whatsoever, and the taste follows suit.  It is just bland, with nothing there.  Not surprisingly, it was a hit with JL, who commented it would be a great beer for someone who doesn't drink beer (because there is very little beer taste).  It is a beer drinking tradition in some countries to down your first beer and then use the same glass for the rest of the night, the reasoning being that the first beer is used just to get rid of the soap sediment on the glass.  This beer would be good for that. 

    AP - 5+
    ST - 6
    JB - 6
    JL - 8

  • India Pale Ale

    Pleasant hop nose from this highly hopped ale.  The taste is bitter as you'd expect from an IPA, but not overpowering.  Probably not much market for this beer, because it is actually a drinkable IPA (just 6.9% ABV), which means it will not be hoppy enough for Hopheads. 

    AP - 5
    ST - 6-
    JB - 3
    JL - 1
     

  • Hefeweizen

    Nice nose, but hard to identify (banana?).  Good mouthfeel and wheaty taste, but aftertaste was a little off unless you added some lemon juice.  JL was so impressed she ordered one.

    AP - 5
    ST - 6+
    JB - 7
    JL - 8
     

  • Emilís Amber

    Slight malt smell, with a smooth, bitter taste that is a little harsh.  Not an unpleasant aftertaste.  JB equated it to a Red Hook.

    AP - 6
    ST - 6
    JB - 7
    JL - 7
     

  • Extra Stout

    Roasted nut nose, tastes of malt and other roasted flavors.  JL tasted tobacco.  Bitter aftertaste.  Not a great stout.  "Bigger is not better." -- JB  "Ick." -- ST

    AP - 5
    ST - 4+
    JB - 5
    JL - 6

     

  • Honey Ale (seasonal)

    Slight citrus nose, good mouthfeel, taste of honey and citrus, very smooth finish.  Don't be put off by the name, this is one of the better beers at JT's and not at all sweet.  JB thought it would be great with BBQ.  Too bad it's a seasonal.

    AP - 7
    ST - 7
    JB - 8+
    JL - 8

 

JT SCHMID'S
The District, Tustin Legacy
2415 Park Ave. Tustin, CA 92782
(714) 258-0333


 

 

 

Not a good beer experience on our visit, but don't write it off.  The appetizers we sampled -- chicken wings, chicken avocado egg rolls and jambalaya pizza -- were all very good. And a visit will not require you to go beerless.  If we ever return to JT Schmid's, we'll skip the house beers (unless they are still serving Honey Ale) and select from the many beers they have on tap, including Paulaner Lager, Lindemanís Frambois Lambic, Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Lost Coast Downtown Brown, Chimay Triple, Blue Hawaiian Primo Hefeweizen, Mad River Jamaican Red, and Woodchuck Pear Cider.


Backstreet Brewery

A few days after finishing our reviews of four other breweries, just when we were missing our weekly excuse to pub crawl, we came across the Backstreet Brewery in Irvine.  There are eight of these breweries around Southern California, made a part of Lamppost Pizza joints.

ST and I were immediately impressed with the ambiance of the place.  It has a small, pub-like atmosphere that is a far cry from the enormity of BJ's Brewhouse.  Not all of the locations are breweries, but the Irvine location is.  The brewery locations split duties on the various beers instead of trying to brew them all at all locations.

The sampler of six beers costs $6.03, and the samples are four ounces each.  We would have preferred some guide that explained what we were drinking.  Here are our impressions of the beers at Backstreet Brewery.

  •  Crossroads Creme Ale

    This light colored ale has a citrus taste and good mouthfeel.  The finish was very odd, with an unidentifiable taste.  Give this one a pass. 

    AP - 5+
    ST - 5

  • Heritage Hefeweizen

    Nice wheaty, citrus nose and taste.  Of all the Hefeweizens we sampled on our pub crawls, this was our favorite.

    AP - 7+
    ST - 7
     

  • Jagged Little Pilsner

    This German style pilsner had a malty taste with a nice hop nose.  ST was impressed at first, but the finish grew to be a little too harsh.

    AP - 6
    ST - 6+
     

  • Hep Kat Pale Ale

    A West Coast style American pale ale.  This beer has a pleasant malt-citrus taste.  Slightly more interesting than the Jagged Little Pilsner.  Nice dry aftertaste.

    AP - 7+
    ST - 6+
     

  • Rita Red Ale

    This red ale has a nice roasted flavor, but the finish missed the mark.  We wouldn't turn one down, but there are much better reds around town.

    AP - 6+
    ST - 7
     

  • Cal Azul-Mexicano Cerveza Agria

    Try ordering that ten times fast.  This is a very different beer, and is ranked by its unusual nature, understanding that this beer would get cloying fast if you push the drinkability.  According to the menu, this beer is "brewed with blue corn and lime leaves."  Very complex and interesting and worth a visit.

    AP - 8
    ST - 8.5


     

Backstreet Brewery
14450 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604
(949) 857-0160

 

 

 

 

 

 


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