San Diego is widely considered one of the greatest beer cities in America—and for good reason. Home to craft behemoths like Stone, Green Flash, and AleSmith, and critically lauded darlings such as Societe Brewing, Alpine Brewing, and the wide network of Pizza Port brewpubs, this quaint city is a popular vacation destination for craft beer enthusiasts and casual beer fans alike.
Indeed, it seems like the self-proclaimed “Craft Beer Capital of America” offers a little something for everyone, but even with more than 100 breweries and dozens of world-class pubs, beer bars, and bottle shops dotting the county, there’s always been one thing missing from this storied landscape: a high-quality producer of funky farmhouse ales.
Sure, we seem to be happily drowning in IPAs, and breweries like AleSmith are single-handedly keeping barrel-aged stouts and Old World styles relevant in the city, but where are the sours, the saisons, and the farmhouse-inspired libations? These beers, fermented (often spontaneously and without discrimination) with menacing-sounding bugs such as Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus, can be dry, funky, tart, crisp, and refreshing—in other words, they’re ideal for a sunny, perfect San Diego day. Why has nobody yet to capitalize on this gaping hole in beer paradise?
Enter: Toolbox Brewing
Based out of North County San Diego, Toolbox Brewing opened in September of 2014 with a modest list of beers spanning a wide variety of styles, including wild and farmhouse ales. Eventually those beers grew to become so popular that six months later, on the cusp of their first bottle release, they officially became the first (and only) brewery in San Diego County to go 100% wild.
Co-owned by Amanda Elder and Spencer Peters, with hometown homebrew hero Peter Perrecone captaining brewing operations, their lineup of regular beers on tap now consists entirely of ales brewed with wild yeasts and bacteria—those scary-sounding bugs mentioned above. The result is a regularly-rotating tap that consists entirely of funky farmhouse ales and tart wild ales. Their claim to fame is their fruited series of sours, in which they add incredible amounts of fruit to a base sour blonde ale with incredible results.
I’ve been to Toolbox many a time, so I already knew what to expect when I walked into the brewery and tasting room on a mild Thursday afternoon. I was there to pick up bottles they’d recently released online (which sold out in approximately 67 seconds) and decided to check out some of their ever-changing lineup.
First up was a new batch of their acclaimed Virgin Cherry, a sour blonde with tart cherries added. Delicious, light, and tart, the beer sways more sour and less cherry-esque, with a grainy finish that’s reminiscent of a nice cherry pie crust. Next was the new batch of Grass Fed Lettuce. The first batch of this dry-hopped sour blonde wild ale was far and away my favorite of their releases thus far, and batch #2 did not disappoint; The tartness was immensely balanced, with a faint hop aroma that blooms on the finish.
The remaining beers were new to me, the freshest of which being Haole Honey, just tapped that day. A farmhouse ale brewed with Hawaiian lehua honey, Haole had an incredible aroma that led to an intriguing interplay between sweet honey and signature Brettanomyces dryness. The strong, assertive notes of both resulted in an unbalanced profile, with each element battling for palate dominance. Nonetheless, it’s different from anything else in San Diego and a definite must-try.
Peachin Camaro was next up, a sour blonde wild brewed with peaches. The initial aroma on this was disappointing, not too much peach on the nose, but the flavor was an incredible stonefruit explosion on the palate with an immensely balanced tartness. Simply put, it was alcoholic Kerns nectar.
Last but not least, The Carlton was the beer I’d been looking most forward to—the most recent bottle release darling of the lineup. A sour blonde with blackberries, the beer is dark as sin with a light blonde body, hence the name (get it?). Upon first sip this was a lot sweeter than I’d anticipated, with a taste that was more compote or reduction than jam. This balanced out once the tartness kicked in, and gave way to an almost buttery (but not diacetyl) note leading to an incredibly funky, musty finish. It was definitely more complex than any of their previous fruited iterations, and I’m glad I purchased bottles.
Moving forward, Toolbox looks to ramp up the production and increase the amount of bottle releases. Since dialing in their bottling line and schedule months ago, they’ve released two to three beers every month, with three more releases in July that look awesome—the aforementioned Haole Honey, a plum sour wild, and a berry-based sour wild. Back in March I asked Spencer what it takes to succeed in such a cutthroat, saturated market like San Diego, and he simply replied that they don’t consider themselves successful quite yet.
Cut to the present day—even with bottle limits, each subsequent release has sold out progressively quicker, no matter the beer or style. I can’t speak for Toolbox, but I’d consider that pretty successful.