By Amy Tindell
It turned out that we were a bit over-enthusiastic and showed up at Aztec Brewing Company about half an hour before it opened. As we turned away from the locked doors, a friendly face smiled through the glass and welcomed us to the tasting room. We thanked the friendly face profusely, then took the stools down from our pick of the high-top tables, and enjoyed the breeze coming in through opened back doors.
The original Aztec Brewery was founded in Mexico while the US was suffering through Prohibition. Once those North Americans came to their senses, the brewery set up shop in San Diego. About 30 years later, the brand went on hiatus after it was purchased by a Midwestern competitor, until it was re-discovered by John Webster in 2008. Using the Aztec name, Webster and his partners Claudia Faulk and Rob Esposito opened a small brewery and tap room in 2010, and by 2012 enjoyed sufficient success to expand to a 15 barrel brewing system.
Sitting in our stools as their most enthusiastic customers, we ordered a flight with beers spanning Aztec’s broad spectrum of styles. Starting with the darkest beer, Aztec brews the Cacao Chocolate as a classic porter, but then ages it on cacao nibs, which adds to its creaminess and balances the bitterness from the hops with semisweet chocolate flavors. The Aztec Amber, an altbier, poured a clear dark amber and smelled of malts and fruits. The taste was similar, with notes of biscuit, toffee and caramel, with a bitter finish. The altbier won medals in 2012 and 2013 at the San Diego Beer Festival.
After our first tastes, the friendly face came to our table with complimentary glasses of two new beers, the Hibiscus Wheat and the Simarillo IPA. None of us being particular fans of Hefeweizens, we were all surprised by how delicious the Hibiscus Wheat tasted. Inspired by a Mexican hibiscus tea, Aztec incorporates hibiscus petals, ginger and allspice into the brew, giving it a spicy character with floral notes and citrus fruit flavors. It feels crisp in the mouth and finishes with more hibiscus flavors. The Simarillo IPA, featuring Simcoe and Amarillo hops, offered a malty backbone supporting citrus hop bitterness. The beer was light and refreshing at 6.2% ABV.
Although reluctant to give up our monopoly over the Aztec tasting room, we decided to explore a similarly-themed brewery in the same Vista, CA business park called Indian Joe Brewing. Indian Joe Brewing was inspired by owner Max Moran’s Great Uncle Joe, a Luiseño Indian from North San Diego County. Following family traditions, Great Uncle Joe learned to brew outstanding beers in the early 1900s, diligently crafting his recipes using natural ingredients, including some with medicinal properties, that he collected from the local landscape. Moran’s father continued the tradition by introducing him to local brewing techniques, eventually motivating him to ride the wave of the popularity of nearby breweries like Stone and Ballast Point to carve our his own success. In 2012, Moran opened the brewery and tasting room.
The tasting room features a delightfully kitschy saloon set within the warehouse of the brewery, complete with fire pit and stringed lights. Moran himself was active behind the bar and amongst the tables, greeting regulars and chatting about his beers. We examined the long and intriguing list of approximately 25 beers currently on tap to fill in our flight request form.
We all agreed that the standouts were the Chocolate Hazelnut Porter, the American Indian Red Ale, the American Indian Pale Ale, and the Blueberry Hefeweizen. The Chocolate Hazelnut Porter turned out to be quite aptly named, styled as a robust porter with creamy chocolate and hazelnut flavors, full-bodied and smooth in mouthfeel. Indian Joe offers to top it with whip cream, but we declined: the taste was too good to mask. If you’re into malty reds, then the American Indian Red Ale was brewed for you, featuring caramel malts, roasted nutty flavors, and a sweet, smooth finish. The American Indian Red is definitely the best red I’ve tasted in awhile.
On the fruitier side, the Native California IPA weighs in at 9.1 ABV, but I noticed the alcohol only to the extent that it balanced the bitterness of the hops. Indian Joe brews this IPA with elderberries, adding a delicious fruity and slightly sour flavor to the traditional high ABV IPA. The Blueberry Hefeweizen, at 7.2 ABV, featured real pieces of blueberry and a slightly purplish tint peering through the glass. The brew offered sweet blueberry flavors, complimented by wheat and malt notes, finishing with a tart sourness. This Blueberry beer is unique in the strength of the blueberry flavoring and resulting tartness, so definitely worth a try if you find yourself in Vista.
We realized quickly that with 25 beers on tap, we couldn’t be too ambitious, especially since we were in California where everyone drives everywhere! Even though there remained some serious outdoor exploring and eating to check off our list, we still stopped to admire the very large and flashy motorcycle on the way out the door.