<NOTE: San Diego beer lovers were saddened to hear that Benchmark Brewing permanently closed on June 9, 2019.>
Driving up to Benchmark Brewing you could be forgiven for thinking that Google Maps had led you astray. The exterior of the building does not look promising at all: It is an old office/industrial park with unassuming store fronts and almost no signage. Thankfully there are a couple of large “Beer” flags by the driveway to reaffirm your trust in satellite-based navigation. Step inside and you enter a different world. The interior design is lovely, currently including some delightful prints of photos taken in Cuba lining a long stretch of wall as you head to the bar. There is ample seating and the bar area itself is large and well laid out. The space as a whole is much bigger than you expect from the outside.
Table Beer (Belgian Pale Ale, 4% ABV). The Belgian yeast flavors here were not overpowering and were complemented by a lovely medium body and soft mouthfeel. Crisp on the end, making it very drinkable. Slightly cloudy golden color. If I liked Belgians in general this would probably have been rated higher. 3.25/5
The impression of it being a large space is reinforced when you get the chance to go behind the bar to the brewing area–as I did on this occasion, which was a tasting class on adjuncts in beer. They had set up three picnic tables laid end-to-end between the brewing tanks for the class. They normally do these classes, on a range of topics, on the final Saturday of each month. From my experience, they are definitely worthwhile. I am particularly looking forward to an upcoming one to be titled, “So You Want to be a Beer Judge.”
River Rye (American Red Rye Ale, 6.5% ABV). One of the higher ABV’s on their menu, the spiciness of the rye works beautifully with the stronger than expected hops (that part of what makes this an “American” red). A great beer. 3.75/5
Adjuncts got a bad name from the mega-corps that use rice and corn to add body, sweetness and mouthfeel to otherwise very bland mass-produced beers, without adding any flavor. That’s one reason the German beer purity laws (barley, hops, water and yeast, nothing else allowed) acquired some cachet among American craft brewers and beer lovers. That, and an emphasis on quality that was lacking in mass produced beer–adjuncts became guilty by association. Our brewer was all about rehabilitating the reputation of adjuncts used well. (To paraphrase the NRA, adjuncts don’t make bad beer, bad beer uses adjuncts badly.) He talked about how he uses adjuncts to achieve some characteristics in a beer (e.g., body, mouthfeel, sweetness, head) while preserving others (e.g., lower ABV and lighter color) while also adding interesting flavors that contribute to the overall beer. In other words, he uses adjuncts–such as corn, rye and oatmeal–to help make beer great (not to make uniform and uninteresting beer, which is how the mega-corps use adjuncts). The whole experience was interesting, informative and fun. My girlfriend, who likes beer but who is not a craft beer nerd like me, said she also enjoyed the class and learned a lot. Someone asked a random question about canning at the end of the class and it turned into a bonus 15 minute demonstration of the canning line.
Oatmeal Stout (4.5% ABV). This is a full, roasty, toasty, flavorful stout–despite the lower ABV that is Benchmark’s hallmark. Notes of chocolate and coffee with a wonderfully full and creamy mouthfeel. I could drink this all day. 4.25/5
We had the opportunity to try four beers during this class. I have to pause to note that they gave us large pours, almost half a pint of each beer. So much that on occasion we had to pour some out so as not to get too inebriated in the short span of the hour-long class. The class was only $10 per person so this seemed very generous. Clearly they do these classes because they love beer and love serving the craft beer community.
Galaxy Pilsner (4% ABV). There is a movement afoot to offer “San Diego pilsners” at craft breweries. The idea, I suppose, is to rehabilitate the style and show that pilsners can be flavorful, high quality beers. That’s true up to a point, but for my money there’s a reason craft beer started essentially by fleeing from pilsner. Even very well made, like this one is, there’s only so much you can do to “San Diego-ify” a pilsner. My rating reflects my opinion of the style more than the quality of the beer. 3.25/5
While the experience of trying the beer was no doubt positively influenced by having the brewer himself give me remarkably large pours of the beers he was enthusiastically and lovingly discussing, the beer would have impressed me with its quality even without that. Benchmark offers a few Belgian-influenced beers and Belgian styles, including Table Beer (which seems to be their flagship brew). As you know if you have read my reviews on this site, I don’t love Belgian yeast flavors, but even I could appreciate the quality and drinkability of the Belgian style beers at Benchmark. The River Rye was excellent, and the Oatmeal Stout is deserving of its gold medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival and silver in 2016. Note that the stout won in the session beer category: Benchmark focuses on beers you can have several of, which is very much consistent with my way of thinking, too.
www.BenchmarkBrewing.com 6190 Fairmount Ave, Suite G, San Diego, CA 92120
New Feature: Don’t just take my word for it (links to other reviews).
Here’s a great article on GoodBeerHunting.com from May 2015 that gives the back story and some personal history on Benchmark.
Here is San Diego Magazine’s entry for Benchmark Brewing in their San Diego Brewery Guide.
And here is SanDiegoBrewReview.com’s 2014 post about Benchmark Brewing.
Finally, a “filler” article about the history of adjuncts in American beer.