Karl Strauss – Costa Mesa, CA


For Drea Ciarrochi, a Kindle subscriber to this blog and SharePoint colleague.

Brewpubs almost always have samplers. Perhaps they are intended to make a bit of money on the already standard practice of allowing people to try their beer for free before buying a whole pint. It’s a better option then pouring a glass and having someone send it back because they had no idea what an IPA was. Instead of trying one or two and going with a pint of it, I like that samplers allow me to try four to six beers without the bartender cutting me off for taking advantage of the ‘free taste’ situation. We all learned this trick as kids at an ice cream shop.

In addition to the guilt-free taste test, a sampler typically comes with a laminated card that has the descriptions of the beer in front of the glass you’re drinking. This prevents you from having to ask for a menu to follow along. They also do a good job of presenting the beers to you in the order you should sample them. This is what they do at wine tastings too. As I recall you go dry to sweet and light to red with wine. With beer, you go light to dark and malts to hops, and when you’re new to beer, a sampler helps teach you this trick. For the beer lovers, we know the only trick to a sampler is to ask what the ‘seasonal’ entry is on the sampler. They usually stick it at the end and that might not be the best place for it on your palette if it’s a dark wheat which have become popular with craft brewers as a replacement for spiced winter warmers. If you’re a beginner, don’t worry about that last line, just drink them left to right.

Click here for more of my musings on how to love handle a beer sampler, but one more thing to mention before my review of the Karl Strauss sampler – drink fast. They are served in shot glasses and should be treated as such (within reason of course). What I’ve noticed about beer samplers is that people tend to sip the beers in each glass and adjust their drinking pace to a smaller scale. There is no shame in finishing one of these tastes in one to two big gulps. My swallowing strategy with a sampler tends to be to take a good sniff of the stuff first. Wait. Sniff again. It has something to do with most of your taste being in your nose. I don’t know if all that’s true, but I do it anyway. Then, I take a small sip. Wait. Then, take a long drink. I usually put it down for a bit while I try to put into words what the beer tasted like. Then I repeat the process to validate my findings but finish off the sample with the last long drink. I like to pause between the two drinks because the first sip of beer tastes different from how it tastes after you know what to expect. But I don’t like to linger over even the best beer. I’ll make note of my favorite, of course, but you should be through your sampler in 20-30 minutes tops. While typically more expensive than one glass, a sampler is rarely more ounces combined than one pint of beer. If that’s too fast a pace for you, then invite a friend to help you, but don’t ever obligate yourself to finishing a warm beer or sampler. My secret to sobriety after a sampler is to eat and drink a glass of water with my meal. This is making the pairing people in the audience gasp, but putting some food and water between me and my next beer is a tried and true method of drinking responsibly. I leave the food pairings for when I’m not sucking down a sampler.

And that brings us to Karl Strauss. I was impressed to see a food and beer pairing on their menu and it looks like they update that every month. Forget about the beer for a minute and soak up the fact that this place is worth a trip just for the $15 bowls of mac and cheese. I know what you’re thinking, but the version they serve with tiger shrimp was worth every penny and I convinced my bar neighbor to try the bacon version and he agreed. But enough about their delicious food, let’s get down to a review of their beers.

Woodie Gold – the best phrase I’ve found to describe crafted pilsners is ‘dishwater depth.’ This style of beer is like rising bread dough to me. It’s complete but unfinished and while it doesn’t sound like I’m being very flattering, it’s true to the form of pilsners and I appreciate that. While light in color, I disagree when people call a beer like this refreshing. I wouldn’t drink it to quench my thirst in a hot sun on a summer beach (I’d go much lighter with their Endless Summer Light for that), but this is the beer you drink once you’ve gotten back inside and are first cooling down. This is a solid year-round beer that you keep in the fridge to turn people onto something they’ll still like but is a cut or two above the flavor profile they get with a macro brew. I wouldn’t drink two glasses, but it’s a good way to warm up your palette to some of the heavier stuff on this list.

Windansea Wheat Hefeweizen – To continue turning a phrase, I will call this one ‘unfiltered perfection.’ I love most variations of wheat beers and this was well done down to the fact that they don’t serve it with a citrus garnish. There is not typically a clean finish with a wheat beer but I was surprised at the lack of lingering aftertaste making this something special in my mind. Don’t skip this one. 

Karl Strauss Amber Lager – Unlike the pleasant surprise of the wheat, this one was like a faithful marriage. It’s what you’d expect which may account for the name. No pretensions. Just an amber lager. And amber lagers are good beers. I like that they didn’t try to make their amber an American-style pale ale. I’d put this beer down in front of anyone and they’d all agree that it’s a good beer. And that’s what makes it stand out for me. 

Red Trolley Ale – I have a lot of criticism for the random flavor profile at BJ’s, but the reality is that once you’ve had a Jerimiah Red, every other red beer is inferior. It’s not that this is a bad beer, but if you’re leaning in this direction, I’d say to get the Amber instead.

Tower 10 IPA – Nothing on this sampler prepares you for the hops in this beer. Most American craft brewers have a hoppy pale ale on tap but not this place. And this is not a criticism of the beer. It’s a critique of the sampler. As we all know, hop heads won’t drink anything less than an IPA, and this one delivers in spades. It’s a good IPA. Damn it, I come from Houston where we have Saint Arnold’s Elissa, and even I’ll give props to Tower 10 IPA for its ability to punch you in the mouth with not just hops for hops sake, but for having a great flavor. But in regards to the sampler, I would recommend they change out this beer for their seasonal instead. In my case, that meant the Winter Fullsuit Belgian-Style Brown Ale which was a far better beer to follow the red than an IPA.

Old Columbia Barleywine – I was disappointed that Karl Strauss didn’t have a stout as a regular tap (they have one on tap every few months), but in the absence of that, this was a generous beer to offer on a sampler. I don’t typically go in for the barleywine style but this was well executed. True to form, you could taste the alcohol notes but it was well-balanced with sweetness and would be a great last beer of the night. At 9.5% ABV, I cannot stress the importance of that last sentence enough.

Six beers on a sampler is quite a treat. I’ve only ever had more than that at Chicago Brewing Company in Vegas (it is a double-decker spinning wheel of awesome). Still, the bartender at Karl Strauss overheard me talking about beer to my fellow patrons and he poured me a shot of the Flan-Diddly-Anders Red. Anyone who has tried it will know what I mean when I say, “yikes with the sour.” I could only manage to explain that it was like a green apple Jolly Rancher candy without the sweet. While I can’t imagine ever drinking an entire pint, it was fascinating to try it and I really respect a brewer that goes in a direction like this. My first inclination would be to mix this with other beer styles similar to how people will mix a Lambic with a wheat or a stout. But what this really reminded me of was the concept of the sour batch of beer that goes into brewing a Saison. For a beer lover, there is nothing better than sitting in a brew pub and appreciating that a beer like this is being brewed by people who love beer even more than you do.

All and all, this was a decent showing of brew styles and a sampler worth buying. Stay for the food and take a growler home for later.

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