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Port Brewing Company and the Lost Abbey

Beer GeeksSep 18 '14

Host and master brewer Michael Ferguson visits brewing legend Tomme Arthur at Port Brewing Company and The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, California, where they caramelize a beer over rocks heated to a thousand degrees. Also, mixing barrel aged beers, making beer infused sous vide beef cheek tacos, and food and beer pairings.


Episode Recap

With two cutting edge labels, Tomme Arthur and partners’ San Marcos, California-based brewery produces some of the most delicious beer in the nation. Although Port Brewing Company and The Lost Abbey beers are created on the same system at the some location, their styles couldn’t be more different: Port sticks with its hoppy, West-coast profile while The Lost Abbey’s focus is on Belgian-inspired beers. Despite their differences, neither fears taking risks and the results of their bravery are magnificently delicious.

Hot Rocks Lager: Port Brewing Company’s Ingenious Brew

Hot Rocks Lager is a German stein beer that is unique to Port, and beer lovers flock to the brewery (and stores where it’s sold) in the hopes of getting a taste of the seasonal hit. While the beer’s smooth quality and malty richness are some of its defining characteristics, the key flavor comes in the form of caramel and toffee notes, which are created by its somewhat strange secret ingredient: piping hot granite stones.

Although the idea of using heated rocks in the brewing process is not new (it was a commonly implemented practice for hundreds of years), it is rare to find modern-day brewers who still use the ancient custom. In fact, the San Marcos brewery is one of the only places currently using the method.

Hot Rocks Lager: Brewing Process

In the creation of Hot Rocks, Munich malt forms the base of the brew. Its sweet qualities give the resulting mash a rich and vibrant character while adding a dynamic to the beer that further intensifies as the brewing process continues and the sugars caramelize. To balance out the potentially overwhelmingly sweet and malty flavors, German Tettnang hops are used, adding a spicy and noble twist to the brew.

Once the hops have been added, the brewing process really starts to gets fun. Black granite rocks are heated to scorching temperatures in specially altered kegs (fondly referred to as “Swiss Cheese Kegs” by Port Brewing staff). Stacked in a cross-hatched pyramidal formation within the receptacles, an old boiler heater is used to drastically heat the granite (which can withstand and retain heat without exploding). After being exposed to a flame for several hours, the kegs of granite are placed in a mixing tank and finally come into contact with the brew. As the wort is poured onto the searing-hot stones, the sugars instantly caramelize on the surface and the brew begins to boil violently. It is then left to simmer, further enhancing the beer’s smoky caramel flavor, before being bottled and enjoyed.

Duck Duck Gooze: Blend Tasting

With more than 800 casks of beer aging at any given time, it’s an understatement to say that The Lost Abbey values the maturation process. In fact, they are proud to say that more than a few of their available brews—seasonal and year-round alike—are barrel-aged. A particular crowd favorite is the Duck Duck Gooze, a Belgian Lambic-style Gueuze with a crisp, sour quality and low levels of bitterness. A blend of various aged beers, finding the right barrels for the blend is a task left to The Lost Abbey’s director of production and quality, Gwen Conley (and, on this occasion, the one and only Michael Ferguson).

Tasting from two different barrels of three-year-old Avant Garde Ale, the spouts are sanitized with food-grade alcohol prior to pouring; Gwen uses ethanol for the job instead of other common alternatives, such as isopropyl, which can be toxic. Additionally, since cultures tend to form a pellicle (a protective organic layer that prevents the brew from being exposed to air and turning into balsamic vinegar) on top of the beer, the sample is taken from the barrel’s side.

Due to differences in cultures, woods, and overall reactions, a single batch of beer can develop drastically dissimilar qualities depending on its barrel; the varying factors will cause vastly different flavors and characteristics to emerge. Because of this, blending the casks is a crucial part of creating a consistent beer.

In the case of the Avant Garde, the first barrel’s contents smelled of wine and pear while the second had musty and “funky” scents. Upon tasting, the first sample’s flavor was much more suppressed than its fruity scent implied it would be, and the character of the second (including its “funky” smell) was the result of butyric acid, am affliction commonly known by Belgian brewers as “the sickness.” When blended 50/50, however, the two beers took on a completely new profile: a more complex and intriguing flavor than either on their own, complete with hints of leather and a finish of apple. The beauty of blends is that they have a way of complementing each other’s qualities while working together to create something new.

Epic Eatz

Epic Eatz’ chef John Adams uses Port beer in many of his dishes, which are often served from a gourmet food truck outside of the brewery’s tasting room. He specifically designs many of his options to pair with a variety of different brews, and after being tested, his methods are undoubtedly a success.

He uses Port’s Board Meeting, an imperial brown with coffee and cocoa notes, in his famous sous vide beef cheek tacos. In traditional sous vide practice, he adds Board Meeting, the beef, and various spices to a vacuum-sealed bag before slow cooking it in warm water overnight; he then grills the tender meat and uses it as the heart of the dish, which is further garnished with cabbage, pico de gallo, cheese foam, and a special beer syrup. The result? A melt-in-your-mouth taco with a rich, in-depth flavor and perfect caramelization.

Food Pairings

After being put to the test, it was discovered that the beef cheek tacos paired surprisingly well with the Board Meeting brew. The complementing sweetness and similarities were perfectly offset by the savory aspects of the dish. However, when the Mongo (Port’s double IPA that boasts of a variety of different hops and citric qualities) was brought to the table, it provided the missing component: a perfect zing, the contrast that was missing with the initial brew.

The next pairing included the beer brine pork belly, a dish made with Port’s Deliverance and an apple-ginger puree. When paired with Deliverance, a blend of bourbon barrel-aged stout and a brandy barrel-aged barley wine, the beer overpowered the dish, eliminating most of its flavor. Instead, the Red Barn Ale (a spiced farmouse ale) provided a more toned-down alternative.

Lastly, Epic Eatz’ lamb torta was paired with its perfect match: Cuvee de Tomme, a Belgian barrel-aged ale with a bright, sour flavor and hints of tart cherries, raisins, and wood. The beer provided a cleansing aspect that supported the lingering flavor of the dish.


With their bold creativity, uninhibited ingenuity, and resurrection of old traditions, Port Brewing Company and The Lost Abbey consistently produce a vast array of brews that cater to every taste imaginable.