Monday, 07 January 2013 21:03

A Craft Beer & BBQ Oasis in the California Desert

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Awards and medals for brewing and dining excellence adorn Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse like golf courses adorn Palm Springs. And the smell of bbq hits you like the blues - a comfortable, yet uninhibited, tantalizing embrace.

Decades ago, Don Callender started a Southern California chain of American style restaurants that was known for its pies, fully stocked saloon and salad bar. As the years passed and the restaurant chain was sold and merged with other restaurants, Don had a slightly different vision of BBQ and beer.

It’s probably not as well known that Don was fascinated with craft beer. In the late 90s, when the craft beer revolution took hold, Don’s passion for these new styles led him to taste what Southern California brewers had to offer.

Don knew excellence when he tasted it. Strawberry blondes, pumpkin ales and fruit beers from upstarts like Belmont Brewing Company satisfied Don’s sweet tooth and culinary prowess. Don was also one of the first Californians to enjoy the Pasadena based Craftsman Brewing. The Marie Callender’s founder and craft beer aficionado drank their Heavenly Hefe and Orange Grove Ale, while brewing a legacy all his own.

Don opened two small breweries in 1998 and 1999. The first, P.H. Woods, was a popular BBQ and brewhouse with beer brewed by Hans Johnson. Johnson later came up with the award winning craft beers for Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, which opened in April of 2002.

In 2001 and 2002, as Don prepared to unfold his ultimate beer and BBQ concept, he and his manager, Arthur Vasquez couldn’t foresee the volatile socio-economic climate they were about to face. Just a few months before opening, the 9/11 attacks shook the core of America. Spending and celebrating were down and the slower, warmer months of the desert didn’t promise a hugely successful launch.

The most pressing problem with opening a BBQ and craft beer brewhouse in a resort town known for its spa resorts, art galleries, 60-something golfers and Rat Pack heritage is introducing the relatively new culinary art of craft beer. While the neighboring San Diego and Orange counties were quick to catch on to the craft beer calling, the gin and tonic crowd of the Coachella Valley was a little slower to heed the call.

“There were no hop heads out here,” Art said, not smiling.

For several years, they pushed their light-to-medium beers. Vasquez carefully crafted the menus and tap offerings in order to please the Coachella customer.

The Honey Blonde Ale and Blackfin Lager caught on. But the passion to offer a bigger variety of microbrews smoldered inside Vasquez.

After all, Babe's Brewhouse is a beautiful, custom JV Northwest 10 bbl. brew system with hand-hammered, aged copper exterior, four Fermenters and five Serving tanks. Its massive functioning malt silo stands tall next to the restaurant's entrance and holds 15,000 lbs of malt. Coming in at just over a half million dollars, who wouldn’t want to show off what this thing can really do?! IMG 5695

Hans Johnson (now with Blackstone Brewery in Nashville, TN) developed the recipes for the Honey Blonde Ale, Blackfin Lager and 29 Palms Pale Ale. Still served today and brewed by Scot Grabbe, the Honey Blonde Ale comes in at 5.0% ABV and has won bronze, silver and gold in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 medals in the L.A. International Commercial Beer Competition. Golden in color, light to medium bodied, this is a smooth beer with a subtle finish from the orange blossom honey. Named in honor of the brave 29 Palms Marines, the pale ale is a deep, copper color with Cascade hop floral aroma and sweet caramel malt notes. The Blackfin Lager has the most accolades, winning a bronze medal in the 2003 Australian International Beer Awards. Taking the gold in the 2009 and 2012 L.A. International Commercial Beer Competition, the dark German style beer has a hint of roasted barley and toffee sweetness.

Vasquez credited an assistant manager for giving him a nudge to expand Babe’s beer offerings.

“My assistant manager Josh, he kind of brought it to my attention and said, ‘Art, there’s a lot more things going on here with craft beer, we should start paying more attention,’'"Vasquez said. "And I was kind of in this funk, and I said, ‘no, no, we gotta keep the product medium bodied. That’s what’s selling.’

"Y’know, I lost that spark from the 90’s. Then Stone started doing their own distribution and so we started to bring in a few more things…And by summer 2011, I said, ‘You know what, F-this. We’re going to go big.’”

As the years passed and the American craft beer industry continued to grow to new heights, the executive chef & general manager bumped Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse up to six taps. They featured two seasonals and made smaller 4-5 barrel batches, so they could rotate the beers more often. A few months later, Art came up with the section in their book called imperials, doubles, dubbels, doppels & tripels. They phased out their southern beers and offered more bombers and the likes of Flying Dog and Dogfish Head. Every seasonal was over 8% ABV, and they started wood aging some of their beers.IMG 5767

In other words, Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse was getting real with their beer. And it took off.

While the quality of their beef short ribs can’t be overstated, Art has shown that he is also serious about not just the quality of craft beer offered, but the quantity. Because of his passion and due diligence, they are now on the allocation list for Firestone Walker Brewing Company and Stone Brewing Co., so all of their new and interesting releases are automatically sent to the brewhouse. Babe’s BBQ and Brewhouse is one of only three places in the Coachella Valley to be on this special beer list.

As I continued to listen to Art talk about Babe’s humble beginnings, I couldn’t help but sense his commitment to Don’s vision. While the restaurant pioneer and innovator may no longer be with us, it’s apparent that Art will not rest in making sure Don's spirit is alive. It’s that spirit and work ethic that has brought choice, mouthwatering comfort-style food and award winning craft beer to the Coachella Valley.

Budget-conscious beer-lovers will be pleased to find craft beer at half-price from 3 p.m. to closing on Monday. Even the growlers are half-off: Refill a 32-ounce growler for $7, or the 64-ounce growler for $9. Happy hour is Monday through Friday, from 3 to 6 p.m., and 9 to 11 p.m.

The staff is kind, congenial and generous with their time. The dark, woodsy interior of the restaurant feels like the perfect surroundings for the savory meals served.

Wood smoke wafts in from the “Lucky Smoker” and the kitchen, gently reminding us to place our order. As I sat back and took a sip of my Babe’s 10th Anniversary Ale Winter Nipster (9.8% ABV), I gazed at the menu, recalling something Art had mentioned earlier.

“What really pays the bills are the baby back ribs and the pulled pork sandwich…but we have GREAT steaks, and really great sandwiches as well, that no one would think of trying.”

Okay, I thought. If Art suggests it, I’m in. I ordered the Smoked Black Angus Short Rib Sandwich. It’s boneless beef short ribs with southern fried onions, mozzarella cheese, and spicy BBQ sauce. Oh hell yes. My photographer opted for the Texas Tornado, a 10” French roll adorned with a hot link sausage sandwich, sliced brisket, grilled onions, pickles smothered with babe's spicy bbq sauce.

We didn’t speak much during the next 15 minutes.

The southern fried onions had a rich sweetness and a wonderful crunch that complemented the melt-in-your-mouth short ribs. And the sauce, well, the sauce was dribbling down my chin for several minutes while I moaned slightly, in savory delight. But I didn’t care.

Then there’s the beer. “The Cicerone” flight consists of four smaller beer tasters. Currently, you can enjoy the 58 Palms Imperial Pale Ale (7.2 ABV), the Babe’s 10th Anniversary Ale (seasonal), guest Belgian draft, Delirium Nocturnum (8.5% ABV) and guest American draft, Stone Brewing Co. 12.12.12. Vertical Epic (9.4% ABV).

For those of you who aren’t craft beer savvy, let’s just say this line up is every bit as tantalizing as the food menu.

I’ve become a fan of the 10th Anniversary Ale. With eight malts, 50 lbs. of Belgian rock candy, California cherries, blackberries, cinnamon sticks, allspice and cherry and cinnamon bourbon aged American oak, this beer is the perfect complement to slightly spicy bbq during the chilly, winter months. The guest drafts were also impressive, proving that Art and the rest of the Babe’s team know more than your average restaurant about good beer.

Delirium Nocturnum hails from Melle, Belgium. Dark fruit, caramel, mocha and spice flavors are in the forefront, while some Belgian yeast and hearty malt character make a background appearance. The alcohol is cleverly masked on the first few sips, but becomes more prevalent as the beer warms. The guest American draft was especially cool. The very last of Stone Brewing’s Vertical Epic series, 12.12.12 delivers a perfectly balanced load of spices including cinnamon, ginger, allspice, sweet orange peel, clove and rosehips. This Belgian strong dark ale is world class and perfect for cellaring for a year or two.

Babe’s just renewed their 10 year lease and is starting to market their beer outside the brewhouse.

“I just want outside accounts in the Coachella Valley…I want people to know, when they’re coming here, if they don’t see our beers on tap, I want them to ask for it.”

And the gospel of Babe’s is spreading. LQ Wine has all of their bottled products. Grill-A-Burger in Palm Desert also carries their pale ale.

Call to schedule a free tour of the brewery 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., December through June (excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays) or July through November (excluding Sundays & Mondays). Following the tour, get complimentary tastings and as Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse proudly states, “drink local with pride!”

Love BBQ? Love Beer? Love Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse.

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