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08 Jan 2013

Behind the Barbecue: How Babe's Became the Coachella Valley's Most-Prominent Brewery

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Behind the Barbecue: How Babe's Became the Coachella Valley's Most-Prominent Brewery Photos by Sean Planck

Awards and medals for Babe’s brewing excellence adorn the dining room at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, in Rancho Mirage, like golf courses adorn the Coachella Valley.

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

It’s 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 2002.

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

The most-pressing problem with opening a barbecue and craft-beer brewhouse in an area known for its spa resorts, art galleries, 60-something golfers and Rat Pack heritage was introducing the relatively new culinary art of craft beer. While nearby San Diego and Orange County 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,” Vasquez 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 has a beautiful, custom JV Northwest brew system with a 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 pounds of malt. Coming in at a cost of just more than a half-million dollars, who wouldn’t want to show off what this thing can really do?

Hans Johnson (now with Blackstone Brewery in Nashville, Tenn., 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 percent alcohol by volume and has won bronze, silver and gold in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 medals in the Los Angeles 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 (Levish, who has a beer podcast at beermepodcast.com), he kind of brought it to my attention and said, ‘Art, there’s a lot more 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 ’90s. Then Stone (Brewing Co.) 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? Eff this. We’re going to go big.’”

As the years passed, and the American craft-beer industry continued to grow, Vasquez and co. bumped Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse up to six taps. They featured two seasonals and made smaller four-to-five-barrel batches, so they could rotate the beers more often. They phased out Southern beers and offered more bombers and the likes of Flying Dog and Dogfish Head. Every seasonal was higher than 8 percent alcohol by volume, and they started wood-aging some of their beers.

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

While the quality of their beef short ribs can’t be overstated, Vasquez has shown that he is serious about not just the quality of craft beer offered, but the quantity. Because of his passion and due diligence, Babe’s is now on the allocation list for Southern California-based Firestone Walker Brewing Company and Stone Brewing Co., so all of those breweries’ 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.

Callender passed away in 2009, and while the restaurant pioneer and innovator may no longer be with us, it’s apparent that Vasquez, Babe's chief operating officer and executive chef, is committed to making sure that Don's spirit stays alive.

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

I’ve become a fan of the 10th Anniversary Ale. With eight malts, 50 pounds 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 barbecue 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.

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

“I just want outside accounts in the Coachella Valley,” Vasquez said. … “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.

Love barbecue? Love beer? Love Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse.

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 and Mondays). Babe’s is located at 71800 Highway 111, in The River in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call (760) 346-8738, or visit www.babesbbque.com.

About the author: Erin Peters has been enticing beer drinkers since before beer blogging was really cool. (It’s cool, right?) She started down the carbonated path of intoxicating reviews and articles about craft breweries and the people behind the beer in 2008 and hasn’t turned back since. Erin studied journalism at San Diego State University. Rearrange the letters in SDSU, and you get SUDS. Coincidence—or, divine inspiration?

Below, from left to right: Erin Peters (the article's author), Arthur Vasquez and Scot Grabbe. Photo by Sean Planck.

3 comments

  • Comment Link Dave Barrett Wednesday, 09 January 2013 10:07 posted by Dave Barrett

    In my one time Palm Desert visit I made a stop for a brew and ribs at Babes. Luckily it was beer appreciation day and I chose the Blackfin lager to taste. After the taste I finished off 3 schooner before Happy Hour ended. The Blackfin lager roasted caramel taste was exceptionally smooth with no bitterness. Coupled with a Happy Hour basket of Babes babyback ribs an exceptionally delicious combination for any occasion.

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  • Comment Link Brett Newton Tuesday, 08 January 2013 16:48 posted by Brett Newton

    Thanks for the mention. I've been trying Babe's beers for a while now and can honestly say they've stepped up their game with the last couple of brews. And thanks for the mention of our podcast!

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  • Comment Link Joe Wahl Tuesday, 08 January 2013 14:00 posted by Joe Wahl

    Babe's Honey Blonde ale is truly the best of the Coachella Valley's microbrews and Babe's Monday Beer appreciation happy hour can't be beat for enjoying all of Babe's brews.
    In my opinion Art Vasquez is truly Coachella Valleys Business man of the year for his "drink local with pride" passion.

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