777 G Street, East Village

Passing by this constantly packed spot in the East Village, one would never guess the perseverance it took for owner Arsalun Tafazoli to force it down downtowners’ gullets. His goal was to provide the perfect environment for a good time. To him, that translated to casual-yet-heightened cuisine (gourmet burgers, comfort classics, upscale snacks) and lots and lots of beer. But not just any beer…the good stuff, IPAs, Belgian Trappist ales, sours, and everything in between. Sounds ordinary by today’s local standards, but he was way ahead of the curve in 2007, and locals were less than receptive. The place almost closed down, but Tafazoli refused to change course. Thankfully, beer by beer, visitors were swayed to his way of thinking, and now Neighborhood is thriving and has earned a reputation as a must-hit destination for beer travelers headed to San Diego.

— Brandon Hernández

Hamilton's Tavern

1521 30th Street, South Park

For entrepreneur Scot Blair, it was all about creating a craft-beer bastion with an outrageous selection, where people from all walks of life could come for the best ales and lagers the planet has to offer. Today, he has an empire that’s four bars (Hamilton’s, Small Bar, Eleven, Monkey Paw) and one food-truck strong.

Still, the South Park flagship is his and San Diego beer-lovers’ baby, a prototype craft-beer bar. Close relationships with local brewers (and big names from beyond) have been huge for Hamilton’s. Case in point: their Second Saturday events, to which Blair and company invite guest brewers, roast whole pigs and pack the house to capacity. It’s hardcore craft-beer pandemonium.

— Brandon Hernández

Pizza Port

135 N. Coast Highway 101, Solana Beach

Nowadays, San Diegans know all about Pizza Port’s Carlsbad outpost, America’s 2011 Large Brewpub of the Year. But the smallest of the local chain’s four locations is legendary: the original Pizza Port, in Solana Beach, won Small Brewpub of the Year not once, but twice, in 2003 and 2004.

It’s also the birthplace of many of the most popular award-winning beers at Pizza Port and Port Brewing — the production brewing arm of the company, including the Lost Abbey line. Ditto for legendary brewers. Tomme Arthur, director of brewing operations for the Lost Abbey; Jeff Bagby, head brewer and director of brewpub operations for Pizza Port Carlsbad; and Tom Nickel, owner of O’Brien’s Pub and head brewer at the soon-to-open Julian Brewing Company, all got their start here. And you thought it was just some beach-bum-chic pizza place. Well, it is…and so much more.

— Brandon Hernández

SD Taproom

1269 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach

Most craft-beer spots have a built-in culture. Newbies walk in, order up, and acclimate to the flow of the bar.

But SD Tap Room is wonderfully inviting, devoid of unwritten rules and the judgmental glares of self-important regulars. That shit don’t fly in P.B…but alcohol sure as hell does. There’s a full bar here, but local craft beer is this establishment’s hooch of choice. What’s more refreshing than watching the Padres or Chargers on the plasmas in what is one of SD’s sportiest craft-beer spots? Fans of variety can choose their own beer flight at $2.50 per six-ounce sample, and fans of beers that aren’t on the tap or the bottle list can go online, request a beer, and set up an alert to find out whether and when it gets added to the inventory. Cask nights and LAB (local art and beer) events up the craft-beer ante, while Taco Tuesdays complete the Garnet experience.

— Brandon Hernández

O'Brien's Pub

4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

No bar in San Diego has as long a history of doing right by hop-heads as this inauspicious sanctum. Nestled in the heart of Kearny Mesa’s miracle mile of Asian delights, the Irish pub sticks out like a sore thumb.

The self-proclaimed “hoppiest place on Earth,” O’Brien’s has been known as one of the finest craft-beer venues in America for the past decade. When big-name brewers come to town, they stop in for special events and drop off plenty of rare one-off brews. But, thanks to owner Tom Nickel and his constant pursuit of quality beer, there’s always an exceptional selection of draft, bottled, and cask brews to be had — particularly single and double IPAs. Add house-made beer cheese from Tom’s wife, Lindsey, and a genuine appreciation of regulars (“muggers”), and you’ve got a solid archetype for what a top-notch beer bar in America’s number-one beer town can and should be.

— Brandon Hernández

Churchill's Pub and Grill

887 W. San Marcos Boulevard, San Marcos

If you’re doing Yard House math, all it takes is a boatload of taps to make for an exceptional beer venue. But what’s the use of having a bank vault’s worth of beer if most or all of it’s run-of-the-mill?

Craft-beer fans have learned to opt for quality over quantity, but at this San Marcos standout, suds enthusiasts get both. Even seasoned beer scavengers feel gobsmacked making draft picks from the 30-plus beers on tap and sifting through a lengthy bottle list peppered with hard-to-find craft brews from San Diego and around the world. A menu stocked with ambitious dishes that go beyond basic pub fare (some featuring herbs, veggies, and exotic chili peppers from the backyard garden), frequent in-house festivals, and meet-the-brewer dinners help this tenured gem continue to sparkle despite the emergence of solid newcomers throughout North County.

— Brandon Hernández

Main Tap Tavern

518 E. Main Street, El Cajon

Densely populated with beer-swilling denizens, El Cajon might be equally stocked with craft-beer spots. Alas, it’s a virtual wasteland of macrobrew dives — with this single sterling exception.

Equipped with 24 taps — most devoted to local liquid refreshment, but all siphoning out fine craft beer — Main Tap has swung for the fences since opening three years ago. Casks, an expensive rarity for most bars, are a Wednesday-evening amenity here. They’re always local, and recent cask-conditioned offerings have included Coronado Brewing Company Stoopid Stout, with cocoa nibs, vanilla bean, and mint leaves; and Airdale Altitude American pale ale with Citra hops. Live music on weekends offers another reason to take a ride out I-8. A place like this shouldn’t stay secret.

— Brandon Hernández

Local Habit

3827 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest

Affordable, organic, locally sourced meals (fresh basil pasta from Seeds @ City Urban Farm at City College, anyone?) and a rotating selection of 12 San Diego craft beers, including one cask ($5.50–$6.50), make Local Habit a strong contender among America’s Finest City’s world-famous gastropub scene.

A joint venture of Barry Braden (Pizza Fusion) and Eco Caters in Ocean Beach, Local Habit specializes in gourmet pizza, house-cured meats, and inventive small dishes. The grilled oysters are a risk-free introduction to the medium — no sea snot, and a firm, palatable texture. Gouda Mac is heaven. The pork belly is bacon’s Buddha nature. Add charming waitresses, Edison bulbs, Stone Double Bastard, growler lampshades, and dark-hardwood everything, and you’ve got a classy but pomp-free drink-and-dine experience.

— Chad Deal

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