To name ten great breweries in a county sporting over 70 operating brewhouses is no easy feat. Breweries of all sizes and types dot San Diego like droplets of condensation on a cold pint glass. Craft beer adventurers can make a day of brewery hopping no matter what part of the county they’re in. And, chances are, they’ll walk away satisfied.
Having traveled throughout the country in search of craft beer, I can say with certainty that ours is a special suds scene. That’s a great thing, but it makes selecting my top ten a daunting activity. In doing so, I focused on breweries that bring great variety and consistent quality to the local scene. Many of my top ten have been doing that for years, but some rather new operations also made the cut.
8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa
Societe Brewing Company
More than a dozen new breweries have opened in the past two years. With that many rookies fighting for recognition, it takes a lot to stand out. And a lot is what this operation, the product of brewer buddies Travis Smith and Douglas Constantiner, bring to the local brewing scene. While that compliment certainly extends to Societe’s lines of highly botanical hoppy beers, style-massaging Belgian ales, stouts, and (soon) sours, it goes beyond their products and back to their make-up. Smith and Constantiner have earned reputations as “the guys who are doing it the right way” for being big-hearted, giving, conscious supporters of the local beer scene and the people within it. They recognize the San Diego beer scene for the exceptional assemblage it is and go out of their way to make it a better place where the two things that matter most — beer and people — are concerned. And it’s working big time.
9990 Alesmith Court, Miramar
Owner and brewmaster Peter Zien is a certified Master Beer Judge, which means he knows his stuff…and it shows. Though AleSmith’s diverse line of beers span styles originating from England, Scotland, Belgium and the good ol’ U.S. of A., they all share two key qualities — delicious, to-style flavor and incredible consistency. The latter is what separates the good breweries from the great breweries. If there was ever a knock on this operation, it’s that they didn’t often deviate from their year-round offerings and annual specialties. But after expanding their tasting room last year, Zien and company began extended cask offerings and second-running versions of their beers onsite. They’ve also begun packaging barrel-aged versions of several of their core beers as well as other favorites from their archives, leaving no room for complaints among craft beer fans.
2351 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine
Alpine Beer Co.
It’s easy to assume many of the motorists on the stretch of the Kumeyaay Highway (Insterstate 8) east of El Cajon are on a gambler’s trek. But it’s a safe bet a heady percentage are on a pilgrimage to Alpine for some of the world’s most beloved West Coast–style India pale ales. Though small and far flung, this tiny diner-like BBQ brewpub is recognized as a must-visit-before-you-die spot by die-hard craft beer enthusiasts. For many, a direct visit is the only way to get a taste of beers like the spicy and tropical Nelson or hop harbingers such as Duet, Pure Hoppiness, and Exponential Hoppiness. Due to its minuscule size, Alpine can’t produce nearly enough beer to satisfy the thirst of a hop-hungry market. Fortunately, thanks to teaming agreements with local brewery Green Flash and Minnesota operation Cold Spring Brewery, production is about to triple.
10051 Old Grove Road, Suite B, Scripps Ranch
5401 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista
2215 India Street, Little Italy
Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits
Few, if any local companies produce as many different beers as this combination brewing and distilling operation. And absolutely no San Diego brewing team covers as many styles — ales to lagers, IPAs to imperial stouts, smoked beers to chili beers, barrel-aged beers to cask ales — while never coming in under par. In fact, like that annoying bespectacled kid in high school with no life and the 4.5 grade point average, Ballast Point excels in everything they set their mind to. Locations in Scripps Ranch, Linda Vista, and a kiosk at Petco Park make their beers easy to experience. Even so, more locations are on the way. In addition to a recently secured corner spot in Little Italy that will house their pilot brewery, they’re also looking at building one of, if not the biggest-ever breweries in San Diego in the not-too-distant future.
6550 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa
Green Flash Brewing Company
How did this operation go from a company on the brink of failure nearly a decade ago to one of the fastest growing brewing companies in San Diego? The answer is simple: they hired a talented brewmaster and put out quality beer that matched locals’ tastes (read: hoppy, Belgian, high flavor). The rest took care of itself. And not just locally. The rest of the country has developed a liking for Green Flash’s West Coast style IPAs, and San Diego takes on everything from Belgian beers to English barley wines. Demand for Green Flash brew is so high that earlier this year the company broke ground on a second brewery in Virginia Beach, Virginia, allowing Green Flash to represent America’s Finest City from the other side of the country.
1430 Vantage Court #104, Vista
Latitude 33 Brewing Company
Maybe it’s the writer in me that appreciates the long-winded stories, both historically based and completely fabricated, which accompany each of the beers this relatively new operation has to offer. More likely, it’s a line of beers that, while seemingly simple, have a great deal of logic behind their conception and skill in their manufacture. Brewmaster Kevin Buckley dares to go with an IPA that is as much British as it is Californian. Instead of producing an everyday hefeweizen or orange-and-coriander-flavored Belgian witbier, he does an American wheat ale with a flavor profile all its own. His brown ale is spiked with rye. A vanilla porter, unlike so many others, is savory instead of sweet. I’m a fan of people who do things differently so long as they do them in a way that makes sense and rewards the customer, and I believe Latitude 33 fits that bill.
135 N. Coast Highway 101, Solana Beach
571 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad
1956 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach
2730 Gateway Road, Carlsbad
This family-run chain of brewpubs is one of San Diego’s oldest craft beer operations, and it has served as the launching pad for many talented individuals who have gone on to receive national acclaim, move into high-profile positions within or outside the Port empire, or start their own brewing companies. Through the many generations of talented brewers who’ve come, gone, and flourished in the process, Pizza Port remains a consistent producer of beers that deliver textbook flavors no matter the style. It’s a testament to the company’s ability to find individuals with ambition, ability, passion, and tenacity to work as brewers in Pizza Port’s quartet of family-friendly brewpubs. The newest and largest of the four recently opened in Carlsbad’s Bressi Ranch community and includes a production brewery equipped with a canning line that will soon bring Port Brewing beers to market in aluminum.
155 Mata Way #104, San Marcos
The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing
While the world of barrel-aging and souring beers is rapidly expanding, one of the forerunners in these areas remains one of the best. Head of brewery operations Tomme Arthur is recognized as an expert in both fields and the possessor of a supertaster palate. The latter allows him to masterfully blend barrels of seemingly disparate tart, oaky, tannic, and fruity beers together to create concoctions that deliver complex flavors in harmonious balance. Key examples are the sours and stouts that make up the experimental Veritas series as well as Duck Duck Gooze, a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics — Belgian sour ales — to be released Labor Day weekend. Someday, Arthur hopes to serve these envelope-pushing brews from a remote facility built to mimic an actual abbey. For now, he serves them from a tasting room doling out those California-ized Belgian-inspired beers in tandem with full-on West Coast sun and surf-friendly refreshers and hop bombs in North County.
1325 Grand Avenue #100, San Marcos
Rip Current Brewing Company
It’s challenging for any homebrewer to make the jump from the recreational ranks to the big leagues. That’s true even for Paul Sangster, the 2011 Homebrewer of the Year. While he’s amassed a trophy room wallpapered in ribbons and as glaringly golden as the boxful of awesome that melted those Nazis’ faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark, even he needed some time to adjust to brewing on a larger scale. Fortunately, he had the help of partner and long-time homebrewer Guy Shobe. Together, they’ve ratcheted Rip Current up into an operation with wide-ranging styles and whimsy reminiscent of their homebrewing roots. In addition to their primary brewhouse, they regularly brew on their pilot system, allowing them to introduce more outlandish or obscure offerings on a regular basis and keep early fans coming back for more.
1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido
2816 Historic Decatur Road #116, Liberty Station
Stone Brewing Co.
Even before I worked for Stone, I appreciated what their beers and foresight did to draw attention to San Diego’s beer scene and help define the hoppy, flavorful West Coast style of brewing. I wasn’t the only one. Every day, fans from here, there, and everywhere flock to Stone’s Escondido facility for brewery tours, farm-to-table cuisine, garden lounging and, of course, plenty of craft beer. Its draw is such that, earlier this year, Stone opened a second garden-affixed restaurant in Point Loma’s Liberty Station. That venue includes a brewhouse pumping out numerous new beers each month, many of which, including a white IPA, black wit, British pale ale, and oatmeal stout, explore styles Stone has rarely or never explored. It’s a space for experimentation and has proven a great way for San Diego’s largest brewing company (and the country’s tenth largest) to further diversify its already extensive portfolio.