The style that put San Diego on the world beer map tastes great at nearly every brewery in town, and naming just a handful as the best would short-change everybody. I tried to keep it to ten, with a bonus inclusion for sentimentality’s sake.
AleSmith Brewing Company, IPA — 7.25% ABV
One of the county’s oldest IPAs remains among its best, still setting a high bar with American hop varietals delivering a complex burst of resiny pineapple, citrus, and pine. It’s been a favorite for more than 15 years, yet available in 12-ounce bottles for the first time this month.
Alpine Beer Company, Duet —7.0% ABV
This beautifully balanced pairing of Simcoe and Amarillo hops has gotten easier to find since Green Flash began producing it in greater volume last year. But it’s still too soon to forget how great it felt to stumble upon it on tap or in a bottle shop when doing so was a rarity.
BNS Brewing & Distilling Co., Revolver IPA — 6.5% ABV
BNS turned plenty of heads when its IPA beat 335 other entries to win gold in the American-Style IPA category at the Great American Beer Festival. The medium bitter beer features citrus and pine notes, and a slightly toasty malt to give it the added character that made it a winner.
Rip Current Brewing, Lupulin Lust IPA — 8.2% ABV
A light bready base and dry finish give some legs to the tremendous hop profile of this crowd favorite, which took silver at this year’s San Diego International Beer Festival. Citrus notes balanced by pine make it easier to drink than its ABV suggests.
Mother Earth Brew Co., Boo Koo IPA — 6.5% ABV
Pilsen grains offer a crisp platform for all Mosaic hops to shine. This beer delivers a supremely tasty belt of tropical fruit and citrus, underscored by spicy pine. It’s available in 12-ounce cans, but they don’t stay on shelves for long.
Societe Brewing Company, Pupil IPA — 7.5% ABV
Peppery fruits ride a light caramel malt in this tropically fragrant IPA that builds on the distinctively pleasant white-wine zip of New Zealand hop Nelson Sauvin. It barely has the edge over Societe’s conceptually similar IPA, The Apprentice, which does fine using dry-hopped Amarillo.
New English Brewing Company, Pure & Simple IPA — 6.5% ABV
Best known for emulating British brewing styles, you might not expect New English to knock a West Coast IPA out of the park... or cricket pitch. Maybe it’s the use of U.K. malts, or dry-hopping with popular Mosaic and Citra varieties. Whatever it is, this IPA’s great flavor has universal hophead appeal.
Ballast Point Brewing Company, Sculpin IPA — 7.0% ABV
There’s not room here to list the number of gold medals it’s won, nor best IPA lists it’s topped. Simply put, it’s among the nation’s best in this style, and recognized as such on a regular basis, thanks to its hoppy evocation of lemon and stone fruit. Its grapefruit and habañero versions should likewise not be missed.
Coronado Brewing Company, Islander IPA — 7.0% ABV
The updated version of this IPA helped Coronado Brewing win the 2014 World Beer Cup, claiming Strong Pale category gold with its triple-C combo of Centennial, Chinook, and Columbus hops. The resulting apricot and grapefruit notes make it a deliciously obvious winner.
Stone Brewing Co., Enjoy By IPA — 9.4% ABV
All India pale ales taste better fresh, so putting an expiration date on the label doesn’t make this Stone seasonal special. Finding a way to make dozens of hops work together for an evolving series of dry-hopped beers, then convincing customers to waste no time enjoying them, does.
Stone Brewing Co., Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale — 8.7% ABV
This makes the list because it may not get another chance. Discontinued earlier this year, Stone’s 11th Anniversary black IPA was good enough to stick around about eight years as part of the core lineup. It will be missed.
Sublime session IPAs (under 6% ABV)
Benchmark Brewing, IPA — 5.1% ABV
Cascade and Simcoe lead the seven-hop bill of this top-to-bottom delicious beer. A low malt presence allows the citrus and pine to dominate without overpowering what winds up a dry and incredibly clean finish.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Mosaic Session Ale — 5.5% ABV
Grapefruit and pineapple notes make this enjoyably small ale a fantastic example of why Mosaic hops have captured the attention of brewers and beer fans. Strauss touts a signature dry-hopping technique used to make this mildly bitter, high-flavor drink that finishes like a dry soda.
Pizza Port Brewing, Ponto S.I.P.A. — 4.5% ABV
One of the best bang-for-your-buck IPAs in town, Ponto sells in six-packs of tallboys for roughly ten dollars. In return you get a tropical-tasting mix of several American bred and New Zealand hops that’ll make you wish this were around when you could still drink on the beach.
Rough Draft Brewing Company, Weekday IPA — 4.8% ABV
Light, yet fully flavorful — pretty much what you look for in this weekday-friendly style of beer. Rough Draft does it with Citra and Simcoe hops, known for aromatic citrus and pine notes, respectively, and accomplishes a fair impression of a fuller IPA in the process.
Societe Brewing Company, The Coachman — 4.5% ABV
Without seeming to try very hard, this easy drinker pulled off a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival this year. Of course, a bit of forethought went into giving the low-alcohol ale peachy characteristics and pleasing texture — like adding malted wheat to underscore a combination of Saaz, Simcoe, and Mosaic hops.
Sour beers have made great gains in San Diego, and this year many of the more exciting beers played to that side of beer enthusiasts’ palates. These sours range from being tart like candy, to mouth-puckering flavor bombs.
Green Flash Brewing Company, Cellar 3 Natura Morta — 5.5% ABV
Cellar 3 barrelmaster Pat Korn took a Green Flash saison, exposed it to wild yeasts and aged it in red wine barrels with fruit purée. Versions include plum, cranberry, and about-to-be-released cherry, each taking on winey characteristics with diverging and complex flavors developing with each sip.
The Lost Abbey, Veritas 015 — 6.5% ABV
The recent Great American gold medal winner gets a limited release each year, going for $40+ per bottle.
Stumblefoot Brewing Company, Questhaven — 8.5% ABV
Lost Abbey’s fellow San Marcos brewery came up with an easier-to-come-by barrel-aged, wild-yeast sour made with peaches and apricots. The amber turns sour over the course of a year in wood. The fruits assert themselves strongly in a beer reminiscent of the Belgian sour style known as Flanders red.
Council Brewing, Beatitude Tart Saison — 3.8% ABV
Council added space this year, primarily to expand production of this fruited farmhouse ale. Versions released include blueberry, raspberry, and mango, each exposed to a blend of wild yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria, plus a touch of malt, rye, and hops to create a light, very tart beer.
Toolbox, Grass Fed Lettuce — 5.3% ABV
I struggled to decide which of Toolbox’s excellent sours to mention here, and decided to include one without fruit. This one’s billed as a dry-hopped sour blond ale, and a “A nice sour for not sour fans.” But don’t let that make you think it won’t challenge your palate with interesting flavors.
Modern Times Beer, Fruitlands — 4.0% ABV
This well-conceived beer takes a German style gose, known for being tart and salty, and doses it with sour cherries. It results in bright, refreshing, and puckering fruitiness with plenty of nuance to keep it from reading like punch. The limited release went fast, hopefully to return.
32 North, Landfill Berliner Weiss — 3.5% ABV
Similar to a gose, but without the salt, the low-alcohol Berliner weiss became a popular style in San Diego this year. This one goes a little more sour than most, featuring different seasonal fruits for added character and truly tasty depth. Part of me wants to add bourbon and see how good the resulting whiskey sour would taste.
Beautiful browns and radical reds
Green Flash Brewing Company, Hop Head Red — 8.1% ABV
Can red ales be popular in an IPA town? Green Flash answered yes with this spicy, Amarillo dry-hopped red that says as much about local palates as it does the skill of recently resigned brewmaster Chuck Silva. The bitterness we crave is there, but so are rich caramel malts and resiny body.
AleSmith Brewing Company, Evil Dead Red — 6.66% ABV
A yearly reminder that blood is also measured in pints, this richly malted Halloween release and its seasonally appropriate 6.66% ABV pours an almost disturbingly deep red. The deft addition of hops keeps caramel notes from running away with this beer, and the resulting balance proves joyful, not scary.
Bagby Beer Company, Hop Whompus — 10.2% ABV
Brewer Jeff Bagby won gold for Oggi’s Pizza with this imperial red more than a decade ago, and continues to medal with it at his Oceanside brewery. It manages to be malty sweet and hoppy bitter at the same time, a great dichotomy for fans of full-bodied beers.
Ballast Point Brewing Company, Tongue Buckler — 10.0% ABV
It’s tough to believe this beer weighs in so heavy — there’s so much going on between the biscuit malts and smoothly bitter hops that the alcohol isn’t immediately obvious.
Butcher’s Brewing, Choice Red IPA — 7.5% ABV
Another fine example of using hops to balance a red’s malty character, this one does so with Mosaic, affording it that popular hop’s highly sought fruitiness. The effect’s only mildly bitter, as this one’s fine flavor really hits a sweet spot.
Benchmark Brewing, Brown — 4.5% ABV
Like the rest of this Grantville brewer’s lineup, this brown ale proves exquisitely clean and balanced, offering a nuanced sweetness that highlights caramel and biscuity malt notes, with a touch of roast. Apparently it’s all the brown I need.
Pleasant porters and stylish stouts
Border X Brewing, Abuelita Chocolate Stout — 7.5% ABV
Chocolate, lactose sugar and dark malts give this stout a smoothly rich flavor — the hint of cinnamon evokes a Mexican hot chocolate. Its 7.5% ABV is right on point, employing the full body of a big stout, without stepping on the pleasant combination of flavors.
South Park Brewing Company, Scripps Pier Stout — 5.2% ABV
Less than a year old, this brewpub’s already collected a couple of medals for its take on an oyster stout. The inclusion of ocean water and oyster shells conceptually matches the fish restaurant side of the business, and the resulting light salinity perks up its cleanly smooth character.
Port Brewing Company, Santa’s Little Helper — 10.0% ABV
An abundance of malts and two kinds of sugar work with wheat, hops, and a proprietary yeast strain to make a big, dark, and supremely rich unfiltered stout. Hints of chocolate, coffee, vanilla — keep sipping, there’s a lot going on in there.
ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, 1850 Runner — 6.3% ABV
A historical approach to brewing turned up this 19th-century British running porter, referring to a style served fresh instead of aged. Its nuanced chocolate and earthy hop character reminds us craft beer has a long, international history.
Second Chance Brewing Co., Tabular Rasa — 6.2% ABV
Veteran brewer Marty Mendiola says he spent years fine-tuning his porters, finally hitting his stride when he added toasted oats to the recipe. The great taste and texture of his new brewery’s dark roasty chocolate porter suggest he’s on to something.
Perfect pale ales
AleSmith Brewing Company, .394 Pale Ale — 6.0% ABV
Tony Gwynn’s legacy is secure regardless of how this beer turned out. But of course the late All Star’s collaboration with his favorite local brewer is a hit — the first AleSmith beer to be released in 12-ounce bottles. The aromatic, hop-forward pale should be sipped at every Padres game.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Pintail Pale — 5.3% ABV
This Amarillo dry-hopped pale offers the citrus, pine, and floral aromas of an IPA, but goes down smoother, allowing the hops to kick their fruit forward and marry with a balanced malt profile, resulting in a wonderful transitional beer for aspiring hopheads.
Rip Current Brewing, Pearling Pale Ale — 5.5% ABV
The always-winning combination of Mosaic and Amarillo hops keeps this understated pale tropically fruity with a piny, peppery aroma. Likewise, it’s not overly sweet in the malt, allowing it to hit that palate-pleasing midpoint between an amber and IPA.
Bay City Brewing Co., Experimental Pale Ale — 5.5% ABV
The first beer out of this new brewery’s system made for a terrific start. But brewer Chris West has been given free rein to tinker and adjust on the fly. If he thinks this tropical, piny, Nelson- and Columbus-hopped pale can get better, watch out.