The Insider’s Guide to San Diego’s Behemoth Brewery Scene
February 12, 2018
By Bruce Glassman
Beer is everywhere in San Diego. Anyone who wants to experience the full breadth and depth of the city’s brewing scene faces a behemoth challenge. Not only is San Diego county geographically large (more than 4,500 square miles), and spread out across a wide variety of landscapes, but the sheer number of breweries to explore — 155 and counting — makes figuring out where to go and what to taste rather daunting.
Since craft brewing took hold on a large scale in the early 1990s, San Diego brewers have gained worldwide recognition and accolades. Most notable, perhaps, is what is widely referred to as the “San Diego style,” which is — in its simplest terms — characterized by beers that are turbo-hopped, bold, and highly flavorful.
But San Diego beer is about a lot more than hops. San Diego brewers have built a unique reputation for innovation, expanding the boundaries of style, and for creating perfectly balanced brews that deliver big character.
Here’s a brief rundown of some of San Diego’s most notable breweries. These brief descriptions and suggested itineraries should help you decide where to start and what to drink.
For the purposes of beer touring, it’s best to think about focusing on one or two of four basic geographical areas: the #78 Corridor (known as the “Hops Highway”), the Miramar region, the Mission Bay/Pacific Beach region, and the Downtown. There are numerous other areas that contain an impressive concentration of good breweries, but these four districts will get you the biggest bang for your brewery buck with the most variety and the least amount of travel. An asterisk (*) denotes breweries where food is readily available.
THE #78 CORRIDOR/HOPS HIGHWAY (NORTH COUNTY)
The immediate area around the westernmost stretch of freeway #78 — a total of less than 20 miles — contains a stunning selection of excellent breweries. Some are right off the freeway, others are 5 to 10 minutes from an exit, but just about all of them are worth a visit.
Stone Brewing Co.* (Escondido): If you’ve heard of San Diego beer, you’ve probably heard of Stone. This is one of the breweries that put San Diego on the map. Stone is all about big, boldly flavored beers that don’t apologize for being brawny, like Stone Ruination Double IPA. The company’s affinity for aggressive hopping helped to establish the parameters of the “San Diego style,” but today the company does many other excellent beers that aren’t only about the hops. If you visit this spacious bistro and lovely beer garden, you’ll have access to nearly 40 beers on tap, in addition to a killer bottle list. Excellent pours include Old Guardian Barley Wine, Cali-Belgique, Russian Imperial Stout, or its excellent hoppy lager, Punk in Drublic.
Mother Earth* (Vista): There are two Mother Earth locations: the production brewery and the Taphouse on Main Street. The latter is a more comfortable, brick-lined space — plus awesome, thin-crust pizza is available from across the street. Mother Earth has an impressive variety of hop-centric beers, including Boo Koo IPA and seasonal IPAs. There are also other classic styles ranging from light and crisp to dark and malty. Don’t miss Sin Tax Imperial Stout. Start with a pour of Cali Creamin’, the brewery’s most popular beer by far; it’s not complicated, but it’s awfully tasty and just plain fun. And if a bottle of a Four Seasons barrel-aged release is available, taking one or two home is highly recommended.
Lost Abbey/Port Brewing (San Marcos): This spot is kind of like three breweries in one. The Port Brewing brand encapsulates all its American-style beers, which range from boldly hopped IPAs, to light and crisp lagers, to chocolatey-malty stouts. Everything Lost Abbey does is great, but don’t leave without tasting Judgment Day, Carnevale, Angel’s Share, and Devil Went Down to Georgia. Oh, and Red Poppy is one the best sours produced in San Diego. Alongside the Port Brewery lineup is a group of super-delicious beers called “Hop Concept,” which focus on recipes that highlight specific hop varieties. The real jewel, however, is the Lost Abbey lineup, which concentrates on Belgian-style beers (sours, barrel-aged beers, brettanomyces beers) and produces some of the most complex brews in San Diego.
Pizza Port Bressi Ranch* (Carlsbad): This iconic brewing company is one of San Diego’s originals — the lineup is all about classic American styles that deliver clean, straightforward, highly satisfying flavors — and the decor at all four locations reflects San Diego’s laid-back, surfing-centric vibe. Each location has its own brewer, so beers are unique to their brewery. Don’t miss Ponto Session IPA, Kook IPA, or any PP pale ale; and malt lovers should try Chronic Amber, Bressi Brown, or Shark Bite, probably the best red in San Diego. The atmosphere here is especially family-friendly (which can mean loud), but it’s a popular homegrown favorite for an after-beach beer and pizza.
Thirsty for More
Bear Roots (Vista): A home brew shop turned brewery, this tiny place has a limited selection, but what it does, it does well. Malt fans will be especially happy here, with Bear Heart Scotch Ale, and the Black IPA. Bear Cookie Peanut Butter Imperial Stout is a fun sipper as well.
Belching Beaver* (Vista): One of San Diego’s fastest-growing breweries, Belching Beaver has locations in Oceanside, North Park, Ocean Beach, and two in Vista. The company made its reputation with its peanut butter stout, but its best beers are really its sours and IPAs (Double Mosaic IPA and Phantom Bride IPA are gems).
Wild Barrel (San Marcos): Wild Barrel is one of San Diego’s newest breweries, but the brewer and his partners have been in the biz for many years. All the beers are excellent, but the most unique offerings are the Vice Series, which are Berliner Weiss-style beers (kettle sours) made with various fresh fruits. If you’re a Berliner fan, you’ll love the Black Currant, Pink Guava, or Mixed Berry.
Rip Current (San Marcos): Celebrated home brewers that went pro, Rip Current won Best Very Small Brewing Company at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. These guys are mostly about classic American styles (Lupulin Lust IPA is a standout) with an impressive range of other solid beers, including a delicious coffee porter.
Burgeon (Carlsbad): Minutes from Pizza Port Bressi, this medium-sized brewery does some of the nicest hoppy beers in town and has won numerous awards despite its young age. The beer lineup is impressive for its variety and daring (grisettes, cream ales, Berliner Weisses) but the real stars are always the IPAs, the best of which are Thuja, Treevana, and Mixed Greens.
MIRAMAR (NORTH-MID COUNTY)
Miramar Road is the main artery that connects the #15 Freeway to the #5 Freeway and areas west. During the last five years, the Miramar area, now affectionately also called “Beeramar,” has seen more brewery growth than any other part of San Diego. Nearly 20 breweries reside within a 10-mile radius, and more are popping up every month.
Ballast Point Brewing Company* (Miramar): Like Stone, Ballast Point has done more than just about any other brewery to establish San Diego as the mecca of hoppy beer. The Sculpin IPA is popular worldwide, but this is a brewery that does nearly every style of beer known to humanity — and it does it all well. The Miramar location is the largest and most impressive of four Ballast spots in town. Outfitted with a full kitchen, a lovely outdoor patio area, and numerous indoor seating choices, Ballast Miramar offers a more sophisticated brewery experience than your average tasting room. IPAs of note include Manta Ray IIPA and Fathom. Ballast’s California Amber is nearly perfect, Black Marlin is one of the best porters in town, and Piper Down and Victory at Sea are two of the best malty beers in America. Like sours? There’s usually some version of Sour Wench Ale available, a wonderfully approachable sour augmented with blackberries, cherries, or other tart fruits.
Green Flash Brewing Company* (Mira Mesa): Green Flash, another of San Diego’s flagship breweries, is not technically in Miramar, but it’s easily accessible from either Ballast Point or AleSmith. The company made its reputation with aggressively hopped IPAs like the West Coast IPA, but it has since evolved into a brewery that offers some lighter styles, even some that are not all about hops. The large tasting room and family-friendly beer garden provide comfortable settings for casual sipping and conversation, and its brewery tour is one of the best in town. If you are a particular fan of sours, brett beers, and barrel-aged beers, jump on the shuttle for a 20-minute trip to Cellar 3, another of the company’s brands with especially adventurous selections. Hops cravings will be well satisfied by Jibe Session IPA, Soul Style, Remix, and the iconic West Coast IPA (hardcore hopheads: hit the Palate Wrecker IPA). Cosmic Ristretto Baltic Porter is also out of this world, and Belgian-style fans will freak for Le Freak.
AleSmith Brewing Company (Miramar): Whether you’re a hophead, a malt fan, a Belgian freak, or a lager enthusiast, you’ll find lots to love at this iconic San Diego brewery. (Among its many accolades, AleSmith was voted best in the world by RateBeer in 2014.) The AleSmith tasting room, the largest in San Diego, also includes a Tony Gwynn (“Mr. Padre”) baseball museum, a speakeasy-style tasting space with extraordinary barrel-aged beers, and a wonderful mezzanine tasting space where you can sip delicious things as you look down on it all. AleSmith IPA is a classic, .394 Pale Ale is one of the best pales in town, and Old Numbskull is the most-awarded barley wine in San Diego (maybe the country). Belgian-style fans are sure to fall in love with Horny Devil and Lil’ Devil.
Thirsty for More
Duck Foot • Pure Project • Amplified: From the back patio of Ballast Point Miramar, you can almost see the business park that houses three more excellent breweries. Unlike Ballast, these guys are small, but all deliver expertly made, creative, and highly satisfying beers. Amplified and Pure Project are side by side and, between them, you can find super-tasty IPAs, wheat beers, lagers, and even a few sours and Berliner Weisses. A couple of hundred feet away, Duck Foot produces an impressive variety of classic American styles and is notable for delivering lots of flavor in an entirely gluten-free lineup.
New English Brewing (Sorrento Valley): Head west from Green Flash for about 7 minutes and you’ll find New English, which is locally known as “the best San Diego brewery you’ve never heard of.” Tucked back from the road in a business park setting, this company has distinguished itself as one of San Diego’s best producers in a number of categories. Humbly Legit and Pure & Simple are two of the classiest IPAs in town, Dragoon and Explorer ESB are two of the best medium-malty beers, and Zumbar — its multi-award-winning chocolate coffee imperial stout — is among the most consistently satisfying stouts in San Diego.
BAY PARK/PACIFIC BEACH (SOUTH MID-COUNTY)
This area isn’t as heavily concentrated with breweries as Miramar or along the #78 Corridor, but it does contain two of San Diego’s most iconic breweries. It’s also close to the beautiful Mission Bay and Pacific Beach, and such tourist attractions as Sea World, only minutes from Coronado Brewing.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company (Pacific Beach): One could make an argument that, without Karl Strauss, there would be no craft beer industry in San Diego. The company started brewing downtown in 1989, effectively sparking the craft beer revolution. Beer lovers of all stripes are sure to find beers that will satisfy their tastes, including a few interesting sours, excellent ambers, reds, and dark beers, and more than a handful of bright, juicy pale ales and IPAs bursting with fresh hop flavors. Red Trolley Amber made the company famous, but Off the Rails is even better. For more heft, go for Wreck Alley Stout; and Two Tortugas Belgian Quad is a mystical experience. Hop pilgrims will like the excellent Aurora Hoppyalis IPA, Pintail Pale Ale, and Mosaic Session IPA, one of the best low-ABV single-hop IPAs in town.
Coronado Brewing Company* (Bay Park): Awarded Best Mid-Sized Brewery at the 2014 World Beer Cup, this 21-year-old company has been growing like gangbusters in the past few years. Similar to Pizza Port, Coronado celebrates the casual, laid-back beauty of San Diego’s beach-and-surf culture, and focuses its lineup on classic, clean, perfectly executed beers with big flavor. Visitors can now enjoy a variety of simple pub fare at the brewery, thanks to the newly opened kitchen here. Islander IPA is one of many excellent IPAs, along with Stingray and Idiot IPA. Malt fans should seek out the Mermaid Red; and while you’re there, make sure to taste Orange Ave. Wit, Easy Up Pale Ale, and Early Bird Cold Brew Milk Stout.
Thirsty for More
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co. (Bay Ho/Pacific Beach): Only minutes from Karl Strauss, this small brewery made its mark with a limited number of clean, well-crafted beers. Its Bitter Pils is very good, but the brewery really hit its stride with the weizens: Golden Child Hefeweizen and Brotherly Love Dunkelweizen are especially noteworthy.
Amplified Ale Works* (Pacific Beach): The original location of this excellent small brewery is only 10 minutes away from Karl Strauss, and offers a small selection of beers plus a full menu and a view of the ocean.
Home Brew Mart/ Ballast Point (Linda Vista): Minutes from Coronado Brewing, this Ballast location is something of a beer landmark. Home Brew Mart is the business that eventually birthed Ballast Point Brewing and — in the 1990s — became the most influential brewing hub in San Diego. Brewers met here to share information, collaborate, and buy ingredients and equipment. The tap list here is extensive and often features a number of extra-special one-offs, collaborations, and R&D successes.
By all accounts, San Diego’s hippest beer-soaked neighborhood has North Park’s 30th Street as its spine. This long stretch serves as a kind of “beer boulevard,” lined with breweries, tasting rooms, craft beer bars, and beer-centric restaurants and bistros. For the purposes of brewery touring, this area comprises residential neighborhoods just north of Downtown, as well as one or two locations in Downtown proper.
Fall Brewing Company (North Park): Tucked away on a mostly residential street, this brewery is a favorite of locals and brewers. The tasting room is small and the décor homey, but it’s the beer that shines. Plenty for All is one of the best pilsners in town, Rise Above is a great Czech pale lager, Green Hat IPA is a San Diego favorite, and 2AM Bike Ride is a chocolatey, malty sip of heaven. If there is any Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Jinx Remover available during your visit, don’t leave without trying it.
Modern Times (North Park): This company is known for its highly creative décor, affinity for literary references, and a somewhat offbeat collection of core beers and special releases. All are expertly done, but the Fortunate Islands Pale Ale and Fruitlands Gose are two of the brewery’s best. Modern Times also brews all its own coffee, which makes its Black House Coffee Stout especially wonderful.
Eppig Brewing Company • Pariah Brewing Company (North Park): This facility houses three small, separate breweries. Before you settle in at Eppig, stop for a pint of Erotic City from Pariah; it’s one of the most interesting ales made in San Diego. At Eppig, the IPAs are excellent, the Berliner Weisses are super satisfying (not too tart, but accessible), and the gose and dark sour are expertly done. Despite all those riches, don’t depart without trying some of Eppig’s lagers — especially the schwarzbier, not commonly brewed in San Diego.
North Park Beer Co.* (North Park): An expansive, dramatic, beautifully designed space, North Park Beer Co. offers a nice variety of classic styles. Hop-Fu IPA put North Park on the map, but the Covington Cream Ale and the Mocha Massage are also standouts.
Mike Hess Brewing (North Park): Almost directly across the street from North Park Beer Co. is Mike Hess Brewing. This cool, low-ceilinged space has long communal tables and a dramatic cross-section view of the brew house and tanks on the level below. This is a quality brewery all around, with excellent hoppy beers like Solis IPA and Habitus Double IPA. The Umbrix Rye Imperial Stout is rich and creamy, and the Grazias Vienna Cream Ale is a unique, delicious, and very satisfying change of pace if you have hop fatigue.
South Park Brewing Company* (South Park): It’s a little off the beaten path, but South Park Brewing is worth seeking out. This tiny brewery is set inside a casual pub and produces a surprisingly large variety of interesting, small-batch beers. The tap lineup is constantly changing, but you can’t go wrong here. Owner Scot Blair is a big-time beer nerd (who also owns Hamilton’s Tavern right next door) so it’s not uncommon to find lesser-done styles — gruet, squid ink gose, oyster stout — on his menu.
Thirsty for More
Thorn Street Brewing Co. (North Park): If you’re feeling really thirsty on your way down to South Park, you can always stop at Thorn Street (it’s about 8 minutes east off 30th Street). This small facility sits among the neighborhood homes on a quiet, tree-lined block. Inside, the vibe is distinctly chill, and the beer is simple but satisfying. Barrio Logan Mexican Lager is one of the nicest in town, and the Belgian Blonde is a crisp, flavorful thirst-quencher.
Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery* (Downtown): Monkey Paw is quite small, but you’d never know it from all the medals it’s won in competition. This is a great little pub in its own right (best cheese steaks in town; get the Naughty Monkey sauce!), and it’s made even better by the fact that a bunch of great beer is constantly being brewed right on the other side of the tap handles. It does hoppy of all varieties extremely well, but it also excels in nearly every other category, from English summer ales, to dark milds, to rauchbiers (smoked beer) and stouts.
Mission Brewery (Downtown): Housed in the historic Wonderbread Factory in the shadow of Petco Park, Mission has one of the most dramatic interior spaces of any brewery in San Diego, with cathedral-like ceilings and exposed brick walls. Everything Mission brews is solid, but the Hefeweizen, Shipwrecked Imperial IPA, and Dark Seas Stout are among its most consistently satisfying core beers. There’s also a fantastic hard root beer.
COMPLETE YOUR SAN DIEGO BREWERY TOUR
Societe Brewing Company (Claremont Mesa): A darling of the San Diego brew scene, when Societe opened five years ago, its Pupil IPA made a splash — and it remains to this day one of the best beers in town. There are also Belgian beers (The Harlot) and malts (The Butcher), and sour lovers will adore the stunning “feral,” barrel-aged beers.
Council Brewing Company (Clairemont Mesa): Council is another Eden for fans of sour and barrel-aged beers. This small brewery has an impressive variety of brett styles, sours, and what it calls “tart saisons.”
Burning Beard (East County): The eastern reaches of the county have seen some of the most dramatic growth in brewery populations in recent years. Among the most outstanding is Burning Beard in El Cajon which, like Societe, has become one of San Diego’s most sought-after tap handles. Hopmata IPA and Rye the Lightning Pale Ale are two of the most satisfying hoppy beers around, and Banksy ESB is unmatched by any other brewery.
Bagby Beer*, Breakwater Brewing Co.* and Mason Ale Works/Urge Gastropub* (Oceanside): If you’re hankering for a day on the coast but don’t want to go without breweries, then Oceanside is a great choice. These three breweries — only minutes from one another by car — all offer a great selection of classic beer styles in addition to full menus in fun, casual atmospheres.
Gordon Biersch Brewing Company* (Grantville): Doug Hasker, head brewer for Gordon Biersch, has long been recognized by his fellow brewers as San Diego’s “godfather” of lagers. Though Doug enjoys other styles (such as some very nice pales and IPAs), his hefeweizen, dunkelweizen, festbier, and schwarzbier, are without equal.
Benchmark Brewing Company (Grantville): Benchmark’s cozy, charming tasting room offers a nice variety of styles. The brewery is particularly loved for its brown ale, oatmeal stout, Hop Chunks IPA, and a wonderfully flavorful, surprisingly accessible Belgian-style Table Beer.