Welcome to the Craft Brewing Capital of the Country
In the beginning, there were forward-thinking pioneers with simple, geographically inspired, eponymous, and elemental names like Stone, Karl Strauss, Coronado, and San Diego Brewing Company. From these fledgling fermentation operations sprouted a beer culture that trumps any in the country, if not the world. San Diego County’s reputation as the Mecca for American craft beer is made even more impressive when one considers that status was built over a relatively short 25-year span. But how did it happen, and why here?
When asked, brewers cite San Diegans’ laidback, open-to-anything nature as being integral to the equation. Whereas brewing is popular throughout the country, other hotbeds in the Midwest and East Coast are steeped in tradition. As such, those regions’ brewers focus on replicating Old World European beers. San Diego’s oldest post-Prohibition brewing company, Karl Strauss, started this way, handcrafting Germanic lagers and English-style ales in 1989. But it wasn’t long before San Diego’s brewers, and its drinkers, grew thirsty for more.
By the mid-nineties, newcomers like AleSmith, Ballast Point, Pizza Port, and Stone started taking things to the next level by reviving long-forgotten recipes and styles theretofore obscure in America’s Finest. In doing so, they added creative twists, often upping the flavor and alcoholic strength of their beers. Bold, brash, and aggressive were adjectives often lauded onto San Diego brews, but the primary descriptor used to describe the region’s uniquely forward beers, particularly its India pale ales, was “hoppy.”
Adding copious amounts of hops — a botanic ingredient initially added to beer in order to preserve it but now mainly used for its ability to impart piney, citrus-like flavors and aromas — became the calling card for San Diego brewers. Soon, the country began to take notice and, before long, the industry began to rise like the foamy head on a well-poured pilsner. Today, there are more than 70 operating brewhouses (and over 30 in planning) throughout the county. Many of them, such as AleSmith, Ballast Point, Pizza Port, and The Lost Abbey, have been named the best of their class in the nation or the world. But not just for those incredible IPAs. San Diego’s sudscape offers expert iterations of nearly every beer style the world over. There is truly something for everyone.
Fans of Belgian beer — wits, farmhouse ales, dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels — will find everything they want under one roof at The Lost Abbey in San Marcos. In addition to year-round beers that mesh SoCal ingenuity with age-old styles, the brewery (which shares its facility and tasting space with IPA-heavy West Coast-driven sister operation, Port Brewing) is one of the most highly recognized barrel-aging operations in the country, churning out impressive, wide-ranging, liquor- and oak-laced stouts and sours.
Those looking for everything from low-alcohol lagers to chocolaty stouts will do best to hit breweries well known for quality and consistency across a wide breadth of styles. Businesses that have earned that reputation include Miramar’s AleSmith, Karl Strauss, rookie San Marcos operation Rip Current, and Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits, which operates tasting spaces in Scripps Ranch (with a craft distillery), Linda Vista’s Home Brew Mart (the company’s original location inside a brewing supply store), Petco Park, and Little Italy. The latter is both a brewery and café helmed by former Avenue 5 chef Colin MacLaggan.
And for those with the hop itch that only a San Diego IPA can scratch, best bets include unincorporated cult favorite Alpine Beer Co., Mira Mesa’s fast-growing Green Flash Brewing Company, one-year-old upstart Societe Brewing, any of Pizza Port’s four local beach-themed brewpubs, and the county’s largest local operation, Stone Brewing Co. The nation’s tenth biggest brewing company, Stone recently added a second brewery-restaurant to its expanding empire, which also includes a bar and restaurant in the newly revamped Terminal 2 facility at the San Diego International Airport. In addition to its own hop-centric creations, that venue serves beers from numerous local breweries, giving visitors to San Diego an authentic taste of the country’s foremost craft beer culture. BRANDON HERNÁNDEZ
Best Beers by Style
Pilsner: Lightning Elemental Pilsner, Poway
Wit: Ballast Point Wahoo Wheat Beer, Scripps Ranch, Linda Vista, Little Italy
Hefeweizen: Lightning Thunderweizen, Poway
Dubbel: Iron Fist Dubbel Fisted, Vista
Tripel: Green Flash Trippel, Mira Mesa
Quadrupel: The Lost Abbey Judgment Day, San Marcos
Pale Ale: AleSmith X, Miramar
IPA: Alpine Nelson IPA, Alpine
Double IPA: Stone Enjoy By IPA, Escondido
Black IPA: Culture Black IPA, Solana Beach
Red Ale: Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale, County-wide
Imperial Red Ale: Green Flash Hop Head Red, Mira Mesa
Brown Ale: Port Board Meeting Brown Ale, San Marcos
Porter: Ballast Point Black Marlin Porter, Scripps Ranch, Linda Vista, Little Italy
Stout: Benchmark Oatmeal Stout, Grantville
Imperial Stout: AleSmith Speedway Stout, Miramar
Barleywine: The Lost Abbey Angel’s Share, San Marcos
Brandon Hernández is a native San Diegan with a passion for the culinary arts and the local dining scene. In addition to writing about food, beverages, and restaurants for local and national outlets, he is an editor for Zagat, has been featured numerous times on Food Network, has assisted numerous chefs with cookbook projects, and is responsible for communications at Stone Brewing Co.
Bottle photography by John Schulz