This year saw more new-brewery openings than any in San Diego County’s history. Happily, in this reporter’s opinion, more of them were of good quality than in year’s past. Enough that whittling down a list of the top half-dozen was extremely difficult, and ranking that sextet even harder. At least three breweries were on the bubble for the last spot, so if you’re using this as any sort of guide to the good stuff, don’t feel encouraged to limit your brewery touring to these selections. These are just your best bets based on the opinion of one well-researched individual. In that spirit, feel free to leave comments about any exceptional new breweries you’ve discovered over the past 12 months in the comments section. (Author’s Note: Breweries marked with an asterisk opened in 2016, but too late to be considered for the list of best new breweries for that calendar year.)
Eppig Brewing * | North Park: Nathan Stephens and Clayton LeBlanc, the duo producing the beers at this Brewery Igniter standout have a tasting room exhibiting the variety of the Little Italy outpost of their previous employers, Ballast Point Brewing. That’s saying something, especially since brewing days there resemble a game of life-sized Tetris. Still, some of the finest, most consistent lagers, plus an array of nice hoppy and even sour ales provide glimpses of what seems a very bright future for this reincarnation of a nineteenth-century family fermentation business.
Wild Barrel Brewing | San Marcos: Beer fans everywhere couldn’t help but wonder how well infinitely popular ale-and-lager expert “Dr.” Bill Sysak would fare as a brewery owner. Commenting on beer is one thing, but manufacturing it is a different game entirely. With the help of head brewer Bill Sobieski, he’s fared extremely well, hitting the ground running this fall with quality IPAs, an effective entry-level witbier and a brilliant coffee stout. Throw in a stellar tasting room complete with a gargantuan barrel at its center, and you have something special.
Burgeon Beer Co. * | Carlsbad: After gaining experience at Stone Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing and Back Street Brewery, Anthony Tallman united with long-time friends to forge his own business, and it’s been going strong since day one. Built around a smart, modern-day business model combining outside keg sales with regular in-house can releases, this newcomer has built a solid following around an array of multi-faceted IPAs and dark beers. No trend is off limits for them. That said, they’re at their best when they stay true to tradition.
Pariah Brewing | North Park: Some say this Prince-ly purple, dungeon-esque Brewery Igniter spot is no place for beer purists, and while it’s true that Stone and Helm’s Brewing alum Brian Mitchell specializes in beers that go outside the box by incorporating an array of flavorful adjuncts as simple as coffee and orange peel to as oddball as fenugreek and uni (yes, sea urchin), there are to-style gems like Indie Or Bust IPA. But this place is geared to adventurous drinkers and provides an impressive departure from the everyday, even in a town soaked in beer.
Battlemage Brewing | Vista: Role-playing game enthusiasts got a brewery playing to their passions when yet another former Ballast Point duo, Ryan Sather and Chris Barry, teamed to open this testament to the communal power of beers and broadswords. It’s become an ideal backdrop for fans of RPG and tabletop enterprises, but you don’t have to know the difference between a Halfling and a half-orc to appreciate the beers, which flow into rarely charted territory (dark mild, old ale) and come across clean and tasty. Perfect sustenance for a lengthy campaign.
Black Plague Brewing | Oceanside: An operation that looked like it might veer off course at the onset of its journey steered its way into veteran leadership when it contracted former AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego brewer Bill Batten to assist with its fermentation operations. The resulting line-up of beers, including multi-fruited takes on an IPA that’s best on its own, plus myriad other styles, is fun and highly drinkable. The name, plague-doctor motif and black-walled tasting room are strange, but the beer provides a guiding light.
This Year’s Other Contenders: Align Brewing (Miramar), Alta Brewing (Barrio Logan), Chula Vista Brewery (Chula Vista), Circle 9 Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Ebullition Brew Works (Vista), Escondido Brewing (Escondido), Jacked Up Brewing (Escondido), Knotty Brewing * (East Village), OB Brewery * (Ocean Beach), Protector Brewery (Miramar), Rouleur Brewing (Carlsbad), Smoking Cannon Brewery (Ramona), SpecHops Brewing (Vista), SR76 Beerworks (Valley Center), Thunderhawk Alements * (Miramar), Viewpoint Brewing (Del Mar)
Maybe Next Year (Late Additions): California Wild Ales (Sorrento Valley), Deft Brewing (Bay Park), Horus Aged Ales (Oceanside), Northern Pine Brewing (Oceanside), Oeuvre Artisan Ales (Miramar), Savagewood Brewing (Scripps Ranch)
Previous Top-Ranked New Breweries
2016: Burning Beard Brewing (El Cajon), North Park Beer Co. (North Park), Resident Brewing (Downtown), Pure Project Brewing (Miramar), Bear Roots Brewing (Vista), Bitter Brothers Brewing (Bay Ho)
2015: Fall Brewing (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing (South Park), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing (Vista)
If you miss the good old days, when classic C hops ruled the day, pale ales registered mid-range on the SRM meter and beer menus went from blonde to stout, Brett Stampf can relate. A veteran brewer who worked at Stone Brewing and Green Flash Brewing, he can appreciate the IBU-rich beers that played a big part in those operations’ successes. He says he left each as said success led to each growing into larger entities, stating that just wasn’t for him. He prefers a smaller stage and the freedom that provides, and has spent the past two years constructing his own passion project with partners John Bull and Josh Gilko. That spot, Alta Brewing Company (1983 Julian Avenue, Barrio Logan) is on track to open in early August (ABC willing).
When San Diegans last tasted Stampf’s beers, he was the opening brewmaster at La Jolla Brewing. While there is little he cared to bring with him from that venture, his current beer list includes a number of offerings from his time there. When the doors open, he will have a quintet of ales available. The first is a golden ale with a surprisingly biting finish that will be served on CO2 and nitrogen. Ditto the house IPA, which is hopped with big-money hops, Citra and Simcoe, and comes in at 7% alcohol-by-volume. A 6% ABV pale ale is a throwback that comes across like a tamer version of Sierra Nevada’s copper-colored flagship, with a bitter finish that resembles that of Stampf’s Chinook- and Centennial-stoked brown ale. A dry Irish-style stout rounds things out. Belgian-style ales and an IPA hopped exclusively with Azacca are in the works.
Those beers will be available solely in Alta’s tasting room, which was pounded into shape by the company’s founders—all of which have contracting backgrounds—in a 2,000-square-foot space at the base of the Bread and Salt building. That 40,000-square-foot facility is being reborn and reconfigured with an eye toward art and artisan manufacturing. Alta’s corner of it includes an indoor bar nicely appointed with a large bull-head mural by local artist Gloria Muriel featuring beer’s four main ingredients, plus a lacquered wood-topped bar with rebar forged into a playful design based on the letters A, L and T. Rail bars line two walls, giving way to views of Barrio Logan and an outdoor patio that will someday border a beer garden.
Alta’s brewery comprises a five-barrel brewhouse feeding into 10-barrel fermentation tanks. Stampf says he will aim to produce around 500 barrels in year one, but has the ability to max out annual production at 1,100 barrels. Stampf says the name Alta translates to over and above, and describes the way he is looking to brew; remaining true to tradition, but keeping up quality while infusing a bit of himself and his personal preferences. The skeletal bull-head logo is a nod to his business partner of the same name and is affectionately named “Juan Toro”. A “recovering contractor”, Bull has worked on numerous local restaurant projects, including Tribute Pizza, Union Kitchen and Tap, One Door North, PB Shore Club and Pacific Beach AleHouse. Once Alta is up and running, the team will identify sites for one or two satellite tasting rooms. So far they have evaluated two, Chula Vista and Ocean Beach.
A quartet that seems well-fitted for erecting and operating a successful brewery is looking to do just that in Barrio Logan. Currently in planning, that business will go by the name Alta Brewing Company and be located in the Bread and Salt building on Julian Avenue just east of the Interstate 5 freeway. That venue is being converted into an art-centric hub for the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Three of the aforementioned founders will be putting their skills to use on this project—John Bull, owner of general contractor Blueprint Contracting, Josh Gliko of structural engineering firm Shop Engineering, and Branded Woodworks co-owner and operator Mike Franck. But who will do the brewing? Answer: Brett Stampf.
Stampf started his brewing career 20 years ago and has the likes of Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Green Flash Brewing Company on his résumé, as well as a stint as the opening head-brewer for La Jolla Brewing Company. Since departing the latter, Stampf has focused his attention on the Alta project. As such, the game-plan for that brewery, which aims to be open by spring of 2017, is more developed than most in-progress brewing interests.
Stampf expects to brew five core-beers capable of satisfying a wide-ranging array of palates—a golden ale brewed with English yeast, a dry-hopped brown ale, San Diego-style pale ale with “old-school” hops, an India pale ale and a dry Irish-style stout. Armed with a five-barrel system, the goal will not be to flood the market with these beers via distribution, but rather supply the on-site tasting room while ramping up to service future satellite, sampling-only venues. Stampf estimates he can keep up to two such spots in beer with his system, and his team has identified North Park and Chula Vista as particularly attractive communities.
Originally, the founders considered pursuing the traditional craft-brewery model—a 15-barrel brewhouse with 30- and 60-barrel fermenters and distribution as a primary revenue-source. In the end, following the footsteps of Stampf’s previous employers (including La Jolla Brewing, which is attempting to graduate to greater distribution) wasn’t what they wanted. So they are opting to stay ultra-local. The financial risk is lower, as is the stress-level for Stampf.