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)
Last week, I made mention of the fact that the more recent entrants into San Diego’s brewery-scene are taking steps to really put their best feet forward when introducing themselves to the imbibing public. Count the recently soft-opened Burgeon Beer Company (6350 Yarrow Drive, Carlsbad) among that faction. Headed by a trio of longtime beer-buds—one of which is brewmaster Anthony Tallman, formerly of Stone Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing Company and, most recently, Vista’s Back Street Brewery—it took more than three years to cobble together from conception-to-reality, and it’s clear, even in its first month of operation, that none of that time was wasted.
Located on an industrial side-street just south of McClellan-Palomar Airport, Burgeon would easily blend into its industrial-park environs…were it not for large, easy-to-spot, professional signage towering above the entry. It sounds simple, but it really makes a difference. Time otherwise wasted driving around, making U-turns and cursing one’s map-app is instead spent enjoying beer. Not sampling beer, but enjoying it, because Tallman and company are making some quality product.
Three of the toughest-to-dial-in styles of Burgeon’s seven introductory beers are its best. Thuja IPA, a 6.5% single India pale ale packed with Mosaic, Citra, Amarillo and Centennial hops, has just the right consistency to convey all those hops’ flavors and aromas while remaining easy-to-drink. The cleverly named Mixed Greens Double IPA—the first in a series of rotating imperial IPAs that will see different combinations of hops added at six different stages during the brewing and fermentation process—is aptly “green”, low on the sweetness that can sometimes overtake double IPAs, and leaves a delightful, lingering accent of tangerine in its wake. Conversely, Lot 19 Pale Ale (named after the spot where a motherlode of cedar was sourced for construction of the furniture in Burgeon’s tasting room) brings a nice caramely malt-base in without imparting any sweetness, thus balancing this 5.5% ABV beer’s citrus-like hop-borne essence.
The next-best beer at Burgeon is probably, of all things, its cream ale. Tallman’s take on an American adjunct-lager (you may know it as lawnmower beer or that watery beverage four-fifths of the country thinks of exclusively as “beer”) is smooth, easy-drinking and a little higher in alcohol than Coors and Budweiser’s OG versions. And what’s that other thing in there? Oh yes…flavor. It won’t punch you in the face, but it’s a heck of a transition beer for folks who are tired of waiting until the mountains turn blue enough to hide the flavor deficiencies in their current beer of choice.
Of course, everything’s not perfect. A rye amber ale and nut brown show promise, but could use a little more heft on the palate, while Moo Moo Farm Milk Stout (right up there with Mixed Greens in the killer-moniker department) is a bit overdone with a certain smokiness that comes across as off-putting.
As with its exterior, Burgeon wins bonus points for its interior design. The tasting room is rather spacious, but nice, thoughtful, unique touches keep it from feeling the least bit empty. There is plenty of seating augmented by vertical cedar shelving stacked with bright green plant-life, a tree sprouting from the ground at the end of the bar, and a fountain feature converted from Burgeon’s founders’ original home-brew sculpture. On top of that, the cold-box is also paneled to mimic the look of a shipping container with Burgeon’s wordmark emblazoned on one side and tree-stump signs on the other telling the tale of the tap-list.
Burgeon has more polish than a number of breweries that have been operational for years, and that’s saying something. Everybody is upping their game to compete in this rather crowded market, making it all the more impressive that the individuals behind this interest saw fit to up theirs long before opening their doors, an act that will be made official during grand-opening festivities from noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m., Saturday, January 21.
Every six months, I like to take a step back and assess the work-in-progress breweries and brewer-owned venues throughout San Diego County, and expound on those I believe show the most promise. This is not to say those not listed below don’t have solid potential—but based on what I know about these businesses, I think they have the best shot. This time around, I’m splitting my selections into two geographic regions, north and south, and starting with the former. Check back next week for another group of breweries-to-be.
SR76 Beer Works, Valley Center: Constructed within Harrah’s Southern California Resort, this will be the first tribe-owned brewery and the first beer-manufacturing facility within a hotel. With a rare brewery-construction project where funds are plentiful, getting a solid brewer to helm the project represented the biggest challenge and it would seem they chose wisely, going with Brian Scott, a veteran of reigning Mid-Size US Brewery of the Year Karl Strauss Brewing Company and Mission Brewery. His beers will be served in spacious, lush tasting-room that will add a much appreciated new element to casino-going craft fans.
Indian Joe Brewing, Vista: The county’s first Native American-owned brewery stands to do well when it opens later this year. After all, it gained a hardy following from 2013-2015, and that was using a tiny brewing system in a tucked-away industrial suite in south Vista. Now the company has a brand-new 15-barrel system, a robust cellar and a stock of oak-barrels inside its new 18,000-square-foot facility, which is fully visible off State Route 78. Add in a two-story tasting room with an outdoor patio and fans who’ve been waiting for Indian Joe’s return figure to be pretty happy with Version 2.0.
Burgeon Beer Company, Carlsbad: In most cases, when judging how promising a future brewery will be, it comes down to experience. That’s what my assessment of this upcoming North County brewery is all about, and the experience lies in brewer Anthony Tallman, the current head of fermentation at Vista’s Backstreet Brewery, who came there after meaningful stints at Stone Brewing and Rough Draft Brewing Company. Being in charge of a brewpub, he stands a good chance of juggling the multiple styles he aims to produce.
Julian Brewing Company, Julian: Julian has a brewery, one which was built when the former co-owner of Julian Brewing ventured out on his own. This OG local beer spot was later closed by its current parent-company, Pizza Port, and is in the process of being rebranded. Knowing what its former shortcomings were, plus business experience and a stable of quality brewers to ensure good beer pours forth from its second-coming provide a basis for hope in the reimagined brewpub this venue becomes.
The large number of local brewing companies opened by homebrewers over the past decade-plus has provided something for hobbyists getting into recreational fermentation to aspire to. When Anthony Tallman and Derek Van Leeuwen took up homebrewing eight years ago, they did so with the intention to someday open their very own commercial brewery. But it wasn’t until sharing a beer with friend Matthew Zirpolo at Culture Brewing Company three years back that the business-plan took shape. The trio has taken different paths to where they now stand—on the precipice of making their dream a reality—and all those roads led them to coastal North County, the future home of Burgeon Beer Company (6350 Yarrow Drive, Suite C, Carlsbad).
Located in an industrial park just west of Pizza Port’s Bressi Ranch brewpub and production facility, Burgeon is tentatively scheduled to commence brewing on a 15-barrel Premier Stainless rig in October, followed by a December tasting-room opening. In the meantime, Tallman will continue in his role as head brewer at Vista’s Back Street Brewery. He has held that position for more than two years after stints at Stone Brewing and Rough Draft Brewing Company. While with the latter, he helped earn a gold and silver medal at the 2013 L.A. International Beer Competition plus a bronze at the 2013 San Diego International Beer Festival. He will serve as head brewer at Burgeon and be assisted by Van Leeuwen.
The trio (who have known each other since high school) spent a year searching for locations, initially intending to site Burgeon in a retail location in downtown Vista or coastal Oceanside. They eventually selected their 10,000-square-foot Carlsbad facility after several buildings in the aforementioned regions fell through, deciding an industrial site was what they needed to get the business off the ground in the near future. The tasting-room will take up a fifth of the entire space and be built out of cedar slabs from a property in Julian belonging to one of Burgeon’s investors. In terms of beer, Tallman and company hope to produce a wide variety of styles, including pale ales, IPAs, hoppy and imperial pale lagers, a rye-infused amber, nut brown and Belgian-style ales (possibly including lesser-seen styles, grisette and singel). A barrel-aging program will also be instituted from the get-go.