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)
It’s the final month of the year, and time to reflect on the year nearly gone-by. For me, that means assessing San Diego County’s brewery landscape. That’s what I’ll be doing in a three-part series of posts this week, starting with a look at the plethora of new brewing operations that opened in 2016. More breweries opened this year than any in history. And it’s important to note that more good breweries opened in 2016 than in the past several years. Many tout the double-digit number of rookie fermentation operations added to San Diego’s brewery-count each year, but I’ll be honest and say that the past half-decade has seen too many average-to-subpar businesses join the fold. Sure, some duds opened in 2016, but the same can be said of any food-and-beverage business. The bottom-line is, aspiring entrants into the local suds-scene seem to understand, now more than ever, that they better have good beer if they’re going to compete, and that’s leading to better breweries, from conception to birth and beyond. The following are my picks (in order) for best new breweries of the past 365 days (with the exception of some that were simply too new to be fairly evaluated).
Burning Beard Brewing Co., El Cajon: Rockin’ beers and rock-and-roll make for amenities worth an East County excursion at this small but well-run spot featuring a variety of beers ranging from Belgians to San Diego-style hop-elixirs to deep, dark stouts and, eventually, fouder-aged ales. Throw in employee exuberance that ranges from the brew-crew to the bar staff, and it’s sort of a holy-grail situation.
North Park Beer Co., North Park: One of the most anticipated new brewery project of the past four years, the brainchild of its namesake community’s proud denizen Kelsey McNair finally came to life. Its former MMA gym home has been transformed into a beautiful, two-story, wood-paneled den of communal enjoyment of beers that are largely sessionable and rely on impressive balance versus belligerent brawn.
Resident Brewing Co., Downtown: Urban bar and eatery, The Local, is a long-time supporter of the craft-beer movement, but when it added on-site fermentation to its equation, the resulting product was something special. An award-winning homebrewer-turned-pro is pumping out some of the bolder, ideally hopped West Coast-style beers of the rookie-class while bringing flavor with myriad other styles.
Pure Project Brewing, Miramar: If a wide array of easy-drinking beers—crisp to full-bodied, clear to hazy, fruited to (GABF medal-garnering) barrel-aged—weren’t enough reason to become enamored with this, the first brewery to test out the Brewery Igniter ready-to-brew model, the fact it’s a generous One Percent for the Planet business is enough to pull the wishy-washy off the fence.
Bear Roots Brewing, Vista: A small homebrew-supply store opening a three-barrel nano-brewery with a bar that takes up half its shop…sounds risky if not ill-advised, but a husband-wife duo have not only made it work, but amassed such a cult-following behind a varied beer line-up that includes a tasty cookie-inspired dessert beer that they’re looking at growing their baby to papa-bear status in 2017.
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co., Bay Ho: The first brewery to open in 2016 has done well for itself, producing a solid line-up of hoppy beers offset by a number of English-style malt-driven styles and “candy-bar” beers. Further refinement of its wares in the coming year should keep this operation on its upward trajectory, as should fun, well-done quarterly beer dinners in its tasting room.
It’s important to note that, in previous years, a half-dozen picks for best new brewery would have been excessive. This year, I could have added another two or three rather easily. The following are those that missed the cut, but never before has the division between the best and the rest been so slim. Cheers to that!
This Year’s Contenders: Culver Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Guadalupe Brewery (Carlsbad), Kensington Brewing Co. (Mission Valley), Little Miss Brewing Co. (Miramar), Longship Brewery (Mira Mesa), Mason Ale Works (Oceanside), Midnight Jack Brewing Co. (Oceanside), Mikkeller Brewing San Diego (Miramar), Oceanside Brewing Co. (Oceanside),
Maybe Next Year: Burgeon Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Eppig Brewing Co. (North Park), Knotty Brewing (East Village), OB Brewery (Ocean Beach), Thunderhawk Alements (Miramar)
Previous Top-Ranked Breweries
2015: Fall Brewing Co. (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing Co. (South Park), Bay City Brewing Co. (Point Loma), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing Co. (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing Co. (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing Co. (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing Co. (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing Co. (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing Co. (Vista)