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 month I visited Cameron Pryor, one of the founders of California Wild Ales. We met at the under-development all-wild brewery’s Sorrento Valley facility where I took photos of the nearly completed tasting room. At the time, it was scheduled to open in early August. When I checked back with Pryor last week, he informed me that his team had since decided to hold off on opening a tasting room until they find a new location. The new plan is to stay focused on production and reduce public access to their space to bottle pick-ups.
This is another way in which this operation—perhaps the most against-the-grain of San Diego County’s breweries currently in planning—defies convention. Other unconventional factors include the fact none of its founders have experience in the brewing industry, all of their beers will utilize wild yeast and microorganisms. Throw in no tasting room and you have a full-on anomaly for the local suds scene.
But with these oddities come some positives. Without a reliance on hops, one of the most expensive ingredients in beer-making, they don’t need to focus on securing contracts and save money. Being in Sorrento Valley, the rent is lower than other higher-profile communities. And not having employees, something that can be maintained now that there won’t be a tasting room, cuts down on overhead considerably. All of this, Pryor says, will allow him and his partners to keep prices for their beers moderate. This is important to them, as they are not fans of the expensive, $30 and $40-plus bottles of wild ales in the market.
California Wild Ales’ facility currently houses a growing stock of wine barrels as well as plastic totes filled with fruit (pineapple and guava when I visited) that gets punched down a la grapes in a winery setting. According to Pryor, this step increases fruit-to-beer infusion. He has also taken lessons from tours of Old World lambic breweries in Europe, and utilizes gravity in his production methods whenever possible.
Pryor and company utilize two 4.5% alcohol-by-volume base beers—one brewed with caramel malt, the other with a touch of rye malt—as the foundation for all of their beers. Early offerings include a dark sour with black raspberries and blueberries called Black Sour, and Salty Loquats, a gose brewed with English sea salt and its tart namesake fruit but devoid of traditional coriander. Pryor, a former chef, is experimenting with a variety of exotic salts and says they change both flavor and mouthfeel of his finished products.
California Wild Ales operates a members-only club called The Funky Bunch that provides priority access to beers in exchange for an annual fee. The company will also keg some of their beers with plans to sell them to local accounts before the end of the month.
I first heard of them from local sour-beer brewer Peter Perrecone. At the time, he was heading 100% wild ale operation Toolbox Brewing Company in Vista, and had just caught wind that another outfit was looking to go that route in San Diego. The name of the future interest—California Wild Ales. I reached out to the company for more info, but it was too early for an interview. And while the business doesn’t figure to be open any sooner than August, things are starting to speed up and take shape.
California Wild Ales’ goal is to work exclusively with wild yeast and bacteria. Brettanomyces will be present in every beer the company produces and the entire line of brews will be sour and/or funky. The business, billed as San Diego’s first “all-wild-ale blendery”, will be located in a 2,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled warehouse in Sorrento Valley. Within that structure there will be a temperature-controlled bottle-conditioning room.
To bring their lofty plans to fruition, California Wild Ales’ crew will enlist the services of Sorrento Valley neighbors at New English Brewing Company. Brewmaster Simon Lacey and company will produce wort (unfermented beer) for California Wild Ales, which the blender will then funnel into used wine barrels. From there, the beer will age before the contents of multiple barrels are blended together to produce a finished product that is to California Wild Ales’ taste.
The company’s home-base will be rather rustic—a production facility lined with barrels, but aesthetics aren’t the focus. There won’t be a tasting room to start. California Wild Ales aims to be open one day per month strictly for the purpose of distributing its ales. But this may not always be the case. The business’ founders would eventually like to install a sampling space and perhaps grow into a brewpub operation. It all depends on growth, as does establishment of multiple barrel-aging warehouses.