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2017 Recap: Best New San Diego County Breweries

Dec 19

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.

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)

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Beer Touring: Battlemage Brewing

Dec 12

It’s commonplace in San Diego to walk into a brewery tasting room and find multiple India pale ales augmented by little more than a wheat beer and stout. Hoppy beers are the money-makers, after all. In 2016, IPAs accounted for 76.4% of total sales at grocery and convenience stores (according to scan data compiled by market-research company IRI). It makes sense that brewing companies lead with IPAs and stay mostly within the box where non-hoppy stock is concerned, which makes it all the more admirable when brewers dare to buck convention and instead follow their personal tastes and passions. I recently visited such an interest, Battlemage Brewing (2870 Scott Street, #102, Vista), where the beer menu looked like something from an entirely different realm…thanks only in part to the fact the place is essentially an RPG game room replete in fantasy regalia.

Established by gaming enthusiasts (who also brewed at Ballast Point Brewing before opening their own venture), Battlemage is the perfect setting for your next D&D session, but the real otherworldliness comes from a list of libations unlike any in the county. While there are two IPAs, standard and hazy (of course), and an extra pale ale that’s Northeastern in composition (gotta pay them bills), Battlemage also offers a dark mild, old ale, hoppy amber, coffee milk stout and two versions of a white ale (neither of which is a white ale) and even a beer that lists three question marks as its style descriptor. That’s as exotic as an aasimar druid decked out in a suit of armor. And it makes for an enjoyable day of drinking for someone who appreciates all styles versus merely those which are popular, particularly because many of Battlemage’s offerings are rather well crafted.

The aforementioned Divine Light white ale is a blonde ale and lager hybrid that’s well-attenuated and easy to drink. Those qualities help a version of that beer infused with blackberries and coffee show off its added ingredients, but honestly, the base beer is more enjoyable on its own. Muradin’s Mild is complex in its overall profile, with fruity and bready notes as well as low-grade, coffee-like roastiness. The Beer is Dark and Full of Caffeine (a contender for Best Beer Name) coffee milk stout is smooth with notes of nutty java and cola. And the hoppy amber ale, Summon Ifrit, presents big evergreen notes against a super-dry, biscuity canvas.

For all of my excitement over finding rarer styles, I have to admit that the hazy Chaotic Evil extra pale ale and non-murky Hopdouken IPA were two of my favorites from Battlemage. The former was reminiscent of orangeade with muted bitterness and only slightly bumped-up viscosity, while the IPA was super-clean with a mimosa-like character. My other top-scoring beer of the day couldn’t have been more different. It was Hooded Assassin, an English-style old ale that, though young and coming in at a whopping 10% alcohol-by-volume, was extremely drinkable, coming across with notes of red fruit, vanilla and banana, plus a touch of peppery spice in the finish. Hopefully they’re sitting on a keg or two of this gentle giant for unearthing at a later date.

You don’t have to be into role-playing games to enjoy Battlemage. Admittedly, it helps, but the beer is both good and very affordable (tasters are $1.50 or you can get get a flight of five for just $5), plus there’s a separate room with a Foosball table. Bottom line, you needn’t be a level 20 paladin to appreciate this new North County brewery.

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Battlemage Brewing set to open in Vista

Apr 27

You can scarcely throw a 100-sided die in Vista without hitting a brewery, and come the weekend of May 6, two guys used to utilizing that role-playing game tool will debut the latest entrant into that sudsy community—Battlemage Brewing Company (2870 Scott Street, Suite 102, Vista). Best friends and fermentationists Ryan Sather and Chris Barry named their interest after a hybrid class from a game they’ve been playing for the past 20 years: D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, non-RPGers). Sather has spent the three years working at Home Brew Mart. Barry’s Ballast Point Brewing experience is a bit shorter—he’s been there the past year after moving on from managing Mother Earth Brew Co.’s homebrew shop. In opening Battlemage, they are going from advising people on brewing to doing it themselves on a professional scale.

As far as the beers they brew on their five-barrel system, they’re not limiting themselves. Both have medaled in a plethora of categories as homebrewers—IPAs and wide-ranging American, Belgian, English and German styles. The duo expects to offer traditional styles as well as classic styles given twists that make then “truly magical.” A white ale that comes across as a light-hopped blonde ale with the drinkability of a lager will share beer-board space with a aromatically hoppy American amber and a variety of IPAs because, as Sather says, it wouldn’t be San Diego without them. When Battlemage’s doors open, 8 to 10 beers will be on tap. Initial kettle sours will give way to future barrel-aged sour ales, as well. They hope to have a bottle release or two at some point and can once they have the funds to do so, but for now, draft is the name of their game.

The tasting room is designed so customers feel as if they are entering a medieval castle. Weapons and mystical creatures will grace the walls in the smallish space. Sather says he and Barry intend to embrace their nerdy side by putting on a variety of different gaming nights, ranging from fantasy to classic D&D. An event where the comic-book artist who developed Battlemage’s logo teaches patrons how to draw dragons and other graphic delights is under development. Also in the works is a collaboration with the distillery two doors down, Henebery Spirits, where Battlemage will age beers in used barrels, while the distillers will age whiskey in those same barrels once the beer is drained from them.

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