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)
A pleasant surprise on Friday the thirteenth is always welcomed. In the case of the team at Deft Brewing Company that’s especially true. After waiting two weeks for approval of a utility fix at its project site, that blessing was issued by San Diego Gas and Electric this morning. And with that, they are able to open the doors to their brand-new tasting room and serve up their stock of varied European-inspired liquid offerings.
Deft Brewing is located at 5328 Banks Street in the Bay Park/Morena area of San Diego Proper. The brewing modus operandi is to celebrate Old World styles, including some that are harder to come by in San Diego County. A touch of New World is sprinkled in here and there in the form of American hops and such. The opening beer-list is as follows:
Deft’s brewery and tasting room are housed in the hull of a former boat-building facility with a high, pointed ceiling that will allow ownership to replace the current two-barrel setup with an eventual 10-barrel brewhouse and fermenters to match. Right now, the team is working to dial in its beers and make sure it is speaking to the desires of customers—particularly those in the Bay Park neighborhood—before ramping up production. The tasting room juxtaposes red bar stools against a mostly neutral color pallet featuring a main bar and rail bars made from live-edge wood procured from next-door neighbors, Made Lumber Supply, and reclaimed wood slats from Deft co-owner Morris Nuspl‘s backyard fence. Mostly windowed walls let in plenty of natural light and give a view of an outdoor space that is very close to being converted into a patio with al fresco seating.
Having lived in the area for more than a decade, Morris and Robin Nuspl always wanted to bring a brewery to their community, but finding good, industrial-zoned real estate was problematic. So they considered Kearny Mesa, Mission Valley and areas near Lindberg Field before coming upon the eventual home for Deft Brewing (5328 Banks Street, Suite A, Bay Park), a 1950s gable-roofed former fishing-boat factory in a cul-de-sac a block off Morena Boulevard, Linda Vista and Friars Roads. Plenty of windows, a roll-up door and a patio were deal-sealers for them.
Morris will serve as head of brewing and operations. A former electronics-industry executive and engineer, he is an avid homebrewer who believes in small-batch creation. He and assistant Mike Finn will employ a two-barrel pilot system to develop and fine-tune beers before installing an eventual 10-barrel brewhouse to ramp up production. That move is currently slated for next year and will only happen after Deft brings on a professional brewer with experience running larger breweries. At that point, 10- and 20-barrel fermenters will be brought in to replace the current stock of two-, five- and eight-barrel tanks.
The company’s product portfolio will be made up mostly of ales of British, Belgian and German origin, each infused with twists—described as “deftness”. While there will be hop-forward offerings (English-style IPA), Morris intends to make approachability (Kölsch) his primary focus and isn’t scared to bring malt-heavy beers (Irish-style red ale) to a county that generally eschews grain-centric brews. He’s also eager to present Western European styles seldom produced on a commercial level. Year One production is estimated to meet or exceed 500 barrels.
Despite being a rather centralized neighborhood accessible from Interstates 5 and 8, the Nuspls concede Bay Park is still tucked away and unfamiliar territory for many San Diegans. They hope to do their part to change that by adding good beer with existing Bay Park interest Coronado Brewing Company and the incoming tasting room from Grantville’s Benchmark Brewing Company. They believe in the camaraderie of the industry and cite Home Brewing, Duck Foot Brewing, Eppig Brewing, Bitter Brothers Brewing (in nearby Bay Ho) and Hauck Architecture as businesses that have helped them a great deal over the past year-and-a-half. Deft is on track to open around Labor Day.
The craft-brewing industry is in a state of flux, forcing companies within it to reexamine their business models and, in the case of larger operations, alter them in order to thrive or, in some cases survive. Larger operations such as Stone Brewing, Green Flash Brewing and Karl Strauss Brewing have all had to adjust course as consumer preferences shift to smaller, local, independent breweries, and active consumer demographics begin to skew toward younger factions, many of which have only ever drunk craft beer. It’s to be expected of interests that are among the country’s 50 largest brewing companies. Though it is considerably smaller and, at its heart still a family-run business, Coronado Brewing Company has been quite vigilant over the past several years, keeping an eye on the rapidly changing market and making moves to weather an uncertain storm. The latest of those moves includes today’s announcement that CBC will purchase East Village-based brand Monkey Paw Brewing. Owner Scot Blair‘s other businesses, South Park Brewing and Hamiltons Tavern, are not part of the deal.
Blair has had lofty aspirations for his beer-making business since opening it in 2011, but was not satisfied with progress toward increased production and distribution. He examined a number of options for meeting those goals, including acquisition, but says he wouldn’t have sold to just anybody. A stalwart figure within the craft-beer world for more than a decade, Blair knows the industry and the individuals within it, and says it was his long-standing respect for and friendship with CBC owners Ron and Rick Chapman that distinguished this as the right move for him and his business. Another key factor is control. Blair has a vision for Monkey Paw and its beers, and will remain intimately involved with the brand, focusing solely on beer—conceptualization and growth of the entire portfolio.
This deal is reminiscent of Green Flash’s 2014 acquisition of Alpine Beer Company. That move allowed for increased production of Alpine beers at Green Flash’s much-larger brewing facilities. Likewise, Monkey Paw, which produced less than 700 barrels last year, will now have the majority of its beers produced at CBC’s Bay Park headquarters, while still making beer on the 15-barrel system at its East Village pub. CBC began brewing its beers at that site—affectionately referred to as “Knoxville” for the street it occupies—in 2013, a year after taking over the 14,000-square-foot property. Since then, it has taken over several other buildings bordering the brewery, creating a rather impressive cul-de-sac campus. CBC is also in the process of installing a kitchen at Knoxville to increase the draw of its tasting room. This is particularly important with the impending arrival of a satellite tasting room from Benchmark Brewing Company and a new brewery, Deft Brewing Company, slated for arrival in Bay Park this year.
CBC is also changing up its game in the southerly municipality of Imperial Beach. The company opened a bar and restaurant there in 2014, and recently signed on to construct a 7,500-square-foot brewpub at the upcoming Bikeway Village on Florence Street. This will increase brewing capacity in a more high-profile location not far from CBC’s original brewpub on its namesake island. Meanwhile, CBC has ceased distribution to certain states, strategically tightening things up to better compete in the marketplace and maximize profits and expenditures.
And two months ago, the company announced the Chapmans’ investment in SouthNorte Brewing Company, a new venture headed by CBC head brewer Ryan Brooks. That operation, basically a CBC offshoot or sub-brand, will meld the brewing cultures of Baja California and Southern California, but there’s more to that fermentation fusion than mere ingenuity. An MO like that figures to appeal to demographics CBC does not currently reach in as great a quantity as they would like. Ditto Monkey Paw’s liquid wares, which skew to a younger demographic more interested in locavorianism, that likely wishes to support an edgier brand versus a company that recently celebrated its 21st anniversary. While this acquisition (which is set to be completed by September) may seem odd to those not paying attention, a look at CBC’s recent body of work where business-model adjustment is concerned shows the logic behind it and how it fits into a large and intricate puzzle.