What are the best craft breweries in San Diego County? I get asked that all the time. When people pose that question, it’s usually because they’re visiting, so I tailor my response around the types of beers they enjoy, where they’re staying, if they have transportation, etc. But when I take stock for the purposes of an end-of-year article, I impose a different set of criteria. I begin by removing Big Beer-owned interests (it’s simply a different playing field, monetarily, than independent operations), then examine the make-up and, foremost, the overall quality of each brewery’s portfolio of beers. Is this the perfect formula? Probably not, but now you know where I’m coming from. Will my list match yours? Probably not, but that’s OK! Let us know your list in the comments. The wonderful truth is that there are many outstanding breweries in San Diego County, and a list of 15 only scratches the top layer of foam.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: A small brewery in an unincorporated town on the fringe of our county didn’t become a nationally respected cult-favorite by accident. This house built by hops continues to churn out largely hoppy stock worthy of coveting. More impressive, it’s keeping its street cred intact post-acquisition, something only good beer can accomplish.
Bagby Beer Co. | Oceanside: The sheer volume of beer produced and consistently on-tap is impressive, but the fact all of it is so traditionally to-spec and worthy of praise (as proven by an always-growing collection of Great American Beer Festival medals) is rather incredible. No place spends more time making unsexy styles utterly desirable.
Pizza Port | Bressi Ranch, Carlsbad, Ocean Beach & Solana Beach: To have one brewpub pumping out high quality beers across styles like any of Pizza Port’s do would be a big deal. To have four in a single county (plus another in San Clemente) and remain consistent year in and year out for the better part of three decades is the basis for legend status.
Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey / The Hop Concept | San Marcos & Cardiff by the Sea: No local tasting room offers as many expertly executed and variedly challenging beers as this triple-threat simultaneously focusing on West Coast IPAs, Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged everything. Even the occasional bottling hiccup barely detracts from feats accomplished here on an everyday basis.
Societe Brewing | Kearny Mesa: Batch-to-batch consistency across varied ales and lagers—hoppy, session, Belgians, stouts—and an expert level of balance and drinkability that even extends to wine-barrel-aged offerings keeps beer fans and brewers alike coming back to this living tribute to the quality and community of the San Diego beer scene. Disclaimer: I work for this company.
AleSmith Brewing | Miramar: From English session beers to high-octane Belgian, Scotch and coffee-infused juggernauts, this veteran continues to make flawless time-tested beers, but recent additions have been a mixed bag. A new pilsner is spectacular, a gimmick Mexican lager is blah, an extract orange pale is disappointing and the flagship IPA could use a youthful sibling.
Fall Brewing | North Park: The brewing team has experienced more than its fair share of fluctuation over the years, but through it all, its recipes and process remain sound. Stop in anytime, order a beer and you’re bound to encounter something both flavorful and refreshing, registering somewhere between very good and where-you-been-all-my-life status.
New English Brewing Company | Sorrento Valley: Consistently one of the most underrated local breweries, this one knocks it out of the park on the English ale front. That’s to be expected, but New World IPAs, the occasional Belgian beer and barrel-aged beers taste lovely. They have the best cask beer in town, too. (But, personally, I’d lose the Blueberry Blonde.)
North Park Beer Co. | North Park: Captivating the masses with largely session, internationally-inspired beers can be hard to do in the county’s hipster capital, but it’s been accomplished in spades at this two-story hub for members of the Finer Things Club. Consistency is up in Year Two and it’s been nice to see chances taken with occasional collaborative creations.
Second Chance Beer Co. | Carmel Mountain & North Park: Not a lot is flashy about this company’s beers, and not because of stringent traditionalism. They actually tend to veer slightly away from the norm. It would seem balance is the brewmaster’s chief aim, and he achieves it big-time as proven by devout patronage and big beer-competition wins.
Benchmark Brewing | Grantville & Bay Park: This place is all about “beer-flavored beer,” and if that’s what you prefer—straightforward ales made for everyday drinking—you’ll seldom be disappointed here. It would be nice to see new beers come along more often, but limited focus has led to arguably the best table beer, brown ale and oatmeal stout in town.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: A blending of punk-rock bravado and respect for the classics has resulted in a unique brewery offering delicious beers both New and Old World in nature. There are plenty of hop-heavy numbers to choose from, but Belgian-style ales and a crowd-favorite pilsner diversify this company’s offerings and cement its cut-above reputation.
Eppig Brewing | North Park: The lagers produced at this Brewery Igniter standout are of the highest grade. They make up only one third of the beers on the board, sharing space with IPAs, kettle sours and a rogue’s gallery of outliers. All are enjoyable even if some have room for improvement, but this business is just one year old and well ahead of the game.
Karl Strauss Brewing | Pacific Beach, 4S Ranch, Carlsbad, La Jolla & Little Italy: Many regions have elder-statesman fixtures like this. They’re old, boring and averse to change. This business is not. It actively works to remain current and relevant, and has succeeded at that. Its brewpubs produce creations of varied quality, but their overall track record is impressive.
Rip Current Brewing | San Marcos & North Park: This company’s love of seemingly all of the world’s beers (despite trendiness or marketability) makes for one of the most diverse beer boards in San Diego. Batch-to-batch consistency suffers sometimes, but they regularly do right by locales and artisanal heritages seldom celebrated by others in the local beer community.
Author’s Note: Breweries in each tier are presented alphabetically.
In the summer of 2016, after 23 years of brewing solely at its flagship location in Mission Valley, the owners of San Diego Brewing Company decided to expand brewing capacity by leasing a space in North Park’s Brewery Igniter rent-to-brew facility on El Cajon Boulevard. SDBC took charge of the largest of the campus’ trio of units, one with a lower level brewhouse facing the street and an elevated tasting room complete with a bar and roll-up door facing Ohio Street. It’s the jewel of H.G. Fenton’s North Park space (which is also home to Eppig Brewing and Pariah Brewing), but it will soon be leased to another following SDBC’s decision to vacate the premises within the first quarter of 2018.
SDBC co-owner Lee Doxtader says that securing additional brewing space was absolutely the right idea, and that the company’s time producing at the Brewery Igniter space proved that. Such is the primary advertised advantage of those temporary turnkey spaces according to H.G. Fenton—proof of concept. For most tenants that means verifying the merits of a brand-new business, but in the case of SDBC (as well as Amplified Ale Works at the Miramar Brewery Igniter campus) the goal was to satisfy, as well as generate, increased consumer demand.
In the end, Doxtader and company determined patrons missed the atmosphere and on-site food options provided at its original brewpub. As such, they are in the process of selecting a site in which to install a second brewery-restaurant combo. But first, they must finish out negotiations with H.G. Fenton and complete the process of moving out of the North Park space. It is undetermined how soon that will occur. While SDBC may extract as soon as January, there is a chance it will stay in the Brewery Igniter suite and continue to brew as far out as March. To a certain extent, the timeline will be determined by how quickly H.G. Fenton secures a new tenant. The company is currently showing the space to interested parties.
2017 has been a year of changes for one of San Diego’s longest-tenured brewing interests. Early this year, ownership closed (the second iteration of) Callahan’s Pub in Mira Mesa’s, the business that paved the way for SDBC to open in Mission Valley. Over the summer, the company parted ways with head brewer Jeff Drum, placing Matt Navarre in the lead role. Ownership feels the transition has gone well and is looking forward to an upcoming milestone: SDBC’s 25th anniversary. With any luck, they will have a new site to announce by the time they reach the quarter-century mark.
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 beginning to look a lot like Christmas—well, as wintry and holiday-like as we get in sunny San Diego, but that warm weather is perfect for enjoying beer, so it’s OK if Saint Nick keeps ignoring our dreams of a white yuletide. There’ll be plenty of fun events happening, holiday-themed and otherwise. We’ve hand-selected a few, but be sure to check out our events page for even more.
December 1 & 2 | Strong Ale Fest: Few experiences are as nostalgic for local beer-scene veterans as huddling together in the crowded back-lot of the Pizza Port bottle shop and repetitiously making one’s way to an outside bar many taps strong. The term “strong” is apt, because everything on tap at this annual fest is high in ABV yet innovative and diverse. Merry Christmas, Uber! | Pizza Port, 571 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad, Times Vary
December 2 | Three-Year Anniversary: Celebrate the three-year anniversary of La Mesans getting beers brewed in their hometown. If it’s anything like the past two years, live music and a plethora of beers will make a very fun party pad out Bolt Brewery’s sprawling, tiered outdoor tasting area. If you’ve never been to this East County spot, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. | Bolt Brewery, 8179 Center Street, La Mesa, 1 p.m.
December 10 | Belated One-Year Anniversary: December 10 is National Lager Day, and an apt day for one of the best lager producers in the county, Eppig Brewing, to celebrate its first year in business. This interest is looking to reward the beer connoisseurs who’ve made it one of the most revered new operations in town with a fun and easy event stocked with beers worth coming out for. | Eppig Brewing, 3052 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite C, North Park, 1 p.m.
December 17 | Santa at the SouthNorte Pole: It can be challenging to find beer-related holiday happenings that are family friendly, but thanks to Santa’s decision to visit Small Bar—with gifts for believers of all ages in his sleigh, no less—along with the team from newly established SouthNorte Brewing and their beers, a rare all-ages beer-brunch experience can be yours! | Small Bar, 4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights, 10 a.m.
December 31 | Craft Beer New Year: Whether you in North County or San Diego proper, Stone Brewing has a NYE bash of epic proportions for you. Join them at either of their restaurants and enjoy a smorgasbord of farm-to-table food along with various musical offerings, games, a photo booth, midnight toast and, of course, lots and lots of craft beer and commemorative glassware. | Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, 1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido; Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station, 2816 Historic Decatur Road, #116, Point Loma; 8:30 p.m.