In reading a list of most-improved breweries, one can make the assumption that in order to make that roster these interests must have been pumping out bad beer at some point. While this certainly could be true, it is not always the case with brewing companies that find themselves a part of this annually shifting assemblage. In most cases this year, the operations mentioned were already making good beer—or even great beer—but are now performing even better from a manufacturing standpoint. There is always room for improvement, proof of which is provided below.
2kids Brewing | Miramar: This nano-brewery has actually been on an upward trajectory over the past few years, but this year, the level of refinement in this Miralani OG’s beers jumped quite a bit. Hoppy beers exhibit more vibrancy in their aromas and flavors, while maltier beers seem more cohesive and balanced overall. It’s no wonder this operation’s cultish fan base continues to grow, and a pleasure to see this husband-wife venture continue its steady ascent.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: Alpine makes great beer. Tell you something you didn’t already know, right? Since being acquired by Green Flash Brewing Company in 2014, many have complained about perceiving a drop-off in quality between beers brewed in Alpine and those brewed on a larger scale and packaged for distribution, but this year, numerous canned offerings tasted better, more consistent and truer to the beers that inspired the purchase of that famed East County interest.
Bear Roots Brewing | Vista: Though a tiny nano built into a homebrew shop, this family-run brewery has been churning out enjoyable beer from the get-go. As such, the grizzly interest has earned a solid reputation and following, enough that ownership considered expanding brewing capabilities. Even though it opted against getting a bigger, more sophisticated brewhouse (instead fortifying the business with an outdoor patio), it has still managed to up the brightness and flavor of its beers.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: One of the most buzzed-about new breweries to open in the past two years, El Cajon’s best (and only) fermentation facility opened with an impressive beer line-up that only keeps getting better. The key is the brewing team’s devotion to fine-tuning until they get beers where they and their fans want them. Throw in this year’s barrel-aged specialties and you have an operation that managed to increase its angle of ascension in 2017.
Council Brewing | Kearny Mesa: When this husband-wife business first opened, its little-guy charm and friendly staffers made up for occasional inconsistencies. As it grew, sour beers of varied composition expanded the business’ rep and reach while taking center stage, portfolio-wise. The deliciousness of those brews continues to increase. Ditto non-sour beers, most impressively Council’s hoppy stock, which used to be a tad hit-and-miss, but now wows on a regular basis.
Division 23 Brewing | Miramar: This lesser-known brewery has had numerous head fermentationists since debuting in 2015, leading to varying quality across the beer-board. This year saw continued vocational movement within the brewhouse, but as of now, this operation’s beers are tasting better as a whole than they have at any point, making the long, winding road one must take to get to this tucked-away industrial park venue worth the maneuvering.
Indian Joe Brewing | Vista: The beer at this native American-owned brewery was at its best right before it shuttered in 2015. After a lengthy search for an ideal, much larger base of operations, the business reopened this year with a new head brewer and a laundry list of house beers coming in at 30. Variety remains the name of the game, making it harder to keep every member of the diverse line-up in check; still, Indian Joe’s beers are the finest they’ve been during either of its iterations.
Kilowatt Brewing | Kearny Mesa & Ocean Beach: This business is in the process of expanding its brewing capabilities, but before trading up to a larger brewhouse, they took the wise step of bringing on a head brewer with experience garnered over years spent at AleSmith Brewing. He has tinkered with several beer recipes and the early results are extremely promising. This should be a fun brewery to keep an eye on over the coming year.
I would be challenged to remember the last time I saw any business receive as much support while out of business as Indian Joe Brewing (2123 Industrial Court, Vista). The family-run operation abruptly shut down when it lost its base of operations to landlord disputes in 2015. Owners Max Moran and Geri Lawson immediately got to work looking for a new spot to install their brewery, but it took a while—two years to be exact. In a county with more than 140 operating brewhouses, there’s little reason for even the most devoted of beer-drinkers to hold a candle for the return of one of the smallest of the suds scene’s sojourners, but hundreds of Indian Joe fans remained just that…fans. Not the casually interested kind, but the most engaged breed of supporters, communicating with the owners over social media and in-person when possible, following them as they sought out a new facility and, after finding it, took on the task of not only reopening, but growing the business by leaps and bounds in the process. The result is the current iteration of Indian Joe, which opened in March and is fulfilling the long-entertained dreams of Moran, Lawson and the many hopeful beer enthusiasts crowding their corner.
During the lengthy road to Indian Joe 2.0, I also stayed close to the business’ founders, visiting the project site and wondering just how much of their ambitious agenda they would actually be able to realize. Installing a 15-barrel brewing system, an extensive stainless steel cellar, tons of oak barrels for aging and a huge tasting room; taking over an abutting building for warehouse space; distributing throughout the county in kegs, bottles and cans. Keep in mind, they were coming from a business-park brewery where Moran brewed several times a day on a meager 20-gallon system simply to keep beer on-tap at the sole source of consumption, Indian Joe’s tasting room. It was nicely appointed and featured many an outlandish brew that, frankly, weren’t for everybody. It wasn’t exactly the type of operation one would figure to be ripe for financial backing and expansion, but Moran and Lawson easily secured enthusiastic financing to take things to the next level. While permitting and construction of their new spot proved much more difficult, a recent visit reveals they’ve accomplished many of their goals and are on-track to breathe life into the rest.
Indian Joe has a whopping 30 beers on-tap. That’s admirable—but only if the beers are of quality. Quantity is nothing without quality. After tasting through more than half of the offerings the day I was there, I can say that Indian Joe’s beers taste better than at any point in the company’s history. What makes that even more impressive is the range of styles and the retaining of the anything-goes approach that birthed oddities like a Margarita Gose aged in tequila barrels; blueberry, plum and ginger sour ale; and honey-oatmeal tripel with Vietnamese and Ethiopian Baraka Buna coffees. What to the beer-purist (and even some adventurous drinkers) sounds like a rundown of the tap-list at an insane asylum…wait for it…tastes rather nice. Sure, you have to be in the mood for something avant-garde, but I often am and enjoyed all three of these beers in addition to an “imperial red sour” with blackberries and black currants, “Indian Sunrise” blood orange and sweet cherry Gose and apricot-peach sour. All three are ideally suited for the hot-weather months just around the corner.
But not all of the beers are weird at Indian Joe. There’s a Belgian-style witbier (which also comes infused with lime or tangerine), a robust porter (another version of which is available spiked with chocolate and hazelnut) and a variety of IPAs, including a double, a flagship infused with white sage and, to show they can fall in line with the best of them, a Northeast-style number for the haze-crazy. The IPAs are better than the ones I remember from the original Indian Joe. The increase in overall quality isn’t just the result of purchasing new, larger, more state-of-the-art equipment. Moran and Lawson brought on a head brewer, Grant Heuer, who last brewed at Temecula’s Refuge Brewery and Relentless Brewing as well as Las Vegas’ Big Dogs Brewing. In addition to bringing experience, he has also brought brewers and brewing ingredients from Riverside County (where he still resides) to the table, resulting in collaboration beers (including that hazy IPA created with Electric Brewing) and the java from Augie’s Coffee utilized in the aforementioned out-there tripel and Indian Joe’s imperial oatmeal coffee stout.
Also upgraded is the environment in which the beers can be experienced. Indian Joe’s 4,000 square foot tasting is one of the largest in the county. Visitors can drink at the long downstairs bar, high-tables or an outdoor patio…and that’s just the ground floor. There’s an L-shaped upstairs area with windows looking out onto State Route 78, a rail bar and numerous plush leather couches. Moran and Lawson clearly made the most of all the time they spent waiting on agencies to respond and construction issues to be resolved. The immense amount of time was worth it and the faith in these entrepreneurs from their loyal fans well placed.
There’s been a recent boom of San Diego brewery tasting rooms opening to the public, especially in North County. On September 15, Offbeat Brewing Company (Escondido) held their grand opening party complete with Casanova Fish Tacos, local artwork and a photo booth. Six days later on Friday, September 21, two companies hosted soft opening celebrations: Indian Joe Brewing (Vista), and Fezziwig’s Brewing Co. (Carlsbad).
Elsewhere, Poor House Brewing Company (North Park) has put out two “experimental batches” and the long-awaited Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach – housed inside California Kebab’s second location) will finally be pouring in-house beer at their upcoming Oktoberfest party, September 29. Check out more San Diego breweries in planning here.