It’s the final month of the year, and time to reflect on the year nearly gone-by. For me, that means assessing San Diego County’s brewery landscape. That’s what I’ll be doing in a three-part series of posts this week, starting with a look at the plethora of new brewing operations that opened in 2016. More breweries opened this year than any in history. And it’s important to note that more good breweries opened in 2016 than in the past several years. Many tout the double-digit number of rookie fermentation operations added to San Diego’s brewery-count each year, but I’ll be honest and say that the past half-decade has seen too many average-to-subpar businesses join the fold. Sure, some duds opened in 2016, but the same can be said of any food-and-beverage business. The bottom-line is, aspiring entrants into the local suds-scene seem to understand, now more than ever, that they better have good beer if they’re going to compete, and that’s leading to better breweries, from conception to birth and beyond. The following are my picks (in order) for best new breweries of the past 365 days (with the exception of some that were simply too new to be fairly evaluated).
Burning Beard Brewing Co., El Cajon: Rockin’ beers and rock-and-roll make for amenities worth an East County excursion at this small but well-run spot featuring a variety of beers ranging from Belgians to San Diego-style hop-elixirs to deep, dark stouts and, eventually, fouder-aged ales. Throw in employee exuberance that ranges from the brew-crew to the bar staff, and it’s sort of a holy-grail situation.
North Park Beer Co., North Park: One of the most anticipated new brewery project of the past four years, the brainchild of its namesake community’s proud denizen Kelsey McNair finally came to life. Its former MMA gym home has been transformed into a beautiful, two-story, wood-paneled den of communal enjoyment of beers that are largely sessionable and rely on impressive balance versus belligerent brawn.
Resident Brewing Co., Downtown: Urban bar and eatery, The Local, is a long-time supporter of the craft-beer movement, but when it added on-site fermentation to its equation, the resulting product was something special. An award-winning homebrewer-turned-pro is pumping out some of the bolder, ideally hopped West Coast-style beers of the rookie-class while bringing flavor with myriad other styles.
Pure Project Brewing, Miramar: If a wide array of easy-drinking beers—crisp to full-bodied, clear to hazy, fruited to (GABF medal-garnering) barrel-aged—weren’t enough reason to become enamored with this, the first brewery to test out the Brewery Igniter ready-to-brew model, the fact it’s a generous One Percent for the Planet business is enough to pull the wishy-washy off the fence.
Bear Roots Brewing, Vista: A small homebrew-supply store opening a three-barrel nano-brewery with a bar that takes up half its shop…sounds risky if not ill-advised, but a husband-wife duo have not only made it work, but amassed such a cult-following behind a varied beer line-up that includes a tasty cookie-inspired dessert beer that they’re looking at growing their baby to papa-bear status in 2017.
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co., Bay Ho: The first brewery to open in 2016 has done well for itself, producing a solid line-up of hoppy beers offset by a number of English-style malt-driven styles and “candy-bar” beers. Further refinement of its wares in the coming year should keep this operation on its upward trajectory, as should fun, well-done quarterly beer dinners in its tasting room.
It’s important to note that, in previous years, a half-dozen picks for best new brewery would have been excessive. This year, I could have added another two or three rather easily. The following are those that missed the cut, but never before has the division between the best and the rest been so slim. Cheers to that!
This Year’s Contenders: Culver Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Guadalupe Brewery (Carlsbad), Kensington Brewing Co. (Mission Valley), Little Miss Brewing Co. (Miramar), Longship Brewery (Mira Mesa), Mason Ale Works (Oceanside), Midnight Jack Brewing Co. (Oceanside), Mikkeller Brewing San Diego (Miramar), Oceanside Brewing Co. (Oceanside),
Maybe Next Year: Burgeon Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Eppig Brewing Co. (North Park), Knotty Brewing (East Village), OB Brewery (Ocean Beach), Thunderhawk Alements (Miramar)
Previous Top-Ranked Breweries
2015: Fall Brewing Co. (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing Co. (South Park), Bay City Brewing Co. (Point Loma), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing Co. (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing Co. (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing Co. (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing Co. (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing Co. (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing Co. (Vista)
From the Beer Writer: There are few breweries as downright lovely as North Park Beer Co. Outfitted in beautiful woods, from furniture to facings, it’s a sight to behold and the kind of place that is easy to spend a great deal of time enjoying tasty beers. As if this expansive, two-story newcomer weren’t enough on its own, it recently welcomed the addition of an on-site food-dispensary when local foodtruck standout Mastiff Sausage Company‘s brick-and-mortar went live on the base floor at the beginning of October. To celebrate that meaty addition, North Park Beer held its official grand-opening, a soiree that included in-house food, an insane list of guest beers (the presence of which, both at that event and on the everyday tap-list, are made possible by Mastiff’s license) and a house beer brewed specifically for the event, North Park Darkness Refined. Despite being a whopping 10% alcohol-by-volume, this imperial stout drinks easy, coming across smooth and velvety on the palate. And it’s big on chocolatiness, but not in a bittersweet way. At some point, trendiness started to dictate the misconception that any residual sweetness in a beer is a bad thing, a sign of poor craftsmanship, but that’s incorrect. This beer proves that such sweetness can be a beautiful thing. The mild sugars of Darkness Refined make it more of a milk or semisweet chocolate experience rather than the dry, nearly ashy (and not all that pleasant) profile common with imperial stouts that strive for intense dryness. North Park Beer founder Kelsey McNair consulted Mastiff’s tagline, “Manliness Refined” when naming this gentle giant. In the case of the beer and the restaurant, it’s an apt moniker. Look for more on Mastiff, including a Thanksgiving recipe and info on a special holiday sausage that will soon be available in conjunction with it in the November issue of West Coaster.
From the Brewer: “I had planned to brew 30 barrels of my dry-stout recipe for no particular reason (aside from the fact that I quite like the beer), but instead opted to make something fun for our grand-opening. So, I took said dry-stout grist and condensed it down to a 10-barrel batch. I also added an extra long boil to further develop the malt flavors, a bit of Black Patent malt to push some of the roast intensity, and a couple bags of dextrose to give the gravity an extra boost. I remember on brew-day the wort smelled intense and very much like black-strap molasses going into the fermenter. The result is a rich and velvety beer expressing big chocolate cake-like flavors and roasty highlights that mingle with dark dried fruits such as raisins and prunes, and some cola-like nuances in the background, plus a hint of espresso. The body is full and drinks very smooth, finishing with some pleasant, boozy warmth balanced by just enough sweetness to not be too heavy or cloying. The beer is jet-black and has a thick dark brown sugar-colored head. This is Darkness Refined.”—Kelsey McNair, Owner & Brewmaster, North Park Beer Co.
This article has been more than three years coming, but finally—after much work from founder and (former) homebrewer-extraordinaire Kelsey McNair and his team—North Park Beer Co. (3038 University Avenue, North Park) is open to the public. Installed in the much-renovated shell of a former mixed-martial-arts gymnasium, it offers a great deal of space. The 9,000-square-foot, two-story tasting room can handle 130 visitors on the first-floor and an additional 80 or so via an upstairs mezzanine. It’s a good thing, because NPBC has been the most buzzed about upcoming brewery project in San Diego for quite some time. It’s a sure bet it’ll be rather packed for the foreseeable future.
McNair is most known for his award-winning Hop Fu! India pale ale (IPA), which is currently fermenting away in one of NPBC’s tanks, but the first-draft beer-board currently consists of four offerings, none of which are all that hop-forward. In that sense, they are indicative of what patrons can expect from the operation. McNair’s goal is to brew to-style beers rather than envelope- and palate-pushing oddities. On tap now is a balanced Red called Ray Street featuring plenty of malty toffee and caramely appeal, a Scottish ale that doesn’t rely on wee heaviness to deliver nice flavors (at under 4% alcohol-by-volume it comes in at the 70-schilling classification), a bittersweet and abundantly roasty stout called Beaufort Black, and a crisp and a citrusy pale ale. All four are well-made and what one would expect from such styles. Such straightforward traditionalism is refreshing in a day and age when so many are going against the grain (which, for the record, I have absolutely nothing against).
In addition to Hop Fu!, McNair will soon debut a cream ale, rye-infused Pilsner, double IPA and imperial porter with Baltic characteristics (but no lagering). This will put more of the tasting-room’s 32 taps to use, but only six-to-eight of them will dispense house-beers at any one time. The rest of the taps will be hooked up to kegs of guest-beers and wine once Mastiff Sausage Company installs its on-site kitchen in a space with a walk-up order window located directly beneath the mezzanine. Their license will make it possible to serve beverages from outside entities and further enhance the come-one-come-all feel NPBC already features.
A sign above the front-door reads Ales & Lagers, Friends & Neighbors and the floor-plan of the craftsman-inspired, wood-paneled first-floor features seating geared toward the making of new acquaintances over a pint. Wooden chairs line windows looking out onto University, giving way to communal high-tables followed by table-seating like one would expect from a restaurant. Seating options include 100-year-old chairs brought in from an ancient library. A long-bar resembling (to this casual observer) a judge’s bench is furnished with the largest, cushiest bar-stools anywhere. This is the sort of place where guests will feel encouraged to stick around, which seems important in North Park, the craft-beer crawl capital of San Diego. It takes a lot to extinguish an urbanite’s urge to move on, but tasty beer and the polished design of Basile Studio, which includes cool lamppost lighting with globe-like fixtures, just might do the trick.
The upstairs area is currently unfurnished and nondescript, but offers plenty of space for stand-up imbibing. The entire downstairs is visible from the mezzanine, which also features a crow’s-nest with a clear view of the 15-barrel brewhouse and cellar below. Very soon, a four-tap bar will be installed up there along with furnishings that will deliver a “North Park residential feel”. Once complete, the area will be leasable for private events. On the official NPBC events front, classes of sorts revolving around certain types of beers (English, German, Belgian, etc.) will be offered. They will be an extension of the considerable beer-education program disseminated to NPBC staff. Emphasis is placed on beer-knowledge here. Every NPBC employee has already earned Beer Server status care of the Cicerone Certification Program, and three of them are fully certified Cicerones (the beer-industry equivalent of the wine world’s sommeliers).
NPBC is open seven days a week, closing at 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Mastiff’s estimated time of arrival has yet to be finalized, but the mezzanine area should be completed in late-summer or early-autumn. Still, there is plenty in place to put NPBC within the upper-echelon of North Park beer tasting spaces, which is saying something for a business that’s just a day into its lifespan in such a vibrant, suds-geared community.
In this continuing, four-part series attempting to predict the most exciting upcoming brewery projects in San Diego County, I’m offering my most educated guesses as to what businesses figure to be of higher-quality once open, and looking at my track record in assessing the futures of such businesses over the past three-plus years. Last week, I tackled North County, followed by the Western portions of SD. Today is all about San Diego’s more southerly expanses.
North Park Beer Co., North Park: This operation has been on the list for the entire time I’ve been tracking this sort of thing, but finally…finally…it looks to be very close to actually opening. The former MMA gym this long-anticipated brewery and tasting room calls home is almost completely converted, much to the elation of the denizens of its namesake community. Once open, look for the coveted Hop Fu IPA and, eventually, some barrel-aged treats from the cellar.
Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Company, Chula Vista: This punk-rock themed business has been producing beers through a unique rotating-proprietorship agreement with Santee’s Butchers Brewing Company, but recently took over a two-story (three if you count the basement) spot right on Chula Vista’s main drag. It’ll be the municipality’s first downtown brewery and with as much support as they’re providing these punks, the place should turn out quite nice.
Brewery Igniter, North Park: Developer H.G. Fenton built its initial “Brewery Igniter” complex (a pair of ready-to-use brewery/tasting room suites) in Miramar, the success of which has them constructing a trio of similar but larger spots on El Cajon Boulevard. Only one tenant is official so far, Pariah Brewing Company, but this is a fiscally sound model that should appeal to numerous aspiring brewery owners, offering reason for optimism.
Past Promising Projects: North
2013: Ballast Point Tasting Room & Kitchen (Little Italy; Grade—A; at the time, the most beers of any of the former craft-brewery’s venues), Mike Hess Brewing Company – North Park (North Park; Grade—B; a uniquely appealing tasting room with views of the brewery below), Birifficio Calabria (North Park; Grade: N/A; Caffe Calabria’s nano never came to fruition)
2014: South Park Brewing Company (South Park; Grade—A; straightforward, award-winning beer out of the gate); Half Door Brewing Company (East Village; Grade—B; started slow, but a great addition to the Petco Park area)
2015: ChuckAlek Independent Brewers – North Park (North Park; Grade: N/A; opens tomorrow!)