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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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2016 Recap: San Diego’s Best New Breweries

Dec 13

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 Company in El Cajon

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.

Downtown’s Resident Brewing Company

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 in Vista

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)

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SDBW Day 1: One Man’s Journey

Nov 5

7:05 A.M.
I greet most days with a boundless thirst for beer. It’s the kind of admission that is usually met with crooked stares or unsavory accusations, but not today. Today is special. After months of patiently grinding through days that were not 100% dedicated to beer, San Diego Beer Week is upon us. Awesome.

On this glorious Friday morn, day 1 of SDBW’s metric 10-day week, I have plotted out a staggering itinerary of drinking opportunities under the guise of proper beer journalism. I expect to tantalize my palate, expand my horizons and probably shave off a few years of worthwhile liver function. This is my quest – to see if one man can summon the constitution to endure a single day of SDBW’s bounty and give you the play-by-play along the way. If you’re the type that believes in retroactive prayer, I’d be grateful for it.

7:29 A.M.
My daughter, while not actively thwarting my arrival at Daddy Disneyland, is not helping my egress. Either she didn’t get enough sleep or she’s been struck with a mild case of that Waking Dead disease because she’s meeting my prods for urgency with a blank stare and guttural moans. She’s whittled off enough time in the bathroom alone that for the first time in my parenting history I’m compelled to say “Sweetheart, daddy needs you to poop harder.”

Soon, SDBW. Soon.

8:05 A.M.
I just learned from my wife that we have to attend the monthly “Character Counts” award ceremony because my daughter decided that October would be the perfect time to finally start demonstrating character. It’s sweet and all, but where’s my award for patience in the face of interminable sobriety?

9:07 A.M.
After paying the standard downtown luxury tax to give my car a place to rest, I’ve finally crossed the threshold of Karl Strauss. The event is referred to as “BYOB”, an acronym expanding in this case to “Brew Your Own Beer Brunch”. I don’t know whether to be more miffed that the event should rightfully be called “BYOBB” or that I needlessly carried a case of beer to the restaurant.

The BYOBB is many events lumped into one. There is, of course, a sumptuous brunch buffet paired with some of Karl Strauss’ beefier quaffs (Parrot in a Palm Tree Baltic Porter & Chocolate Pancakes with Spiced Whipped Cream, anyone?). They further promise to enrich the event with a live brewing demo (making a crowd-sourced Oatmeal Stout recipe) and a presentation on the company itself. This brunch is going to be more productive than most of my work days.

9:13 A.M.
Before diving headlong into the repast, Brewmaster Paul Segura stands atop his stainless steel throne to walk us through the some of the technical aspects of the brew being produced before our very eyes. It’s pretty interesting stuff, though it feels like a sinister mechanism to keep me from full throttle binging on breakfast and beer. Thanks for nothing, Learning.

9:35 A.M.
This is Karl Strauss’ CEO/Co-founder Chris Cramer who moments later dove into oral history of the company from his perspective. It’s a delightful story, but I’m beginning to wonder if he’s filibustering to cover a french toast-related crisis in the kitchen. That said, listening to Chris referring to the company figurehead as “Uncle Karl” is too endearing for words.

9:42 A.M.
Here it is. The gambit. The first beer of the day. It seems so peculiar that inauspicious little tumbler will likely later be recalled as the first in a long series of mistakes.

9:55 A.M.
Trays of food are finally zipping out as quickly as the beer samples that accompany them. Despite my voracious hunger, I merge into the line with a bare minimum of snarling toward those crowding around me.

10:15 A.M.
Karl Strauss thoughtfully provided placemats that serve to curate and organize the meal pairings. Unfortunately they didn’t take into account that I’m a rebel that cannot be constrained by The Man and his many tools of creative oppression.

On an unrelated note, I’ve just lost track of what beer I’m supposed to be drinking for the 5th time.

10:45 A.M.
Food coma…building. Ability to coherently string together sentences…fading. Plan to hit next zeppelin in about 15 turnips after the hour…unlikely.

1:08 P.M.
It took a little to shake the the euphoria induced by the SDBW Peanut Butter Porter Cup & Cream Cheese and Plantain Stuffed French Toast, but I’m ready to rally. I’m thinking the dueling casks of Sculpin IPA at Ballast Point will help to shake off any remaining cobwebs.

1:13 P.M.
Sculpin is always a treat. Sculpin on cask is a gift. Sculpin on cask with special edition hopping is a godsend. Today we’re experiencing Sculpin with Citra hops versus Soriachi Ace hops. I think I am partial to the Citra if only because it feels like an evolution of Sculpin more than a reinvention of it, but opinions among those on the patio vary widely.

Luckily none of those other people have beer columns. The Citra was better. So there.

1:15 P.M.
If you look closely at the Soriachi Ace you can actually see a few hop remnants cruising around. Normally that would turn me off, but in Sculpin it just feels like beer boba.

1:45 P.M.
The scene over here is wonderful. It’s delicious beers coupled with people very clearly shirking their day jobs. I’ve heard more than one conversation to the effect of “Well, I haven’t gotten any emails yet, so I guess we can stay here.” It’s a slice of humanity who love their beers enough to put their careers in jeopardy. You have to respect that level of commitment.

3:15 P.M.
The next stop has put us in the heart of Rough Draft. I’ve only previously been able to try a couple of the hoppier beers that have leapt from their 15 BBL system, so the barrel aged “Freudian Slip” should be a real treat.

The crowd is bustling and lively. I’m honestly beginning to wonder why San Diego just doesn’t declare this a work holiday because with this many people playing hooky no non-beer commerce could possibly be transpiring today.

3:23 P.M.
The “let me try one of everything flight” is longer than my arm. I can feel my liver cringing. One thing is for sure – I will no longer be a stranger to Rough Draft after this.

For those of you hoping to make more a surgical attack on their first Rough Draft brews, let me suggest starting with the Eraser IPA (owner Jeff Silver’s favorite) and their surprisingly full flavored Amber Ale. My favorite by a long margin was their barrel aged Emboozlement Trippel, a creamy and full bodied incarnation of the style that really delivered.

4:35 P.M.
Apropos of nothing, I spend about 5 minutes trying to come up with a reason to ask this guy for a picture. I ultimately landed on “Hey, your beard is awesome. Can I take a picture of it?” Worked like a charm.

I’m still not entirely sure why I wanted it, but you saw the size of that flight. It made perfect sense at the time. It’s probably time to move on.

5:24 P.M.
Lest you think this article is degenerating into some gonzo beer journalism, I want to make it clear there’s been a fair amount of undocumented rehydration on the agenda as well. It’s not easy to put anything in front of URGE Gastropub‘s release of Mother Earth Brewing Company‘s SDBW specialty beer, but I managed to.

6:31 P.M.
After a restorative water and cheese fries interlude, we summoned two of the aforementioned Wet Hop Dreams by Mother Earth. As you can tell by the chunky lacing all over the top of the glass, this is a substantial IPA. It was made with 160 lbs of fresh Citra hops, so you don’t exactly need a forensics team to unearth the bitter citrus and spice notes.

To be quite honest, I’m feeling pretty spent at this point. This would ordinarily be when I would pack it in most days, but this isn’t most days. SDBW must be shown no quarter. Luckily, courtesy of Sublime Ale House, I’m about to finish my day as I started it – with pancakes.

7:02 P.M.
Sublime Ale House’s pre fixe dinner with Latitude 33 Brewing features a 3 course meal with equal parts refinement and whimsy. However, I’m not well equipped as a food writer so let me capture a few random observations.

The Latitude 33 “Dirty Thirty” Saison makes a pretty fantastic vinaigrette. I will have to remember to pour more beer on my mixed greens at home.

7:18 P.M.
It takes a pretty potent brew to cut through the succulence of a white cheddar and gruyere mac ‘n cheese, but the Wet Hump DIPA is up to the task. That said, this is at least the second time today I’ve felt sexually harassed by a beer’s name and will be seeking restitution for this outrage post haste.

7:41 P.M.
As much as I love breakfast for dinner, breakfast for dessert (chocolate pancakes with vanilla bean ice cream, topped with candied bacon and ground espresso beans plus a side of hot maple syrup) may well trump it since I don’t even have to pretend it’s intended to sustain me.

8:21 P.M.
With the placement of my cloth napkin on the table, I’m signaling more than the end of my meal. I am throwing in the proverbial towel. I’m waving the white flag of surrender, albiet with a bit more chocolate sauce on it than prior to the battle. San Diego Beer Week has wrung me out and it’s not even 24 hours in yet.

It’s gonna be a long week. Awesome.

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