We stand on the threshold of another month chock-full of exceptional reasons to crack a cold one in the presence of others. Yes, it’s a great time to be alive, but to do things up right requires some planning. We’ve started you off with some standout San Diego beer events for March, but don’t limit yourself. Click here to check out our full local calendar.
March | Beer to the Rescue Fundraisers: As part of a year-long campaign benefiting locals living with lupus, Gordon Biersch will hold a release party for a Mexican lager brewed with Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing, complete with a taco bar, live band and piñatas on June 1. On March 13, Pure Project Brewing is holding Beer to the Rescue Day at its Miramar tasting room. On March 28, Pariah Brewing will release This Is New IPA, and on March 29, North Park Beer Co. will tap a specialty cask, with portions of proceeds from both beers going to the Lupus Foundation of Southern California. | Various Locations, All Events Start at 5 p.m.
March 2 | Crowler Awareness Day: Gone are the days when the only conveyance vessel for draft beer was a glass jug requiring constant sterilization. Compact, disposable and often quite attractive, crowlers have changed the industry and, for the first edition of this made-up annual holiday, brewery tasting rooms offering these modern marvels will offer them at discounted rates. | Participating Breweries: Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach, Miramar), Bay City Brewing (Point Loma), Coronado Brewing (Bay Park), Council Brewing (Kearny Mesa), Eppig Brewing (North Park, Point Loma), Intergalactic Brewing (Miramar), Mikkeller Brewing San Diego (Miramar), North Park Beer Co. (North Park), Resident Brewing (Downtown), Thunderhawk Alements (Miramar)
March 4 | Renaissance: Epic tap lists and next-level ale-and-lager free-for-alls are nothing new for Churchill’s Pub, but this venerable North County beer bastion sets aside one day each year to really go all out. Tons of rare beers, including some brewed just for the occasion, will be on tap, and bottles of whale pod leader Churchill’s Finest Hour imperial stout will be for sale. | Churchill’s Pub & Grille, 887 W. San Marcos Boulevard, San Marcos, 11 a.m
March 10 | SD Homebrew Festival & Competition: The richness of San Diego’s commercial beer and brewing scene is a result of the county’s vibrant, thriving and always-evolving homebrew culture, something celebrated via more than 35 homebrewed beers at this festival devoted to the recreational—yet very serious—pursuit of the beer-making sciences. | The Observatory, 2891 University Avenue, North Park, 12 p.m
March 31 | Second Anniversary: El Cajon’s Burning Beard Brewing opened its back lot and a can of celebratory whoop-ass for its first anniversary last year, and this year they’re aiming to outdo themselves. Expect multiple beer stations stocked with a wide variety of liquid stein fodder, a raffle, take-home stein and three bands (including The Creepy Creeps) rocking out live. | Burning Beard Brewing, 785 Vernon Way, El Cajon, 1 p.m
From the Beer Writer: In a time that could have been labeled the “dark ages,” beers bolstered by bright, green hops and obsidian malts were everywhere. They were the it beers of the early twenty-teens and so popular there was a battle over the style name they went by. Most referred to them as Black IPAs (India pale ales), but brewers in the Pacific Northwest attempted to lay claim to them, dubbing them “Cascadian dark ales.” Figuring flashy hop-impact was San Diego brewers’ calling card, a local brewery went completely against the Cascadian evergreen grain, calling their black IPA a “San Diego dark ale.” Just as the debate reached a fever pitch among those in the brewing community, the drinking public decided they didn’t care about the name of the style…or the style itself. Sales dropped off and within a year or two, nearly every black IPA on the market was eliminated from portfolios across the country. They were the hazy IPAs of their day, and then they were gone. But some determined brewers who see the beauty in the contradictory big-hops-meets-heavy-roast nature of these beers dare to continue crafting them. Count Home Brewing Company‘s George Thornton and Jacob Bauch key members of that group. They brew their black IPA, El Matador on an annual basis. This year, it’s available in cans as part of Home Brewing’s year-long program of rolling out four-packs of canned collaboration beers brewed with local fermentationists, including Gordon Biersch‘s Doug Hasker, Daniel Cady of Mikkeller Brewing San Diego and Mike Skubic of Old Harbor Distilling. Though Thornton contests this black IPA is really a “hoppy porter” (the debate continues), it drinks like the former, exhibiting great balance between lemony hops and roasty specialty malts. Those polar-opposite ingredients dovetail nicely in the finish with a coffee-like richness and piney tackiness finding common, lasting ground. It’s a splendid version of a style that probably should never have disappeared from the scene, and a brilliant way to remember a good man who many wish hadn’t sadly and unexpectedly followed suit.
From the Brewer: :”El Matador is a tribute to Jeff McCue. Jeff was one of those people that had more groups of friends and admirers than you could possibly imagine. We knew him as an avid homebrewer that shared our passion for education and growth. He was a graduate from SDSU’s Business of Craft Beer Program, a Certified Cicerone and was working on his BJCP beer-judge certification. He was also a professional photographer, verified parrot-head, loving husband, absolute goofball, giant sweetheart and wine lover. His passing from a brain aneurysm was a complete surprise for all of us. He was an otherwise healthy and happy person. He was a guy who liked to get the last word, and I think he succeeded when he managed to get more than 100 people from every facet of his dynamic life together in one place to send him a final ‘F*ck you McCue!’ Truth is, that wasn’t the final ‘FU McCue.’ I use the phrase often, usually in moments where I feel like I’m overwhelmed and wish that I had his witty charm to get through a stressful moment. Then I realize that by thinking of him, it’s still there…and he once again has the final word. ‘FU McCue.’ El Matador was a recipe he brewed for one of his friends’ thirtieth birthday and it was one of his wife’s favorite beers. We brew this beer every year to celebrate his birthday. #cheerstoyoumccue”—George Thornton, Owner, Home Brewing Company
With so much happening within the local beer industry, covering all of it at length can be difficult, at least from the perspective of keeping ahead of it for readers while tracking down leads and digging for details that go beyond the title and subhead. In the interest of sharing some items before they’re old news, I’m rolling out some short-form reporting to keep you all in the know.
According to sources within the company, Kearny Mesa-based Helm’s Brewing has been purchased by a private investment group. Its Kearny Mesa Road brewery is not open to the public, but its Ocean Beach tasting room is fully operational and serving the company’s beers. The manufacture of those liquid assets is now the charge of former Green Flash Brewing brewer, Kevin Barnes, who was hired several months ago. Ownership is currently looking to expand production capacity and square-footage, either at its Kearny Mesa headquarters or elsewhere, if necessary.
Last September, the father-son duo behind Wiseguy Brewing exited their lease with H.G. Fenton for the Carlsbad Brewery Igniter suite the business occupied for a brief six months. That facility is now under contract to brewing-industry veteran Mark Amador, who most recently worked in sales for Vista’s Indian Joe Brewing before following his passion to open the upcoming Papa Marce’s Cerveceria. Billed as a “house of artisan sours, ales and lagers,” it was to originally be named Lone Osos Brewing, but trademark issues inspired a switch to the current moniker, which pays homage to a patriarch from the maternal side of Amador’s lineage. Back at Brewery Igniter’s North Park complex, the split-level suite formerly occupied by San Diego Brewing Company has suitors, one of which is a kombucha operation.
In Little Italy, construction has temporarily halted on Mikkeller Brewing San Diego’s future satellite tasting room. After securing a space on India Street, the company went full-steam-ahead without getting permission from landlords or proper permits from the City of San Diego. The former issued an Owner’s Notice of Non-Responsibility, stating it had obtained knowledge that certain construction, alterations, repairs or other works of improvement were being made on the property by Mikkeller, and that Cabot Square L.P. would not be responsible for any claims arising from those activities. The majority of the flooring in the space has been dug up, leaving earth, rebar and piping exposed.
We’ll continue to follow the stories above and provide additional information as it becomes available.
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 the type of moniker that inspires more question marks than exclamation points: Black Plague Brewing (2550 Jason Court, Oceanside). The first time I heard about it was nearly two years ago when I first interviewed the owners of the now-open business. And over that span, the odd resonance of that name hasn’t diminished in the least. Part of it may be the fact the words are typically presented along with a spooky logo featuring an ancient, crook-beaked plague doctor, but mostly it’s the reference to the historic bubonic plague (AKA “the black death”), which wiped out between 75 and 200 million Europeans (30-60% of the continent’s entire population) from 1346 to 1353. But there’s more to a business than its handle and motif. I was sure to remind myself of that as I entered Black Plague’s tasting room for the purpose of sampling its beer and atmosphere as part of a recent brewery touring session.
Walking through the door, I bid adieu to a perfectly sunny day and took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the space. Though outfitted with skylights and a lobby bordered on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls are painted jet black. Furniture hues range from brown to ebony and the only relief from the dim color palate is a beer board decorated with colorful, artful names and descriptions, plus rudimentary thin, white-line sketches of the plague doctor and such. It was around Halloween when I visited, but it’s clear the creep factor had little to do with that macabre holiday. And while it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, I had to hand it to the folks who handled the interior design. They took a thematic, embraced it and delivered. It’s complete and makes good on a promise set forth by the brand and its back story, even adding a touch of whimsy here and there in the process.
Fortunately, the service element does not fall in line with what one might find in the midst of a continental pandemic. The bar staff is rather friendly. My only knock was a seeming lack of knowledge or interest in the finer points of beer and brewing, but not everyone can be a nerd. They knew Black Plague’s beers enough to be helpful, and made a point to note something very cool (literally): a glycol-chilled copper strip running down the center of the bar. That amenity keeps beers cool should you be consuming a style that you’re not looking to warm for increased sensory effect. The customers, too, were in a jovial mood as they drank their beers and watched football on a screen mounted left of the beer menu. As I received my taster flight, I looked forward to falling into their frame of mind.
Prior to coming to Black Plague’s tasting room, I had sampled only one of the company’s beers, 1347 IPA. Named, as they say, for “the year of the plague,” it was hazy and juicy. Now, however, it’s no longer Northeastern in body and has far less of a fruit-juice character. If anything, it’s much drier and exhibits a grapefruit pithiness more evocative of a San Diego-style IPA. For those looking for fruit, however, there are multiple versions of this beer available, all of which have been infused with a different fruit (mango, pineapple, blood orange, grapefruit, blueberries) as well as habanero peppers. Plenty happy with the base beer, I chose the purist route, moving on to a Kölsch called Remedium that was crisp and balanced, and Nelson Pandemia, an IPA hopped with “an outbreak of Nelson hops,” that had a sharp, bitter finish that left a sticky, peppercorn-like spice in its wake.
From here it was on to more avant-garde beers, starting with ChaI.P.A. Fans of chai (which I am) are likely used to encountering this exotic-tasting adjunct in beer, but typically styles on the darker end of the spectrum. I was skeptic of how it would come across in a lighter-bodied, hoppy beer, but it was a winner. All chai in the nose and only slightly bitter, allowing the added spices to come through, it was my favorite of Black Plague’s beers. Second place went to Samoa Stout, a beer brewed with chocolate, roasted coconut, maple syrup and graham crackers to emulate the Girl Scout Cookie of the same name. Dessert-like, but not overly sweet, it comes across as dark chocolate with a supportive caramel backdrop.
While my inner-marketing professional shudders when presented with this brewery’s branding, I would happily reach for one of its beers. Though its owners lack beverage-industry experience, they have been wise enough to consult with professionals who possess just that. Their brewhouse is currently benefiting from the services of ex-AleSmith Brewing and Mikkeller Brewing San Diego fermentationist Bill Batten, who specialized in traditional beer styles for more than a decade before shifting to more experimental brews at his most recent gig. He seems a perfect fit for his current digs while he waits for his next post, North Park’s TapRoom Beer Co., to be constructed. From what I tasted, he’ll leave some big boots to fill.