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.
From the Beer Writer: Last month, I ventured to Sorrento Valley for a Monday-night session at New English Brewing Company, where my eyes gravitated to a beer on the board called “Hop Slap’d”. In a matter of seconds, I was lifting a full pint, but before I could take a sip, I was shocked into a neutral state by the outrageously vibrant hop aroma wafting up from the glass. Freshly zested oranges, mowed grass and a hint of lemon registered with force. When I eventually took a taste, all of those components were there along with a touch of casaba melon. As potent as it was, I figured it must be a newly tapped beer, but it had already been on-tap for a month. Just as I began wishing I’d have visited the brewery 30 days earlier, the barkeep mentioned the beer was part of a series of pale ales with rotating hop bills, the next of which, New English Hop Slap’d #5, was about to make its debut. I immediately made plans to come back to try that beer, which derives its hoppy appeal from Citra hops, coming on strong with scents and flavors of myriad citrus and tropical fruits, minus the grassy, melon-like nuances imparted by the Mosaic that gave Hop Slap’d #4 its unique characteristics. I’ll definitely be back for future editions of this pale. Consider me hop slap’d!
From the Brewer: “Hop Slap’d pale ale is designed to educate drinkers about the differences between hop varietals and also about the difference between ‘hoppiness’ and ‘bitterness’. Brewed using the same base recipe for each batch, we end up with an American pale ale weighing in at 5.5% alcohol-by-volume and 40 IBUs (international bittering units). Very crushable! The key to these rotating-hop-series beers are the late kettle-hop additions and, more specifically, the dry-hop additions. Each successive batch of Hop Slap’d features different hops, so if you try #4 alongside #5, for instance…as you can right now at the New English tasting room…you can eliminate the base beer as a variable. Any difference in taste or aroma is down to the hops alone! Batch #4 used all Mosaic for late and dry additions, while #5 used all Citra. The difference is amazing, and since the beer isn’t overwhelmingly bitter like some IPAs tend to be, the character of the hops themselves shines through. In order to accentuate the difference and literally slap you in the olfactory organs with flavor and arom,a we load up the dry hops at almost two-and-a-quarter-pounds per-barrel. That’s the same as our double IPA! Hop Slap’d #5 features big tangerine and ripe citrus aroma plus a light scent of pineapple. The taste is like fresh-squeezed OJ on the palate with a mild bitterness and light malt character. This is a thirst-quencher and perfect for the hot, dry weather we’ve been having.”—Simon Lacey, Owner & Brewmaster, New English Brewing Company
Each month, we present several best-bet local beer-related events for the following 28 to 31 days, but as we all know, November isn’t any normal month in America’s Finest City. It’s the month that houses San Diego Beer Week (SDBW), a ten-day span encompassing literally hundreds of events. So, we’re doing things a little different this month, providing a little insight on some of the biggest and most unique happenings taking place from November 3-12. Enjoy, but don’t forget to check out other goings-on via our events page and the official SDBW website.
Friday, November 3
Saturday, November 4
Sunday, November 5
Monday, November 6
Tuesday, November 7
Wednesday, November 8
Thursday, November 9
Friday, November 10
Saturday, November 11
Sunday, November 12
Many are the local entrepreneurs who have fallen in love with the idea of brewing at the historic Mission Brewery Plaza. Located in the City of San Diego’s Five Points neighborhood, it is easily accessible from Little Italy, Old Town, Mission Hills, Hillcrest and Point Loma, and a stone’s throw from San Diego International Airport. Numerous interests have called it home: Mission Brewery, Five Points Brewing Company, New English Brewing Company, Coronado Brewing Company and its current resident, Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment. The latter is on its way out, opting to move north to build a larger facility in Carlsbad, making way for a new business to make a home at this historic site, Latchkey Brewing Company.
Founded by brothers in law with a dream, and now a brewery, Latchkey is in a holding pattern while Acoustic completes work on its future North County facility, but is hoping to debut to the public in spring of 2018. They figure taking over the brewery should be relatively simple given the turnkey nature of things. There is a chance the two businesses may actually share the production component depending on how everything shakes out, which is important because Latchkey intends to brew and distribute out of the gate.
As far as the 3,000-square-foot tasting room, ownership wants to overhaul it so the venue is 100% Latchkey from a branding standpoint. This is likely to take a significant amount of time, especially considering the amount of updating the owners have planned. While they appreciate the classic industrial brick-and-timber architecture, they want to add a variety of modern, clean finishes. Aware of the hundreds of workers occupying the 50,000 square feet of office space making up the remainder of Mission Brewery Plaza, plus an attached apartment complex, they will also construct a full-scale kitchen so Latchkey can offer light breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options as added enticements. Private event space will be offered as well.
Latchkey’s brewing team will be headed by a veteran who has worked at numerous established breweries. He and his brother-in-law plan to explore the lighter side of the beer spectrum, while also satiating San Diegans’ thirst for hop-forward beers. Their portfolio of American and international styles will lead with American “banquet beer”, Japanese-, Mexican- and German-style lagers, plus session English-style ales, augmented by hoppy lagers and, of course, India pale ales. Those beers will be produced on a 15-barrel system feeding into 15- and 30-barrel fermenters and a mixed array of bright tanks.
When asked about the inspiration behind the company’s names, the owners say that they were latchkey kids in the ‘70s, but there’s more to it than that. While a typical latchkey kid comes home to an empty residence, these brewery owners to be say they are stepping outside the comfort zone of their careers to enter a new industry, unsupervised and left to their own devices. As they put it, that’s what makes the whole thing fun.