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)
Winners from the 2017 edition of the Great American Beer Festival were announced earlier this morning. Held annually by brewing-industry trade organization, the Brewers Association, in Denver, Colorado, this year’s GABF saw nearly 8,000 beers entered by more than 2,000 breweries in 98 style categories. 293 were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals after being evaluated by 276 judges. GABF is the country’s largest and most prestigious professional brewing competition. San Diego County breweries have historically fared incredibly well. This year saw another strong showing with the region’s brewers racking up double-digit awards.
Eleven local brewing companies brought home 14 medals this time around, including five golds in the Robust Porter (Second Chance Beer Co.) Honey Beer (Karl Strauss Brewing Company‘s Carlsbad brewpub), Imperial India Pale Ale (Ballast Point Brewing) Other Specialty Belgian Ale (Stone Brewing World Brewing & Gardens – Liberty Station) and Session Beer (Pizza Port‘s Ocean Beach brewpub) categories. That went along with six silver medals and three bronzes.
Notable is the fact only one individual brewing facility in the county won more than one medal, Carmel Mountain Ranch’s Second Chance with a gold and a silver. Newly launched SouthNorte Brewing Company garnered a bronze medal in the Specialty Beer category for a beer called AgaveMente that hasn’t even been released to the public yet. And Monkey Paw Brewing, which Coronado acquired earlier this year, earned a silver medal in the English-style Summer Ale category. Also, Vista-based Mother Earth Brew Co. medaled in the Fresh or Wet Hop Ale category for Fresh As It Gets, a beer brewed at its Nampa, Idaho production facility.
Adding to the unofficial medal count was Belching Beaver Brewery, which for the second time in its history won top honors at the Alpha King Competition. Held in conjunction with GABF each year, this friendly competition crowns the brewing company that submits the hoppiest offering amid a stacked field of IPAs. Belching Beaver previously won Alpha King in 2014. On top of that, Chula Vista Brewery owners Timothy and Dalia Parker received the Samuel Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship, following in the footsteps of Ramona-based ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, who earned the same opportunity in 2014.
The following is a complete list of the winners from brewing facilities located within San Diego County…
Breweries make the best margin by far when selling their beer in their taprooms. With a county expansive as San Diego, getting customers to a single location can be a challenge, but the satellite tasting room model—one where a brewery opens a non-brewing sampling space in a geographically removed community—has proven quite successful in helping brewing companies reach new customers, move inventory and generate additional revenue. Many satellites have been sent into orbit throughout the county in recent years, and quite a few are in different states of planning at present. Here is a breakdown of such projects by the neighborhoods they may someday call home.
Bay Park: As announced earlier this week, Grantville-based Benchmark Brewing Company has signed a lease on a space. The family-run business had been exploring the prospect of opening a satellite in Oceanside, but ultimately decided to stay within the City of San Diego.
Carlsbad: A collective of artisans will someday share space with crops of produce, wine grapes and hops at the North 40 development. Numerous tenants have been reeled in over the past two years (and many have walked away), but Miramar’s AleSmith Brewing Company and Carmel Mountain’s Second Chance Beer Company are signed up, with the former hoping to sell house-made cheese with its beer.
Chula Vista: Fresh off the high of moving into Twisted Manzanita Ales’ former production brewery (and distillery) in Santee, Groundswell Brewing Company is working to open a sampling space on downtown Chula Vista’s main drag, Third Avenue…right across the street from soon-to-debut Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Company.
Encinitas: Though a community that’s openly resisted brewery-owned venues, this beachy berg has two breweries slogging against the tide for space on Coast Highway 101: Point Loma’s Modern Times Beer Company (across from La Paloma Theatre) and Solana Beach’s Culture Brewing Company (next to Bier Garden of Encinitas).
Marina District: Developers have spent the better part of the past year curating a list of breweries to share space at The Headquarters at Seaport Village. Planned as a central courtyard surrounded by six identical yet uniquely appointed brewery tasting rooms, it has proven challenging for a variety of reasons, but would create a concept unique to San Diego.
Normal Heights: Longtime craft-beer champion Blind Lady Ale House will soon have some sudsy company in their ‘hood care of Miramar-based Little Miss Brewing, which is hard at work on two fun-and-games equipped tasting rooms within San Diego proper.
North Park: Another interest with two satellites in the works is Second Chance, who recently revealed plans to open a tasting room on 30th Street in North Park, across the street from popular beer-bar Toronado and doors down from the site of Ritual Kitchen, which announced last week that it will soon shut its doors after 10 years in business.
Ocean Beach: Little Miss Brewing’s other upcoming satellite will join the county’s most tasting room-dense community, on the same block as Belching Beaver Brewery, Culture, Helm’s Brewing Company and Kilowatt Brewing Company; and a short walk from OB Brewery and Pizza Port OB; and a quick drive from Mike Hess Brewing Company’s sampler.
Pacific Beach: Downtown’s Mission Brewery is geared to cash in on partygoers’ thirst for beer, installing a tasting room on Garnet Avenue where it intersects with Gresham Street. PB is currently without a brewery satellite after Twisted Manzanita’s closed down when the company folded last year.
It took more than three years to open, standing as a three-story enigma on the western end of Newport Avenue. But OB Brewery (5041 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach) finally debuted with the bang of fireworks last Independence Day weekend. When conceived, there was only one other brewery in town, the southernmost porthole of local brewpub chain Pizza Port. Now, this sister-business of craft-beer early-adopter Newport Pizza and Ale House is one of seven brewery-owned venues within a half-mile of each other…and that doesn’t even count the recently opened Voltaire Beach House and its on-site tasting room for Santa Clara-based Golden State Brewery, or beer-centric businesses like Bar 1502, Wonderland, Raglan Public House or The Joint. Competition for imbiber interest is fiercer than ever, and it would seem the neighborhood’s namesake brewery is ill-equipped to put up much of a fight.
The major appeal of OB Brewery is its triple-decker architecture. The venue provides three unique environments in which to relax with a cold one, be it house-beers or ales and lagers from guest taps. As one would expect, the most popular of those options is an open-air, tiered deck on the top-floor providing fantastic views of the ocean and the eclectic mix of comers-and-goers on Newport…at least during the sunny season. Of late it’s been far too cold for this choice value-added to factor in, requiring beer-quality to carry the day. After a recent visit, I feel comfortable venturing the theory that OB Brewery’s scarce patronage is directly attributable to its lackluster wares.
The house India pale ale (IPA), Hop On Board, was low on carbonation and had competing notes of pine, kumquat (odd, but not off-putting)…and butter. The latter is an off-flavor associated with the presence of diacetyl. An oatmeal stout started off nice and coffee-like but quickly devolved into an ashy finish that was like kissing a chain-smoker. A red IPA had no nose to speak of, but did exhibit some tea-like hop notes on the palate. If anything, it came across as an amplified version of an English-style extra special bitter (ESB). The beer with the most redeeming qualities was Roll Wit’ It, a Belgian-style witbier that had plenty of trademark citrus character plus a touch of earthy notes from the addition of coriander. It will do well with the Blue Moon and Shock Top crowd—something an OB watering hole must consider—but a legitimate San Diego beer experience requires mastery of more than a lone wheat ale.
Were this superiorly cool venue to touch-down in a community under-served from a craft-beer perspective, it would fare much better. The same would be true if this business could have taken less than an entire high-school career to open. But smack-dab in the heart of current-day OB, a neighborhood that is, frankly, over-saturated with local beer options at present, the odds of this place competing (even against its parent business), much less emerging victorious, are rail-thin.
This Friday, January 13, OB will welcome a new bar and restaurant called Voltaire Beach House (4934 Voltaire Street, Ocean Beach). In doing so, it will also become a home away from home to a brewing-company satellite of sorts, care of an in-house taproom partnership with Golden State Brewery. For most, this is an unknown entity, but the company has been around for two years. So how is it you haven’t heard of them? They are based in Santa Clara, and teaming with Voltaire Beach House presents the opportunity to gain a foothold in San Diego, something Golden State has already done to a smaller degree via limited distribution of its bottled beers to several local Sprouts Farmers Market stores.
It’s a highly logical decision for Golden State, but an interesting one for Voltaire Beach House, which is located in a community that has seen more aggressive growth than nearly any distinct region in the county regarding installation of brewery-owned properties. OB is home to two brewpubs (Pizza Port and new-arrival OB Brewery) and four satellite tasting rooms, with a fifth from Kearny Mesa-based Kilowatt Beer Company coming online later this month, and a service-only venue from rookie operation Little Miss Brewing rumored to be in-planning. That’s a lot of beer—a lot of local beer—in a town that’s historically fierce in its support of local businesses.
How will beer from 49ers territory fare in the previous home to the Los Angeles Chargers? It could be tough to compete with San Diego interests, but then again, Golden State beer is a completely new option for locals who might just crave something different. Voltaire Beach House’s taproom seats 40, is equipped with multiple TVs and has 20 taps, 12 of which will dispense a mix of year-round and seasonal Golden State beers. The company’s portfolio includes its flagship Heritage Honey Ale, Cold Brew Coffee Stout (brewed with coconut sugar and two gallons of cold-brew java per-keg) and Eureka IPA. Food and craft cocktails from the venue’s restaurant component will be available in the taproom as well. Voltaire Beach House’s restaurant-component will also feature 20 taps as well as a coastal-inspired, East-meets-West Coast menu consisting of a variety of salads and bowls, sandwiches and burgers, flatbreads, fish tacos, desserts and more.
Golden State debuted its home-taproom in Santa Clara’s old Memorex building last February, becoming the city’s first post-Prohibition brewery. Owner and brewmaster Seth Hendrickson says he is excited about having a presence in San Diego. He has been in the restaurant business for 15 years, and has brewed beer for more than a decade. He is aware of and thankful for the talent and camaraderie that are its hallmarks.