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)
I’ve interviewed many brewers in my day, and when asked about their portfolios, nearly every one of them rifles off the same statement: “We brew beers that we want to brew.” This answer’s ubiquity in no way detracts from its authenticity, but it means a lot more for the most recent fermentationist to say it to me, Brian Mitchell of Pariah Brewing Company (3052 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park). Doing things his way doesn’t mean daring to brew a lager in ale-town San Diego, brewing gluten-free beers or shooting for extreme alcohol-by-volume. His family of beers—which will make their official debut at a trio of grand-opening sessions (which are nearly sold out) next weekend, before Pariah’s tasting room opens to the public on Sunday, February 12—are unlike anything being brewed anywhere in San Diego, or pretty much anywhere else.
Of the six beers that will be on-tap when Pariah opens, the tamest is Off-White Wit, a Belgian-style witbier inspired by Taiwanese boba tea. Honey, green tea, lemongrass, ginger and orange find their way into this exotic brew, but Mitchell leaves out one of this style’s most traditional ingredients, coriander. The result is a wheat beer with herbal notes versus overbearing citrus character. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Uni Stout…and it’s just what it sounds like, a take on an oyster stout brewed with lacto-sugar, sea salt and fresh sea urchin gonads from Catalina Offshore Products. The sea fare (added in the whirlpool) combats some of the sweetness, drying things out and leaving flavors of chocolate and pumpernickel behind. It makes Dorcha, a nicely balanced stout brewed with molasses, cacao nibs and a proprietary blend of coffee from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters seem everyday by comparison.
There is one traditional beer on the board, a West Coast IPA fortified with Amarillo and Mosaic hops that’s been cleverly dubbed Dank Drank. Dry with a lasting lemon pithiness, it’s 6.66% ABV and comes in at 66 on the IBU (international bittering unit) scale. But even it is offset by a more avant-garde IPA that’s brewed with mangoes, peach-flesh and hemp oil. Mitchell hates fruit IPAs produced by “certain local companies” and aimed to use real fruit (versus extract) to marry with and amplify the qualities of the hops used for this beer. The result is an IPA with malt character reminiscent of a Pacific Northwest IPA and heavy tropical flavors.
The most ambitious of the lot is Erotic City. The name is inspired by the dearly departed “Purple One”, while the recipe for this strong ale resulted from a challenge issued by Mitchell’s wife, who wanted a beer brewed with Muscat grapes, honey and grains of paradise. The resulting beer is big on grape flavor, but low on the mustiness that typically accompanies wine-grape beers. There is some sweetness, as one would expect, but I’ts earthy and honey-like as opposed to cloying. This is a beer for adventurous drinkers, but that seems to be the point at Pariah.
And these aren’t specialties or one-offs. The beers described above comprise Pariah’s core-beer line-up. That’s gutsiness that bleeds over into Dogfish Head territory. (Erotic City actually closely resembles Dogfish’s “ancient ale” Midas Touch.) That Delaware-based veteran brewing company has been manufacturing “off-centered ales for off-centered people” for 21 years, growing into the 16th largest craft brewery in the country in the process. Mitchell’s aspirations aren’t that large, however, he does want to grow his business. As such, he has hired employees to handle sales and distribution, something not that many new breweries devote start-up funds to. His business practices seem sounder than many, lending method to what, to beer purists might seem light outright madness.
With new breweries opening at a rapid clip and nearly 140 operating brewhouses, many wonder if our county needs any more brewing companies. This opinion is fueled mostly by people who feel the majority of each business’ offerings are nearly identical, especially where hoppy beers are concerned. Pariah’s wares soundly answer any questions about why this interest exists—because without Pariah, beers like this wouldn’t exist…anywhere. It’s refreshing to come across a new brewery with so many unique offerings, and even those who don’t take to Mitchell’s creations will likely agree with that sentiment.
Pariah’s out-there line-up offers an advantage to a pair of other breweries—Eppig Brewing and San Diego Brewing Company. Those businesses are located on either side of Pariah in the second of H.G. Fenton’s Brewery Igniter complexes. All three companies entered these ready-to-brew, tasting room-supplied spots with equal brewing and cellar capacity. It was up to each to differentiate themselves and that’s just what’s happened. San Diego serves its vanguard staples plus worldly one-offs, while Eppig is gaining a good name behind high-quality lagers and a mixed-bag of hoppy beers and kettle-sours. Then there’s Pariah, which also features the most jarringly disparate environs. Purple (more Prince influence) is the main color in the dimly lit space, which San Diego Brewing co-owner Lee Doxtader has taken to (respectfully) calling “the dungeon”. But how many captive environments are so nerdy about glassware that every beverage served there comes in its own specific type of glassware (including the aromatic-enhancing Spiegelau IPA glass)?
Pariah’s tasting room will be open Monday through Wednesday from 12 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from noon to midnight and Sundays from 12 to 7 p.m. The tasting room is equipped with 13 taps that will soon be filled. Bottled wild ales are also in the works, as is a three-way collaboration between the North Park Brewery Igniter’s tenants.