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)
Every six months, I take a look at the work-in-progress breweries throughout San Diego County and offer opinions on those that show the most promise. My current list has more than 40 upcoming brewery-owned venues, so there are plenty to consider. I’m breaking down this series into a once-per-week piece taking on one section of the county at a time, starting with the eastern expanses.
Depot Springs Beer Co., La Mesa: In the works for more than two years, this project’s greatest obstacle is its ambition. A combination brewery, distillery, restaurant, coffee shop, kid-zone and music venue, it has struggled every step of the way, causing a level of interest-fatigue for those awaiting its arrival. Still, it’s a heck of a project on paper and figures to be worth visiting when it eventually jumps off the page. Ownership hopes that will happen this summer.
Click here to read more about this project
Julian Brewing Co., Julian: Last year, Pizza Port co-owner Vince Marsaglia shuttered this operation and its associated Bailey BBQ restaurant in order to re-concept it. Stainless vessels were recently delivered to the project-site and there is a chance Marsaglia may grow ingredients on-site to infuse into house beers, a la the farmhouse-brewery model. It’s a concept that seems fitting for JBC’s rural, small-town environs.
Smoking Cannon Brewery, Ramona: Ramona got its first brewery when ChuckAlek Independent Brewers opened in 2013. Its second will open this Saturday in the former home of Brown Chevrolet at 780 Main Street, Suite I, offering an IPA, cream ale, pale chili ale, rye, brown mild, American stout and smoked peanut butter ale. Extra faith in these initial products is provided by the knowledge Green Flash Brewing brewer Lucas Nelson consulted on them.
Click here to read more about this project
A craft beer desert received its first rainfall of local ales and lagers when ChuckAlek Independent Brewers opened in Ramona in 2014. Local thirst in that small unincorporated northeast town was enough for that business to spawn a satellite tasting room and beer garden in San Diego proper’s North Park community. And in the minds of Mike Nelson and Natallie Phillips, Ramona is at the point in its sudsy development where it’s ready for a second fermentation interest. They are poised to deliver that this Saturday when they open the doors to their Smoking Cannon Brewery at 780 Main Street, Suite I.
That couple has been together for 20 years—12 of which Nelson has spent homebrewing and winning awards. (Phillips claims only three out of more than 100 recipes have failed to take honors at one competition or another.) They’ve spent the better part of the past year burning the midnight hours beyond their day-job regimens to get Smoking Cannon ready for business. Part of that process was building a three-barrel electric brewhouse to feed a pair each of three- and six-barrel fermenters, and developing recipes for beer as well as home-made ginger soda and root beer.
Non-sarsaparilla brews are largely English and American-inspired. The latter include an India pale ale, cream ale, stout, rye ale and chili pale ale, while British influence comes via a brown mild, pale ale, extra special bitter and various porters. Belgium is also represented, with a strong ale and a pumpkin-infused saison in the works. Sours and holiday-inspired seasonals will eventually figure into the equation, but for now it’s more about introducing more everyday beers.
Smoking Cannon’s grand opening will take place from 12 to 11 p.m. on May 13 and feature live music plus close friends of the owners attending dressed in Civil War-era attire. That nation-shaping skirmish is a focal point of the brewery and where it derives its name. Both brewing and the history of that era will be communicated at the tasting room, which will be open 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, 4:30 to 10 p.m. on Fridays, 12 to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 12 to 9 p.m. on Sundays. Phillips warns that the entrance to the business is actually on Eighth Street, so don’t let your map app fool you. Parking is available in plentitude in a large lot on the corner of Eighth and D Street.