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.
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)
The holidays are great, but beer makes everything better, including December’s most iconic condiment
When it comes to familial gatherings during the holidays, many see the helix strains of DNA as the ties that bind…but not me. I say our winter comings, goings, catch-ups and throw-downs are bound by two mighty forces—alcohol and gravy. The former makes everything better—or at least far more tolerable—including the latter. With Thanksgiving in our near-horizon rear-view and the yuletide fast approaching, this seems the perfect time to share a base recipe for beer-infused gravy as well as several fun variations and preparations for it.
Many believe you need to have the drippings from a large roast beast or buxom fowl to construct authentically delicious gravy. I am not arguing the glories of starting with the rendered fat and juices of a slow-cooked behemoth, but gravy on the fly can be made using just about any form of fat desired. It all depends on your ultimate saucing goal.
If you’re looking for a really meaty or smoky gravy, but aren’t starting with a meaty, smoky hunk of protein, the best way to go is sausage. But know your links (or patties). Breakfast sausage is a nice midpoint. It generally exhibits big pork flavor, plenty of salt and a touch of black-pepper spice, making it ideal for the “sawmill gravy” used to smother biscuits across the South. That dish sees crumbled breakfast sausage rendered in a cast-iron skillet, followed by a sprinkle of flour (typically Wondra, a super-fine variety easily found in supermarkets) and the addition of whole milk and more pepper. Other forms of sausage can be used in this preparation, most notably loose, Mexican-style beer or pork chorizo, which adds plenty of garlic and paprika flavor to the finished product. But given its high fat content, you may need to actually remove some of the abundant (and abundantly tasty) orange oil slick that results during rendering.
Getting back on the holiday-accoutrement track, Italian sausage rendered in olive oil provides nice flavors for turkey gravy, as do the giblets (the heart, kidneys, liver and neck packaged inside a frozen turkey’s cavity), though the latter lends flavor sans fat. With turkey and beef gravy, it’s not as important to extract flavors from fat so long as you use stock. One can make their own stock by simmering bones or the aforementioned giblets along with aromatic vegetables (generally, carrots, onions and celery), but store-bought versions have come a long way over the years. When utilizing them, it’s recommended to go with low-sodium or unsalted varieties so you can control the amount of seasoning in your gravy.
When it comes to incorporating beer, it’s important to select the right type for the dish that you are adding the gravy to. For beefy gravies, reach for ales with rich, roasted-malt character—brown ales, porters, stouts, Belgian dubbels and quadrupels. Even coffee beers can work, especially when making “red-eye gravy”, which typically incorporates black coffee and is served over country ham. For lighter gravies served over poultry, it’s best to stay on the lower-bodied, gold-to-blonde side of the SRM scale, opting for beers with floral, herbal or vegetal character—helles, Kölsch, Belgian blonde ales, witbiers, table beers or saisons. The nuances of Belgian ales, in particular, create a flavor bridge for herbs like sage, thyme, parsley and rosemary. In the case of any gravy, it’s highly recommended that hoppy beers be avoided altogether.
Some of my favorite beer-gravy dishes during the holidays include herbed saison gravy with turkey and brown ale beef gravy with steak of any kind. Either work well over mashed potatoes, especially if they have goat cheese whipped into them along with whatever herbs are used in the gravy. And a dish that holds a special place in my heart 365 days a year is something I affectionately call Debu-Tots. It gets its name from the main ingredient—The Debutante, a Belgian-style amber ale made at my nine-to-five, Societe Brewing. That, bacon fat and beef stock form the basis for a gravy that is ladled over tater tots that are then adorned with cheese curds (if you can get them…queso Oaxaca or queso fresco if you can’t). It’s a modern, beery take on poutine that benefits greatly from the depth of malty, spicy flavor in the base beer. I’ve included the recipe so that you can enjoy it now, into the New Year and beyond!
with Bacon, Cheese Curds & Belgian Amber Beer Gravy
Yield: 4 servings
Add the bacon to a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan over medium-high heat and cook until it is crispy and its fat has fully rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan and, if necessary, remove some of the fat so that there is ¼ cup remaining in the skillet. Whisk in the flour until it is fully incorporated with the fat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the stock, beer and Worcestershire sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, add the rosemary and cook until a gravy consistency is reached 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Strain the mixture into a gravy boat and set aside.
To serve, divide the tater tots into serving bowls. Place the cheese over the tater tots and ladle with warm gravy. Garnish with the reserved bacon and scallions. Serve immediately.
More than a decade-and-a-half ago, Andrew Campbell took a trip to the Czech Republic, where he ventured to Plzen and tasted fresh, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell on tap. It was delicious enough to send him searching for the beer or a brew of equal or greater quality when he returned to the States. Alas, the craft-beer movement was still gaining momentum and Pilsners weren’t nearly as en vogue as they are at present. Unimpressed but not one to cast aspersions on all local takes on Bohemian Pilsners, he returned to Plzen the following year, just to make sure the original was as incredible as he remembered. It was, and he decided if he was going to enjoy beer like that back home, he was going to have to make it himself. Campbell has been brewing ever since, but he’s about to go from fermentation hobbyist to vocational beer-man along with fellow long-time homebrewer Darren Baker, when they open Circle Nine Brewing (7292 Opportunity Road, Kearny Mesa).
Campbell and Baker selected their Kearny Mesa business-park location based on their respect for the area’s extensive line-up of good breweries and beer-centric retailers, specifically citing Council Brewing, Societe Brewing, O’Brien’s Pub and Common Theory Public House. They hope their operation can fit into visitors’ beer- and pub-crawl itineraries, and hope to provide “a complete portfolio and something for every craft-beer lover, even those who don’t really like craft beer.”
That’s a pretty tall order, but when Circle Nine opens in late-July or early-August, its beer list figures to be fairly varied. Scheduled to be on tap are a rice lager, pale ale, India pale ale (IPA), double IPA, stout and barrel-aged stout. The names for those beers range from Circle One for the lager and Circle Nine for an upcoming whiskey barrel-aged imperial stout. That nomenclature evokes Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic, Divine Comedy, which artfully and meticulously diagrams the author’s vision of the afterlife; the more robust the beer, the further along in the order it falls.
Those beers will be produced on Circle Nine’s three-and-a-half barrel brewhouse. Campbell and Baker will double-batch into three seven-barrel fermenters, a pair of bright tanks of equal capacity, plus two single-barrel fermenters for experimental and specialty beers. More seven-barrel fermentation tanks will be added after the brewery opens, and will help them achieve an estimated 300-400 barrels of annual beer production.
From the Beer Writer: During my time working for Stone Brewing, I made many great friends. The company is packed with brilliant, fun and kind people, and one of the nicest of them all is the man in charge of brewing operations at Stone’s Liberty Station brewpub, Kris Ketcham. A champion of creativity who has indulged the desires of many novices in his brewhouse, he not only dares to try things others would avoid, but possesses the skill to pull off nearly every challenge thrown his way. In 2015, when I kicked off a charity campaign to raise money for the Lupus Foundation of Southern California through the sale of specialty beers from local breweries, I had the chance to brew with Ketcham, and it was a joyfully educational experience. This year, he let me back in the brewhouse to help conjure another charity beer: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station Trending Travis-ty. Aside from being long as all get out, there’s significance to the name of this hazy, “Northeast-style” session IPA. At the brewery I currently work for, Societe Brewing, clarity is king. Our brewing team strives to avoid haze in our IPAs and our brewmaster, Travis Smith, finds what he calls the “muddy IPA” haze-craze to be ridiculous if not a sacrilege. So we took this raging trend and made our own little “Travis-ty”. To be fair, Ketcham and I prefer clear IPAs, too, but we thought it would be a fun challenge to create a not-overly-hazy IPA with big hop appeal and extremely low alcohol; a crushable beer that would benefit from increased body from a variety of adjuncts and provide that “juiciness” beer fans are looking for these days. It’s on tap now and a portion of proceeds help lupus patients in San Diego and Imperial Counties care of the Beer to the Rescue campaign.
From the Brewer: “There have been a lot of trends in brewing over the years. The most recent one I can remember is session IPAs, and now we have ‘the L replacement’ hazy, juicy IPAs. As someone who’s taken pride in learning and employing multiple techniques for achieving beer clarity, I find it such a travesty that we’ve shifted into this. However, as much as I love to knock them, there is a uniqueness to them that even I find enjoyable from time to time. I also need to remind myself to keep an open mind, as we’ve come a long way in the past twenty-plus years. All of us as ‘craft’ brewers have changed the perception of beer over the years and still continue to do with styles like these. Sometimes we enjoy them so much that we try our own interpretations with our own signature twists. Trending Travis-ty mixes the past and current trends brewers have been chasing. Take all the adjuncts that give you the trending haze and put them to use in a style that’s lacking in body—session IPA—and you get a win-win result. For this beer, we used a blend of two-row, oats, wheat and dextrin malt to increase body and haze levels. No hops where harmed in the boiling of the wort. Instead, all of the hops used in this beer were added at the start of fermentation and post-fermentation to really bring on the haze. The combo of Mosaic, Loral and Vic Secret hops was a fun combination that uses Brandon and I’s favorite new hops with a hop that is in damn near every single IPA on the market today. Clocking in at 4.3% alcohol-by-volume and 40 on the IBU (international bittering unit) scale—all from the dry hop—this beer fulfills those whose hipster mantras include ‘I only drink hazy IPAs’ and ‘I only drink session beers.’”—Kris Ketcham, Liberty Station Brewing Manager, Stone Brewing