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 of the San Diego International Beer Festival’s professional brewing competition were released today. A component of the San Diego County Fair’s annual festivities, the competition included entries from across the globe judged by professional beer judges and Southern California brewing professionals in late-April. A total of 68 medals were awarded to San Diego-based breweries. Of that number, 23 were gold, 21 were silver and 24 were bronze.
San Diego breweries won all three medals in eight categories: American-style Red/Amber Ale, Bitter, Bold Stout, Brett and Other Sour Beer, German-style Ale, German-style Weiss, Imperial Stout and Pilsener. Miramar-based AleSmith Brewing Company once again took home Champion Brewery honors behind three medals—a gold and silver in the same category (one of which was awarded to a Scotch ale) and a gold in the Barley Wine category.
The most local medals went to Pizza Port. That brewpub’s Carlsbad brewpub also won a gold and two silvers. Its Ocean Beach arm won two (one gold, one bronze) and Bressi Ranch production brewery earned a silver. The most medals awarded to a single brewery went to San Marcos’ Rip Current Brewing Company and less-than-a-year-old North Park interest Eppig Brewing. Both of those companies earned a gold, silver and two bronzes. San Marcos’ The Lost Abbey and South Park Brewing Company earned three medals apiece, as well. Also impressive was Rip Current winning two of three medals in the German-style Bock category.
The following is a complete list of the winners from this years SDIBF…
The three-day public beer-fest portion of the SDIBF will take place at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Friday, June 16 through Sunday, June 18. Tickets and information can be found online.
It’s the final month of the year, and time to reflect on the year nearly gone-by. For me, that means assessing San Diego County’s brewery landscape. That’s what I’ll be doing in a three-part series of posts this week, starting with a look at the plethora of new brewing operations that opened in 2016. More breweries opened this year than any in history. And it’s important to note that more good breweries opened in 2016 than in the past several years. Many tout the double-digit number of rookie fermentation operations added to San Diego’s brewery-count each year, but I’ll be honest and say that the past half-decade has seen too many average-to-subpar businesses join the fold. Sure, some duds opened in 2016, but the same can be said of any food-and-beverage business. The bottom-line is, aspiring entrants into the local suds-scene seem to understand, now more than ever, that they better have good beer if they’re going to compete, and that’s leading to better breweries, from conception to birth and beyond. The following are my picks (in order) for best new breweries of the past 365 days (with the exception of some that were simply too new to be fairly evaluated).
Burning Beard Brewing Co., El Cajon: Rockin’ beers and rock-and-roll make for amenities worth an East County excursion at this small but well-run spot featuring a variety of beers ranging from Belgians to San Diego-style hop-elixirs to deep, dark stouts and, eventually, fouder-aged ales. Throw in employee exuberance that ranges from the brew-crew to the bar staff, and it’s sort of a holy-grail situation.
North Park Beer Co., North Park: One of the most anticipated new brewery project of the past four years, the brainchild of its namesake community’s proud denizen Kelsey McNair finally came to life. Its former MMA gym home has been transformed into a beautiful, two-story, wood-paneled den of communal enjoyment of beers that are largely sessionable and rely on impressive balance versus belligerent brawn.
Resident Brewing Co., Downtown: Urban bar and eatery, The Local, is a long-time supporter of the craft-beer movement, but when it added on-site fermentation to its equation, the resulting product was something special. An award-winning homebrewer-turned-pro is pumping out some of the bolder, ideally hopped West Coast-style beers of the rookie-class while bringing flavor with myriad other styles.
Pure Project Brewing, Miramar: If a wide array of easy-drinking beers—crisp to full-bodied, clear to hazy, fruited to (GABF medal-garnering) barrel-aged—weren’t enough reason to become enamored with this, the first brewery to test out the Brewery Igniter ready-to-brew model, the fact it’s a generous One Percent for the Planet business is enough to pull the wishy-washy off the fence.
Bear Roots Brewing, Vista: A small homebrew-supply store opening a three-barrel nano-brewery with a bar that takes up half its shop…sounds risky if not ill-advised, but a husband-wife duo have not only made it work, but amassed such a cult-following behind a varied beer line-up that includes a tasty cookie-inspired dessert beer that they’re looking at growing their baby to papa-bear status in 2017.
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co., Bay Ho: The first brewery to open in 2016 has done well for itself, producing a solid line-up of hoppy beers offset by a number of English-style malt-driven styles and “candy-bar” beers. Further refinement of its wares in the coming year should keep this operation on its upward trajectory, as should fun, well-done quarterly beer dinners in its tasting room.
It’s important to note that, in previous years, a half-dozen picks for best new brewery would have been excessive. This year, I could have added another two or three rather easily. The following are those that missed the cut, but never before has the division between the best and the rest been so slim. Cheers to that!
This Year’s Contenders: Culver Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Guadalupe Brewery (Carlsbad), Kensington Brewing Co. (Mission Valley), Little Miss Brewing Co. (Miramar), Longship Brewery (Mira Mesa), Mason Ale Works (Oceanside), Midnight Jack Brewing Co. (Oceanside), Mikkeller Brewing San Diego (Miramar), Oceanside Brewing Co. (Oceanside),
Maybe Next Year: Burgeon Beer Co. (Carlsbad), Eppig Brewing Co. (North Park), Knotty Brewing (East Village), OB Brewery (Ocean Beach), Thunderhawk Alements (Miramar)
Previous Top-Ranked Breweries
2015: Fall Brewing Co. (North Park), Second Chance Beer Co. (Carmel Mountain), South Park Brewing Co. (South Park), Bay City Brewing Co. (Point Loma), Abnormal Beer Co. (Rancho Bernardo), Duck Foot Brewing Co. (Miramar)
2014: Bagby Beer Co. (Oceanside), Nickel Beer Co. (Julian), Council Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), URBN St. Brewing Co. (El Cajon), Toolbox Brewing Co. (Vista)
2013: Rip Current Brewing Co. (San Marcos), Benchmark Brewing Co. (Grantville), Amplified Ale Works (Pacific Beach), Belching Beaver Brewery (Vista), Modern Times Beer (Point Loma)
2012: Societe Brewing Co. (Kearny Mesa), Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (East Village), Latitude 33 Brewing Co. (Vista)
Yesterday, the owner of Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery, Scot Blair, announced that he has selected the replacement for head brewer Cosimo Sorrentino, who will be leaving his post come the end of the year. That individual is Nick Norton, who has spent the past two years working in the brewhouse at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station.
Norton worked on the restaurant-side at Stone Brewing‘s Point Loma brewpub before being brought into the brewery by Liberty Station brewing manager Kris Ketcham. While there, he aided in the production of a wide-ranging and often adventurous portfolio of beers, one of which, Witty Moron, medaled at the Great American Beer Festival, not once, but twice.
This hire marks a departure from form for Blair, who has had two brewers at his East Village brewpub over the past five years, both of which were plucked from San Diego’s home-brewing ranks. Though young, Norton has more professional experience coming into this position than Sorrentino or his predecessor, Derek Freese (who currently brews at Modern Times Beer Company).
But heading brewing operations at Monkey Paw was only half of Sorrentino’s job. He was also in charge of beer-making at sister-business South Park Brewing Company. Blair constructed that brewpub next-door to his flagship operation, Hamilton’s Tavern, in 2015, and Sorrentino evolved the brewing program to the point where every beer on-tap was produced in-house.
Blair has decided to take control of the brewery-side of South Park Brewing. But he won’t be alone. In taking the reins, he is promoting cellarman Ryan Traylor to the position of assistant brewer. When asked about the beers that will be produced under this new order, Blair says he’s committed to moving things forward while honoring the past.
Earlier this week, news broke about popular local brewer Cosimo Sorrentino resigning from his dual-head brewer post at Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery and South Park Brewing Co. A fixture in the community who made a point to communicate and collaborate with nearly every brewery within the county, it was surprising to here he was stepping down, but even more confounding to discover he would absolutely be leaving San Diego come the New Year. More information was in order, so we went to the source to appease readers’ logical queries and concern.
West Coaster: What led you to depart your position heading Monkey Paw and South Park Brewing?
Cosimo Sorrentino: A combination of factors, the biggest of which is a necessity for personal growth. I was lucky to learn my craft in the community I grew up in and under an owner that has so much passion, but I feel that I have reached a point where to progress I need a little less comfort and a new environment.
WC: Though your next step has yet to be determined, you are certain you will leave San Diego. Why is that?
CS: I feel San Diego has crossed over to a new era in brewing. The community spirit is being fractured; too many breweries fighting over the same styles, following trends for profit, not enough quality staff to provide front-of-house service…and let’s not get into the distributor issues. This was inevitable and will not necessarily be a bad thing for those making or drinking beer. San Diego beer will get better and those that succeed will benefit from the competition! For myself, I hope that finding a location where the scene is a bit younger will allow me to help foster the same type of conscious collaborative growth that has led to San Diego’s emergence as the beer capitol of the world. It might be selfish, but I have really enjoyed the journey so far and want to keep making new beers with and for new people.
WC: After being such a peacemaker and heavy collaborator within the San Diego industry, is it difficult for you to move on?
CS: Not to be cliché, but this is truly the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It means stepping away from, not only the coolest brewing job I’ve seen, but leaving family, friends and, potentially even my dog. I am bummed that I will not have the chance to collaborate with some guys and gals in town—especially some of the new breweries—and that I will not be part of Monkey Paw’s next step as a business, whatever that may be.
WC: What will you miss the most about the San Diego brewing and beer scenes?
CS: One word: HOPS! No, but seriously, I will miss the universal nature of the love for beer and brewers in this city. It will be weird to walk into three-or-four bars in an evening and not run into a fellow brewer or maybe even an educated beer-drinker. I’ve never felt the camaraderie and respect that I have experienced in San Diego with brewers and consumers alike.
WC: What are some of your finest memories of your time brewing professionally in San Diego?
CS: Wow. Hardest question…I’ll never forget the first week I got the job at Paw. I had every brewer that I had looked up to either drop in or hit me up on the phone to help me get dialed in. It was a whirlwind, and I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but this foundation paid off and I will be forever grateful. Those memories were revisited last year when I got to sit in on a collab at Karl Strauss on Columbia Street. Not only did we have (KS brewmaster) Paul Segura, (Gordon Biersch head brewer) Doug Hasker and (Monkey Paw/South Park Brewing owner) Scot Blair brewing that day, (Ballast Point Brewing VP) Colby Chandler dropped in to open some bottles as a farewell to (former Green Flash Brewing Co. brewmaster and current Silva Brewing owner/brewmaster) Chuck Silva on his last day in San Diego. This was only made better by the fact that I had invited (North Park Beer Co. assistant brewer) Joaquin Basauri to drop in. This was early on in Joaquin and I’s friendship and the look on his face as we drank barleywine and talked shop with these godfathers brought me back to that feeling of awe.
WC: What were your goals for the semi-controversial public-forum you held to discuss the changing landscape of San Diego beer?
CS: While the forum never became a series, I hope that the discussion was opened and people are more likely to speak honestly and in an informed manner about the evolution of our city and the industry. I am glad there is a reduced amount of animosity because that energy can be redirected towards progression instead of hate and fear.
WC: Any parting words for our readers?
CS: Thank you for absolutely everything. I hope I’ve returned 10% of the happiness and joy you have given me.