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2017 Recap: Best New San Diego County Breweries

Dec 19

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.

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)

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Miralani welcoming meadery, cidery and kitchen

Sep 13

The collection of artisanal producers in the pair of business parks near the corner of Miralani Drive and Camino Ruiz in Miramar already interact like partners. Home to four breweries, two wineries and a sake brewery, this is the most craft-saturated ultra-micro locale in all of San Diego County. And soon it will welcome its first actual partnership—a trio of businesses sharing a 3,500-square-foot space with a collective mindset and completely unique, hand-forged consumables. Lost Cause Meadery, Serpentine Cider and The Good Seed Food Company comprise this hand-in-hand threesome, all of which are on pace to open at different points within the month of October at 8665 Miralani Drive, Suite 100.

While they were searching for a site for their meadery, Lost Cause founders Billy and Suzanna Beltz met and hit it off with Serpentine headman Sean Harris at a brewery event. The entrepreneurs stayed in touch and, two months later, Harris asked if the Beltzes would like to join him and chef Chuy De La Torre as a third tenant in the space they intended to share. The marrieds followed in the footsteps of De La Torre, formerly the chef at Rancho Bernardo’s Urge Gastropub, and signed on. To a person, the quartet believe they are in the perfect geographical situation. This pertains to their individual facility, where all of their wares will appeal to artisanal-minded locavores, as well as their immediate surroundings.

The closest similar business to the shared space is Thunderhawk Alements, and the Beltzes say its owners have been extremely helpful. It’s the “Miralani Makers District”’s tangible colleagues-versus-competitors vibe that continues to lure so many small businesses to the area. A distillery is also en route for the area. It is reminiscent of San Diego’s roots from a brewery perspective and, in some ways, evokes memories of simpler times for that industry.

The Beltzes like the prospect of leveraging cider and, to some extent, beer, wine, sake and spirits from neighbors to attract cross-drinkers who might not specifically seek out mead, but will be more than happy to try it during an expansive tasting expedition. They realize mead is not as popular or understood as other beverages and aim to do a great deal of educating rom their tasting room (Serpentine will have its own sampling bar within the space, as well).

Lost Cause’s meads will be produced in 20- and 15-barrel batches located near the entrance to their tasting room. Billy has earned more than 35 medals for his meads in the past three years alone, and the Beltz’s research and techniques have been published in the American Homebrewer’s Association‘s Zymurgy Magazine and American Mead Maker, the official journal of the American Mead Maker Association. An integral part of their production process is a technique which allows them to control a slow, steady, healthy fermentation that retains extremely delicate honey flavors and aromas as alcohol builds.

Lost Cause’s initial line-up will all come in at 11% alcohol-by-volume and include:

  • Mead Muggin’: local orange-blossom honey, hops and grains of paradise
  • Condor Attack: local orange-blossom honey, grapefruit and hibiscus
  • Buck-Yea: local buckwheat-blossom honey and aged on oak
  • Zydeco Buzz: local buckwheat-blossom honey, coffee, chicory and bourbon vanilla beans
  • Sectional Chocolate: local buckwheat-blossom honey and cacao nibs, and aged on oak
  • FresYes: local buckwheat-blossom honey, Fresno, chipotle and ancho peppers

The aesthetic of the shared facility will pay homage to Southern California and the Southwest region as a whole care of shared plants and furniture. For more information on each of the businesses’ debuts, follow each on social media.

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All-organic Protector Brewery opens this week

May 30

Protector Brewery founder and brewer Sean Haggerty serves customer from his tasting bar

A lot goes with trying to open San Diego County’s first all-organic brewery—sourcing ingredients, all of which are more costly than non-organic, securing enough of them, finding price-points that work for patrons and, of course, making quality beer. These are all very real challenges, but pale in comparison to the obstacles and consequences the founders of Protector Brewery faced in their former lives as Navy SEALs. By comparison, this should be a fairly straightforward mission. One thing is for sure. They’re going to war fully prepared.

Sean Haggerty is leading the charge from a base of operations located at 8680 Miralani Drive. If that address sounds familiar, it’s because the business park Protector calls home has become well known as a center of artisanality. Other businesses sited there include 2kids Brewing, Align Brewing, Setting Sun Sake Brewery and several urban wineries, with Thunderhawk Alements, a cidery and meadery in the works directly across the street. The fact Protector can bring something completely unique to such a saturated complex is impressive.

Haggerty—who produces beer with fellow brewer Ben Betz—brewed his first beer seven years ago in the most unlikely of places…while on deployment in Iraq. His team had just returned from a direct-action raid at 3 a.m. and he really wanted to drink a good beer to toast his team’s success. The only problem was, being at a military installation halfway across the world, there was no beer to be had. It was then Haggerty had the epiphany that he should make his own. He had ingredients shipped to him and used a five-gallon Gatorade jug for his debut brew. He’s significantly upgraded his equipment at Protector, where beers are brewed on a direct-fire stainless system that figures to produce 200 barrels of beer annually.

Protector’s portfolio will include a hefeweizen, imperial stout, a pair of pale ales (one of which is New World in its hop profundity) and a pair of IPAs (English and West Coast). The hardest part about creating the latter quartet is sourcing quality hops, but Haggerty is confident in the stock he’s secured. He has Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe and Zeus in cold storage. Only five states house organic hop purveyors and the price of those hops is three times higher than non-organic hops, on average, with highly coveted varietals like Nelson Sauvin going for as much as ten times its garden-variety counterparts. And unlike other local brewers, Haggerty can’t just head to White Labs when he needs yeast. He currently gets his strains from an Oregan-based company.

Given the increased costs, one would expect extremely expensive beers at Protector, but prices are competitive and Haggerty says even his costliest beers will never go higher than seven or eight bucks. He knows an organic brewery wouldn’t be feasible at the size of a Ballast Point or Stone, but believes he can make it work at his smaller size. And if he is successful, he’ll look to expand.

For now, it’s about producing four barrels of beer per week, teaching people about organic beer and showing them it can taste every bit as good as everyday craft ales and lagers. Initially, that will be done exclusively at Protector’s tasting room, a neutral-toned spot punched up with organic color from a framed piece of art made of black barley and hops, depicting a Spartan helmet. Sketched artwork of fantasy-style defenders lines one wall while the brewery’s motto, “people, planet, progression, protector” is painted on the wall beside the bar. Haggerty and company hope to improve the planet through their actions, pushing the organic movement and market forward, not just for themselves, but for farmers, their families, wildlife and the environment.

Protector’s soft-open period begins June 2. The tasting room will be open from 2 to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, leading up to a grand opening in July.

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2016 Recap: San Diego’s Best New Breweries

Dec 13

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 Company in El Cajon

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.

Downtown’s Resident Brewing Company

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 in Vista

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)

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Thunderhawk Alements now open in Miramar

Sep 19

thunderhawk_logoFor more than a year-and-a-half, a sign visible to drivers on Miralani Drive proclaimed the 2015 opening of a new brewery. 2015 came and went, then the first eight months of 2016 elapsed—but that brewery’s doors remained closed to the public. Beer geeks wondered, beer journalists inquired—it seemed this operation might be doomed to fade away before ever pouring a beer. And that seemed a shame considering the nice and clearly beloved folks behind the business, which was partially crowd-funded by people who believed in ownership. Then, this weekend, it finally happened: Thunderhawk Alements (8675 Miralani Drive, #100, Miramar) soft-opened over the weekend.

Co-founder Jon Barbarin says a number of TTB delays and many sleepless nights preceded their unannounced debut, but seeing word-of-mouth and insider-alerts fill Thunderhawk’s tasting room Saturday and Sunday, probably helped give him a shot in the arm.

Thunderhawk’s bar is equipped with 14 taps, and opened with seven of them pouring the following:

  • Electric Youth: A coffee pale ale that I sampled a prototype of and very much enjoyed.
  • Liberty’s Teeth: A cascade-hopped British-style extra special bitter (ESB).
  • Torreyana: A “San Diego-style” saison brewed with locally sourced honey, ginger and Torrey Pine needles, fermented on American oak chips.
  • Over There: A dunkelweizen brewed with European-sourced malts.
  • Westworld: A pale ale brewed with Cascade and Chinook hops.
  • Planet Rock: Another pale ale hopped with Amarillo and Simcoe.
  • Sun Zener: Yet another pale ale, this one given citrus and melon character care of Citra and Mosaic hops.

Thunderhawk’s bar-top is forged from a 31-foot live-edge California Redwood, and the overall thematic is described as “western-slash-Americana”. Barbarin and company sourced a collection of 1950s copper relief pieces portraying the Old West and installed light fixtures from antique plates and bowls made of that same metal. A full 1,300-square-feet of public-space is offered on an outdoor patio. Ownership plans to install TVs out there for the purpose of showing local sports events and soccer matches.

For now, Thunderhawk Alements will be open Saturdays, 12 to 10 p.m. and Sundays, 12 to 8 p.m. Additional days of operation will be added as they are able, starting with Friday, but there is no separation from the brewhouse to the tasting-room, so production will sometimes prohibit the business from being open to visitors. The owners also hope to work with other Miralani businesses such as 2kids Brewing Company and Setting Sun Sake Brewing Company to hold events displaying the wealth of craftsmanship in the immediate area.

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