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)
This is the third in a series of four posts taking a look at some of the most promising brewing venues currently in the works around San Diego County. The first two examined spots in the eastern and western communities. Today, we switch our attention to North County and the Hops Highway.
Wild Barrel Brewing Co., San Marcos: Two ex-Stone Brewing employees are teaming up to produce a wide variety of beers steps from Stone’s original brewery (now home to Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey). Renowned beer-expect Bill Sysak is leading the charge while Bill Sobieski (formerly of Anaheim’s Hoparazzi) will do the brewing using a brewhouse procured from El Cajon’s since-closed URBN St. Brewing Co.
Click here to read more about this project
Horus Aged Ales, Oceanside: Creating a portfolio made up exclusively of barrel-aged beers is no easy feat, but it’s one Kyle Harrop is eager to attempt. And he’ll do it with a little help from his friends, namely brewers from all over the country, including local interests such as Abnormal Beer Co., Rip Current Brewing and fellow North County work-in-progress White Fence Brewing. This is a boutique brewery if there’s ever been one.
Click here to read more about this project
Ebullition Brew Works, Vista: While information on the beers that this long-time work-in-progress will debut are hard to come by, details uncovered about the environment they’ll be consumed within are promising. A stylish tasting room with plenty of bar space and a special beer-delivery system in which glasses are placed onto pop-up taps and filled from the bottom up will provide a pretty cool differentiator that doesn’t exist in any brewery in the county.
Last year, Groundswell Brewing Company took large, highly visible steps toward increasing the size and scope of its operations by purchasing the 12,000-square-foot brewing and distilling facility vacated by defunct Santee business, Twisted Manzanita Ales and Spirits. This move came shortly after Groundswell brought on veteran brewer Callaway Ryan (Surly Brewing, Stone Brewing, URBN St. Brewing) to shore up its fermentation operations. With him on-board, ownership felt comfortable taking this step forward. After months of work transforming its new environs, Groundswell is ready to debut its Santee tasting room to the public at a grand-opening event taking place Sunday, February 12.
A few pieces of décor remain to be placed in the facility’s public-area, but on the brewing-side, company president Kevin Rhodes says his team is hitting their stride, brewing roughly every other day after cleaning out and modernizing the space to fit their needs. Ryan has overseen the transition from the company’s original, much smaller location in Grantville. Groundswell has also brought on additional talent in the form of ex-Toolbox Brewing Company brewer Brent Donovan, who will be charged with implementing programs for sour and barrel-aged beers.
Groundswell plans to hold on to its Grantville venue, converting the brewery into storage space while reconfiguring the tasting room so that it includes additional seating. Tickets to the opening event for the Santee tasting room will go on sale online, tomorrow at 6 a.m.. That venue is located at 10151 Prospect Avenue and the event will take place from 12 to 8:30 p.m. That tasting room’s regular hours are 1 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.
For years, I’ve named the most promising work-in-progress brewing companies on a bi-annual basis. The scene is always changing and new projects are always coming onboard, requiring a twice-per-year check-in. Earlier this month, I examined the most intriguing new breweries being chiseled into reality in the north and south regions of San Diego County. In this third of a three-part series, I’m taking a look at new venues being opened by existing local brewing operations.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Santee: Karl Strauss is San Diego’s longest-running post-Prohibition brewing interest and the reigning Champion Medium-Sized Brewing Company after big wins at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. Those wins came courtesy this 27-year-old stalwart exhibiting greater innovation than at any time in its history, extending to the magnificent design of its recently opened Anaheim brewpub. It figures this train of high-quality will keep chugging along when Karl’s crew comes to Santee to build its biggest project to-date, an expansive facility at Town Center Parkway and Cuyamaca Street that will serve as its new headquarters. Like many East County brewery-owned projects, it’s faced more than its fair share of governmental and public scrutiny, but is still high on Karl Strauss’ project list if not a bit far off, time-wise.
Mason Ale Works, San Marcos: The Urge Gastropub chain will add another link next year when Urge Common House opens as one of the anchor businesses of San Marcos’ upcoming North City development. Designed to appeal to nearly every demographic with a full-scale restaurant, multiple bars, bowling lanes and bocce ball courts, it will also include a second brewery for the business’ brewing arm, Mason Ale Works. That brand has done well since debuting its beers early this year, creating the need for increased brewing capacity to support distribution demand.
San Diego Brewing Company, North Park: It only took this business 23 years to grow out of its Grantville brewpub. The vehicle for them to do so is H.G. Fenton‘s Brewery Igniter model, wherein business owners takeover ready-to-brew combo breweries and tasting rooms, installing their own concept. It will be interesting to see what the SDBC team does with increased production from an independent 10-barrel system and extra cellar capacity and how their beers fare on the open market, now that they will be distributed versus exclusively available at the original location.
Groundswell Brewing Company, Santee: Due to the small size of the brewing system and cellar at its Grantville brewery, Groundswell explored contract-brewing options, having some of its beers brewed for them by Twisted Manzanita Ales. The latter business folded in March, putting its combo brewery, distillery and tasting room up for sale. Bolstered by increased beer-quality from a new brewmaster, Groundswell’s going all-in, snatching up that East County real-estate for its own use…and even making plans to begin distilling in the not-too-distant future.
Thorn St. Brewery, Barrio Logan: Many have touted the rebirth of Barrio Logan for years, and it has far more to offer than it did when it was less hospitable and, in many peoples’ eyes, a dangerous place to found one’s self after dark. With each new business that takes a chance on the neighborhood, the better it gets. Two breweries (Border X Brewing and Iron Fist Brewing) have done that, but Thorn St. will be the first to bring in brewing equipment with a small system that will service its tasting room and retail operation.
Other Exciting Projects
Barrel Harbor Brewing Company, Miramar: The owner of this Vista-based brewery is teaming with a Miramar gaming spot to open the first-ever brewery tasting room with table-top/role-playing amenities.
Bear Roots Brewing Company, TBA: It remains to be seen how this breakaway hit nano-brewery will expand, but with quality beers and two viable plans, it will be a storyline worth following.
Kilowatt Beer Co., Ocean Beach: OB has two brewpubs and four tasting-rooms, but there’s room for this Kearny Mesa’s western satellite, which will be black-lit, artistic and wholly original.
Entrepreneurs looking to get some only-slightly-used brewery equipment are advised to contact the URBN Restaurant Group. The company has ceased brewing operations at its El Cajon brewpub, URBN St. Brewing Co., with no intentions to resume. That means everything from its 15-barrel brewhouse to its fermentation vessels and other appurtenant apparatuses are up for sale.
The decision to shut down was not made based on beer quality. Brewmaster Callaway Ryan and assistant brewer Ben Accord made good beer—URBN St. Saison was exceptional enough to earn a medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. It was an inevitable business decision following a lack of proper calculation when URBN decided to get into the brewing business by taking over the former site of the El Cajon Brewing Company back in 2014.
According to URBN Restaurant Group representatives, a primary investor was not aware how capital-intensive it would be to open a brewery. Because of this, the brewery opened lacking adequate funding. Selling beer became problematic because the beer could not be sold at a price that would sustain the operation. Eventually the decision was made to cut losses and stop funding the part of the operation that was losing money.