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)
As any unincorporated entrepreneur will tell you, opening a brewery in a small community on the outskirts of San Diego County is a risky proposition. Some, such as Alpine Beer Company and Nickel Beer Company manage to draw ale aficionados to the boonies behind good beer, but even quality product can’t guarantee enough patronage to sustain a business long-term. Add questionable or downright poor-quality brews to the equation, and the prospects of backwoods beer dreams being realized slim considerably. Such was the case for Valley Center Brewery, which recently closed.
Founded in its eponymous extreme North County community in 2014, Valley Center was a family-run business that started out on said family’s residential property in a structure they built especially for the business. Roughly a year later, the bulk of the operation was moved to a restaurant on Lilac Road, complete with barrel-aging on a covered patio. A work-in-progress for much of its life-span, the business became a full-on beer-and-food venue earlier this year, but it would appear that, by then, it was too little too late, as mostly negative reviews of the company’s beers had taken their toll. The business went out much like it came in, with nary a whimper.
Valley Center Brewery joins the 2016 class of beer-manufacturer closures that includes Pacific Brewing Company, Twisted Manzanita Ales & Spirits and URBN St. Brewing Company. Valley Center’s closure came right around the arrival of SR76 Beer Works, a brewpub constructed within Harrah’s Southern California Resort and operated by the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians. So, Valley Center is still in the local craft-beer mix along with similar unincorporated communities such as Alpine, Fallbrook, Jamul, Ramona and Julian, where Julian Brewing Company shut-down but is currently being renovated to reopen in 2017.
It’s been more than six months since Twisted Manzanita Ales & Spirits shut down its Santee base of brewing operations and pulled out of its satellite tasting room in Pacific Beach. Though ownership there implied the business would be back in some form—and it still may—that will not happen at its former headquarters. That facility—both the brewery and distillery components—have been purchased by another San Diego brewery…and it’s not one that most would have expected. Today, Grantville-based Groundswell Brewing Company announced its acquisition of the former Twisted Manzanita facility at 10151 Prospect Avenue.
Founded in 2013 and having called a space at 6304 Riverdale Street in the Grantville neighborhood home over its lifespan, Groundswell will move its brewing operations to Santee upon receiving licensing approval. In doing so, the company will transition from its current three-and-a-half-barrel system to Twisted Manzanita’s 30-barrel brewery. Operation of this new-used asset will be the charge of brewmaster Callaway Ryan, who has been with the company since March of this year after stints at Stone Brewing and the defunct URBN St. Brewery.
This acquisition also brings with it Twisted Manzanita’s distilling equipment, which includes a combination alembic continuous still. Groundswell owner Kevin Rhodes says the company intends to begin distilling within the next 12 months, and says the business, which is approaching 1,000 barrels produced in 2016, anticipates growing to 2,500-3,000 barrels of beer per year courtesy of this acquisition.
Groundswell will hold on to its Grantville space, converting it to a satellite tasting-room. Meanwhile, back in Santee, Twisted Manzanita’s former tasting-room will be wiped clean and renovated to fit its new owner’s identity and aesthetic, which to-date can best be described as kickback and comfortable.
Earlier this week, news broke that Twisted Manzanita Ales and Spirits (10151 Prospect Avenue, Santee) had shuttered its satellite tasting room in Pacific Beach. Today, the company’s employees were notified that the business is actually folding its brewing operations entirely. Twisted Manzanita’s spirit production will continue, but Friday will be the last day for production at what was the incorporated East County’s first and largest brewery. The last day for the tasting room will be Sunday.
Established as Manzanita Brewing Company in 2010, the interest originally opened in a combination brewery-tasting room in a business suite at 9962 Mission Gorge Road. After two years of solid growth, Manzanita took over a much-larger, 12,000 square-foot facility on the same block, where it was able to increase its production significantly while spreading its beers to numerous new states and territories. Its original facility was turn-keyed to Rey Knight where he installed Butcher’s Brewing.
In 2012, Manzanita won a bronze medal in the experimental beer category at the World Beer Cup for Where There’s Smoke…, a smoked rye ale with chile peppers. In 2013, original brewmaster Garry Pittman left the business and the brewing industry altogether. In 2014, owner Jeff Trevaskis launched a distillery side of operations and renamed the company Twisted Manzanita Ales & Spirits. In 2015, Twisted Manzanita partnered with Fat Cat Beer Co., forming a parent-company that aimed to provide strength in numbers. That interest intended to take on additional brands, though that never came to pass. The company’s most recent head brewer, Daniel Cady, left the company a few weeks ago to begin work at Mikkeller Brewing San Diego. Twisted Manzanita also signed a number of contract-brewing deals to help boost production for such brands as URBN St. Brewing Co., Thorn St. Brewery and Pacific Islander Beer Co.
Twisted Manzanita Ales is survived in the City of Santee by Butcher’s, Pacific Islander and BNS Brewing and Distilling Co., operations it most certainly helped pave the way for in East County.
Santee-based Twisted Manzanita Ales & Spirits is closing down its tasting room in Pacific Beach. Located at 4652 Mission Boulevard, the 1,400-square-foot satellite, non-brewing facility was opened in 2014 as a coastal yang to the yin that is the company’s easterly inland headquarters. This is the third brewery-owned venue closure in the past 30 days, following URBN Restaurant Group shutting down the brewing component of its El Cajon brewpub and Stone Brewing Co. deciding to pull the plug on Stone Farms. But there’s more to this closure than the others, says employees and former staff at Twisted Manzanita.
According to several internal sources, Twisted Manzanita’s ownership informed employees of the Pacific Beach tasting room that they were closing it temporarily in order to remodel the venue. While they were away, the draft system was disassembled. (The photos here show the state of things when an employee arrived unannounced last Sunday evening.)
According to Twisted Manzanita employees and witnesses at a neighboring business, last Monday night ownership ordered staff from Santee to come to PB to clear out the tasting room. Items were loaded into a truck and trailer and hauled away. An internal email later confirmed the business was not being remodeled but, in fact, being closed.
Twisted Manzanita is in the process of working with a group of separate investors to try to open an Oggi’s-style ale house in North Park, but there is no guarantee that, if that comes to fruition, the company’s PB employees will be offered jobs at that location.
The information in this article was offered and corroborated by multiple Twisted Manzanita employees who wished to share this information anonymously. A number of them stated that, as of press-time, the PB tasting room employees still had no idea their workplace was being closed down, making this a particularly bitter bit of news to deliver. (Editor’s Note: Outside of the employees interviewed for this article, Twisted Manzanita Ales could not be reached for comment.)