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)
Brian Scott is living a brewer’s dream. After a lengthy career including stints at Firehouse Brewing Co., Mission Brewery and Karl Strauss Brewing Co., he is calling the shots as the head of SR76. That brewing interest is owned by the economic development arm of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians and installed within the master-structure of Harrah’s Southern California Resort (777 Harrah’s Rincon Way, Valley Center). It’s the first brewery of its kind in the county and, given its business efficiencies, Scott and his associates see it as a duplicatable model, both locally and abroad.
From a brewing perspective, Scott cites numerous advantages at his inland North County anomaly. Chief among them is having his biggest customer—the resort—right next door. Rather than distribute product across or outside San Diego County, Scott can focus all of his attention on close-knit colleagues, meaning he can maintain first-hand quality control regarding beers and the lines they are dispensed through, and help the resort trouble-shoot and repair any problems that come about. SR76’s beers are available at the resort’s family of bars and restaurants, which go through enough kegs that there is currently no need to explore selling product to outside accounts. Additionally, the resort selecting the beers that fill out the rest of its taps and fridges, allows for control of competing brands.
Even so, Scott is not looking to go head-to-head with big boys like Ballast Point, Stone or Green Flash. He doesn’t even brew an IPA. Instead, he’s aiming for approachability and producing a line of session beers that will be compatible with the tastes of the resort’s diverse—and largely new-to-craft—clientele. The way he sees it, having his beers predominantly featured at a resort with the size and scope of Harrah’s allows him to touch tons of people other craft breweries have little or no access to, so he doesn’t want to lose them with massive bitterness, big-alcohol or outlandish adjuncts. As such, SR76’s current quartet of core beers consists of a German-style wheat beer featuring traditional notes of banana and clove, a light-bodied Kölsch, and pale ale built to scratch the IPA itch care of Mosaic hops and 70 IBUs (international bittering units). His most avant-garde offering might actually be the best shot at converting oenophiles and the beer-averse. Dubbed Supul (translating to “one”, signifying it being the first beer brewed by SR76), it’s a sub-4% alcohol-by-volume saison that, with floral notes of violet, lavender and honeysuckle, comes across like the ale-equivalent of viognier. The body of this beer, as well as that of the wheat and Kölsch, is thin by traditional standards, but that may be advantageous once temperatures reach the extremes that are the norm during Valley Center summers.
SR76’s tasting room is in a separate ground-floor structure across from the hotel’s main entrance. A condition of the business’ manufacturing license dictates that it can’t be connected to Harrah’s, but Scott sees advantages there, as well, stating that it renders his sampling space as an “oasis” of sorts. While the casino and hotel pool-area are typically high-energy, loud and even a bit raucous (particularly during the sunny season), SR76 is lounge-like with its bevy of comfortable seating options and lack of gaming or TVs. Most of the customers who venture there are looking for beer, a break or both. Like most local tasting rooms, beers are sold below at-large prices, which was important to Scott, who wants a visit to the source to be as authentic as any other. The smell of steeping grains on brew-days really helps hammer that home. Another bonus: guests are allowed to bring food in from the resort’s plethora of dining spots.
A prime reason the tribe opted to get into the brewing business was to be able to spotlight San Diego’s brewing culture while keeping beer-seekers on property. Harrah’s has historically been a key supporter of the San Diego Brewers Guild by sponsoring the Rhythm and Brews Music and Craft Beer Festival, and putting on its own Hop Heads and Dreads Craft Beer and Reggae Festival. By constructing a brewery, the resort now has increased ability to put on large-scale events, and they are exploring ways in which to do so.
Thus far, SR76 is performing to tribal expectations, albeit during the slow-season for tourism and beer-consumption. Time and data collected during peak months will tell the true tale, but if the operation is successful, the SR76 team sees this as a model that can be duplicated at resorts throughout Southern California and beyond—citing Northern California, Arizona, Oklahoma and North Carolina as potential regions for on-property brewery infusion.
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.
Every six months, I like to take a step back and assess the work-in-progress breweries and brewer-owned venues throughout San Diego County, and expound on those I believe show the most promise. This is not to say those not listed below don’t have solid potential—but based on what I know about these businesses, I think they have the best shot. This time around, I’m splitting my selections into two geographic regions, north and south, and starting with the former. Check back next week for another group of breweries-to-be.
SR76 Beer Works, Valley Center: Constructed within Harrah’s Southern California Resort, this will be the first tribe-owned brewery and the first beer-manufacturing facility within a hotel. With a rare brewery-construction project where funds are plentiful, getting a solid brewer to helm the project represented the biggest challenge and it would seem they chose wisely, going with Brian Scott, a veteran of reigning Mid-Size US Brewery of the Year Karl Strauss Brewing Company and Mission Brewery. His beers will be served in spacious, lush tasting-room that will add a much appreciated new element to casino-going craft fans.
Indian Joe Brewing, Vista: The county’s first Native American-owned brewery stands to do well when it opens later this year. After all, it gained a hardy following from 2013-2015, and that was using a tiny brewing system in a tucked-away industrial suite in south Vista. Now the company has a brand-new 15-barrel system, a robust cellar and a stock of oak-barrels inside its new 18,000-square-foot facility, which is fully visible off State Route 78. Add in a two-story tasting room with an outdoor patio and fans who’ve been waiting for Indian Joe’s return figure to be pretty happy with Version 2.0.
Burgeon Beer Company, Carlsbad: In most cases, when judging how promising a future brewery will be, it comes down to experience. That’s what my assessment of this upcoming North County brewery is all about, and the experience lies in brewer Anthony Tallman, the current head of fermentation at Vista’s Backstreet Brewery, who came there after meaningful stints at Stone Brewing and Rough Draft Brewing Company. Being in charge of a brewpub, he stands a good chance of juggling the multiple styles he aims to produce.
Julian Brewing Company, Julian: Julian has a brewery, one which was built when the former co-owner of Julian Brewing ventured out on his own. This OG local beer spot was later closed by its current parent-company, Pizza Port, and is in the process of being rebranded. Knowing what its former shortcomings were, plus business experience and a stable of quality brewers to ensure good beer pours forth from its second-coming provide a basis for hope in the reimagined brewpub this venue becomes.
San Diego County is home to more than 130 operating brewhouses, but even with that level of saturation, a first is about to be achieved out in Valley Center—establishment of the first local brewery owned by an Indian tribe. The Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians’ on-reservation economic development corporation is overseeing installation of a brewery called SR76 Beer Works within Harrah’s Southern California Resort (777 Harrah’s Rincon Way, Valley Center).
The individual in charge of the brewhouse and fermentation is Brian Scott, a long-time local brewer whose résumé includes experience at Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Mission Brewery and long-gone Firehouse Brewing Company. He also served as president of the San Diego Brewers Guild in 2012. Despite having operated in the heart of San Diego during his entire career, he is adjusting quickly to life on the fringe. One of his goals with SR76 is to take advantage of ultra-local ingredients, using them when brewing beers he says will lean toward the lighter-side of the spectrum—a Kölsch, wheat beers, pale ales and hop-forward varieties.
Those beers will be brewed on a custom-built 15-barrel Marks Design and Metal Works system. SR76 will have a quartet of 30-barrel fermenters and two 30-barrel finishing tanks, with annual production estimated at 1,200 barrels. SR76 will have limited distribution kept within the immediate area, but the majority of the beer will be sold in SR76’s spacious tasting-room inside the resort. Oversized lounge chairs and sofas will be available in addition to seating at a 25-foot concrete bar giving way to windows lending a southward mountain view.
Previous to SR76, the only other Native American-owned brewery in San Diego County was Indian Joe Brewing, which opened in Vista in 2012, but closed due to issues with its facility’s landlord in 2015. That business aims to reopen in a new, larger location in Vista just off State Route 78 by year’s end. But for now, SR76 represents the only American Indian-controlled interest in the county. The business has set its grand-opening date as Saturday, November 5.