East Coaster’s Beer Guide to San Diego
Here’s a scenario for you. You have 6 days in San Diego, CA and all your spare time was after 4pm. I found myself in this situation as I took a business trip to San Diego. To start, I asked for recommendations and got too many to remember, so I wrote them down. Luckily for SD, all of the fine places are relatively close together. I managed to visit eight breweries and not one of them was a disappointment. However, after a long day of classes and all these breweries I have managed to get a real nasty cold. Such as life. There are a couple “well if I had just 1 more day I would go [here]” kind of breweries/bars (Green Flash, Mission, Tiger!Tiger, Bottlecraft, etc), but I think I managed to hit the best of the best in the area. Here is a run down and what I consider an East Coaster’s Beer Guide to San Diego. As an overlying principle to this post, I highly recommend every one below (I just don’t want to keep saying that after every place).
Alpine Beer Co.
About a 30 minute drive from downtown San Diego is Alpine Beer Company. I didn’t realize how small the brewery would be. However, this small brewery has a serious lineup of beers. I went for a flight of 6 of their creations. My favorite of the bunch was their Nelson Rye IPA. When I asked about a tour of the place the bartender said “this is it”. The number of good quality beers being made in small places is great in San Diego. What you see is what you get and what you get is great beer. Alpine recently won a Bronze Medal at the 2012 World Beer Cup in the Coffee Beer Category for their Odin’s Raven.
Lost Abbey / Port Brewing
I soon found out how easy it is to visit multiple breweries in San Diego, as there seemed to be a lot in close vicinity. In this case, Lost Abbey / Port Brewing are two breweries in one and its a short drive North of Stone, win/win. It was a quick stop here for me but one that you shouldn’t miss as there is plenty of beer on tap both fresh and rare. The GPS almost missed this one by not having me turn into the proper business park but my beer instincts took over and we found it.
Ballast Point Brewing Company
I got to Ballast Point at a good time in the brewery’s evolution. A few weeks back was the Craft Brewer Conference (CBC) and for that they doubled their tap list to 21 lines. While that’s a great thing it’s also a horrible thing because no one can sample 21 beers in one visit. Alas, I made some good choices such as their Sextant Oatmeal Stout on nitro. Quick side note. Between this beer on nitro and the Cream Ale I had on nitro at Pizza Port (spoiler alert), I have confirmed I am a nitro fanatic. So smooth and creamy and delicious. I also had their IPL (India Pale Lager) which was great and reminded me of the IPL from Jack’s Abbey back home. I ended on something funky, a stout made with Madras curry, cumin, cayenne pepper, toasted coconut, and Kaffir lime leaf called Indra Kunindra. It was super spicy and really flavorful.
I then ran into Steve from BrewHop.com, a company that provides custom tours of the breweries in San Diego. They cater to what you like and where you want to go. Great concept and reminded me of the Burlington Brew Tours up in VT. As you can imagine, he frequents the brewery and was able to get Lead Brewer James Murray to give me a tour of the facility. Amazing that all of their beer is made in this facility. While it isn’t small, they seem to make a lot more beer than meets the eye in the brewery. They must churn 24/7. They are currently adding more tanks to keep up with the crazy demand for their beer. You can find some of their beers in MA from what I have seen. On top of all that, Ballast Point is also a distillery and I was able to take a look at their custom made distiller. I was also taken into their lab which was a true Beverage Lab. They make sure the quality of the beer is tested thoroughly before it leaves the facility. You can’t say no to a little QC.
20 minutes from downtown is Pizza Port Oceanside, one of a few brewing locations for Pizza Port. If you like excellent pizza and award winning beer this is a must visit. To start , it’s right near the ocean (one street over) and the atmosphere is super friendly and welcoming. The tap list was enormous and had a grand guest beer list. I had their Oceanside Pizza which was excellent and went well with any beer on their list. I tried a number of their beers including their flagship Shark Bite Red, Skidmark Brown, their Foam Ball Cream Ale on Nitro and their Stout. Pizza Port won multiple medals at the 2012 World Beer Cup including a Gold for their Bacon and Eggs Breakfast Coffee Imperial Porter; (Pizza Port Ocean Beach) in the coffee beer category and another Gold for their Poor Man’s IPA; (Pizza Port Carlsbad) in the imperial India pale ale category.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company
Karl Strauss is a San Diego institution. You can find their beer at nearly every bar in town including their 6 pubs. Ryan Ross of Karl Strauss was gracious enough to give me a tour of their new stomping grounds. While it is under construction and closed to the public at the moment it is sure to be a spot for tourists and beer geeks alike. Their Red Trolley Ale won is a 2 time Gold Medal winner (2010, 2012) at the World Beer Cup. They continue to grow and come out with new recipes that don’t disappoint. If your a beer trader I would strongly recommend looking for Karl Strauss’ Boardwalk Black Rye, my favorite beer of theirs and one of my favorite beers ever.
From this point on I teamed up with Sean (@BostonHopHead) as we did a quick brewery hop before our flights back to the East Coast. The moment you walk into Alesmith you see how they mean serious business. The display of their World Beer Cup medals (including there 2012 World Beer Cup Silver medal for their Decadence 2010; in the old ale or strong ale category) is right up front. They should be proud of all their medals. This was my first time trying their beer even though some are available back home. Their Yule Summer on cask was a delight and their Double Coffee Speedway Stout was just ridiculous in the best of ways. They are also located in a business park and operate out of a very small facility but manage to spread beer across the US.
When I met Steve (BrewHop.com) at Ballast Point, he told me that Hess as a must see. I would have overlooked this place, literally, and I’m really glad that I didn’t. Hess is a nano brewery, and to say that is an understatement. If their was a new term for a smaller than nano brewery, Hess would be that. They operate out of a business park garage (like most of these breweries on the list) and do not make a bad beer. I had beers here that were their own unique style and completely new inventions in craft beer. For example, a style known as “San Diego Pale Ale”. Their Amplus Acerba beer clocked in at 11.6% and was a hop heads dream. Could not fathom I was having a Pale Ale which to me is…well…pale, but my palate was being rocked with hops. I then moved on to their Grazias Coffee Cream Ale. A what?? The best coffee beer I have had to date. Looks we’re deceiving as this beer was very light brown, almost dark orange, and the coffee flavor came through so well and refreshing that I could picture myself drinking it on a hot summer day, which you can’t say about any coffee beer. These guys will be big, out west to start, but I can see them blowing up and coming out East. If they don’t come out East I will make sure my friends bring me growlers.
Stone Brewing Co.
Guinness, Anheuser Bush and Tsingtao are at the top of my list of Brewery experiences. You can tour any brewery but if it leaves your jaw dropped for a time it’s an experience. Stone now joins the list. 35 min drive north to Escondido you will drive right by it, either because your GPS tells you to “Go Off Road” (true story) or because there is no sign outside. That’s the attitude of Stone. I took it as “if you found us you are smart and deserve to be part of something awesome”. Seemed like it’s plopped in the middle of nowhere, Stone brewery is the definition of beer garden. Right when you walk in you are at peace due to the lovely gardens, foot paths and fountains. They have a lot of beer on tap including many guest beers and guest bottles. The food is dynamite as well.
The tour is also great. It is your standard tour but it’s always good to see where the Stone IPA and Ruination are produced. As luck would have it CEO and co-founder Greg Koch showed u on our tour. He was giving a private tour to the Senior VP responsible for the conference I was attending. Both worlds collided and I loved it. He was nice enough to pose for a quick photo with Sean and I. If/when you find yourself out west, the drive to Stone is well worth the experience you will have. I almost feel more zen after visiting.
A great reference guide to have if you want to plan your next trip would be the San Diego’s Top Brewers book, which can be found on Amazon. This book was displayed at every brewery listed above.
Here are the rest of my photos taken in San Diego (below, or click this link to see them all). Til next time.