At the risk of stating the obvious: three days to fully explore and appreciate the craft beer scene of an unfamiliar city – a city with over seventy breweries – is not nearly enough time. Not even enough time to get through all of the breweries on my humble must-see list. The unfortunate (or not so unfortunate, perhaps) truth is that I will need to go back to San Diego again.
Before my trip, a brewer friend opined that, while there are many excellent breweries in San Diego, the craft beer scene there isn't quite as fully integrated into mainstream culture as it is in Portland. One implication of this is that any given bar or restaurant in San Diego may not be expected to have an excellent craft beer list. However, after searching my neighborhood of Northeast Portland on Halloween night – fairly unsuccessfully – for a decent beer from a bar that cleans their lines, maybe Portland isn't all it's cracked up to be anyway. And as it turns out, I had no problem finding great beer in San Diego – and great seafood too – even at an empty, meat-head dive which was just about the only place serving food in Ocean Beach at 12:30a.m.
There is another interesting implication of the craft beer scene in San Diego falling short of saturating mainstream culture – one that I didn't consider until I visited. In Portland, for instance, if I tell someone I'm a beer writer who plans to open a brewpub next year, I'd be lucky to get a grunt of acknowledgment which, translated, means: Who the hell isn't? In Portland, the craft beer scene seems diluted by weekend warriors and the craft-curious, those thinking they can make a quick buck off the boom or attain the near rock-star status that great Oregon brewers have claimed in recent years. There is a lot of excitement about craft beer in Portland – no doubt about it – but I could also see how some have become jaded. Based on my (admittedly) limited experience, this doesn't appear to be the case in San Diego.
This may explain the extraordinary time I had talking with other craft beer lovers on my trip. People seemed genuinely excited to meet someone coming from Portland to check out the craft beer scene in San Diego. They were enthusiastic to talk beer, send tasters my way, and to share their favorite beers. People were interested in sharing connections too, which made it an excellent place to network with other people willing to talk beer for hours – my secret agenda wherever I go. One great example: chatting with a patron at the bar of Monkey Paw Brewing. Upon hearing I was headed to Ballast Point to meet a friend afterward, this guy immediately contacted his friend who was working at Ballast that night – which ended in our getting a personal tour of the lovely Ballast Point brewing system and getting an excellent deal – the best kind of deal, really – on some truly stellar beer.
I don't know if my impression is true – if people are actually more excited about craft beer in San Diego, perhaps because the amazing growth of the craft beer scene there is fairly new and hasn't saturated the mainstream yet. Perhaps my own excitement to visit this unknown city full of great craft beer was simply infectious. Or maybe it's just that it's so goddamn sunny there all the time (insert bitter sarcasm). Either way, I'm going back.
170 Orange Avenue, Coronado
I had a pretty delicious Rye IPA here, very well-balanced, nice earthy, spicy rye flavor without a lot of bitterness. I was going on about two hours of sleep at this point, so any lack of enthusiasm that I felt for this place had nothing to do with the beer. I thought it was a promising sample and I'd like to try the brewery's tasting room the next time I'm in town (1205 Knoxville St, San Diego). The food was nothing to write home about, and although I'm probably the only person in the world who has a pet peeve about this, I thought the portions were too damn big.
1956 Bacon Street
Less than half a mile from where I stayed (conveniently) and, apparently, their newest location. The ambiance leaves something to be desired for sure – loud and bright with a family-style pizza place/cafeteria atmosphere – but the beer was very impressive. I tried a few of the fresh-hop IPAs on tap which were all fresh, juicy, well-balanced, floral and citrus, and none with too strong of a malt backbone or the blow-your-face-off bitterness.
The Sinister Imperial Oatmeal Stout was also amazing - everything one could want in an imperial stout: rich, creamy mouthfeel, a lot of complex flavor, excellent balance, chocolate, coffee and a good dose of licorice, but at 11%, I don't recommend drinking it before noon, because you may end up passing out by 3pm and waking up six hours later...not that I would know anything about that.
I'd be interested in trying some of their other locations next time to see if there's one with slightly better ambiance.
805 16th Street
This one goes on my list of favorites. It is likely because it kind of reminded me of Portland and some of the bars I used to frequent there. There was a dark, divey punk-rock feel to it, a slightly rough around the edges, aged honesty – totally unlike any of the other breweries in San Diego I visited, which were often new and sterile with ambiance ranging from brightly-lit family restaurant to contrived suburban event space. But unlike the some of the divey punk bar I'm used to in Portland: they had a huge selection of great beers, clean lines, and the patrons sitting at the bar are there for the love of craft beer and are willing to strike up a conversation about it.
I can't say much for their beer, honestly, because I only tried their Mole Porter. I'm a sucker for the flavor of Mexican chocolate, although maybe I wasn't in the mood for it that night after all. It was on the sweet side, but no more than is to be expected from a spiced porter (very dry compared to the New Belgium Coco Mole, for instance), and with a just the right amount of spice. Also tried a Societe IPA, which was pretty good but didn't really knock my socks off. Monkey Paw has thirty taps – their own beer as well as some of the best local guest breweries, and some great bottles from all over the world. Definitely check it out when you get tired of the sterile, brightly-lit places around town.
2215 India Street
Once again, ambiance leaves something to be desired: big, loud, crowded and cafeteria-like. But the beer is worth it. The personal tour of their beautiful, immaculate brewery, and an excellent deal on some great beer may have swayed me in favor of Ballast Point, granted. But bias aside, these guys have a lot of delicious and really highly-rated beers, and to give you an idea of their creative, style-bending brewing, they brew a version of their Black Marlin porter with chipotle, cocoa nibs, and orange peel and they do a foreign export stout called Indra Kunindra which is brewed with Madras Curry, Cumin, Cayenne, Coconut, and Kaffir Lime Leaf. One beer I tried was a blend of beers aged in several different barrels, red wine and bourbon to name two - I sure as hell wish I could remember what it was (bad journalist!), but it was pretty damn special.
Go there, check out the two other locations – they may have some better ambiance. Regardless, their beer is delicious. Good people work there and if they know you're a craft beer advocate, they'll treat you right. Much thanks to Johnny for hooking us up!
1157 Columbia Street
I'd been looking forward to this for a while because I know Karl Strauss has taken home some medals and they don't distribute outside of California. The beer was pretty good, solid, but I'd be interested in trying more of their one-offs to get a better sense of the potential there. Maybe my expectations were too high but I wasn't blown away by what I tried. On the other hand, the food was excellent and fresh – with great presentation – and the beertender (he'd been working there for nine years, so the place must be alright) made it a great experience. He was super friendly and once I told him I was in the industry, kept shoving tasters at me, which one certainly can't complain about.
Baja California, Mexico
on tap at The Blind Burro (downtown)
God bless him, Mario Garcia from Baja-based Cucapa Brewing was kind enough to meet me in San Diego so I could interview him about the craft brewing scene in Mexico (article soon to be published). I had a chance to try one of Cucapa's beers, Chupacabras, which had a strong malt profile for a pale ale, and a bit of off-flavor...no way to be sure if it was the brewing method or the lines at the restaurant, or if this is at all representative of their beer in general.
Regardless, I really want to see Cucapa succeed because the craft beer scene in Mexico is facing an uphill battle to say the least. I'll be keeping an eye on them and their progress in San Diego and you should too – these are good people with an honest love of craft beer and are, necessarily, revolutionaries – true to the personality of craft – to go up against the giants who have dominated the beer scene in Mexico with mafia-like tactics for decades. A future Cucapa brewery located in San Diego may be coming and, if this is the case, I predict we may see an increase in quality with less restricted access to supplies to make great craft beer. This is one of the many hurdles Mexican craft brewers face today.
2816 Historic Decatur Rd
We all know Stone Brewing: need I say more? Yes, I do.
I found the location very disconcerting...picture winding roads through a golf course ending in a suburban parking lot. My thought, of course, was, “Am I in the right place?” Stone Brewing? The one with those gothic, wanna-be badass-rock-star labels? The home of Arrogant Bastard is a country club golf course? Proceed through a long, outdoor corridor with tall old European-style arches that lead to a grand space reminiscent more of a cathedral or a museum than a dining room, then out into a garden – all modern with strategically-placed rock fountains that scream contrived suburban paradise. I wanted to be back at Monkey Paw. But it's Stone – arguably one of the best, if not the best, brewery in San Diego – so I trudge on.
Admittedly disturbed as I was by the setting, the beer and food more than made up for it. I had a Belgian-style IPA which far surpassed any Belgian IPA I've ever had. The hops were fragrant, floral and fresh. Fresh: like sucking on the cone fresh. The Belgian malt and yeast characteristics were excellent and true to character, but somehow very well integrated with the extraordinary and clearly American hop profile. They have a great bottle list as well and I finally tried a Stillwater Artisanal Ales Cellar Door, which was good, but compared to the Stone Belgian-style IPA - paled in comparison (especially considering Stillwater's high prices). Also had the muscles and the ceviche...really beautiful, fresh, delicious. If you can handle the weird atmosphere (and after a few beers, it doesn't matter much I suppose), it's worth the beer and food. Do it. You know you want to.
1795 Hancock St
This is a new tasting room which opened up only a couple of months ago, but I'm glad I came across it – thanks to a recommendation from a friend. One of the few places where the ambiance didn't suck. Very strange that you can pretty much see right through the bathroom door, but other than that, a pretty comfortable place.
They had several beers on cask and the bartender actually asked if I preferred it at room temperature or cold...that guy was great. They don't serve food, but there are food carts outside the door. I had some way-too-salty barbeque which none-the-less hit the spot. I spent far too much time there, in between checking out of the little shack I was renting and the time I had to be at the airport – so much time that someone called me out for sitting there all day. Oh, but don't get me wrong, I wasn't just loitering...I drank copious amounts of good beer while I was there. (And for the record, if this guy hadn't have been there all day, too, he would never have known).
Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment is located in the old Mission Brewing building – which was, apparently, the first brewery in San Diego – according to the bartender. Mission Brewing shut down during prohibition and never reopened. Since then, Acoustic Ales has opened up in the old space and a new Mission Brewing has opened up downtown, which, according to the bartender at Acoustic, shares no affiliation with the old Mission brewing (though not necessarily according to the new Mission Brewing website).
The Lost Abbey (San Marcos) 96
Mike Hess Brewing (Miramar) 95
Alesmith Brewing Co. 94
Green Flash 94
Rip Current Brewing 94
Societe Brewing Co. 94
Blind Lady Alehouse and Automatic Brewing Co. 92
The Beer Company 88
Coronado Brewing Co. (Tasting Room) 88
And still more San Diego Breweries:
Alpine Beer Co. (Alpine)
Amplified Ale Works
The Belching Beaver (does this name make you want to visit?)
Benchmark Brewing Co.
Latitude 33° Brewing Co. (Vista)
Modern Times Beer
New English Brewing Co.
Offbeat Brewing Co.
Port Brewing Co. (San Marcos)
Rough Draft Brewing
Saint Archer Brewing Co.
San Diego Brewing Co.
San Marcos Brewery and Grill
Stumblefoot Brewing (San Marcos)
Toronado San Diego
Wet and Reckless Brewing
#craftbeer #beer #sandiegocraftbeer