The Aleheads have visited Beervana (Portland, OR), the Napa of Beer (Fort Collins down through Denver, CO) and Beer City, USA (Asheville, NC). In between we’ve been to Chicago, Michigan, San Francisco, Boston, Philly, New York and countless other small towns and big cities. Yet, despite our love of the fermented arts, there was one glaring, massive hole in our beer travels.*
*Not including the one in our livers.
San Diego, California. America’s Finest City. Silicon Beach. The Whale’s Vagina. The city so nice, they named it after Dora’s annoying cousin. It’s known as many things, but one nickname is most relevant to Aleheads the world over: The Craft Beer Capital of America.
That may sound hyperbolic or over-reaching, but it’s the simple truth. Craft beer is as woven into the warp and woof of San Diego as it is in Portland or Asheville. This is despite the fact that San Diego’s home county is over 4 times larger than Portland’s and 12 times larger than Asheville’s. Take a county of over 3 million people, give them ready access to all of the best raw ingredients for craft beer, instill them with the inspiration and drive that makes California one of the leading innovative regions on Earth, add the nigh-perfect weather that draws tourists from around the world to visit local taprooms, and you have the epicenter of the modern American brewing movement.
Portland has more specialized variety, in my opinion. Hell, any town with a sours-only facility like Cascade is A-OK in my book. New England has the best hop-forward beer in the world right now (the epic Heady Topper). Asheville has embraced craft beer like no small town outside of Belgium. And Colorado’s front range features town after town of craft beer insanity. But in terms of sheer scope…in terms of the number of breweries, beers, beer tours, beer bars and everything craft beer-related, San Diego is in a class by itself.
There are over 120 breweries in San Diego County right now. If you expand the reach a bit to include nearby cities and towns just outside the county, you’re pushing 200. And we’re not talking about little, rinky-dink brewpubs dotting the landscape (though there are plenty of those). Those numbers include behemoths like Stone, Green Flash and Ballast Point. This is the city that invented the “West Coast IPA”…that dry, massively hopped, bitterly beautiful style that has won over Aleheads across the globe. Simply put, if you’re looking for a beer pilgrimage, San Diego should be #1 on your list with a bullet.
Doc and I decided to remedy the gargantuan omission in our lifelong beer travels and hit up the Capital of Craft Beer over the weekend. We spent three epic days seeing and drinking as much as time would allow. Normally, I would recommend at least two weeks for a true beer trip to San Diego, but Doc and I have jobs, children, and ever-patient wives, so three days was all we could spare. Nevertheless, thanks to our frighteningly anal-retentive planning skills, Pokemon-level obsession with beer, and amazingly tolerant bladders, we did yeoman’s work. Even the hard-to-impress Slouch Sixpack gave us kudos in the midst of his running, insanely jealous text-message commentary throughout the journey.*
*I have 162 text messages from Slouch since Thursday. He was like Harry Lime on this trip…the invisible Third Man.
All told, Doc and I hit up 1 beer bar, 3 taco shops, 2 In-’n’-Out Burgers, 1 beach, 1 Alehead’s house, 2 hotels, 1 Doner Kabob stand, 1 bottle shop, 1 tequila store…and 25 goddamn production breweries. We put 230 miles on our Toyota Yaris (the perfect car for a beer trip…you can park it sideways and you’ll never get pulled over since it can’t go faster than 65). Doc attempted to plug every beer he drank into Untappd, but there were so many rarities and one-offs that many were missing. Plus, he forgot to put in a bunch of them because, you know, alcohol. We hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 different beers consumed. Drink a different beer every Friday and Saturday night for a calendar year and you’ll still be well shy of what Doc and I knocked off in a long weekend.
This is obviously the kind of trip that non-Aleheads would bristle at. We went to one of the most beautiful cities on Earth and drove around industrial park after industrial park. We spent precious little time outdoors. We obsessively cranked through breweries and beers like it was a job instead of a vacation. Instead of casually sipping a tasty pint, we ordered four-ounce tasters like they were going out of style and never had the same beer twice. If that sounds like the worst trip ever to you, then you’re not an Alehead. For beer geeks like us, it was heaven.
*Tasters were almost all a buck or two each which made it a super-cheap way to sample everything. And many breweries had a deal like “4 Tasters for $5” which was always welcome. And, of course, if you were REALLY unsure about a beer, every bartender would give you an ounce to try before making your decision. I love breweries. I wish Whole Foods would give me a bite of all their prepared dishes before I picked which one to buy.
I should probably note that we selected breweries partly based on reputation, partly on recommendations, and partly on convenience. We looked for “clusters” of breweries that made travel easier and allowed us to hit a bunch at once. So for any native San Diegans that see a gem missing from our list, please understand that we couldn’t possibly hit every production brewery in the region in three days. Let us know which amazing ale factories we should check out the next time we’re in the area in the comments below (or we’ll just have our local man, The Czar, do the groundwork for us before we fly out again).
OK, you’re saying…I’ve read this far and you still haven’t told me about a single, solitary brewery. Why do you always do this, Barley? Why do you always blather for days before actually talking about something interesting? Because…I…umm…OK, good point. On to the beer.
Barrel Harbor: This was Doc’s least favorite stop. He described it as a dentist’s office with homebrewing equipment. I disagree strongly. The “vibe” wasn’t as cool as other places and admittedly the little foyer you walked into before entering the actual taproom did have a depressing, waiting room feel. But the brewery space itself was clean, well-appointed and welcoming. The tap-minder was friendly and accommodating, and the beer was well-executed and true-to-style. Their Fenris IPA was the highlight for me. A highly drinkable, dead-on West Coast IPA. Not a true stand-out compared to some other stops, but nice people and good beer is usually enough to win me over. Doc was just cranky from his 4am wake-up.
Aztec Brewing: Aztec has revived a defunct brewery name and their approach is to introduce traditional Mexican ingredients into American craft beer. They do so with varying success. Their Cinnamon Imperial Stout is rock-solid with plenty of spice coming through in a big, rich, chewy brew. Less impressive were the Chipotle IPA and Agave Wheat. The former had plenty of pepper coming through in the finish, but the smoky chipotle peppers seem to be the wrong choice to pair with a hop-forward brew.* The Agave Wheat was a fine-enough wheat beer, but if there was any agave sweetness in the sip, I didn’t get any. Still, great guys at Aztec who were incredibly passionate about their beer and the entire San Diego brewing scene. I probably got more recommendations of which other breweries to visit at Aztec than anywhere else.
*Ballast Point’s Habanero Sculpin is a MUCH better example of a spicy IPA with the Habanero opening up your tastebuds for Sculpin’s signature grapefruit finish.
Latitude 33: I hate to say any stop was my “least favorite” because I really liked every place I visited. But if I had to give that unfortunate title to a brewery, it would be Latitude 33. The guy behind the counter was as cool as could be and the beers I sampled were competent. But the atmosphere felt like a dirty garage with some fermenters tucked in the corner. The taproom felt tacked on and the place was just a bit desultory. That said, the Breakfast with Wilford Oatmeal Coffee Stout was a nice little beer and I can’t stress enough that the tap-minder was super-friendly. If you visit Latitude, I’m sure you’ll have a good conversation and a good beer…it was just lacking compared to its local competition. In San Diego, you need a strong point of differentiation to really stand out and I didn’t think Latitude necessarily had that. Hopefully I’m completely wrong and they’ll make it big. I swear that’s it for negative comments from me.
Iron Fist: Iron Fist brought it. Big, inviting space. Highly knowledgeable tap-minder…I actually returned for a second visit after Doc finally arrived and the bartender remembered exactly what I had ordered the first time despite my being a highly unmemorable human being. Iron Fist hits all styles well and steps outside the box beautifully. Their Roots of Wrath, brewed with root beer, was well-conceived and executed. Their Dr. Strangematter, a collaborative saison brewed with holy basil, honey and peppercorns was amazing. But, for my money, one of the finest beers I had throughout my San Diego adventure was their Drive By Fruiting. A version of their already excellent Nelson the Impaler Pale Ale, the Fruiting is filtered through a Randall (basically a tube filled with flavoring ingredients like whole hops or fruit that imparts additional fresh flavors to beer). In this case, the Randall was stuffed full of fresh lemons, limes, tangerines, oranges and red grapefruit. It tasted like a beer-flavored bowl of Trix. It was awesome.
Belching Beaver: When I sent a picture of the brewery logo to Slouch Sixpack, he noted that Mrs. Sixpack called the image “queeftastic”. Admittedly, Belching Beaver made my list of “Worst Brewery Names” awhile back, but as I noted in that article, a brewery’s name has no bearing on the beer. Sure, it might be a little embarrassing to order a “Belching Beaver Me So Honey” in a bar, but if it tastes good, who cares? In this case, Belching Beaver makes some killer beers. Their Peanut Butter Stout was a particular favorite of Doc’s and their salty, almost Gose-like Beaver’s Pickles was weirdly compelling. Plus, their tap-minder was one of the sweetest people we met on the trip. She apologized profusely for the nearly five-second wait it took for her to pour our beers. I mean…there was literally no delay. We ordered, she poured, then she apologized for the length of time it took her to pour.
Indian Joe’s: You want to talk about a surprising stop…Indian Joe’s blew us away. We knew nothing about the oddly named Joe’s. In fact, I thought the name was a tad racist so I was expecting the worst. And after walking past some cigar store Indians and some old-timey advertisements featuring stereotypical images on the walls, I was ready to walk out. That’s when we noticed that the brewery owner was, in fact, a Native American…and then the sunshiny tap-minder hit us with a smile and a hello and we were hooked. Indian Joe’s seemed to have about 40 beers on tap (crazy for the tiny size of the brewery) and they clearly specialized in “flavored” beers. They had excellent, thirst-quenching Mango, Apricot and Raspberry sours as well as Espresso, Coconut and Hazelnut Stouts. They weren’t necessarily complex or sophisticated beers. Just delicious, easy-drinking brews that fit the low-key, comfortable atmosphere. Plus, they have a food cart that comes around once a week making frybread. We weren’t there that day, but you can bet your ass that if we come back, we’ll time our visit better.
Stone: The big gun in San Diego (well, Escondido), Stone helped popularize the West Coast IPA and, depending on your point of view, might be the best marketers in the business not named Sam Adams. I’ll admit there was always a small part of me that found their vibe to be a touch pretentious…the kind of attitude that made people think of Aleheads as pompous twits (which, admittedly, some of us are). But the simple truth is that Stone has earned most of that arrogance. They make GREAT beer. They collaborate with their peers as much as anyone in the business. And a visit to their flagship in Escondido reveals a well-oiled machine that rivals any in the craft beer world. The brewery was absolutely pristine. It was so clean that it didn’t look like they even brewed beer there. And unlike some other big name brewhouses (ahem, Oskar Blues), Stone didn’t just have their everyday offerings on tap. They had a bunch of one-offs and collaborative brews that made a trip to the brewery worth the drive. Plus, they have one of the best brewery restaurants in the country (pulled wild boar sandwich for Doc…duck confit tacos for Brother Barley). Add on a gorgeous, zen garden area and friendly bartenders and you’ve got yourself a must-visit spot. Well done, Stone.
Booze Brothers: Sort of a Western ranch vibe. Antler tap-handles, six-shooters on their logo. We heard that Booze Brothers could be a scene late at night, but we get there early before the madding crowds. Really great, relaxed space with ping-pong tables, a separate, outdoor tap area, and some covered outdoor tables set into nooks. Looked like a popular local spot. The beer was well-made. Not terribly bold or out there, but there were no bad apples in the bunch and their Great Grandaddy Double IPA was a dangerously easy sipper.
Lost Abbey/Port: No surprise this was Doc’s favorite stop. He loves the big, bold flavors of Lost Abbey and Port Brewing (the two brands share the same facility). We cracked into a few offerings from each “side” (Lost Abbey brews traditional Belgian styles while Port handles the American duties). A little disappointed that there weren’t more one-offs and rarities on tap, but when you make beer as good as Lost Abbey, it doesn’t really matter. The Hop-15 and Serpent’s Stout were excellent as always and their easy-drinking Grommet and Carnevale were perfection. You can’t visit San Diego without making a stop at Lost Abbey.
Ballast Point: Home to the Sculpin, a beer considered by many to be the best IPA in the nation, Ballast Point also runs a homebrew shop and a distillery. They’re a beast at this point and they clearly know why they’re a household name as they offered three variations of their flagship beer at the brewery (including an absolutely amazing Habanero Sculpin…Doc’s favorite brew on the trip…and a transcendent Grapefruit Sculpin which accentuates the already pronounced citrus flavors in the classic version). Throw in a couple one-off beers and a nice outdoor patio and you’ve got a home run. Even if they offered only one beer, drinking a Sculpin straight from the source is on the bucket list for any true Alehead.
White Labs: Absolutely the coolest experience on our trip, White Labs isn’t technically a brewery. It’s a laboratory that is one of the biggest names in yeast production in the country. If you’re a homebrewer, you know the name well as they’ve probably provided at least some of the yeast you’ve used in your experiments. White Labs decided to open a small, on-site brewery where they showcase their wares…which means the yeast is the star of the show. They take a style of beer…say an IPA or a Stout, and then they ferment the same exact wort with four different strains of yeast to show off the flavor differences that yeast provides. So our flight of IPAs had two beers made with traditional West Coast yeast, one with a Belgian yeast strain, and one with a proprietary Vermont yeast.* The two West Coast IPAs were typically dry while the Belgian offering had the classic notes of banana and esters. The Vermont IPA was the most interesting as it still showcased the hops while being much fruitier and “juicier” than the first two. Doc and I absolutely loved this approach and wanted to try everything at White Labs, but we settled for a couple of flights and a taster of their “Frankenstout”…a Dry Stout brewed with 94 different yeast strains because why the hell not?
*The bartender told us that she couldn’t reveal which brewer used the Vermont yeast, but that it was a popular brewer who made a world-renowned IPA in the Green Mountain State. So yeah, it’s the yeast that John Kimmich uses in Heady Topper. She might as well have drawn us a map to Waterbury, Vermont.
AleSmith: My mecca…AleSmith is my favorite brewery in the country and the taproom did not disappoint. I went there for a barrel-aged Speedway Stout and damned if it wasn’t absolutely delicious. Their Olde Ale was more or less perfect and their nitro Pale Ale (the .394…named for recently departed local legend Tony Gwynn’s highest batting average) was outstanding. They can do no wrong in my book and if I could have visited only one brewery in San Diego, this would have been it. Start distributing in Alabama, AleSmith. Please!
Pacific: Recommended to us by the remarkably helpful White Labs bartender, Pacific is a teeny, tiny operation just up the street from AleSmith. Brewing on what looks like homebrewing gear, Pacific was a welcoming, chill little place with a friendly bartender, excellent, hop-forward beers, and no pretensions at all. Granted, going from AleSmith to Pacific was a little jarring (other than an AleSmith bartender on his lunch break, we were the only visitors), but it was a great respite for Doc and I after hitting some much larger operations earlier in the day.
Alpine: After about 24 hours of drinking, Doc wanted a little break from beer so we decided to make the 30-minute trek out to Alpine, CA to visit Alpine brewing…home of Pure Hoppiness…a nigh-perfect IPA. We had our trip’s one moment of disappointment upon arriving there as we found out that we had missed a keg of the Exponential Hoppiness, their souped up Imperial version of the Pure, by about 30 minutes. We got over our loss by killing some of that dank, sticky Pure along with a few other beautiful brews. Plus, we ate some barbecue for good measure. After finishing lunch, Doc picked up some Pure Hoppiness to bring home since that beer was more or less designed for his tastebuds.
Twisted Manzanita: Since we were already driving back from Alpine, we swung by a funky little outfit in Santee called Twisted Manzanita (formerly just Manzanita Brewing, they added the “Twisted” to their name so they wouldn’t tread on the toes of a similarly named winery). They had a stellar Imperial Stout and Imperial Red, plus a smoky Rauchbier that Doc loved. My favorite was their Gose…a style I’ve fallen in love with of late but which is still a bit hard to find (off topic, but kudos to Westbrook and Boulevard for cranking out sixpacks of that almost-forgotten style). Twisted Manzanita also just opened a distillery next door and I sampled a few of their moonshine-like whiskey offerings. Not bad at all…a few more months in a charred oak barrel and I think they’d have a winner.
Intergalactic: Another recommendation from our helpful White Labs bartender, Intergalactic made Pacific Brewing look like a sizable operation. The brewery itself could have doubled as a mop closet and the long, narrow taproom felt packed with just about 20 people in it. Despite the close quarters, it was well worth a visit thanks to their excellent interpretations of classic styles. Their Wormhole Wit, The Companion (a Doctor Who-referencing Pale Ale brewed with lavender, honey and peaches), and their Space Oasis Coconut Porter were all easy drinkers. I love small places that do everything right…and their goofy, sci-fi theming was just the icing on the cake.
Green Flash: Green Flash is a freaking machine. From the outside, it looks like an evil, corporate headquarters, but on the inside it’s a warehouse catering to hardcore Aleheads and beer newbies alike. Featuring a wide swath of easy drinking session brews and tongue-torturing hop-bombs, there’s something for everyone at Green Flash. The cavernous interior space and huge patio could have contained about 100 Intergalactic Breweries, but there’s a reason for their success. The make best-in-class brews like the Green Bullet, Hop Head Red and Palate Wrecker (a beer that The Czar says makes all other beers taste like water). They didn’t offer too many one-offs which was mildly disappointing, but making a trip to San Diego without stopping by the Flash was inconceivable.
Pizza Port: Speaking of must-visit locales, Pizza Port is a brewpub chain that spun off the Port Brewing/Lost Abbey brewery some years back. Their food is mediocre at best (Doc and I still ate there just to spite The Czar who told us not to), but their beer is anything but. Their eclectic, funky decor matches their ramshackle list of self-produced beers along with a sizable list of guest taps. How this place maintains any quality control with fermenters sunk below the frat-like restaurant floor is anyone’s guess, but their beer is awesome and if you don’t visit a Pizza Port location on a San Diego trip, you’re doing it wrong. I could have spent 6 hours here if it hadn’t been our last stop of the evening. Doc and I looked roadkill at that point.
Culture: We almost skipped Culture since we were ready to duck out of Solana Beach on Saturday morning and start trekking to downtown San Diego. But, on a whim, we wandered the cliff-side beaches in town in the morning, tucked into some killer fish tacos for lunch, and then strolled into Culture the moment they opened their doors. And man, were we glad we did. Two remarkably attractive female tap-minders (including one stomping around in galoshes and slamming down nitro tanks like a pro wrestler) walked us through their offerings which ranged from the subtle to the sublime. Their Sour Cherry was excellent, their session-strength, just-tapped Amarillo Session IPA was superb, and their Chai Tea and Coconut infused Nitro Brown Ale was, along with Iron Fist’s Drive By Fruiting and Thorn Streets Nitro Santos Coffee Stout, one of my three favorite brews on the trip. Perfect beer, plus a gorgeous, open-air, super-modern taproom made for a worthy stop in Solana Beach.
Societe: Another great, little brewery with an awesome vibe. Societe has kind of a Victorian/Steampunk thing going which was very, very cool. Silhouetted portraits on the wall and various, Victorian-era gewgaws everywhere make Societe look like the brewery that Mumford & Sons would own. Their Belgian offerings were suitably strong and funky and their Apprentice and Pupil IPAs were solid West Coast hop-forward brews. A popular local stop recommended to us by many, Societe seems like the kind of place that would become a regular haunt if Wifey ever let me move to San Diego (which would never happen because I would spend every waking moment at a brewery if I lived there).
Mike Hess: Hess Brewing was a touch pretentious and far pricier than the other breweries we visited, but they had an absolutely gorgeous facility with fermenters sunk a half-floor down right when you walk in. The staff was very friendly and the beer was top-rate with their Fresh Hop IPA and Ficus Dark Fig Saison taking top honors from Doc and I. Their t-shirts had a bit of an “Affliction” vibe going on so we wisely steered clear of picking up any Hess gear. But again, great beer, and that’s what matters.
Toronado: The only true alehouse we visited, Toronado is the granddaddy of beer bars in San Diego. Featuring an outrageous bottle list and an incredibly well-curated list of draft offerings, Toronado was one of the few places Doc and I sat down in for a proper pint. I must admit, it was nice just relaxing for a moment and not scrambling to see how many different beers we could cram in our gullets in 30 minutes. I eased down with a Bruery Autumn Maple while Doc quaffed a straight-up Sculpin. He’s a man of simple tastes.
Thorn Street: We walked in just as business was about to pick up thanks to a local runner’s group that finished up a route not long after we entered. Fortunately, we had a few minutes to chat up the bartender before the place filled up so she patiently steered us through Thorn Street’s offerings. Their Relay IPA and Menace Imperial IPA were top-notch, but the true standout for both Doc and I was the Nitro Santos Coffee Stout. One of the best “dessert” beers I’ve ever had, it was an easy-drinking, smooth as silk cup of mocha beer that I could have slammed down in one gulp and begged for more. I exclaimed “wow” upon sipping it which is about as demonstrative as I get (I’m generally a stone-faced robot). Long after our trip has faded into the annals of time, I’ll remember that first sip of Santos.
Modern Times: Slouch Sixpack would have disowned us if we skipped Modern Times which brews a Nugget Nectar clone called Blazing World that is as advertised. Modern Times had far and away the coolest atmosphere of any brewery we visited. Towering walls featured incredible mosaic murals…one made up entirely of Post-It notes, the other of comic book covers. The bar was made from stacked books and served cold press coffee was well as killer beer (tasters came in cigar boxes because, sure, why not). The Blazing World was the star of the show, but the Nitro Black House, Fortunate Islands, and Funky Lomaland were not without their charms. An awesome place to visit as long as you can handle the over-the-top, twee, hipster vibe. I’m pretty sure I saw Wes Anderson sitting at the bar…symmetrically framed between two tap handles.
Monkey Paw: A downtown brewpub not far from Petco Park, Monkey Paw was one of the last stops on our trip. We settled in for pints here as the place was mobbed and we were lucky just to find two bar stools. We killed some beautiful IPAs (the Bonobos for Doc and Cellar Monkey w/Passionfruit for me) and watched the Padres hold on in a squeaker against the Giants. Doc and I are Red Sox fans, so watching a team win this year was novel for us (not that we’re complaining after last year’s miracle). Wish we had gotten to Monkey Paw a little earlier when it wasn’t such a frantic scene, but the beer was good and the bartenders were cool.
Mission: Mission Brewery, located in an old Wonder Bread factory next to Petco Park, is a stalwart in the San Diego brewing scene. We tucked into their Tominator Dopplebock and their Plunder IPA as well as a few of their standard offerings. So close to the park, we expected a more vibrant scene, but the crowd was surprisingly sparse. Petco was hosting a post-game concert that night which might have drawn crowds away from the nearby brewery, but we were still a little surprised. A well-regarded brewery anywhere near Fenway Park on a Saturday night would have been an absolute shitshow whereas Mission only had about a dozen people roaming its spacious interior. Still, it was a nice last stop on the trip. We enjoyed our tasters and loved that to use the restroom you basically walked unescorted through the entire brewery. I kind of wanted to drive a forklift around since no one was watching, but I had been drinking and I’ve been told you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery in those conditions. After our mission to Mission, we wandered back to the hotel with the requisite Doner Kabob stop on the way. We then passed out peacefully and dreamed of the myriad breweries we had visited over the past 72 hours.*
*While waking up about a dozen times each to piss because goddamn we drank a lot of fucking beer.
It was a glorious, epic, exhausting and exhilarating trip filled to the brim with fermented magic. Is San Diego truly the Capital of Craft Beer? Yeah, I’d damn well say so.