The old man - white hair, white beard, XXL brewery t-shirt - stood surveying his three sample glasses, each filled with a different level of darkness. It took just an offhanded comment from my wife, Kerrie, and he was deep in conversation, telling us the full story of his craft brew life - his favorite breweries, his wife’s aversion to beer, his likes and dislikes. He was a mix of our own fathers, clearly - portly and jolly, kind and interested - and we saw it as a sign: this was the first brewery we would visit today, and we already felt at home.
Welcome to the world of San Diego’s craft beer scene.
San Diego, by nature of its weather (both beautiful and envious), its culture (laid back; the anti-Los Angeles) and its accessibility to people who love to be something outside of the norm, has quickly become the craft beer capital of the United States, featuring no fewer than 50 breweries within the limits of San Diego county. Our goal: visit six of the most renowned over a two day period. Our final tally: over 32 different beers tasted, four glasses purchased, two tasting glasses given to us for free, one taster glass stolen, and one growler - er, GRUMBLER - filled.
Brewing laws in San Diego allow breweries to open a small tasting room with limited offers to sell samples, pints or growlers of their own beer. This is notable because, for the most part, many smaller breweries depend on tasting rooms and local restaurant distribution for the bulk of their sales.
The laws aren’t without their peculiarities, however. Chairs are a no-no (they suggest more than a tasting, apparently) and a special permit must be attained to bring them in. Private parties are also not allowed, as a brewery license still requires the speakeasy-busting practice of outlawing any non-public consumption of alcohol. At one brewery we visited, the tasting room jockey mentioned that even their private employee Christmas party was, under the word of the law, illegal.
With this, it’s no surprise that some breweries - Lost Abbey/Port Brewing in San Marcos, for example - operated their tasting rooms as extensions of their brewery garage, opening up the big door and turning on a large fan to help escape what little humidity might filter in.
Lost Abbey, who you might recognize as a collaborator on New Belgium’s Heavenly Feijoa, specializes in Belgian-style deliciousness, while their sister company Port Brewing focuses on west coast American standards. The two tasting menus split the styles down the middle: to the left, you’ve got Lost Abbey’s quads, Belgian strong ales and dubbels; to the right, Port Brewing gives you IPAs and lagers. I loved nearly everything Lost Abbey gave me (especially the Lost and Found Abbey Ale and 10 Commandments Belgian Strong) and was less enthusiastic with the Port Brewing side of things.
It’s rare to find a brewery in the San Diego area that’s not located in an industrial park or commercial office strip mall, so it was fun to go up the road to Escondido’s Stone Brewing, the eighth largest craft brewer in the United States and the largest in San Diego. Stone has taken the “brewery as destination” concept to its furthest, with a full restaurant, gift shop, tasting room and constant brewery tour within its decidedly non-industrial building. They’re not done, either - plans are in the works for a Stone Brewery hotel with a tap handle in each room.
Stone is an institution in southern California, and their brewery tour (focused on newbies who still need help determining the difference between malts and hops) and their well-oiled machine of a gift shop and restaurant hint at a certain corporate-ness underneath their gargoyle-inspired design and attitude. Stone focuses on big beers with a lot of hops, and few of their beers are light enough to enjoy more than once, though the Cali-Belgique (a wonderful belgian-style IPA) was not just my favorite at the brewery but one of my favorites all week long.
An unexpected point down the road by our Stone bartender told us about Offbeat Brewing, a very small establishment in Escondido opened by two former Stone employees. We arrived on a Friday night, party in full swing. They had chairs. (Chairs!) They had just three beers on tap. (My favorite was the Caticorn IPA, though the Bear Arms Brown Ale cask with cherries was pretty great, too.) They had amazing spicy sushi from The Sushi Bus. They were fun - a real family affair - and they accepted two dorks from South Dakota with open arms, despite their insistance that we were hikers who had wandered in by mistake.
We left full and happy, ready for day two.
The weirdness of the industrial park brewery can’t be overstated. Imagine you’re looking for a brewery - AleSmith Brewing, for example - and you keep turning down roads called “Innovation Lane” or “Commercial Avenue” and you assume you’re getting more and more lost with each business sign. There’s a carpet warehouse. There’s a screen door company. There’s a … brewery?
At AleSmith, we encountered our first beer tour bus. Because of the large number of breweries in a small area, several companies have taken on the unenviable task of carting large numbers of binge drinkers around to each of the breweries, only (I imagine) to deposit them back at their cars to dry off for a bit. These tours are loud and obnoxious to anyone who’s not on the tour, but I’m sure they’re pretty fun if you’re into loud noises and dudes with ball caps slamming beers before nearly missing their bus.
AleSmith - one of the oldest of San Diego’s breweries - showed what could be done with a tasting room. In stark contrast to the loose California feel of Lost Abbey, AleSmith’s tasting room was sleek and refined. Even their tap board was clean and precise.
Their beers matched this level of detail, as well, serving some of the best beers we had all week. I’m typically uninpressed by ESBs, but AleSmith’s Anvil ESB Ale was delicious - delicious enough that we decided to fill our commemorative grumbler (a 32 oz. growler that Kerrie found adorable) despite the chance that it would warm before we could drink it.
Down the road, we wandered into Societe Brewing (another suggestion from yesterday’s Stone bartender). Societe (Chalice glasses above), highly regarded as one of the best new breweries in the area, was opened just 18 months ago by two former Russian River brewers. Our bartender jokingly referred to employees within San Diego’s brewing industry as a bunch of hoppers, with everyone moving between breweries to create a very tight, very friendly and very competent batch of breweries.
(He also didn’t say “hoppers.” He used much stronger language. We got the point.)
We missed the tour, but could see the entire brewery from our seat at the bar. In one room, barrels upon barrels of an upcoming sour beer taunted us, unaccessible and unfinished, this batch of beer signified the risk a small brewery takes when opening: a lot of work and money went into those barrels, and we still don’t know if it’s going to be any good. We can’t complain about missing out - the brewers themselves haven’t been able to taste the finished product yet. We “settled” instead for their wonderful Belgian strong ale, The Madam.
One last brewery (and one last industrial park) before we headed into San Diego proper brought us to Ballast Point, one of the region’s most popular craft beers and one of the most adventurous. By this point, we had burned out our tongues on barleywines and imperial stouts and double IPAs and, seriously, we were ready to call it a day.
Still, Ballast Point delivered with some of the beers we tasted: their Sextant oatmeal stout was smooth and rich and delicious, and Indra Kunindra - a foreign stout brewed with cumin, curry and other Indian spices - was amazing. Not my favorite beer, but one of them, and certainly something I’d remember for a long time.
The tasting room, which looks more like a bar (despite having no chairs) was filled with early St. Patrick’s Day revelers, creating a frat party atmosphere that we couldn’t handle. Given their selections - beers with hot chiles, beers called “B00b Check,” the only green beers we saw all week - they gladly appeal to that audience, to the point that we had a hard time holding on to our enthusiasm.
It was with this we realized our place in southern California - somewhere in between the Lost Abbey crew and the refinement of AleSmith, where beers can be nearly perfect and the people can be completely wonderful. We visited a lot of breweries, restaurants, bars and hotels over our week in San Diego, and each stop showed a new facet to the San Diego beer scene.
You can be a loud frat kid in San Diego. You can go for bold and loud in San Diego. You can lay back and be cool in San Diego. Or, like our friends at Offbeat Brewing, you can just do what you love and invite all of your friends along for the ride in San Diego. With an ecosystem as complex as this, it’s no wonder there’s so much beer to go around.