It’s no Comic-Con, which draws to San Diego some 125,000 fans of comic books and pop-culture, but the much tinier yet much more fermented Beer-Con created by Michael Bowen returns in August just a month after its Comic-cousin. Participate in both and there are way worse places to hang out in between, and few that have developed as worthy of a beer culture. Make a pilgrimage to this perennially warm, sun-drenched/ocean-misted mecca and maybe even take in the koalas at the world-famous zoo and the killer whales at Sea World.
There are almost 50 brewing companies that are members of the San Diego Brewers Guild, which includes those from the entirety of San Diego County. What visitors discover is that many of the ones they’re eager to visit, such as Stone and the Lost Abbey, are in North County, meaning over 30 miles and potentially over an hour away, given freeway gridlock. Really, San Diego deserves to be two separate beercations (and even then expect only to scratch the surface). Having said that, the first brewery that Bowen says is a must for pilgrims is Alpine Brewing (2363 Alpine Blvd.; AlpineBeerCo.com). “It’s a trek, but they make some of the best IPAs in town,” says Bowen. The mountain town of Alpine is some 30 miles from downtown, but a visit is the best way to enjoy the brewery’s range of beers, including said legendary IPAs such as Duet or, if you’re lucky, Exponential Hoppiness, along with some great barbecue.
Bowen’s next recommendation is my personal first, Ballast Point Brewing (5401 Linda Vista Road, Suite 406; BallastPoint.com) developing a reputation beyond the area. Hit the original location in Moreno Valley that sprang to life as the Home Brew Mart, which still serves area homebrewers. Sculpin has become duly legendary as a tropical and citrus-packed West Coast IPA, but Ballast Point’s dark beers such as the vanilla- and coffee-infused Victory at Sea imperial porter show off their range and are generally among the 15 or so beers on tap.
Having said that, if you go up to the Ballast Point production facility 15 miles north in Scripps Ranch (10051 Old Grove Road), then it behooves you to also head westward to Peter Zien’s AleSmith (9368 Cabot Drive; AleSmith.com) in Miramar for more solid and wide-ranging beers such as AleSmith IPA, the classic Speedway Stout and the summer release of YuleSmith DIPA.
Next, amble over to Hess Brewing (7955 Silverton Ave.; HessBrewing.com), which launched as San Diego’s first nanobrewery, producing one-and-a-half barrels at a time, though it’s in the process of moving closer to downtown in North Park and expanding twenty-fold into a 30-barrel brewery. From there, head a little farther west and you’ve made it to Green Flash Brewing (6550 Mira Mesa Blvd.; GreenFlashBrew.com), which moved to this swanky new site in 2011. It offers a sweet beer garden in which to wreck your palate with the brewers’ hop bombs (such as Palate Wrecker Imperial IPA) and enjoy some grub from food carts that gather on weekends.
But this is San Diego, so by all means hit the beach. Fortunately, the estimable chain of Pizza Port (1956 Bacon St.; PizzaPort.com) brewpubs opened a fifth location in Ocean Beach, where brewer Yiga Miyashiro has conjured up countless IPAs as well as a tasty coffee porter called Bacon and Eggs. With around 40 taps, some serving guest beers, finding one to pair with your favorite pizza could require several samples.
And to squeeze in one more brewery, Bowen suggests visiting Mission Brewing (1441 L St.; MissionBrewery.com). The brewery and tasting room are in the heart of the city near Petco Park and the nightlife hot spot of the Gaslamp Quarter. In addition to finding boisterous West Coast-style IPAs, Mission offers El Conquistador Extra Pale Ale at session-strength 4.8 percent ABV, should you desire more than a couple of pints.
If all this brewery hopping is too much, San Diego’s blessed with many stellar beer bars. Bowen points out that the trifecta is situated close enough for an enviable pub crawl, beginning with Blind Lady Ale House (3416 Adams Ave.; BlindLadyAlehouse.com) with 26 rotating taps, then onto the same owners’ Tiger! Tiger! Tavern (3025 El Cajon Blvd.; TigerTigerTavern.com), sporting two dozen taps, and culminating at the SoCal outpost of the Toronado (4026 30th St.; ToronadoSD.com), which wields a whopping 56 draft beers, not to mention a cask engine.
Expand it into a quadfecta and continue from the Toronado in North Park down to Hamilton’s (1521 30th St.; HamiltonsTavern.com), also on 30th Street, in South Park. The sheer number of San Diego-area breweries available at these places from the likes of Tusk & Grain Brewing and Automatic Brewing is thoroughly mesmerizing. Perhaps that is why, when asked for a recommendation of where to find a plateful of composure the next morning, Bowen offered Hodad’s (Hodadies.com) with two locations. but his is downtown (945 Broadway), where his cure is the “great, greasy burger … I don’t wake up until lunchtime.”
Having said that, considering the proximity to Mexico, head a little farther south to Chula Vista and feast at Aquí Es Texcoco (1043 Broadway, Chula Vista, AquiEsTexcoco.com), just 6 miles from the border. Everything is made en casa, and the specialty is barbecued lamb, though for adventurous smart food, try the grilled brain tacos.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.