At the top of the list right now is O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego (4646 Convoy St., 858-715-1745). O’Brien’s has been featured in this space before, primarily because it is a wonderful locals spot. Although it is in the middle of what is called Korea Town, with Asian food vendors and car dealers rather than homes in the surrounding neighborhood, it’s a pub where regulars gather for lunch and after work. To keep their mug in the mug club, members must come in once a week.
Since Jim O’Brien opened the pub in 1994, it has evolved into a place to showcase local beers at a time that San Diego brewers were quietly changing the notion that southern California produced little interesting beer. O’Brien’s was the first account for almost every local micro, including Stone Brewing, AleSmith and Ballast Point.
It became a hangout for brewers, where the likes of Tom Nickel (Oggi’s Pizza and Brewing Co.) and Tomme Arthur (Pizza Port) would discuss the next event (the San Diego brewers put on a series throughout the year). By then, the tone of the beer lineup had shifted to decidedly more hoppy, with four Stone beers often on. The bar sold more Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale than any other in the country, going through 10 percent of the 2001 batch.
When O’Brien indicated last summer that he wanted to sell his place, it took Nickel and Chris Collins only days to negotiate the deal. They were already working on plans to open a bar in a different part of town.
“I was around the corner at UPS, and they had lost one of my packages. I was upset and in desperate need of a malt-based beverage,” Nickel said. “I wandered in, poured myself a beer and went into the kitchen to talk to Jim. He mentioned he was selling the place and we started talking about why, how much, what it was like running the place and it hit me—I am going to buy O’Brien’s. I called Chris as soon as I got home and told him.”
To celebrate the change at the beginning of January, O’Brien’s held a series of grand opening parties, one each night of the week and a private party on Saturday. Monday was non-IPA night and featured beers such as AleSmith Horny Devil, Maudite, Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre and Ballast Point’s Tongue Buckler. Tuesday was out-of-town IPAs; Wednesday, Double IPAs (11 of them, including a cask of Ruination from Stone). Thursday was local IPAs, and Friday, the 15 beers of Vinnie Cilurzo and Russian River.
While Collins upgrades on the food side, Nickel, known to craft brewers across the nation for his distinctive beard styling (though he was clean shaven to begin 2003) and permanent energy, has plenty of beer plans. O’Brien’s now regularly features cask-conditioned beer and will have a different beer theme each month as well as an “epic” event.
“The regulars were hesitant about the changeover but have since become our biggest cheerleaders. They love what we are doing and love that their beloved IPAs are staying put,” Nickel said. “I want O’Brien’s to be the place that people recommend when someone tells them they are visiting San Diego and want to try some good beer. I want to carry every local bottled beer, so that you could try them all in one stop.”
Nickel appreciates that he didn’t have to start from, literally, zero like Erenburg back in 1974.
“I am a serious beer geek who is blessed with an equally serious beer-drinking clientele,” he said. “Everything that I am doing would be pointless without the crowd Jim had built up to drink these fantastic beers.”