With nearly 365 days of sunshine and more than 140 brew houses—and even more brewery-owned restaurants and tasting rooms—there is no locale more attractive or more daunting to tackle than San Diego. Recognized by many as the craft-beer capital of the U.S., the county—one of the nation’s most expansive—has so much to offer that not missing out on some of its best beers can be challenging. But narrowing one’s itinerary to breweries helps, as does tackling one region at a time.
One can go from tarmac to taps care of Stone Brewing’s bar in Terminal 2 at Lindbergh Field or opt for the company’s nearby restaurant (the largest in San Diego), Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens—Liberty Station (2816 Historic Decatur Road). Constructed in a former Navy mess hall, it includes an outdoor garden and bar, bocce ball courts and a brewhouse pumping out Stone’s most diverse, innovative creations. Or take a short trip north to Modern Times Beer’s (3725 Greenwood St.) whimsically decorated headquarters where you can sample IPAs and sours or caffeinated quaffs steeped with beans from an on-site coffee roaster, providing fuel for the touring ahead.
A variety of options awaits downtown. Civic Center-adjacent Resident Brewing, the haze- and hop-heavy fermentation operation built into popular eatery The Local (1065 4th Ave.) is fun and tasty. Its ales are also on-tap at the San Diego Padres’ home field, Petco Park, with beers from other local breweries. Pre-gaming is recommended at East Village standouts Half Door Brewing (903 Island Ave.), a brewpub installed in a refurbished, two-story house where Irish and English ales share tap space with hazy New World pales and IPAs a block from the ballpark, and Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery (805 16th St.), where the citrusy Bonobos sets the standard for “San Diego-style pale ales” (a term for the region’s extra-dry IPAs). The latter’s sister brewpub, South Park Brewing (1517 30th St.) has also garnered accolades for a broad array of beers served with a fun seafood menu.
Not far from downtown is San Diego’s reigning “it” neighborhood, North Park. A beery thoroughfare (30th Street) provides access to more brewery-owned venues and beer-centric bars and restaurants than most cities possess in total. Start with a stop at Fall Brewing (4542 30th St.), the passion project of a veteran brewer serving hoppy beers, lagers, stouts and Belgian-style ales in a cinder-block-chic building that once held a garage. Walk, bike or Uber south and hit three breweries in one building at CRAFT by Brewery Igniter (3052 El Cajon Blvd.), where you can sample incredible Germanic lagers, including the county’s best festbier at Eppig Brewing, outlandish creations like a uni-infused take on an oyster stout at Pariah Brewing, and classics at 20-year-old stalwart San Diego Brewing.
From CRAFT, cross the street for a bite at Tiger! Tiger! Tavern (3025 El Cajon Blvd.) an eatery popular with both omnivores (wood-fired oysters, Chinese BBQ bánh mì) and vegans (fried polenta, veggie sliders). Owned by a former Stone brewmaster, it’s also an outlet for beers from his Automatic Brewing, which offers classic and avant-garde, small-batch creations. The former is largely celebrated at hotspot North Park Beer (3038 University Ave.), an elegantly designed, double-decker brewery embodying its community’s architecture via hardwoods and indoor globe-style streetlights. Established by a national award-winning homebrewer, it’s earned a fast following behind technically perfect brews of many styles. From here, cap off your first day in America’s Finest City with a bevy of incredible beers at Toronado San Diego (4026 30th St.), the southerly second coming of San Francisco’s feisty original.
The county’s “Hop Highway,” SR-78, transports thirsty travelers through San Diego’s northernmost, brewery-saturated municipalities. Start west with medal-garnering beers spanning every category imaginable at family-friendly Pizza Port (571 Carlsbad Village Drive), before heading north to Oceanside, where that chain’s most award-winning employee moved to open his own interest, Bagby Beer (601 S. Coast Highway). Built in a former car dealership, this extensive craft compound sports dual dining rooms, an umbrella-shaded outdoor bar, fully visible brewery and a second-story deck looking out on the Pacific. Throw in nearly two dozen faultless house brews and it achieves mecca status.
Directly east is Vista, a city stocked with 17 breweries, the most intriguing of which is Toolbox Brewing (1495 Poinsettia Ave., #148), a 3-year-old, all-wild operation producing farmhouse ales, assorted sours and Brett beers, many of which offer complex and unique flavors. The neighboring community of San Marcos houses the triple threat that is Port Brewing, The Lost Abbey and The Hop Concept (155 Mata Way). It’s here (in Stone’s original brewery) that some of the county’s finest IPAs (Mongo, Hop-15, Dank & Sticky), Belgian-style ales (Carnevale, Devotion, Judgment Day) and barrel-aged sours (Cuvee de Tomme, Red Poppy, Duck Duck Gooze) are crafted to critical acclaim. Consider it a one-stop shop for imbibers of wide-ranging tastes. Ditto San Marcos neighbors Rip Current Brewing (1325 Grand Ave.), makers of even more top-tier IPAs plus Break Line Bock, which took gold at the Great American Beer Festival two years in a row.
Should hunger set in, options abound. Stay in San Marcos and head to the newly opened, grand-scale restaurant, bowling alley and brewing headquarters for Mason Ale Works and Urge Gastropub and Common House (255 Redel Road). House beers run the gamut and pair well with American gastropub fare. After more than a decade, Churchill’s Pub & Grille (887 W. San Marcos Blvd.) remains the North County beer bar behind 50 well-curated taps and pub grub spanning English, Indian and American classics. Or venture to The Cork & Craft (16990 Via Tazon) in Rancho Bernardo to indulge in refined, farm-to-table dishes with beers from in-house Abnormal Beer or an always-impressive guest list. Still thirsty? Second Chance Beer (15378 Ave. of Science, #222) is close by in Carmel Mountain Ranch, and its Ethiopian java-infused Seize the Coffee IPA makes for a deliciously different nightcap.
Don’t get out of town without exploring the county’s central beer belly. Start in Grantville at Benchmark Brewing (6190 Fairmount Ave., Suite G) and taste through a former AleSmith brewer’s “beer-flavored beer,” including a fabulous table beer, brown ale and stout. Next, head up Interstate 15 to Kearny Mesa, where numerous IPAs, Belgian-inspired ales, lagers, stouts and wine barrel-aged sours await in turn-of-the-century environs at Societe Brewing (8262 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.), a cult favorite often described as “the place brewers drink.” Two blocks west, the husband-wife-and-friend team at Council Brewing (7705 Convoy Court) serve quick-soured, fruited saisons, and barrel- and foeder-aged specialties from their “Magic Factory” along with traditional styles.
Next stop: Miramar (or as it’s locally known, “Beeramar”), which is home to 20 brewery-owned establishments. Of those options, the best is AleSmith Brewing (9990 AleSmith Court). Over 21 years, it has racked up innumerable awards for unbelievably smooth high-gravity beers like its coffee-infused Speedway Stout. Its San Diego Pale Ale .394 is also a prominent tribute to Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Blocks away, Pure Project Brewing (9030 Kenamar Drive, #308) gets kudos for its beers and humanitarian spirit. This One Percent for the Planet business contributes a portion of sales from its refreshing, sun-suited ales and coveted barrel-aged stock to local charities. And if you’ve ever doubted the role yeast plays in the flavor of beer, a visit to the country’s leading brewing-yeast producer, White Labs (9495 Candida St.) is a must. There, beers are split into batches fermented with different yeast strains to spotlight their significant sensual differences. It’s a tasting experience unlike any other.
On the way to the airport, take a pit stop in Sorrento Valley to taste to-style British ales from a U.K. expat at New English Brewing (11545 Sorrento Valley Road, #305). There simply isn’t a better ESB in town, especially served on nitro. End out your trip at the Pacific Beach headquarters of the 2016 Great American Beer Festival’s Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company, Karl Strauss Brewing (5985 Santa Fe St.). The largest variety of San Diego’s longest-running brewing company’s liquid wares are here, from its vaunted Mosaic Session and Aurora Hoppyalis IPAs to gold medal-winning sour, Queen of Tarts. Enjoy them all with one last soak in the San Diego sun in Uncle Karl’s alfresco beer garden.
Side Trip: Looking for legendary beer and willing to drive for it? Head east and start in El Cajon with Burning Beard Brewing (785 Vernon Way). This hot new brewery has won beer-nerd praise behind its Normcore Pilsner and
assorted hoppy stock. It’s also a great halfway-there stop en route to Alpine Beer (2363 Alpine Blvd.). Regarded as the Holy Grail of breweries by most locals, its original brewery continues to pump out heralded IPAs and occasional
barrel-aged creations that perpetually wow and go beyond nationally distributed core offerings. Fil a growler for your hotel room and smuggle some bottles back hom.
Brandon Hernández is the author of San Diego Beer News: Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, editor-at-large for West Coaster Magazine and chief marketing officer for Societe Brewing. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @SDBeerNews.