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Where to Drink in San Diego, California

Destinations by | Nov 2017 | Issue #130
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

Despite a setback during Prohibition and a lull from 1953 to 1989, San Diego has rebounded into one of America’s finest beer cities with 150 craft breweries and counting across the county. Part of this revival is thanks to a 1982 bill that amended the state’s laws concerning on-premise beer sales, which paved the way for brewpubs to flourish.

And flourish they have; California craft breweries have more than quadrupled in number since 2011. Today, San Diego County is home to more craft breweries than any other county in the state. As a result, virtually every beer style is represented, but none more prevalently than San Diego’s signature, envelope-pushing India Pale Ale (often called West Coast IPA).

Stone Brewing Company’s IPA is widely considered to be the best representation of the heavily hopped, ultra piney take on the style, but Green Flash Brewing Company’s West Coast IPA, Alpine Beer Company’s Nelson, and Port Brewing’s Wipeout IPA are also touted as impressive iterations. A powerhouse since 1996, Escondido-based Stone has grown into one of the 10 largest craft breweries in the country. Ballast Point and Karl Strauss Brewing Company also make the top 50, but even smaller breweries and brewpubs like Coronado Brewing Company, O’Brien’s Pub, and Pizza Port are considered hugely influential both locally and and nationally.

San Diego’s beer scene is widely spread across the county, with hotspots in Miramar (aka “Beeramar”), Downtown, and North County. Visitors looking to maximize their quality beer intake often stick close to the sprawling Downtown area, which—for beer purposes—encompasses the nearby neighborhoods of North Park, Barrio Logan, and East Village. It’s also the epicenter for San Diego Beer Week, a 10-day festival put on by the San Diego Brewers Guild that takes place every November.

However, a 20-minute drive to the triangular area sandwiched between the 805 and 15 freeways just north of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar yields a wealth of options: over a dozen breweries and the White Labs tasting room. Choose one at random or start with AleSmith Brewing Company, Peter Zien’s acclaimed brewery best known for its award-winning Speedway Stout. AleSmith relocated to an enormous new home in 2015, complete with a museum honoring Padres baseball super-hitter Tony Gwynn and a “hidden” barrel-blending bar dubbed Anvil & Stave (check Instagram for the daily password for entry). The move made way for Danish brewery Mikkeller’s first permanent brewing location, where enthusiastic beer chasers line up for their chance to snag rotating can releases available every weekend. Societe Brewing Company is another popular starting point, but if you can’t commit to just one brewery, focus your drinking efforts in North Park, where a plethora of beer bars await.

North Park is arguably the city’s most prolific beer neighborhood. Its walkable streets make it easy to hop from one brewpub to the next along 30th Street, known locally as the Best Beer Street in America. Start at Blind Lady Ale House for farm-to-table pizza and a rotating draft list, then head south from Adams Avenue, stopping at Fall Brewing Company for punk rock-themed art and brews. The converted mechanic’s garage-turned-tasting room exudes a DIY feel and a rotating cast of food trucks park here nightly. If that doesn’t appeal, the “coffee & beer” shop Young Hickory serves up an assortment of panini sandwiches alongside more than 30 local and national beer brands by the can, including its first collaboration with Mason Ale Works.

Rip Current Brewing in North Park is the mid-city outpost of the San Marcos-based brewery named Very Small Brewery of the Year at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. Try the hop-forward Lupulin Lust Double IPA or the complex Rescue Buoy Russian Imperial Stout. Better yet, get a flight and then grab a bite from Sublime, the in-house eatery known for its eclectic menu including beer-battered fish tacos, lumpia, and French fries smothered in short ribs and bacon beer gravy.

From there, cross 30th Street again to Toronado for a pint from off-the-beaten-path local favorites like Abnormal Beer Company, Second Chance Beer Company, Burning Beard Brewing, or Alpine. Its 56 taps are dedicated to the finest independent brews from California and beyond, and its bottle list often includes hard-to-find releases at reasonable prices. Plus, if it’s Pliny the Younger season (i.e. February), it’s usually a safe bet that Toronado will have a keg.

Around the corner on University Avenue is North Park Beer Company, the brainchild of prodigious homebrewer Kelsey McNair. His renowned American IPA Hop-Fu! pairs well with the various meat dishes provided by Mastiff Sausage Company’s permanent taproom kitchen. A rotating assortment of guest beers, wine, cider, and kombucha are offered here, too.

After perusing the tip-top beer selection (or even imbibing a taster flight) at Bottlecraft on the busy corner of 30th and University, proceed toward Modern Times’ tasting room, complete with a mural of Yoda comprised of floppy discs. Skip the core lineup in favor of a seasonal release, or grab a seat at Underbelly next door for modern-fusion ramen and a small (but mighty) beer list. You can’t go wrong with a pint of Thorn Street Brewing Company’s IPA and a steaming bowl of Belly of the Beast.

Continue south to Hamilton’s Tavern, a dimly lit temple to all things craft brewing. Shoot some pool and admire the tap handles dangling from the ceiling like boozy stalactites, but be sure to eat something. The tiny window near the back of the bar slings out rib-sticking entrees designed to sop up massive quantities of beer. Try the hop sausage poutine, cheese-smothered Blair tots, hot wings, or all of the above, and wash it down with a full-bodied Oyster Stout from South Park Brewing Company next door.

Now that you’re practically downtown, it’s an easy rideshare to Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery, located in spitting distance from the hotly contested 10 Barrel brewpub owned by AB InBev. Order a Bonobos IPA, brewed on the (ironically-sized) 10 barrel system now owned by Coronado.

From Monkey Paw, you can linger downtown or venture south to Barrio Logan. For those leaning toward a downtown bar crawl, skip the tourist traps in Gaslamp District and head to the third floor drinkery Quad Alehouse, or Neighborhood, which provides a similar appeal—savory bites like jalapeno mac n’ cheese paired with unique drafts and bottles. Visiting both is also an option, of course.

On the southern edge of downtown is Barrio Logan’s flourishing Logan Avenue, home to Border X Brewing. Novel recipes here include a Horchata Golden Stout, a Blood Saison featuring hibiscus and agave, and Abuelita’s Chocolate Stout made with Mexican chocolate. It’s only 14 miles to the border from here, so if you’re in the mood for some Mexican lagers, just continue south. 

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