America’s backlash against bland beer began on the West Coast. San Francisco, always keen to stick it to the man, got the ball rolling in the 70s. Then the defiant, drizzly duo of Portland and Seattle, picked it up, ran with it and kept scampering along like some kind of crazed, craft beer-drinking Forrest Gump.
Yet despite all the infectious innovation taking place above it, the sunny surf city of San Diego remained stoically immune to the microbrewing bug and was long regarded by beer boffins as a brewing wilderness where locals relied on the brews made in ‘Frisco and the Pacific Northwest. Quite why remains a bit of a mystery – with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, maybe it was just too hot? Or maybe, it lacked the leftfield liberalism of its northern neighbors? Who knows? But what is certain is that, after years of living in the brewing shadow of its west coast peers, the sunniest city in America is now arguably America’s most vibrant brewing metropolis.
You won’t want for fine beer in San Diego. It’s here, there and every bloody where. Not content with a dozen maverick microbreweries, a mesmerizing array of switched-on beer bars and a smattering of brewpubs, San Diego has even got its very own beer style. Double IPAs (DIPA) are the signature suds of San Diego. For English drinkers more accustomed to mild-mannered milds and balanced, balmy bitters, DIPA is a desperately daunting drop. Brimming with more hops than a one-legged arse-kicking competition, seriously strong yet strangely seductive, they’re resinous and aggressively bitter liquids that pickle your palate, blister your brain and twat your taste-buds into next week.
Although DIPA wasn’t created in San Diego (that honor is bestowed upon Vinnie Cilurzo who unleashed a DIPA in 1994 at the now-defunct Blind Pig brewery in southwest California), hundreds of heady hop monsters run amok in San Diego, outselling other styles in leading beer bars like O’Brien’s, Liars’ Club and Hamilton’s Tavern.
No other city cranks up the IBU knob (International Bitterness Unit) – all the way to 11 – with quite the same wide-eyed passion and nearly every San Diego’s brewer places IPA, either single or double, at the forefront of their burgeoning business. While both Tomme Arthur’s Pizza Port and the Karl Strauss Brewpub were plowing a lonesome yet flavorsome furrow prior to its arrival in 1996, the Stone Brewing Company is attributed as thrusting the San Diego beer scene into the national limelight. At a time when hundreds of craft ventures were shutting down – victims of a microbrewing sector getting ahead of itself – Stone rolled into San Diego with no small amount of swagger.
“We were very concerned that we’d missed the boat but we also felt that there was an untapped opportunity down here,” said Stone’s co-owner and founder Greg Koch. “Even though it was less-developed than other cities, we sensed a real camaraderie among the brewing community. Also, San Diegan drinkers were knowledgeable as they’d been drinking craft beer from elsewhere. But, still, we were knocking on the door just when people weren’t listening.” Stone’s beers were deliberately antagonistic, both in their flavor profile and infamous marketing, and were originally distributed using an Aerostar van. “Boy, we beat that thing to hell,” grinned Koch. “It was scraping the road and the suspension was completely shot to bits.” Ten years on, Stone has moved into an amazing state-of-the-art brewery and established its very own, and far more sophisticated, distribution network on which it also carries the beers of kindred San Diegan brewers.
“We’re getting some pretty impressive volumes now but we haven’t diluted our idea of decent beer,” said Koch. “We’re not in the business of distributing beers that aren’t genuinely special.
“What’s good about San Diego is that the brewers that are doing well are the ones that deserve it,” he added. “There’s a massive ‘wow’ factor going on and there’s plenty in San Diego for the beer-drinking adventurer to get excited about.” Indeed, there is. Port Brewing owner Tomme Arthur, for example, has broadened his beer-making horizons beyond his group of well-establish Pizza Port brewpubs and started Lost Abbey Brewing, which crafts Belgian-style bottle conditioned beers that are aged in brandy, bourbon, and French Oak barrels.
AleSmith Brewing is another widely revered purveyor of mighty fine ales and San Diego’s most award-winning brewery.
Founder Peter Zien, a former homebrewer who turned professional in 1995, works his mash-fork magic on second-hand dairy equipment in a quirky brewery on the way out of town. AleSmiths’s all-natural, bottle-conditioned beers have been showered in medals and earned a reputation for balance rather than bombastic bitterness. “There are a lot of brewers in California who just want to whack people over the head with hops,” said Zien, “but we leave them it.” In addition to its flagship beer, a superb English-style ESB called Anvil, seek out AleSmith’s opaque bottles containing Horny Devil, a seductive strong Belgian ale infused with coriander seeds, and Speedway Stout, a divine dark Imperial stout brewed using copious amounts of coffee beans.
Having established a reputation for solid session ales, the neighboring 25- barrel Green Flash Brewery has cast its brewing net further since the arrival of head brewer Chuck Silva. In 2004, Silva introduced added the hoppy San Diego signature to barley wines, Belgian Trappist beers and, of course, India pale ales.
The West Coast IPA, a lovely resinous and fruity hop-hit, is exactly what it proclaims to be.
So, too, is Pure Hoppiness from the Alpine Brewing Company, situated in the bucolic town of the same name. The brewery is not big but it’s certainly clever producing, as it does, an eclectic range of small-batch beers including the wonderfully-titled Willi Vanilli, a lush, refreshing lager tinged with vanilla.
Another San Diego brewery worthy of mention is Ballast Point. Owner Jack White has been quietly making a name for enduring ales and lagers and in 2005 tripled the brewery’s capacity. Yellowtail Pale Ale, a west coast interpretation on a German Kolsch beer, is the biggest seller and deftly supported by Black Marlin Porter, Wahoo Wheat, and Calexico Amber Ale. Three Sheets Barley Wine and the infamous Dorado Double IPA, meanwhile, are velvet-gloved heavyweight, high-octane hop-hitters.
While local beers are loyally stocked throughout the city, hopheads should head to one of the following venues if they want to experience the full depth and breadth of San Diego’s astonishing beer culture.
Never mind its unremarkable strip-mall setting, this lively neighborhood bar is an absolute must for even the most fair-weather beer drinker.
O’Brien’s is too great beer what Evel Kneivel was to the needless breaking of bones. The passionate and hugely-knowledgeable owner Tom Nickel, chairman of the San Diego Brewers Guild, has compiled a stunning beer selection. The two dozen tap handles tend to be taken up by west coast hop stars, all manner of European imports and domestic delights are available in bottle and there’s plenty of choice on the characteristically Californian food menu.
Plenty of people said the Liars’ Club was arguably the finest beer bar in San Diego and, well, they weren’t fibbing. Located a block away from Mission beach, it may lack the chic splendor of its surroundings but there can be no friendlier or finer place to kick-back after a hard day catching rays and gnarly six-footers. The incredibly welcoming bartenders pour several local microbrews and the odd Belgian beauty with knowledge and enthusiasm while the food is equally as alluring. The seared Ahi Tuna sandwich is, simply, sublime. Oh, and the jukebox rocks too. Go there.
A former dive bar transformed into a hop-loving haven located in the historic and leafy South Park District. Offering more than two dozen taps and more than 150 bottled beers, the focus is on Belgian brews, west coast micros, and several San Diego local heroes – all at reasonable prices.
Tired of elbow-bending? Chance your arm at two pool tables, table football, shuffleboard, a Playstation or a jukebox spinning blues and rock.
On every second Saturday of the month, a local brewer is showcased with discounted prices, food matching, and a specialty or cask beer.
STONE BREWING COMPANY
1999 Citracado Parkway Escondido, CA 92029
Tel: +1 760 471 4999
ALESMITH BREWING COMPANY
9368 Cabot Drive
San Diego, CA 92126
Tel: +1 858 549 9888
BALLAST POINT BREWING COMPANY
10051 Old Grove Road, Suite B
San Diego, CA 92131
Tel: +1 858 695 2739
GREEN FLASH BREWING COMPANY
1430 Vantage Court, #104A
Vista, CA 92083
Tel: +1 760 597 9012
ALPINE BREWING COMPANY
2351 Alpine Blvd
Alpine, CA 91901
Tel: +1 619 4452337
SAN DIEGO BREWER’S GUILD
4646 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
Tel: +1 858 715-1745
3844 Mission Blvd
San Diego, CA 92109
Tel: +1 858 488-2340
1521 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92192
Tel: +1 619 238 5460