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AleSmith Brewing Company

9990 Alesmith Court, Miramar

AleSmith Brewing Company

Founded by brewer Skip Virgilio in 1995, the company was known for solid beer early on but lacked the demand and business infrastructure to remain viable. After being sold to talented brewer and beer nut Peter Zien in 2002, the company flourished behind beers that served as exemplars of traditional styles as well as ales showing West Coast creativity and daring.

Many consider AleSmith — a relatively small operation with limited reach beyond San Diego — to be the finest craft-brewing company in the country. This is because of their focus on producing beers that are exactingly to-style. While many companies apply that spirit to narrow bailiwicks — IPA experts, Belgian-style ale specialists — Zien and company tackle American, English, German, and Belgian styles, and do them all justice.

Alesmith Brewing Co.

Rare is the local beer fan who doesn’t hold space in their hearts for AleSmith’s higher octane Speedway Stout, Old Numbskull, or Horny Devil, but the immense skill of this operation also comes through in lower alcohol beers like Lil’ Devil (the session version of Horny Devil) and the crisp, clean X extra pale ale. Even their take on a mild-mannered crowd-pleaser — Tony Gwynn’s San Diego Pale Ale 394 — is on point. Zien worked with the beer’s late, great namesake to come up with an ale low enough in hops to work with his palate. Even with that edict (something most local brewers would consider an obstacle to success), the beer is so balanced on the malt side that the hop flavor shows up nicely with the mildest of bitterness. It seems simple, but few breweries could pull this off.

Alpine Beer Company

2351 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine

Alpine Beer Company

With the tight clustering of breweries in areas like Vista, Miramar, and Oceanside, it’s easy for beer tourists to schedule a day spent hitting lots of spots while incurring little mileage on their vehicle (preferably a chauffeured bus in these situations). But if one plans to savor the wares of this cult favorite, they pretty much need to make a day of it.

Alpine is located in the unincorporated East County town of the same name, in a building with split uses. Meander up to the porch and choose your own adventure. To the right is an intimate tasting room for samplers and growler fills. To the left, an old-timey, diner-looking restaurant serving finger-lickin’ good barbecue in tandem with the numerous hop-driven pale ales and IPAs that make this place worth the drive. Alpine’s piney, citrusy, tropical, spicy, dry IPAs are the cream of the hop crop; so much so that, despite being small and far removed from the county’s fermentation fray, beer fans the world over know of them and covet their beers, which have been hard to come by. What little they make clears off shelves and out of kegs as fast as it arrives to accounts. But recently owner Pat McIlhenney struck a deal with his friends at Mira Mesa’s Green Flash Brewing Company to have three of his beers contract-brewed on a tank-per-month basis. This has increased availability locally for Duet and Nelson IPAs as well as Hoppy Birthday pale ale.

Amplified Aleworks (at California Kebab and Beer Garden)

4150 Mission Boulevard #208, Pacific Beach

Amplified Ale Works

Finding parking a block from the ocean in PB can be a pain in the ass, but it’s worth it to visit this small, but exciting nano-brewpub. Former Alpine brewer Cy Henley exhibits a quirkiness and brewing style, both of which are 100 percent SoCal. In the case of the latter, that means powerfully tasty beers that, as the company’s name suggests, are cranked to 11.

Amplified Ale Works

Headliners from Amplified’s catalog include the dry, incredibly hoppy Electrocution IPA and Pig Nose Pale Ale, a pale so stuffed with the fruit of the bine that it could easily be mistaken for a West Coast–style double IPA. Currently shooting up the charts is Smokin’ Kiwi, a lightly smoked IPA unlike anything being offered in San Diego. But Henley’s not all about the hops. His Belgian-style saisons and quadruple (Rare Form, which recently debuted as the brewpub’s first barrel-aged beer) hit the palate just right, as does a sour blonde ale that’s currently snoozing in red-wine barrels procured from local Matthew Richards Cellars winery. Throw in a chill vibe, kebabs and sandwiches, and perhaps the best view of any brewery in San Diego (care of the second-story, open-air beer garden) and there’s plenty to love about this two-year-old outfit.

Ballast Point Miramar

9045 Carroll Way, Miramar

Ballast Point Old Grove Brewery

10051 Old Grove Road, Suite B, Scripps Ranch

Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

Shortly after being named the best small brewing company in the world at the 2010 World Beer Cup (basically, the Olympics of brewing competitions), Ballast Point’s star began to rise fast. In the past four years, the company established an award-winning spirits production component, built a combination kitchen, tasting room and R&D brewery in Little Italy, retail outlets at Petco Park and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and constructed its largest brewing facility to date in the Miramar area.

Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

Still, they have the backing of local beer enthusiasts, not for core beers like Wahoo White and Sculpin IPA, but for the same thing that led to BP’s meteoric rise — the company’s sense of experimentation in the form of special casks, barrel-aged brews, chili beers, West Coast–style lagers, and more. Growing without losing that artisanal zeal has kept Ballast Point from disconnecting from the fans responsible for that growth.

Benchmark Brewing Co.

6190 Fairmount Avenue, Suite G, Grantville

Benchmark Brewing Company

Benchmark’s location in the armpit of a nondescript business park keeps many from discovering one of the finest breweries in the county. Of course, a recent Great American Beer Festival gold medal earned for brewing the best oatmeal stout in the country should help guide suds lovers to this family-run brainchild of longtime San Diego brewer Matt Akin. Most of his beers lack memorable, tongue-in-cheek names, instead sporting monikers such as Table Beer, Brown Ale, and IPA. Akin is a purist, the type of brewer looking to perfectly replicate every aspect of a beer to style guidelines. Perhaps it comes from years spent as a certified beer judge, critiquing brews based on particular aromas, flavors, color, and mouth-feel. Or maybe it stems from working at to-style archetype AleSmith. Whatever it is, people who know beer and respect its heritage know they’re in good hands when visiting Benchmark and walking through flights of beers that, while not flashy, are delicious. An abbey-style table beer, blonde, brown, and that oatmeal stout are the kind of beers one can drink all day, while IPAs San Diego 71 and Hop Chunks will satisfy adventurous hopheads.

Related: Best spots to have a beer | Dictionary of must-try local beers |
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David Dodd Oct. 30, 2014 @ 2:11 a.m.

Good piece, Brandon. Not to complain TOO much, but there are a lot of craft breweries here in Baja you should look into. I recommend Psycho Border next time you write a piece on this sort of thing. Their beer is fantastic, especially their darks (they have an "Imperial Stout" that kicks some serious butt). This might be a good future feature for you. There are a lot of small craft breweries here that do great work. Just put the ingredients in the trunk, drive across, and brew. Then ship. It's really interesting how they flip the pancake here.


Brandon Hernández Oct. 30, 2014 @ 12:11 p.m.

I agree with you, especially about Border Psycho, although I preferred their double IPA to their imperial stout. This is the first article in a six-part series I recently posted to this site about Baja's craft brewing scene (it would have been a bit odd to include info on Baja breweries in the San Diego beer issue of the San Diego Reader): http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/20...


TheBigB Oct. 30, 2014 @ 12:48 p.m.

No real qualms about that list (I think 10/12 are no brainer picks), though I'm not sure Amplified has put out enough beer to warrant being on a short list. I've really enjoyed what I have gotten from them, and it is undoubtedly one the best places to have a beer, but at least half the time I've been there they've had none of their house beers on tap.

I do realize, however, that your past formula for these lists is to throw in a non-conventional choice or two, which is why this is probably a top 12. Not a lot of people would have Benchmark on this list, either, but I think they deserve it. But throwing in an objective edit of your top 12, I'd probably replace Amplified with Stone. :)

I think that Modern Times and Belching Beaver probably are on the cusp of deserving inclusion on this list, but in the case of the former I suspect that their cockstaggering overpromotion might rub you the wrong way, a little bit.


Brandon Hernández Oct. 31, 2014 @ 2:33 p.m.

Quality theories, but even if marketing rubs me the wrong way, I stay objective and go on consistency of beer quality and flavor. Unfortunately, this article was edited so that my introduction was taken out. What it noted in my original copy was that I had just finished working with more than 40 local experts on the San Diego beer scene to get their ratings on all of the county's brewing companies, and that they came up with a very reliable and legitimate list of rankings. That said, my opinions were slightly different, so this list is my personal top 12 as I see it based on deftness of brewing and deliciousness of beers--not just ONE or SOME of a company's better beers, but all their beers across the board. It was a tough list to come up with and many are right on the edge, but there are only 12 spots and, this year, this is how I'm feeling. Just thought I should take the time to explain. Thanks for the really thoughtful comment vs. others who just say it's an outrage/disgrace that their favorite brewery isn't on my list. Cheers!


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