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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
9045 Carroll Way, Miramar
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.
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.
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 |
Best new breweries