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.
6550 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa
Green Flash Brewing Company
There was a time in this brewery’s infancy when a six-pack of any of its beers could be had for the price of $3.99. Why so cheap? Because the beer sucked. But that all changed the day owner Mike Hinkley brought on hop-obsessed brewmaster Chuck Silva, who, with the brewing of his overtly bitter, piney West Coast IPA, rebranded the company into a hops-first operation.
Green Flash has since grown into one of the largest brewing interests in the county, and the first to establish a presence on the eastern side of the country. Ground is about to be broken on Green Flash’s upcoming brewery in Virginia Beach, Virginia (where they’ll be neighbors with Stone Brewing Co., which recently announced plans to construct a full-scale brewery and restaurant in Richmond, Virginia), but in the meantime, things continue to roll forward at a rapid clip back home.
The company recently purchased space in a Poway industrial park, where they will store the many oaken vessels of their ever-expanding barrel-aging program along with a tasting room sampling those smaller batch creations. With a rotating series of half a dozen hop-centric beers and a newly revised portfolio of year-round staples that are mostly hoppy, Silva’s love affair with alpha acids remains intact. But his stouts, barley wines, and Belgian-inspired ales like 2014 Treasure Chest (a barrel-aged farmhouse ale brewed with plum purée) prove he doesn’t need cones or pellets to fashion terrific brews.
805 16th Street, East Village
Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery
Owner Scot Blair used to wax poetic about his out-there ales and lagers with great passion. He still does. It’s what this almost energetic and soulful guy does. But nowadays, his beers stand up to all that front-end hype whereas, early on, they didn’t. The difference is the individual manning the brewhouse.
Since coming aboard over a year ago, brewmaster Cosimo Sorrentino has upped both the quality of Monkey Paw’s beers as well as the perception of the operation and the attitude behind it. He endeavors to make each beer not just to-style, not just good enough to pass muster, not just good enough to keep him employed. It’s fantastic or bust. As such, even beers one might expect to be worthy of yawns excel on the palate. Less than a year into his employment under Blair, Sorrentino won a gold medal for his Bonobos San Diego Pale Ale, a lively IPA that never disappoints. But he can brew just about anything well. Good thing, because Blair demands it, ordering up zwickelbiers, dark lagers, rauchbiers, and weizenbocks as if they didn’t represent nearly uncharted territory for local brewers. Through it all, Sorrentino rolls with the punches, humble yet excited and thankful for the opportunity to ascend the beer-making ladder from eager, over-the-top homebrewer to respected pro-style standout.
11545 Sorrento Valley Road #305, Sorrento Valley
New English Brewing Company
Simon Lacey grew up in Wallasey (right across the river from Liverpool) and spent years drinking proper English-style bitters and India pale ales, and put all that experience to work when he established New English. The name is telling of what one can expect from Lacey’s liquid assets — English beer styles that are recognizable for what they are, but given extra New World oomph where appropriate. Of all his beers, Lacey’s Explorer E.S.B. is the smoothest, most balanced, and closest to the genuine U.K. article, especially when served from a hand-pump as he does at New English’s tasting room. Trooper’s Tipple, an English IPA, used to be the company’s only hoppy beer, but over the past year, Lacey seems to have further acclimated to his surroundings, releasing a more West Coast–style IPA called Humbly Legit. Another newer entry into the line-up is a decadent chocolate-and-coffee-infused imperial stout called Zumbar that may be Lacey’s best beer yet. Exploration of next-level styles has raised this smallish operation’s stock big time.
2730 Gateway Road, Carlsbad
571 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad
1956 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach
To the uninitiated, Pizza Port’s chain of brewpubs falls in the meh category. A low-frills bar and pizza joint with picnic tables as the sole source of pedestrian relief and a loose surf theme — BFD, right? But local fans of beer, particularly the hoppy varieties San Diego is famous for, regularly flock to all four outposts of what may be the winningest operation in the history of the Great American Beer Festival. No operation has churned out more local brewing talent — Jeff Bagby, Tomme Arthur, Yiga Miyashiro, Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes, Devon Randall — than this powerhouse business that started as a meager pie shop in Solana Beach. The enterprise gained new life and mystique as the finest string of brewpubs in the country behind consistently excellent beer and medal after GABF medal.
Quality and reliability are good, but what makes this quartet of pubs so impressive is that each of them has its own brewmaster brewing up their own recipes in addition to a small list of core brands (which can now be had in cans, thanks to the production and packaging facility at Pizza Port’s Bressi Ranch headquarters). Somehow, even with different minds, equipment, methods, and brewers rotating from location to location — and sometimes out of the company completely — each brewpub regularly delivers beers that are a cut above. No one knows how they do it, but they do, and that’s what makes them so special.
155 Mata Way #104, San Marcos
Port Brewing Company/The Lost Abbey
Speaking of the Pizza Port Hall of Fame, when looking to set up a packaging brewery split into two operations (one producing mega-hoppy West Coast–style beers, the other reimagined takes on classic Belgian styles as well as barrel-aged beers of all ilks), that company’s owners enlisted perhaps the most famous of them all, Tomme Arthur. It was a decision that paid off immediately. Two years after opening, the co-branded business was named the best small brewing company on the planet at the 2008 World Beer Cup and hasn’t slowed down since, amassing a following like no other among fans of the almighty hop as well as lovers of deep, dark, wood-aged brews and tart, barrel-aged sour ales. The last two take the longest to produce and are released in small batches that sell out quickly, but they’re worth the diligence required to land a 750- or 375-milliliter, caged and corked bottle of rarities such as the triple lambic-blend Duck Duck Gooze, rich and boozy Angel’s Share barley wine, or any of the more out-there editions of the Veritas Ale series (nectarine quad, peach sour, tea-infused ales, sangria-esque ale). But if SoCal IPAs are what you desire, you’re just as well covered with 2014 Great American Beer Festival winners Hop-15 imperial IPA and Shark Attack Double Red Ale, as well as crowd-pleasing IPAs such as Mongo and Wipeout and a brilliant coffee-laced brown ale called Board Meeting.
1325 Grand Avenue #100, San Marcos
Rip Current Brewing Company
When two talented homebrewers (one of which was named the top homebrewer in the country at the 2011 National Homebrewers Conference) teamed up to make the climb to the professional ranks, many wondered if they would be able to show the same skill when faced with a 30-barrel industrial brewhouse. Things started off all right — maybe even a bit shaky in some people’s minds — but Paul Sangster and Guy Shobe made a fast adjustment and are now on local beer fans’ short list of best brewers. They revel in providing myriad IPAs in single-, double-, and even triple-strength varieties, and those are things of beauty. But so are the many other styles they produce.
Nothing is off limits: hefeweizens, altbiers, Scottish ales, abbey-style beers, porters, imperial stouts, and everything in between. This speaks to their ability to stay true to themselves. From the start, Sangster and Shobe vowed that Rip Current would be alive with the homebrewing spirit, meaning they would try a great many things and not get backed into stylistic corner. That’s all well and good, so long as a company is making quality beer, and that’s what one will encounter when visiting Rip Current’s vintage-beer-can-collection-adorned tasting room. It’s the youngest of the county’s must-try breweries.
8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa
Societe Brewing Company
Founding brewers Travis Smith and Douglas Constantiner produce three lines of year-round hoppy beers (referred to as “Out West”), Belgian-esque ales (“Old World”), and dark beers (“Stygian”). It’s pretty basic from the outside looking in, but step inside their brilliantly appointed tasting room, replete with wood, folkish art, and rustic farming bric-à-brac, order anything they brew, and you’re bound to encounter something that, again, is basic — clean, focused, pleasant, and highly drinkable — and for those reasons, extraordinary. Beers are characters here — the Gleaner, the Harlot, The Debutante, the Butcher — and the most popular cast members are IPAs, the Apprentice and the Pupil. But there is much more to this business than its excellent India pale ales. Though there are only three Stygian beers, they are warming and delicious, and the Pugilist (an Irish dry stout) medaled at this year’s World Beer Cup. And those who find Belgian beer styles to be a bit rigid and predictable will find inventively tweaked takes on that country’s everyday standards. Throw in one of the largest and liveliest tasting rooms and a barrel-aged beer program producing sour ales (“Feral”), and there’s plenty to love about this two-year-old interest.
NOTE: Stone Brewing Co. is among my favorite local brewing companies; however, because of my employment there, I felt it best to omit them from this list.
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