Photo by Photograph by Matthew Suárez
This dark porter is in a league of its own.
Nobody’s knocking IPAs. The hoppy pale ale style that built San Diego’s beer reputation is alive and well. We have hundreds to choose from every single day. We are spoiled with IPA options.
But sometimes, different can be good.
It’s an exciting time to be thirsty in San Diego, so no need to be bitter.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Local brewers produce excellent examples of other styles too, all the time. Highlighted below are just a handful of recent (and perennial) standouts. If you’re not a big fan of IPAs, or feel ready to find what exists beyond a hazy IPA, start with a few of these.
Also of late, alternative brewers and distillers have been on the rise. Dozens of alcohol producers, all across the spectrum, have picked up on the creative spirit of beer and have been making some supremely interesting beverages lately. It’s an exciting time to be thirsty in San Diego, so no need to be bitter.
15378 Avenue of Science #222, San Diego
- Tabula Rasa
- A few weeks ago, this Second Chance beer outperformed 86 other entrants in the robust porter category of the Great American Beer Festival to win a gold medal for its style. What’s special about that is this: it’s the third time that’s happened in the four years Second Chance has been open. Founding brewer Marty Mendiola produced a full career’s worth of beers during 15 years as the brewer at Rock Bottom La Jolla, and though he’d often been recognized for producing terrific porters (his Moonlight Porter took gold in 2011), he was never personally satisfied til he started adding toasted oats to his recipe. A craft beer years in the making, Tabula Rasa’s bold roasted malt and dark chocolate presence is smoothed out by those oats, and in place of the brace of tonic-like bitterness found in many porters, they set a pleasing, nutty tone. This dark porter is just in a league of its own.
601 South Coast Highway, Oceanside
- Herd of Turtles
- If you’re keenly interested in tasting a lot of beer alternatives to IPA, you probably can’t do better than a trip to Oceanside. Bagby Beer regularly pours a long list of diverse beer styles that strive to be true to tradition. They’re educational and delicious. Choose blindly, and you’re unlikely to be disappointed; however, count yourself lucky to find this occasional brew on the board. The Northern European interpretation of a traditional British porter, the biggest way a Baltic porter differs from the original is that it’s a lager, not an ale. The dark beer weighs in at a hefty 9.7 percent alcohol, but thanks to the many weeks spent lagering, it drinks lighter and crisper than its potency suggests. Nevertheless, it echoes the style’s British dark fruit, toffee, and cocoa. For fans of malt complexity.
8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
From a hops standpoint, Societe’s The Baroness is the furthest beer in the world from a bitter IPA: it manages to be both light and tasty.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
- The Baroness
- It established its reputation as one of the premier IPA producers in this IPA city. But Societe excels across the board, including top class feral (aka wild) ales and stouts nearly matching the complexity of coffee. And the Kearny Mesa brewer’s continued growth in the lager realm has seriously impressed. Striking up a friendship with San Diego lager guru Doug Haskins (formerly of Gordon Biersch) hasn’t hurt. That mentorship, combined with Societe’s relentlessly high standards, should make it a small surprise that when The Baroness debuted last year, it took a place alongside Hasker’s Golden Export as one of the top helleses in town. From a hops standpoint, this style is the furthest beer in the world from a bitter IPA: it manages to be both light and tasty. Consequently, it sells out fast. Because a pint of The Baroness isn’t enough. The classic Munich-style demands to be consumed by the liter.
- Also try: Pariah Brewing Co. — My Cat from Helles
1347 Keystone Way, Vista
Eppig’s Special Lager has quickly become one of the rising brewery’s top sellers, for good reason.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Japanese Rice Lager
- Special Lager
- Japanese rice lagers such as Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban remain the number one option in sushi restaurants. But this could change. Until recently, local craft brewers have been slow to adopt the light lager style, due to macro brands notorious use of rice to water down their light beers. Name aside, rice lagers still start with malted barley, but the inclusion of rice thins out the body, and because it’s considerably cheaper than barley malt, corporate brands brewing unimaginable volumes use it as a significant cost-cutting measure. But Eppig takes a different approach to rice, using it to bring its slightly sweet flavor to this dry lager. The sweetness is matched with a touch of lemon blossom aroma, thanks to a kiss of American hops. Since joining the rest of Eppig’s stellar lager lineup, it’s quickly became one of the rising brewery’s top sellers, with good reason.
- Also try: Circle 9 — Nagawari Rice Lager
259 3rd Avenue, Chula Vista
- La Flama Blanca
- Most Mexican lagers aren’t that different from any other lagers, except for the tweak in flavor and sweetness that comes from the addition of corn to the grain bill. For several years, local brewers have taken to the challenge of combining our affection for drinking Tecate on the beach with our demanding craft beer sensibilities, and none better than Thr3e Punks. Except for the corn, La Flama Blanca adheres to reinheitsgebot, the famous Bavarian beer purity laws, and the Punk brewers also make temperature adjustments during fermentation, working to retain some of the corn characteristics, yet aiming for the relative dryness of a pilsner. Maybe just as important: when you go to drink this Mexican Lager at its Third Avenue source, it’s not pasteurized the way all those well known Mexican imports are, which reveals a more expansive char acter. A style like this is why we drink craft.
- Also try: South Norte Sea Señor
6350 Yarrow Drive, Carlsbad
New Zealand Pilsner
- Clever Kiwi
- Highly regarded for a cavalcade of aromatic IPAs, third-year brewery Burgeon proved that its savvy use of hops extends just as well to other beer styles this year with Clever Kiwi. A new-to-San Diego beer style, the New Zealand pilsner is named for the origins of its hops. So while a German pilsner might owe its crispness to German hops, this pilsner gets dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin, the kiwi hop that kicked off the beer world’s love affair with Kiwi hops in the first place. This means, rather than the floral finish that characterizes the pilsners America grew up drinking, this one veers gracefully into citrus territory, and the result is a brisk, dry pilsner that’s doubly refreshing on the hottest days.
- Also try: Kairoa Brewing Company – Back Paddock
1325 Grand Avenue #100, San Marcos
- Breakline Bock
- Despite adhering to one of the least represented beer styles in San Diego, Breakline has become one of the most celebrated brews in San Diego beer history. It’s medaled in every major beer competition, racking up an astounding nine gold medals in the process, and was named the best in show at the inaugural California Craft Brewers Cup, held just last month. The bock style is a dark, malty lager, but don’t expect any cloying sweetness here. Rip Current cofounder Paul Sangster says key to Breakline’s success is getting the yeast to keep converting sugars through fermentation to put the focus on the complexity of its malts. The exceptionally clean beer serves up nutty and bready flavor notes akin to those beloved by native Germans, as well as qualified beer judge palates.
8323 La Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
80 Shilling Ale
- Fourpenny Ale
- Once upon a time in Scotland, ales were taxed based on their potency, and styles took on monetary names to reflect that fact. The country’s beer drinkers understood a 60 shilling ale to be around three percent alcohol, while an 80 shilling ale was a more robust five percent. Meanwhile, English hops were expensive, so their use was limited. That’s where the idea behind the flagship ale of this Scottish styled La Mesa brewpub comes from, and why it’s an easy drinking, malty beer with little bitterness to speak of. Those old Scottish brewers overboiled their malts by today’s standards, giving what might have been pale ales a brown or coppery color. Fourpenny uses modern brewing techniques to get its Scottish malts and yeast to acquire its pleasing toffee and pumpernickel flavors. The sweetness is contained by just enough earthy English hops. (And if you’re trying to do the math, 80 shillings equaled four pounds, not fourpence.)
1517 30th Street, San Diego
The best, best bitter to emerge in San Diego is found in South Park, where this neighborhood brewery’s fondness for historical styles has produced this multiple gold medal winner so smooth that it bears the name of lead singer of 80s new wave band, The Cure.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
- Robert Smith’s Smooth Best Bitter
- Part of the same British brewing heritage, a bitter is related to the pale ale family that dominates San Diego beer, though, ironically, it’s not as bitter. Hop aromas aren’t brought to the fore, as this style is more about the malt character. The bitter spectrum includes the lighter ordinary bitter, and more robust extra special bitter. Sitting in the middle is the seldom seen (at least in these parts) best bitter. The best best bitter to emerge in San Diego is found in South Park, where this neighborhood brewery’s fondness for historical styles has produced this multiple gold medal winner so smooth that it bears the name of the lead singer of the ‘80s new wave band The Cure. The light copper-colored beer has a bready base with a hint of caramel sweetness ,and lastly floral notes, because there are a few mild English hops in there.
2870 Scott Street #102, Vista
- Hooded Assassin
- This traditional English beer style goes back hundreds of years to a prescientific brewing era, but that’s not why it’s called old ale. The word “old” was used to distinguish it from the fresh ales of the time. Made from the highly sugary first runoff of wort, the old ales were maltier and twice as potent as fresh, mild ales, so they were aged in barrels and served on special occasions. Similarly, at the few local breweries producing them, old ales are served as occasional brews. However, Battlemage’s modern take on the style has so fired up the imagination of its fantasy-loving fan base that Hooded Assassin is on draft every day. The dark ale’s heaviness (10 percent ABV) is masked by an extended boil of seven types of malt, accentuated by molasses, yielding burnt sugar swirling with dark fruit flavors. Imagine a sweet stout, but without any roasted malt flavor.
- Also try: Alesmith Olde Ale
1065 Fourth Avenue, San Diego
- Industrial Gris
- The Belgian farmhouse style called saison has gotten plenty of mileage in San Diego brewing circles, but the results have not always been great. Plenty of San Diego beer fans will have tried local saisons made too pungent with the floral and clove-like phenolic compounds wrought by saison yeast. This is where the grisette style comes in to save our tired palates. A subset of the saison brewed with wheat, grisettes were brewed for miners to drink while they worked, so they are lower alcohol and more refreshing. Resident’s version, a recent great American Beer Festival medal winner, has loads of effervescence and a light, breezy body, thanks in part to wheat, oats, and spelt. Those clove compounds are present, but understated — the taste is more floral and citrus, given structure by the low but steady presence of European hops. It’s refreshing enough for a sunny So Cal day; no mining work necessary.
- Also try: Burgeon Beer Co. – Noble Miner
692 Rancheros Drive, San Marcos
Wild Barrel opened two years ago with a variety of berliners, each blended with a different fruit, and though they all hailed from the same beer recipe, each brew took on unique characteristics according to its blend.
Photograph by Ian Anderson
Fruited Kettle Sour
- San Diego Vice
- Named for the German capital that popularized it, the Berliner Weisse is a kettle sour, meaning its tartness comes from allowing its wheat beer wort to sour prior to fermentation. Though not very sour, in old Berlin it became popular to sweeten the brew up with fruit flavored syrups. But in craft-conscious San Diego, we go one better and use actual fruit. Wild Barrel opened two years ago with a variety of berliners, each blended with a different fruit, and though they all hailed from the same beer recipe, each brew took on unique characteristics according to its blend. For example, a currant beer took on astringent red wine characteristics, while pink guava made the beer juicier and almost punchy. Thanks to its popularity, Wild Barrel has continued its San Diego Vice series, each creative fruit blend outdoing the last. Recent releases have included nectarine cherry, cactus dragon fruit, and papaya mulberry.
- Also try: Bitter Brothers Brewing Co. – Family Tart
8101 Commercial Street, La Mesa
At Helix Brewing’s offshoot Sourworx, wild yeast and souring bacteria transform gold, red, and dark ales into puckering concoctions swimming with fruitlike acidity and varying degrees of funky complexity, with no two barrels yielding exactly the same result.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Barrel Aged Sour
- The Helix Brewing offshoot Sourworx became the latest brewery to debut a full time sour beer facility this year with its Sourworx brand. The barrel aging and tasting room is separated only by a courtyard from the original brewery, allowing fans to sample both in the same crowd-friendly space. On the Sourworx side, wild yeast and souring bacteria transform gold, red, and dark ales into puckering concoctions swimming with fruitlike acidity and varying degrees of funky complexity, with no two barrels yielding exactly the same result. So it’s appropriate enough that an early standout bears the name Coincidence of Epic Proportions. A sour red ale, the lightly acidic brew rides sweet notes of fruit and cola, to the point it almost drinks like a soda, but without the cloying syrup. There is such a thing as a sour easy drinker.
- Also try: every sour made by The Lost Abbey
177 Newport Drive, Suite B, San Marcos
San Diego-grown hard cider
- Northern Spy
- I hope you didn’t read it here first, but Julian Apple Pies aren’t always made with apples grown in Julian. But we can drink cider made from local apples. Raging Cider sources from local apple and pear orchards to produce a truly distinctive assortment of hard ciders and perries. Sometimes they’re naturally fermented, sometimes they’re barrel aged, and sometimes they reveal the distinct characteristics of a single apple variety. Take the single-origin cider Northern Spy, made from its namesake apple varietal that originated in upstate New York. It tends to be tart and crisp. However, it turns out Northern Spy apples grown in Julian develop higher sugar content, lending notes of caramel not found out east. Raging’s cider form the 2017 harvest recently won gold at GLINTCAP — the world’s largest judged cider competition — with bottles still available even as the 2018 vintage nears release. Cider maker and orchard manager Dave Carr reports the 2018 Northern Spies were fewer in number, but its cider is finishing drier, with more complexity.
- Also try: Calico Cidery – Calico Dry
8665 Miralani Drive #100, San Diego
- Apricot Hops
- San Diego drinkers have shown such a thirst for hops that many local alcohol producers have experimented with adding hops to brews that aren’t beer. You’ll find hopped sake, hopped mead, and even hopped wine, all without leaving the cluster collectively known as the Miralani Maker’s District. That’s also where you’ll find this award-winning hopped cider made by Serpentine Cider. The two-year-old cider maker claimed four medals at this summer’s GLINTCAP (Great Lakes International Cider and Perry competition). Thanks to the delectably earthy and fruity aromatics of Simcoe hops, the apricot-infused cider breathes in almost like you’re present for the harvest. It smells like a juicy IPA, then drinks far lighter, a light sparkling beverage opening the palate to the pleasure of hoppiness without overwhelming.
8680 Miralani Drive, San Diego
San Diego grown natural wine
- Dark Star
- Charlie & Echo is an urban winery that makes natural wine, usually sparkling, entirely from local grapes. Natural winemaking allows crushed grapes to ferment naturally, without yeast or other additives, and minimally guides them through the fermentation process. The idea is to discover which flavor tendencies the fruit might have without the winemaker nudging a specific varietal in the same direction every time. As Charlie & Echo’s preference for sparkling wines suggests, you’ll encounter plenty of whites and rosés here, made from grapes grown in spots including Warner Springs and Pauma Valley. One of the most intriguing options is Dark Star, a sparkling red. The bone-dry Syrah and Zinfandel blend offers notes of cherry, plum, and black pepper; and won’t remind you of any other wine you’ve tried this year.
1042 La Mirada Court, Vista
- Show Mead
- Twisted Horn Mead and Cider –
- 1042 La Mirada Court
- The gathering momentum of San Diego’s mead industry includes the champion Meadery from this year’s San Diego International Beer competition. Twisted Horn has earned medals for ciders and meads, as well as cysers (combinations of the two). While it rotates through interesting beverages involving a variety of honeys and fruits, a reliable draw to its Viking hall-styled tasting room are its featured show meads, the term given to meads brewed simply to offer the best expression of the regionally sourced honeys. For example, Sage Advice features honey produced by bees that pollinate sage blossoms. Recently added to the menu is Raz to the Challenge, made from raspberry blossom honey. The off-dry mead primarily offers perceived sweetness, offering a hint of what raspberry’s distinguishing characteristics might be if you took away their sugars and acids. It’s an ideal gateway for embracing San Diego’s impending mead moment.
1365 Grand Avenue, San Marcos
The overlap of mead and wine becomes quickly apparent when you check out the newly opened tasting room of Meadiocrity.
Photograph by Ian Anderson
- Meadiocrity Mead
- 1365 Grand Avenue
- San Marcos
- The overlap of mead and wine becomes quickly apparent when you check out the newly opened tasting room of Meadiocrity. Though it’s been producing mead for several years, this collaboration of winemaker and brewer friends now has a place to showcase its refined meads, many of which drink like a dry white wine with a less tannic edge. The drink’s structure is provided by the honey’s native characteristics, as with the alfalfa honey used to make its lightly carbonated, semi sweet flagship, Foundation. Other initial offerings in the new mead destination include an off-dry, pink jasmine-infused sparkling mead, and the more densely bubbled meadacolada, flavored with pineapple, coconut, and lime, and served on nitro.
8665 Miralani Drive #100, San Diego
Caramelized honey mead
- Playing with Matches Bochets
- The world of mead brings with it a long list of really peculiar sounding styles: names such as melomel (fruited mead), metheglin (spiced mead), and capsicumel, which is mead spiced with chili peppers. In such company, the name bochet may not stand out, but the style bears remembering. It’s mead made with caramelized honey, which takes on the sort of characteristics you’d expect of cooked sugars, such as toffee or marshmallow. Using an unconventional approach, Lost Cause has been producing a series of luxurious flavored bochets called Playing With Matches. Each occasional release ranges around 14-percent alcohol, and drinks like molasses with the smoothness of cashmere. Flavor combinations, appearing in bottles and on tap, have included strawberry vanilla, coffee and figs, and the most recent: Lying in Bedlam, an oak-aged bochet prepared with both caramelized and avocado blossom honey, vanilla beans, cinnamon, and a mix of tart and sweet cherries. These go fast, and you shouldn’t miss them.
8680 Miralani Drive #120, San Diego
Setting Sun’s core lineup of craft sakes, are becoming more readily available in shops around San Diego and Southern California as the nascent craft sake movement starts to gain traction.
Photograph by Ian Anderson
- Ronin Cloudy
- Technically the Japanese word nigori, used to describe unfiltered sake, translates to cloudy, so this should be called a cloudy sake, not hazy. But its cloudiness comes from the same sort of colloidal solution that makes New England IPAs hazy, so the moniker fits. And like hazy IPAs versus West Coast IPAs, suspended yeast and particles likewise provide a softer texture than its filtered counterpart, Ronin Clear, better underscoring its aromas. In this case, that means hints of banana and clove, similar to an unfiltered hefeweizen. The two complementary styles compose half of Setting Sun’s core lineup of craft sakes, which are becoming more readily available in shops around San Diego and Southern California as the nascent craft sake movement starts to gain traction. Setting Sun’s products are brewed from California grown rice, and its core lineup also includes a Mosaic dry hopped sake, and another flavored with a combination of pomegranate, hibiscus, and green tea.
1477 University Avenue, San Diego
Fruit wine-kombucha blend
- Hard Kombucha
- No longer relegated to health food stores, the emergence of kombucha, and more recently hard kombucha, has not been hindered by anything. But you get the sense that the alcohol-included version would be more popular if it figured out how to win over those averse to the notoriously acetic nature of the co-fermented tea beverage. Local craft kombucha producers have fared admirably in this regard, in part due to recipes that mitigate acidity with the addition of fruit and botanicals. But one of the more interesting solutions comes out of this Hillcrest fruit wine producer. Rather than use a secondary fermentation fed by cane sugar, as most hard booch makers do, Fruitcraft makes use of its fruit wines by blending them with its house-brewed soft kombucha. Thanks to low fermentation temperatures, the fruit wines bring fruit aromatics while remaining dry, bringing alcohol, body, and flavor to the mix, so you barely notice you’re drinking a probiotic beverage.
10051 Old Grove Road, San Diego
Activated charcoal hard kombucha
- Midnight Painkiller
- Real talk: there’s no way to make alcohol healthy. The best we can hope for is to drink our alcohol mixed with something that is. That’s what hard kombucha makers strive for when they re-ferment their probiotic teas and add fruits, spices, botanicals, and honey to yield six- or seven-percent brews with the potential to improve gut health. With Midnight Painkiller, JuneShine doubles down by adding activated charcoal, which is supposed to act as a sort of Pied Piper, leading toxins out of the digestive system. This double dose of a health drink is based on a bold tiki rum cocktail called the Painkiller, which combines pineapple, orange, coconut, and nutmeg. Only problem is, all these flavors converge in a not-exactly-pretty booch. The charcoal makes it gunmetal grey in the glass, like you just rinsed off your paintbrushes. However, it’s a super dry, light, and fizzy citrus beverage that drinks like a tart La Croix. Let’s hope it truly is healthy.
2733 Via Orange Way #101, Spring Valley
From its vintage styled distillery and tasting room in Spring Valley, San Diego Distillery distills local craft beer to its very essence, then ages it on oak until it’s got hair on its chest.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
- Beer Whiskey
- Technically, grain whiskey is always distilled from beer, and using the sort of delicious, sanitary beer we’re accustomed to drinking isn’t necessary. However, that’s not to say a proper craft beer recipe can’t make a whiskey better. From its vintage styled distillery and tasting room in Spring Valley, San Diego Distillery distills local craft beer to its very essence, then ages it on oak until it’s got hair on its chest. Distiller Trent Tilton has collected beer made by local breweries including Coronado Brewing, Thorn Brewing, and Amplified Ale Works, and turned them into whiskies subtly impacted by the original brews’ aromas. Beer styles have included roasty stouts, a coffee doppelbock, and the distillery’s next intriguing release, a whiskey made from a sour brown ale with elderberries. That one’s distilled a brew from no-longer-in-business Council Brewing Company, so it truly is a spirit of San Diego beer.
1495 G Street, San Diego
At You & Yours, the Sunday Gin gives the spirit a modern, So Cal spin. It’s produced with neutral grape spirits, valencia orange and grapefruit rinds, coriander, rose hips, and cracked juniper.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
San Diego style gin
- Sunday Gin
- Most craft distillers aim to ply their creativity in pursuit of whiskey, but gin rules at this urban distillery. Gin gets its distinctive flavor from botanical infusions, so the creative distiller plies her trade with distinctive botanical recipes. The Sunday Gin gives the spirit a modern, So-Cal spin. It’s produced with neutral grape spirits, Valencia orange and grapefruit rinds, coriander, rose hips, and cracked juniper. The floral and citrus elements marry well so with tonic that You & Yours sells the ready-made cocktail in a can. But go to the fashionable tasting room for the Distiller’s G&T, upgraded with grapefruit tonic. While you’re there, taste distiller Laura Johnson’s newer offerings, including a London-style dry gin — spruced up with spruce tips, blood orange, and clove — and the rotating barrel-aged gin. Most recently, the London Dry gin was aged in single malt barrels, giving it thicker body — and a whiskey sensibility after all.
- Also try: Pier View Gin
2420 Grand Avenue, San Diego
- Misadventure Vodka
- Misadventure & Co. Distillery
- 2420 Grand Avenue
- At its most pure, Vodka is the closest thing we drink to straight alcohol. Neutral taste is the point, so if a vodka has flavor, it had better be intentional. In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether it’s distilled from barley, sugar, grapes, or potatoes: if you can’t tell which, the distiller has done his or her job. So why not distill it from food waste? That’s what the crew behind this North County distillery have concluded. They collect discarded bread and pastries from a local food bank — stale baked goods nobody will eat — break them down into fermentable sugars, feed them to yeast, then distill a clean vodka from it all. It’s not exactly like drinking this vodka will save the planet, but seeing as we’re at a time in history where every little bit counts, a chance to drink cocktails recreationally without dipping back into the agricultural supply chain feels like a win for everyone.