Visitor’s guide to San Diego Craft Beer (#SDBeer)

An award-winning chef and craft beer guru teamed up to create Waypoint Public - a craft beer-centric bar on 30th Street in North Park

An award-winning chef and craft beer guru teamed up to create Waypoint Public – a craft beer-centric bar on 30th Street in North Park

It’s the summer, which means you’ll have friends, family, old neighbors and basically anyone who lives somewhere hot or muggy flocking here to San Diego for a little getaway.  A friend of mine in the brewing industry sent me a handy little cheat sheet he made for an out-of-town guest and I thought I’d share it. (note: scroll down for the pdf in big print below)

This cheat sheet is meant to be shared! Please download it, send it to whoever you like, and enjoy it as you see fit.

San Diego Craft Beer is a term that applies to the entire region – from Carlsbad and Oceanside, to Santee to the International Border and everywhere in between.  You’ll find great beer all over.  And you’ll also find that most high-quality restaurants like Urban Solace, A.R. Valentin, Mr. A’s, and so forth will have great local beer to offer.  This helps if your whole party doesn’t want to go to a brewery but a few of you really like high-quality, high-flavor beer with your food. If you use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or other Social Media, be sure to add #SDBeer to your posts and tweets – it helps keep us all connected and make great beer and food finds easier for everyone!

NOTE: In a place with so much extremely good beer, every list will be a little different.  That’s part of the magic.  He didn’t name every beer I would have and the same is probably true for you.  It’s just a sample to get you started with some of the good ones.

My Added commentary: A couple quick things to mention.  There is no mention of Modern Times Beer’s Blazing World, nor Societe Brewing Co.’s Harlot nor Mike Hess Brewing’s Grazias or Coronado Brewing Company’s Islander IPA.  At the moment, these are four beers I find quite tasty and (bonus) they seem to have broad appeal when I have mixed social circles who are “not that into beer.”  You can also use some handy technology to find any beer you like from your phone, so download Taphunter and thank me later. And if you prefer to go old school, download a full brewery map from the San Diego Brewers Guild here.

Last note: This is a gratuitous nod to my friends at Carnitas’ Snack Shack, whose pork-centric offerings, San Diego Craft Beer, and community-mindedness make them a can’t miss on a trip to San Diego. It’s walking distance from 30th/University and delicious.

Download the handy PDF version –

 Cliff Notes Guide to San Diego Beer (6-17-2014)

–begin web version of Cliff Notes–

So, you are coming to visit America’s Craft Beer Capitol, San Diego, California, and you are only devoting one day for visiting the “best beer spots in SD”?  Wrong move.  There is simply too much going on here—new breweries, expanding breweries, satellite tasting room locations, beer bars, brewpubs, restaurants with amazing, local beer…hell, you can even get an Alesmith Speedway Stout at the baseball stadium—to ever possibly experience it all in just one day.  You should have planned on staying a week.  At the least.

Here is the down and dirty on my favorite picks for a day of San Diego Beer (#SDBeer).  My first piece of advice?  Find a designated driver.  Either enlist a friend or family member, or better yet, hire one of the amazing brew tour companies in San Diego to cart you around from one glorious beer destination to another (my favorite would be Summer and Lars and the crew at BrewHop: *editor’s note: I also like Jon and Mindy of Brewery Tours of San Diego – very good team who are super friendly*.  You simply do not want to drink and drive, and it’s not worth being at a brewery and having to turn down the chance to try another awesome beer because you have to get behind the wheel.  That situation where you want to check out one more beer from a brewery—maybe a new beer style of a special cask offering—will happen.  Don’t miss out on awesome beer.

With that being said, are you ready?  No, you are not.  Eighty-eight breweries?  Countless beer bars and beer-centric restaurants?  From one of the oldest breweries, Karl Strauss, to one of the newest, Council Brewing Company, there is a lot of great beer to drink in…Here goes nothing…

Do We Drink Alpine Beer or Do We Go To Bed?

Alpine Beer Company | 2351 Alpine Blvd., Alpine, CA | @alpineshawn
Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer:

If you have only one day to check-out San Diego, the first question that you need think long and hard about, is: do you want (need) to make the trek out to Alpine Beer Company?  Located in Alpine, California, the brewpub and brewery takes about at least 30 minutes to drive to and from each way, depending on where you are in San Diego.  That’s a lot of time to devote to visiting just one brewery.  Plus, when you get there, the beer might just convince you to extend the trip.  You will never want to leave.


A glass of Alpine Brewing Company's Pure Hoppyness and the sign when you arrive

A glass of Alpine Brewing Company’s Pure Hoppyness and the sign when you arrive

hoppy bday

 The father and son team of Pat and Shawn McIlhenney at Alpine Beer Company make some of the best IPAs in the world.  Period.  The beer really is that delicious.  “Nelson,” their rye IPA that predominantly features the Nelson Sauvin hop, is spicy, floral, and a cult-classic.  Their other fan favorite, “Duet,” balances Simcoe and Amarillo hops into an amazingly drinkable 7.0% ABV West Coast IPA.  Their lower ABV hoppy beers, such as Hoppy Birthday and Baby Face (a “baby” version of Nelson, clocking in at just 4.7% ABV), are perhaps the perfect accompaniment to some no-frills, but absolutely delicious BBQ food.  A pint of Hoppy Birthday and a plate of pulled pork is heavenly.

So is it worth it?  In my opinion, yes.  Just Duet.  I would suggest getting there when the doors open, right at noon.  Eat a lunch and enjoy some beers, then visit the brewery next door to snag a bottle or two to bring back home.  Then, head back to San Diego for an afternoon and evening of visiting my favorite spots—new and old—in the city.

San Diego Breweries – The New School

From the time that you started reading this until right now, it might be safe to say that at least one new brewery has probably opened up in San Diego and there are also three additional breweries now-in-planning.  But in all seriousness, so much great beer is coming from some of San Diego’s newest entrants onto the brewing scene.  I do not view the San Diego Beer market as being saturated, there is no “bubble”—the market is mature, and there is always room for more awesome beer.  It might seem obvious, but it is true.  If you are making great beer in San Diego, you are going to be a successful brewery.  Here are some of the newest stories in San Diego…

Benchmark Brewing Co. | 6190 Fairmont Ave, Suite G, San Diego, CA | @BenchmarkBrew

Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer: Oatmeal Stout (it’s “life-changing”)

Benchmark Brewing Taps and the "life-changing" Oatmeal Stout

Benchmark Brewing Taps and the “life-changing” Oatmeal Stout

bmark taps

Heading back into San Diego, the first brewery that I would stop at would most certainly be Benchmark Brewing Company (*editor’s note: that last link is to a post I did about both Benchmark and Modern Times Beer shortly after they opened*).  This upstart brewery was founded by Matt and Rachael Akin, two of the most awesome and passionate people that you will meet.  Matt’s father, Jim, is also part of an operation that brews some of the most intriguing beers in San Diego.

In a town filled with 9% ABV double IPAs, Matt brews some incredibly flavorful beers that are still low in alcohol.  Their IPA is only 5.1%, and leans more towards an English Pale or Bitter as opposed to a true to form West Coast, American IPA.  It’s a delicious beer, nonetheless.  Matt also brews a Belgian Table beer that is incredible, glass after glass, and their Oatmeal Stout really is “life-changing.”  It packs all the flavor and body of a heavier stout, but you can enjoy it by the mugful.  Simply a beautiful beer.

Embracing the pub culture, Matt and Rachael love to spotlight local sports teams, as well as the National teams at the Tasting Room.  Expect a USA-heavy vibe this summer as the Men’s National Team takes on the rest of the world in Brazil for the World Cup.  Catch some futebol action when you visit and sip on a mug of Benchmark brew.

Council Brewing Company | 7705 Convoy Court, San Diego, CA | @councilbrew

Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer: Gavel Drop

Opened in May 2014, San Diego’s newest brewery is well-worth the time to stop in and visit.  Liz and Curtis Chisum are two local homebrewers, active in the historic and vulnerable QUAFF homebrew club, who made the decision to go professional.  Their brewery is tiny, just a three-barrel system, and it is tucked into the far end of an industrial complex.  But, the beers that they are brewing have been phenomenal right out of the gate.

Be sure to try Gavel Drop, an IPA that heavily features the Nelson Sauvin hop.  In a town that loves Nelson (throwback to Alpine’s fantastic beer), this IPA from Council is gaining a cult following of its own.  Citrusy, bright, with hints of the white-wine characteristic that can be present in this hop varietal, this beer drinks incredibly smooth.

Gavel Drop from Council Brewing and owners Liz and Curtis hard at work

Gavel Drop from Council Brewing and owners Liz and Curtis hard at work

liz and curtis

 Council Brewing celebrates its Grand Opening on June 28, 2014, and San Diego will officially welcome its newest brewery in style.  Liz and Curtis will have beer pouring on all sixteen of their taps, and special varietals of Pirate’s Breakfast (their Imperial Stout) will be available to taste.  The future is definitely bright for this young brewery, and I for one am looking forward to watching them find their place in the San Diego beer community.

Mike Hess Brewing: North Park | 3812 Grim Ave, San Diego, CA | @hessbrewing
Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer:
Habitus Rye India Pale Ale

Head down to North Park to visit America’s Beer Boulevard (30th Street), home to the iconic Toronado bar, as well as Tiger! Tiger! Tavern (just around the corner on El Cajon Boulevard.).  While visiting two of the best beer bars in the county, check out North Park’s coolest production brewery.  Tucked into an old book store on Grim Avenue, Mike Hess Brewing has a thirty-barrel brewhouse and a cellar that is unlike any other brewery you have seen.

A can of Habitus and a Grim Street IPA at Mike Hess Brewing in North Park

A can of Habitus in a can glass and a Grim St. IPA at Mike Hess Brewing in North Park


Walking across the catwalk into the tasting room, you can catch a birds-eye view of the brewery that is sunken into the lower level of the building.  Once you pick your jaw up off the floor, you arrive in their tasting room, a clean and well put together environment.  Order a flight of their delicious beers.  This way, you can sample five awesome beers, and then return your tasting glassware to the bar to exchange them for a Hess Brewing can glass.

That’s right, cans.  Hess is one of the San Diego breweries that have been making some noise with canned beer lately, including Modern Times Beer and Pizza Port Brew Company in the Bressi Ranch location.  Hess Brewing cans several of their beers, including Habitus.  A deeply flavorful rye IPA, Habitus took home a well-deserved Gold Award at the World Beer Cup in the Rye Beer category in 2014.  It’s that damn delicious.

Rip Current Brewing | 1325 Grand Ave, San Marcos, CA | @ripcurrentbeer

Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer: Bonzer Pale Ale

No visit to San Diego is complete without a trip to North County for beer.  Home to some iconic San Diego breweries such as Stone Brewing Company, and Lost Abbey and Port Brewing Company, there is little doubt that some awesome beer is being brewed up North of the city proper.  If you head up the freeway, go check out the relative newcomers at Rip Current Brewing Company.

Having just celebrated their first anniversary, Paul Sangster, Guy Shobe, and the crew are hitting their stride and they are brewing flat out awesome beer.  Paul (as are Curtis and Liz from Council) is another QUAFF brewer, and he is probably most well known as being the 2011 Ninkasi winner at the National Homebrewer Conference (the Ninkasi Award is awarded to the homebrewer of the year).  Paul brews a diverse range of styles: Kolsch, Milds, Bitters, Dunkels, Hefes, IPA, Scottish Ales, an Altbier…if there is a BJCP beer style, Paul brews it and he brews it well.

Paddle out to Rip Current

Paddle out to Rip Current

Maybe I am simply a stereotypical hop-head, but to my palate, their hoppy beers are divine.  I would not miss out on a taste of “Bonzer Pale Ale,” a crushable American pale ale, and “Lupulin Lust,” a juicy and redolent double IPA.  “In the Curl” and “Caught in a Rip,” a double and a triple IPA, respectively, are two other hoppy delights.

San Diego Breweries – The Old Guard

The new school of breweries would be nowhere without standing on the shoulders of the giants.  San Diego has an amazingly deep history of brewing culture.  Although these breweries have been around a while, and have been in the collective conscious of the craft beer mindset for years, do not pass up the opportunity to revisit the classics and take in the tradition of brewing amazing beer in San Diego.

Stone Brewing Company: World Bistro & Gardens | 1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, CA | @stonebrewingco

Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer: Go-To IPA

Of course, this list begins with Stone Brewing Company.  It is impossible to understate the import and the impact that Stone Brewing Company has with respect to craft beer in San Diego.  These guys are absolutely responsible for the scene here today.  The World Bistro & Gardens is a veritable Disneyland of beer, and it is definitively a must-see location for every beer drinker during their lifetime.  In addition to the lineup of Stone beers, the Bistro serves up some incredible guest beer on tap and it features a bottle list curated by Dr. Bill Sysak, well-known for his cellar collection and for his Master Pairings.

Team Stone Bliss in the Garden and "Dr." Bill Sysak

Team Stone Bliss in the Garden and Stone Brewing Company Beer curator “Dr.” Bill Sysak

team stone garden

Try to squeeze in the time for a quick Go-To IPA in the Gardens, you will not be disappointed.  If you can find a peaceful spot to meditate about beer, you just might achieve Nirvana.  Otherwise, be careful as this place tends to fill up quickly and the crowds detract from some of the enjoyment.  If you have never been, go.  If you have been, your time might be better spent down the road in San Marcos visiting Rip Current.  Still, it is remarkable to think just how definitive Stone is when it comes to San Diego Beer.

Karl Strauss Brewery| 5985 Santa Fe Drive, San Diego, CA | @karl_strauss

Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer: Mosaic Session IPA

After a visit to Benchmark Brewing Company, you are close enough to make a stop at another iconic San Diego brewery, Karl Strauss.  Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner started Karl Strauss when the term “craft beer” did not even exist.  Today?  Well, they are brewing some of the most consistently high quality craft beers around.  Red Trolley Ale, alone, has won seventeen awards between the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival.  Uh, wow.

Much history and respect for Karl Strauss

Much history and respect for Karl Strauss

At their Tasting Room location, you can catch a glimpse of the bottling line in action.  Or check out the lab where the quality assurance program does its thing to make sure that bad beer never leaves the brewery.  Recently, the Brewers Association has been preaching: “Quality, quality, quality…” and these guys take that to heart.  While you are there, try their new Mosaic Session IPA.  Brewed with 2-Row, malted wheat, and a kiss of crystal 10, this beer has a refrained malt profile to showcase the glory of the Mosaic hop.  Damn tasty stuff.

Pizza Port Brewing Company: Carlsbad | 571 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad, CA | @PizzaPortBeer

Don’t Miss Out on Awesome Beer: Carlsbad Raceway IPA

Again, when you are talking about the history of San Diego beer, you cannot leave Pizza Port out of the discussion.  Founded by Vince and Gina Marsaglia, the Pizza Port “empire” spans five brewpub locations in San Diego and San Clemente, and it features some incredible alumni brewers like Tommee Arthur (now at Lost Abbey) and Jeff Bagby (of the soon-to-be Bagby Beer Company).

Pull into Port...

Pull into Port…

Although Solana Beach was the original location, I would choose to end my San Diego experience at the Pizza Port in Carlsbad for a fresh glass of one of my all-time favorite beers, Carlsbad Raceway IPA.  Of course, the best part is that you can get a delicious pie for dinner and relax in a fantastic beach community.  Pick up some cans of their Carlsbad Chronic Ale, Swami’s IPA, or Ponto’s S.I.P.A. to bring home, each a delicious memory of an amazing visit to San Diego.

San Diego Beer – But Wait, There’s More

Well, I have already been waxing poetic about San Diego Beer for almost seven pages, and I have only just hit the breweries.  I have not even mentioned the amazing beer bars (so I will briefly)…

  • Tiger!Tiger! Tavern | | 3025 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego
  • Blind Lady Ale House | | 3416 Adams Ave, San Diego
  • Hamilton’s Tavern | | 1521 30th Street, San Diego
  • O’Brien’s Pub | | 4646 Convoy Street, San Diego
  • Toronado SD | | 4036 30th Street, San Diego
  • Churchill’s Pub and Grille | | 887 West San Marcos Blvd., San Marcos
  • Encinitas Ale House | | 1044 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas

And I haven’t mentioned the swanky restaurants that always feature awesome, local, San Diego Beer…

  • Waypoint Public | | 3794 30th Street, San Diego
  • Alchemy Cultural Fare | | 1503 30th Street, San Diego
  • Urge Gastropub | | 16761 Bernardo Center Drive, San Diego
  • Ritual Tavern Kitchen | | 4095 30th Street, San Diego

Well, I think that that just about hits the highpoints…if you cannot find awesome beer here in San Diego, then you just are not doing something right.  Have a great visit, and let me know what your favorites are.

Oh, and I heard that the guys over at Societe Brewing Company make some decent beer too.  CHEERS!

Remember, use #SDBeer in your posts, tweets and comments on social media so we can all easily find the best of San Diego Craft Beer.  With a bit of looking, you’ll find gems like Iron Fist, Lightning Brewery, Thorn Street, and many other small breweries who are doing really interesting stuff.  And you can always reach me with questions at or by leaving notes in the comment section.  There is plenty of room for really good craft brewers in every state across the country.  This is my way of highlighting some of the great aspects of our region.

In case you missed it, download the handy PDF version –

 Cliff Notes Guide to San Diego Beer (6-17-2014)

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