The city of San Diego has experienced an explosion of craft beer bars, breweries, beer-centric restaurants, and bottle shops in the past decade. Not only is the city recognized as one of the great brewing capitals of the country, it will host more than 3,000+ of the world’s most creative minds in the brewing industry at the Craft Brewers Conference in May.
In the excerpt from The New Brewer article “Back to the Beach: San Diego Hosts Craft Brewers Conference,” Tom Nickel and Brandon Hernandez, San Diego natives and active members in many facets of the beer community, share a few of their favorite local craft beer destinations.
Stone Brewing Co. is still the standard bearer for the region, nearing a production of 150,000 barrels. Pizza Port continues to dominate in the medal count, with all four locations having won a Brewpub of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival. Alpine Beer Company continues to be a cult favorite, and breweries like Green Flash, Ballast Point, AleSmith, and The Lost Abbey continue to make world-class beer.
Craft Beer by Trolley
Along the city’s Trolley Green Line, you can easily stop at the Mission Valley Oggi’s Pizza and Brewing Co. location (which has its own brewery) and the local Gordon Biersch, with a great outdoor patio.
At the west end of Mission Valley, you can visit the original Ballast Point location, which shares a home with Home Brew Mart, San Diego’s oldest homebrew supply shop. The brewery has a tasting bar and sells bottles and growlers to go. And just a little beyond Ballast Point in Bay Park is The High Dive, a great local beer bar with a beach feel. At the east end of the valley, the trolley can get you just over a mile away from the San Diego Brewing Company’s 50 tap handles.
Downtown San Diego
Downtown San Diego has become a much easier place to find good beer. Karl Strauss is experiencing a renaissance in its 23rd year and the company’s beers are consistently winning medals. The original location is still on Columbia Street. Rock Bottom is easy to find in the Gaslamp district. Not far away is a new brewpub, The Beer Company, located right behind the House of Blues. And just across the bay is Coronado Brewing Co., a wonderful place to eat outside on the patio while enjoying the great beer.
Little Italy is a perfect place to enjoy Italian food and also track down a local beer. Craft & Commerce has a well-thought-out draft list with a kitchen open daily until 11 p.m. Bottlecraft is a combination bottle shop and tasting bar in Little Italy. Just south of that is Downtown Johnny Brown’s, the area’s oldest craft beer bar, where you’ll find pool tables and shuffleboard until 2 am.
Just north of Little Italy on India Street, you can stop in at one of San Diego’s premier dive bars, the Aero Club. And just down India is the Regal Beagle in Mission Hills, the spot for craft beer and local sausage from T & H Prime Meats. If you’re in the mood for fish and chips, continue down this one-way beer avenue to the Shakespeare Pub & Grille for the classic English snack. Also on the way north out of downtown is the new 5 Points tasting room, home to beers from 5 Points Brewing and New English Brewing.
The home of the Padres, Petco Park, has sparked revitalization in the East Village of downtown. The area is now home to Mission Brewery (no connection to the plaza above) and its tasting room that is just steps away from the ballpark. The Neighborhood bar serves up an eclectic mix of food and beer. The newest spot in the area is the latest effort from beer bar mogul Scot Blair, a brewpub/beer bar named Monkey Paw.
On the other side of downtown, Slater’s 50/50 just opened in Liberty Station, a former Navy facility in Point Loma. The pub has 100 taps and a burger made from 50 percent ground beef and 50 percent ground bacon. Stone will soon be opening a 400-seat brewpub in Liberty Station as well. The site has hosted the last few Brewers Guild festivals.
No one street in San Diego has become more associated with good food and beer than 30th Street—Green Flash now makes a 30th Street Pale Ale. The road stretches from South Park, through North Park into Normal Heights. The beer trail is anchored by Hamilton’s Tavern in the south and Blind Lady Ale House/Automatic Brewing in the north. Hamilton’s is now five years old and has become one of the best beer bars in the county. Blind Lady is a hip pizza joint with great beer and house beers made by former Stone brewmaster Lee Chase.
In between is nearly everything you could ever want in food and beer—great beer-centric restaurants like Ritual Tavern, amazing Sicilian-style pizza (Sicilian Thing by Toronado), wonderful authentic Mexican food (Ranchos—also good for vegetarians) and world-class beer bars. Toronado sits in the middle with 50 taps, a huge bottle list, and a fantastic food menu that makes it a much different experience than the original in San Francisco. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the Toronado is open until 2 am.
Lee Chase and partners just opened the new Tiger! Tiger! Tavern in North Park. Hamilton’s owner Scot Blair has Small Bar in University Heights, and Eleven, a live music and beer bar in Normal Heights. Farther down in South Park, there is a new Stone Company Store complete with tasting bar, merchandise, and growler fills. Off 30th Street at Upas, you will find the city’s popular disc golf course at Morley Field.
Highway 78 in the north county still connects some of the big names in San Diego brewing. Pizza Port Carlsbad sits at the west end, now joined by Breakwater Brewing in Oceanside.
To the east you will find Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey of Tomme Arthur fame, and Stone Brewing and its World Bistro. Port Brewing has remodeled its tasting room and serves a full complement of rare bottled beer.
But in between those destinations, much has changed. Green Flash has moved to San Diego on Mira Mesa Boulevard with a massive new facility that includes a tasting room with an open view of the brewery. Latitude 33 took over brewing at the old Green Flash site in Vista. And just down the road from that, Aztec Brewing has resurrected one of San Diego’s well-known pre-Prohibition labels.
Vista is also the home to Mother Earth Brew, an expanding nano brewery that also sells homebrew supplies. You will also find Back Street Brewery in Vista. And though Oggi’s and Green Flash are no longer in the area, the city of less than 100,000 is still home to four breweries. Churchill’s Pub in San Marcos has expanded to 50 tap handles and has revamped its menu to include a daily mac and cheese and tasty vegetarian options.
Tom Nickel graduated from Yale with a degree in Medieval History and was voted “most likely to drive a beer truck.” Tom and his wife, Lindsey, are the proprietors of O’Brien’s Pub and partners in the Bailey Barbecue and Julian Brewing Company, where Tom is the head brewer. Brandon Hernández is a San Diego-based freelance beer and food journalist. He regularly contributes to national publications including Celebrator Beer News, The Beer Connoisseur, and Wine Enthusiast.