Charleston: The Ultimate Local's Guide
Anaheim (tasting room)
Best beers: Hefeweizen and 1888
In Orange County’s greatest brewery-revival story ever told, Anaheim Brewery -- which operated from 1870 until that meaniehead Prohibition forced it to close in 1920 -- was relegated to the annals of city history until Barbara and Greg Gerovac re-opened a brewery with the same name in 2011. The couple lived in Bavaria for for a few years before returning to Barbara’s native California, where the couple now pours European-style ales at their 100-seat beer garden and taproom, which overlooks Downtown Anaheim’s picturesque Farmer’s Park.
Best beers: Chai porter, Ruby Race IPA
Archaic Craft Brewery is so hidden that you could probably eat a whole Neapolitan pizza inside of its parent restaurant, Centro, and never know the malty Golden Ace IPA and honey cream ale on draft was made on a nano-sized system in the back room. You also might not realize that all the wine at the cozy Downtown Tustin spot (as well as the olive oil) is from the Pozzuoli family’s vineyard and winery in Paso Robles -- the same family that owns not only Centro and Archaic, but also a winery and tasting room around the corner on Red Hill.
San Clemente (tasting room)
Best beers: All of their IPAs
With a love of hoppy beers -- and the talent to make them right -- Artifex Brewing is a quickly growing operation. Since opening at the end of the summer of 2014, they’ve already tripled capacity, expanding distribution of popular beers like Trigger Finger IPA and Show Me Your Roots blonde ale into not only hop-loving San Diego, but also north into the rest of Orange County and LA. Part of the tiny-but-tight-knit South County brewing community, Artifex is known for their sleek and pretty (but for now still minuscule) tasting room, just steps from Rainbow Sandals’ headquarters.
Anaheim (Brewery and tasting room), Irvine (Brewpub)
Best beer: Tomahawk DIPA
As the brewing arm of pizza-parlour mini-chain Lamppost Pizza, Backstreet Brewing’s solid lineup of beers got lost amid the boom and bust of the ‘90s brewpub era, laying low (and slowly dismantling their on-site breweries) until they opened a production brewery and tasting room within earshot of Angel Stadium in October 2015. Now, the brand is more visible than ever, with beers like its IPA and red ale on store shelves across the Southland, and special taproom-only releases drawing in new drinkers every day. For the original experience, stop by the Lamppost restaurant in Irvine -- the last OC location to brew on site -- for a slice and a pitcher of beer.
Costa Mesa (tasting room)
Best beers: Don Perfecto, El Técnico
Owner Greg Nylen is a longtime LA homebrewer, and when he started hunting for a spot to call his own, it was Costa Mesa that graciously accepted him. Now, with a few more recipes from brewer Kevin Buckley -- formerly of Alpine and Latitude 33 in San Diego -- Barley Forge makes eight core beers (some of them are available in six-packs of bottles) and dozens of seasonals and limited releases, some of which are only available at their industrial-park tasting room, which has a full kitchen too.
Fullerton (tasting room)
Best beers: Golden Chaos, Knuckle Sandwich
An early entry into OC’s modern craft-beer boom, Bootleggers opened in 2008 as the brainchild of experienced homebrewer Aaron Barkenhagen, who wrote the business plan while attending Cal State Fullerton. What started as a small seven-barrel system in an industrial park adjacent to the train tracks has grown into a massive brewery and tasting room (now poised nearby, but on the other side of the tracks), where year-round favorites like Knuckle Sandwich and Golden Chaos are made. Fun fact: new head brewer, Robert Margalis, is a former internationally ranked swimmer with USA Swim. God bless America!
Anaheim (tasting room)
Best beers: Tattered Prince, Lagerithm
The local award for best brewery branding might have to go to Bottle Logic, which concocted an elaborate steampunk-from-the-retro-future aesthetic that extends from the decommissioned wall-sized 1940s computers that line the tasting room to the bottle labels for core beers, like She Shot First (a wheat ale), which features a drawing of an adventurous heroine named Eve, one of three characters originally created to tell the Bottle Logic story. Luckily, the beer is bold enough (and good enough) to back up the alluring design, with space-age-like innovation (and award-winning beers) as its constant. Taproom-only pours can include experimental IPAs and saisons, while barrel-aged stouts and other annual bottle releases draw lines of fans from across Southern California.
Rancho Santa Margarita (brewery and taproom), Santa Ana (taproom)
Best beers: Double Rainbow IPA, Mesa, Black’s Dawn
In nerdy geological terms, “cismontane” means “this side of the mountains,” which is exactly where the brewery Cismontane is located. Started by Earth-nerd-turned-real-estate-analyst Evan Weinberg and his friend Ross Stewart, the Rancho Santa Margarita brewery sits in an industrial park space nestled in the foothills of OC’s tallest peak. With popular projects like a single-malt series and an entire line of wine-infused table beers, Cismontane is a delicious representation of OC’s experimental beer spirit -- and once the brewery’s new Santa Ana tasting room gets its new column still up and running, it will be OC’s first brewstillery too.
Irvine (no tasting room)
Best beer: Black lager
From 1994 until 2015, the Irvine facility now called Evans Brewing Company was known as Bayhawk Ales, a mostly contract brewery that advertised itself as both the oldest and largest craft brewery in OC. Though historically significant, Bayhawk was always known less for their personal label of brews than they were for the fact that they made simple house beers for a variety of restaurants and pub chains (including McCormick & Schmick's, behind which the brewery is still located). Evan Rapport, who was brewing his Evans Lager brand at Bayhawk, took over management and rebranded the company last year. Now, Evans Brewing is a kinda/sorta new brewery with new beers already on tap and plans for a taproom and canned lagers in the future.
Anaheim (tasting room)
Best beers: Le Tarte Cerise, Jungle Juice
Despite its name, Hoparazzi is not a hop-focused brewery. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They built up a reputation pouring fruited beers and slightly tart sours on the festival circuit for a few years before opening a long-awaited tasting room right across the street from Bottle Logic Brewing, where the lineup has been expanded to include Scotch ales, Belgian-style beers, and stouts. If an IPA is on draft, it’s the only one. Still, Hoparazzi us a worthwhile stop on any Anaheim brewery tour.
Huntington Beach (tasting room)
Best beers: The Coco, Nightmare on Gothard St.
Yes, there are actually four sons who co-own Four Sons Brewing (Dustin, Drew, Deven and Derek Dufrense) along with their father, Duke. All the recipes came out of the decade or so the brothers spent homebrewing with their dad in the garage, which for “The Ds” was a bonding exercise akin to fixing up an old car. The Huntington Beach brewery already sells bottles and cans of its flagships, but is branching out too: a collaboration beer with a local hotel will be released later this summer, along with more of Four Sons’ barrel-aged experiments.
San Clemente (taproom)
Best beers: Hop Juice, Asylum
One of the oldest breweries in Orange County (established 2004), Left Coast also claims to be its largest by volume, with six year-round bottled beers that are distributed in 30 states and seven countries. But Left Coast’s beer roots go even deeper than that, with the Hadjis family also behind the pizza chain Oggi’s, which started as a brewpub in Del Mar in 1991 and has grown to a multi-state franchise of 17 restaurants. Left Coast grew out of Oggi’s need to streamline its beer production, which used to happen at each individual location but now occurs exclusively at Left Coast. Every bit its own brewery, Left Coast makes a few IPAs, a Belgian-style triple, a stout, and is always experimenting with new seasonal releases.
Anaheim (tasting room)
Best beers: Lagers!
Legends Brewing made a name for itself with a single solid American lager, quietly brewed in Costa Mesa and exclusively distributed to local liquor and big-box stores. But now owner Jay Talley is doubling down on an Anaheim brewery and tasting room where his brew team can make multiple lagers -- including a black lager called Sable and the Aurora Red lager -- plus try their hand at IPAs, witbiers, and more. The TV-and-communal-table tasting room is also home to Saddleback Soda, so teetotalers have something to sip before heading to the Happiest Place on Earth, since Legends is now the closest brewery to Disneyland.
Newport Beach (brewpub)
Best beers: Back Bay Bitter, any of the one-offs
A glorious brewpub in the grand ‘90s tradition, Newport Beach Brewing Company is a historic wooden tavern on the Balboa Peninsula where you can get burgers, pizzas, and sandwiches alongside a rotating lineup of house-made beers. Brewer Derek Bougie has kept the beers contemporary with new hoppy styles, imperial stouts, and even sour beers. There are always nine brews on tap, and with its massive outdoor patio that’s only two blocks from the beach, you may never want to leave.
Anaheim (tasting room)
Best beers: All of them. Seriously, you can do no wrong.
At the 2016 World Beer Cup, Noble won the title of Best Small Brewery in the World, which only solidified what locals already knew -- this beer is world-class. From session IPAs to pilsner-style ales and every cult-favorite golden milk stout in between, brewmaster Evan Price and his team continually refine recipes, push boundaries, and churn out beers that are both drinkable and entirely unique. To top it off, their sense of humor is about as goofy as it gets -- for proof, follow them on Instagram for a steady stream of LOLs.
Anaheim (tasting room)
Best beers: Flying Brick IPA, Hop Wars winners
Cidery meets wine cellar meets homebrew store meets gastropub, Phantom Ales is a lot of things rolled into one. After changing their name from Forty Vines Beer & Wine, the company diversified their custom wine-making business (in which you could create your own blends) into an even larger DIY effort. Sure, they make their own forever rotating beers -- and even their own meads and ciders -- but the on-site homebrew store inspires you to try your own. Famous for their Hop Wars competitions (in which you learn to brew on their pilot system then the winning recipe gets a batch served at the tasting room) and their everything-you-need tasting room (there’s also a thoughtful food menu), this is one hidden industrial park operation that’s more than meets the eye.
San Clemente (brewpub)
Best beers: Dawn Patrol, SC Chronic
For over a decade, San Clemente has provided Orange County with a taste of some serious San Diego beer culture. The iconic brewpub chain (with coastal outposts in places like Solana Beach and Carlsbad) is a well-known local pit stop for its house-made hoppy beers, which have won numerous awards and helped put San Diego (and San Clemente) on the international beer map. But what makes each Pizza Port so unique (and why it deserves to be on this list even though it’s not a chain that started in OC) is that the head brewer at each location dreams up their own beer recipes, meaning most of what’s on draft in San Clemente never leaves the house.
Huntington Beach (tasting room)
Best beers: Anything hoppy
When pitted surfer-skaters decide to hit the brewing equipment instead of the sick swells, you get Riip, an all-hops-everything operation that references the waves as much as the weed. Though they have a beach-side tasting room on PCH and Warner, the brewery started as a contract operation, and beers were only available through an unconventional system of pre-order and delivery. The original vintage milk truck that used to run deliveries still sits outside the tasting room, which doubles as a growler fill station, bottle shop, local bar, and miniature homebrew store.
Aliso Viejo (brewpub)
Best beer: Blueberry lager
Stadium Brewing is a massive sports bar in a suburban mall, but there’s also an on-site brewery that makes seven of the 60-plus beers on tap. With something for everyone (yes, Budweiser too!), you can build a flight (guest taps are fair game), order a pizza or some tacos, or just show up on Stadium Sundays, when the outdoor patio goes off with live reggae music and barbecue. The house drink is their blueberry lager, poured in a glass with actual blueberries floating in it.
Brea (brewpub), Irvine (restaurant and taphouse)
Best beers: Anything old-world style
You might not expect a fine-dining fish house to be one of the world’s best breweries, but for over a decade, TAPS in Brea (another location in Corona operates with a similar brew team while Irvine is just a restaurant and taphouse) has won more regional, national, and international awards than any other OC brewery. Even though the brewer behind many of the brand’s original wins, Victor Novak, left to work for the forthcoming Golden Road in Anaheim, brewers Kyle Manns (from Bottle Logic) and David Huls (formerly of Barley Forge) are keeping the quality world class, continuing wins at competitions, and maintaining the level of excellence in European brewing styles for which TAPS has long been known.
Placentia (tasting room)
Best beer: Whatever’s weirdest
When most of America’s beer geeks think of breweries in Orange County, they inevitably think first of The Bruery (so-named for founder Patrick Rue), which has long been known for its off-the-wall, Belgian-style, mixed-fermentation, and barrel-aged experiments as well as its various membership “societies,” which allow you to purchase one-off and rare beers unavailable to the public. The Bruery changed the game not just in OC or SoCal, but in the US, which when it opened in 2008 was only beginning to develop a palate for complex Belgian-style beers meant to be savored like wine not chugged like Bud Light. These days, The Bruery is so prolific, they’ve separated their “clean” beers from the “infected” ones with a separate facility nearby. The new sour and wild ale label, dubbed Terreux, plans to open its own tasting room in 2016.
Santa Ana (tasting room)
Best beers: Tart Oro, Wild Lady
In a spacious loft-like unit that used to house a livery on Downtown Santa Ana’s famous shopping drag La Cuatro, The Good Beer Company is quietly making some of the best beers in Orange County. No longer able to brew the clean IPAs and chile-infused pale ales that they did upon first opening, Good Beer now focuses on farmhouse-style beers fermented with whatever delicious wild yeast is floating around the brewery these days. Start with the Tart Oro, which is the base for a lot of the other (fruited, dry-hopped, Brett-loaded) beers, then work your way down the list from there.
Best beer: Old Town IPA
A local brewpub with a serious Mug Club membership (1200 strong!), Tustin is another survivor of the ‘90s brewpub days that’s managed to keep time with today’s craft-beer renaissance. Sure, there are the approachable workhorses like Golden Spike Light Ale and a lemony Hefeweizen, but the brewery keeps things interesting with a rotation of new IPAs, barrel-aged strong ales, one-off sours, and more. Known as the place where LA’s Smog City Brewing first got its start (Tustin’s former brewmaster Jonathan Porter used the system to contract early batches), current brewmaster Jarrod Larsen is continuing to create a legacy of his own.
Orange (tasting room)
Best beer: Alpha Overdrive
With a large 20-barrel system and only a house motto of “be valiant” to guide them, the family-owned Valiant Brewing has made a lot of different beers. Holding down the fort (and available in bottles) are four year-round beers -- including two Belgian-style beers, a double IPA, and a blonde lager -- but in the special, seasonal and oak-aged section, you’ll find experiments as disparate as an oaky Trappist-style single and a massive quadruple IPA that clocks in at 14% ABV.