The Best Breweries in San Diego
The world turns, the tides rise and fall, and new breweries come and go in the city with the best craft brewing scene in the country: San Diego (suck it, Portland). That America’s Finest City loves its craft beer is not exactly news -- San Diego's played home to more than 150 operational breweries for a while now -- but as the town has matured, so too have the types of breweries popping around town and the tap lists they offer. It's the dawning of a new era in San Diego beer, one marked by fledgling operations and relative up-and-comers brewing some of the best (and most audacious) beers in the country. It's also marked, unfortunately, by the passing of some of the city’s traditional brewing stalwarts (pour some out for Gordon Biersch).
Like the dinner menu at a Cheesecake Factory, though, sometimes 150+ options is a bit more than you bargained for. Sometimes, you’re just dropping by San Diego for a long weekend and want to know the creme de la creme. Sometimes, you don’t want to wade through the not-so-outstanding breweries to find the crown jewels -- and, per usual, that’s what we’re here for. We (selflessly) drank lots of local beers and compiled a guide to the best breweries in town, from the well-known to the hidden gems, from the longstanding to the up-and-coming, to help you plan out your next pint. Now go on and get to sippin’.
Kairoa is another beautiful ode to a foreign country, designed to evoke the lush scenery, unique cuisine, friendly disposition, and otherworldly hops native to New Zealand -- where the owners and head brewer all hail from. Decorated to incorporate aspects from the New Zealand countryside and coasts as well as Maori art into a sleek, modern architecture style, Kairoa specializes in brewing everything from English style ales to the pale ales San Diegans love, imbued with the hard-to-get New Zealand hop varieties head brewer Joe Peach has direct access to.
Key beers: Back Paddock Pilsner, Undie 500 Pale Ale
Battlemage takes its name from Dungeons and Dragons, the ubiquitous RPG board game that co-founders Ryan Sather and Chris Barry have enjoyed playing for the last 20 years. It’s one thing to have a theme a brewery is passionate about (Battlemage hosts weekly D&D and Magic: The Gathering game nights), but to really stand out you have to brew great beer, and Battlemage definitely delivers on the latter front. WestCoaster named it one of its best new breweries of 2017, and like any good wizard, they know the value of experimenting with their potions. They’re always willing to, say, add cocoa nibs to a hefeweizen, but as luck would have it, some of their finest brews are the ones that adhere to traditions, like their Molten Core German altbier.
Key beers: Molten Core altbier, Hooded Assassin old ale, Verses of Victory brown ale
San Diego’s smallest brewery (just under 300 square feet) is also one of its most exciting. Opened in 2017 as a passion project between childhood friends Ketchen Smith and Evan Smith, the brewery has garnered rave reviews for its IPAs, most notably its Hopcondido IPA, which recently won best beer at Green Flash’s Brew Down Beer Festival. Deliberately small batch in their brews and in their business approach -- a visit to the location will almost always result in a conversation with Ketchen and Evan -- to raise a pint at Escondido Brewing Company is to be welcomed into an intimate operation.
Key beers: 1888 Stout, Hopcondido IPA
The relatively new Viewpoint Brewing doesn’t yet have the accolades many of the more established breweries on this list have. What it does have, however, is an unbeatable view/atmosphere; overlooking the San Dieguito Lagoon, there might be no brewery with a better view in San Diego, and its outdoor patio is always lively. Plus, there's some truly decadent food on the menu (like beef tartare and bone marrow), as well as a constantly rotating tap list that indulges head brewer Moe Katomski’s experimental side.
Key beers: Mandarina Pale Ale, Moe'saic Pale Ale
The road to Resident Brewing opening its doors was a purely San Diegan one. Head brewer and co-founder Robert Masterson established himself as a master homebrewer in the local circuit, as a side gig from his full-time job as an IT consultant. He won contests hosted by Pizza Port, Karl Strauss, and Stone -- the latter of which resulted in the brewing giant releasing his Coconut IPA to the masses. Eventually he decided to make his passion his work, and today, Resident slings wonderfully Americanized versions of English beers and still brews its signature, immaculate coconut IPA, in a welcoming environ inside The Local downtown.
Key beers: Golden Kiss Belgian Ale, Industrial Gris Belgian Saison, Vacation Coconut IPA
Longship Brewery is styled as a tribute to owner Dan Jachimowicz's obsession with Viking conquerors, and like the Norse warriors who invaded and conquered foreign cultures, Longship’s brews blend multiple influences from American-style fusion ales to traditional German beers. There's also one hell of a trivia night on Tuesdays, if you’re hoping to kill some time after work.
Key beers: Ragnabock, Loki’s Wit
Burgeon's another relatively new brewery that, much like Viewpoint, is building a budding reputation and features stunning scenery. Burgeon is helping to pioneer Carlsbad’s emerging brewing scene, and there’s hardly a day that goes by when it won’t be filled with professionals lounging in the tasting room adorned with lush flora. Their Noble Miner, which won gold for session beers at the 2017 California State Fair, is as perfect of a session ale as you will ever have.
Key beers: Treevana, Canopy Tour, Keep it Simcoe
Homebrewing extraordinaire Kelsey McNair’s pet project was born in 2016 after a three-year wait, but that anticipation proved to be worth it. Located right in the heart of North Park, the 9,000 sq. ft. tasting room is huge and ornately decorated, and offers the perfect locale for anyone looking to grab a pint before a night on the town. Protip: McNair’s iconic Hop Fu! IPA is the single most award-winning homebrew in history, and is always a safe bet at the brewery.
Key beers: Hop-Fu!, Covington Cream Ale
Pure Project’s entire oeuvre is unique. It was started in part by a Californian couple who returned to the Golden State after spending years in the Costa Rican jungle and felt the need to imbue the spirit of the country into a brewery; as a result, many of the beers feature floral and tropical notes like hibiscus you might not expect to find typically. However, that doesn’t mean Pure Project’s success is based on gimmicks: before finishing its first year of operations, Pure Project had brought home a bronze medal from the Great American Beer Festival for its Roses Red beer.
Key beers: La vie en Rose, Murkeley, Roses Red
Modern Times’ Midway compatriot (it is located literally across the street from Modern Times), Bay City has scored multiple awards for its beers and developed a devoted following for their amazing array of juicy, tropical IPAs, fantastic collection of rotating food trucks that come though, frequent live music performances and, of course, their fandom of the nearby San Diego Gulls. Stop by before a Gulls game, enjoy delicious pale ales, and then go enjoy watching the best professional sports team still left in San Diego (Calder Cup, here we come).
Key beers: Hancock St. Brown Ale, 72 and Hoppy Session IPA
Modern Times has turned the brewing world upside since its inception. In a few short years, San Diego’s fastest-growing brewery has already cracked the top 50 independent breweries by sales volume across the United States. Simply put, they don’t make any bad beers -- hell, they make very few that aren’t absolutely fantastic. With a cheeky, fun-above-all mindset highlighted by their membership-based League of Partygoers and Elegant People the brewery specializes in session beers and specialty coffee-flavored releases that capitalize on their in-house coffee roasting. Their first location has become a destination for beer and coffee lovers alike.
Key beers: Monster Tones Imperial Stout, Black House English Oatmeal Stout, Blazing World Amber Ale
Thorn has made one hell of a name for itself since its initial location opened in 2012. Beyond a sterling reputation for IPAs and a willingness to experiment with their flavors (they famously have a cannabis-flavored session IPA), co-founders Dan Carrico, Dennis O’Connor, and Eric O’Connor founded the initial location on Thorn St. with the goal of becoming a true neighborhood watering hole. They succeeded, and today the original, homey North Park location is integral to the fabric of the community; it's a place where you’re likely to run into some of the most interesting locals you’ll ever meet (and a handful of dogs) over pints of perfectly brewed pale ales.
Key beers: Relay IPA, Hopster Pot, OG HighPA
Belching Beaver has made waves in the San Diego beer scene since its start in 2012, and has found massive success; the brewery now ships to eight states outside California, and has five locations in the city. While the names of the brews produced by Belching Beaver might seem a bit sophomoric, their craftsmanship is anything but. Head brewer Thomas Peters has won the renowned Alpha King award twice in his career (most recently in 2017), and seemingly can’t go wrong when it comes to trying out innovative flavors.
Key beers: Peanut Butter Milk Stout, Hop Highway
Societe Brewing Company doesn’t have the decades-long history of an Alpine or an AleSmith, but it has had a meteoric rise to prominence in town since opening its doors in 2012, winning West Coaster’s Best Brewery award in 2014 and 2016. The brainchild of brewmaster Travis Smith and brewery curator Douglas Constantiner, Societe makes a bevy of the best damn IPAs you’ll ever have, most notably The Pupil -- another one of Beer Advocate’s top beers -- and The Coachman, the 2015 gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival for session IPAs.
Key beers: The Pupil, The Apprentice, The Butcher
With its rooftop overlooking Pacific Beach, Amplified Ale Works might just be the best place in San Diego for a great beer with a view. The brewery's decorated with a collection of music memorabilia, there's always good tunes playing -- no Chainsmokers here -- and head brewer Cy Henley even gives musically inspired names to his brews. On top of all that, the kitchen makes some of the best kebabs you’ll find anywhere in San Diego, which can make it feel next to impossible to actually leave the brewery.
Key beers: Electrocution IPA, Pig Nose Pale Ale, Trois Cabrones
Lost Abbey was spawned in 2006 when, as we told you earlier, Tomme Arthur left Pizza Port to start Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey. Port Brewing retained its West Coast beer style, but The Lost Abbey went about brewing a Belgian-inspired line of beers, and we're all is better for it. No other brewery on this list offers the type of specialty beers that The Lost Abbey does, and if you want to try one of the most original brews in the city, go for the Duck Duck Gooze -- or, if you're not one for sour beers, go for the Lost & Found Dubbel.
Key beers: Duck Duck Gooze, Deliverance, Framboise de Amorosa
When the craft beer explosion of the mid-2000s happened, Green Flash was at the forefront of the movement led by San Diego brewing legend (and former brewmaster) Chuck Silva, who brewed a handful of the hop-heavy IPAs that San Diego became known for. The beauty of Green Flash’s IPAs, though, was how they balanced their intense hop notes, and perhaps no beer better embodied that than the legendary West Coast IPA, with its tropical grapefruit notes and floral body. That innovative spirit lives on with original beers like Green Flash’s Hop Head Red, and the new Soul Style IPA.
Key beers: West Coast IPA, Palate Wrecker, Double Stout
San Diego is sprawling, and as tempting as it is for a casual beer fan to not venture past the breweries in the more central locations of the cities, sometimes you need to make a hike, namely to Alpine Beer Company. If you're the type to put stock in beer rankings (and really, why wouldn't you?), here's where we tell you that RateBeer listed Alpine as the sixth-best brewery in the world in 2015, and BeerAdvocate lists the brewery’s Keene Idea Double IPA as one of the 120 best beers in the world.
Key beers: Duet, Nelson, Pure Hoppiness
Founded by Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, Stone made its name by being boldly unapologetic, and no beer embodies that more than its flagship Arrogant Bastard Ale: a beer so renowned it birthed its own separate brewing company, Arrogant Brewing. Stone never backed away from its ideals, and the results speak for themselves: It's been voted as RateBeer’s “Best California Brewery” and “Best Place to Grab a Beer,” and its Russian Imperial Stout is sought after across the globe.
Key beers: Enjoy by IPA, Russian Imperial Stout, Stone Xocoveza
Of all the staple beers made by San Diego breweries -- the Red Trolley Ales, the Speedway Stouts, the Arrogant Bastard Ales -- none are as nationally ubiquitous and uniformly delicious as Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. And yet, while Sculpin consistently ranks among the best beers in the country, the brewery hasn’t rested on its laurels: Of its three current locations, Ballast Point uses its spot in Little Italy purely for experimentation in the hopes of creating San Diego’s next truly iconic beer.
Key beers: Sculpin IPA, Victory at Sea, Dorado Double IPA
Whereas many of the city’s best breweries came out of the industrial sprawl that is Miramar, Ron and Rick Chapman picked their hometown of Coronado to put down roots in 1996. Twenty-plus years later, they’re still staying true to their mission statement of staying coastal by brewing beers inspired by beaches across the globe, with citrus and tropical notes like orange and guava to match. Coronado's been on an absolute tear of late, winning (among other awards) the Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company and Brewmaster at 2014's World Beer Cup.
Key beers: Idiot IPA, Stupid Stout, Sock Knocker
Having taken home the Champion Brewery award at the last two San Diego International Beer Festivals, AleSmith clearly doesn’t need any more recognition in this town. That said, if you're reading this and you're somehow unfamiliar with this brewery, go out to its sprawling, state-of-the-art headquarters and get acquainted. AleSmith’s offerings are incredibly well-balanced and universally excellent, from its IPAs to its Anvil ESB, though none is as legendary as the Speedway Stout and all of its varietals, which has achieved almost mythic status in the national beer scene.
Key beers: Speedway Stout, AleSmith IPA, AleSmith Wee Heavy
The beauty of Karl Strauss is that it brews a multitude of different beer types, all exceptionally well, the most well-known of which is the inimitable Red Trolley Ale. Karl’s take on an Irish Red, Red Trolley, has won a slew of gold medals at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, and it rose to international renown at a time when the city was primarily known for its extremely hoppy IPAs. Red Trolley aside, though, Karl also makes award-winning brews across the spectrum including its Mosaic Session IPA and its Windansea Wheat.
Key beers: Mosaic Session IPA, Wreck Alley, Big Barrel Double IPA
Pizza Port is as San Diegan as a sunburn in January, or being completely incapable of merging onto a freeway at an acceptable speed. Since its founding in 1987, it’s expanded to include five locations, and has birthed two offshoot breweries (Lost Abbey and Port Brewing Company), but the original is still king in our eyes. Pizza Port has collected over 90 medals at the Great American Beer Festival, and has an absolutely stunning range of brews that rotate through its five locations. Try the Kook or the Swami’s IPA, two of the many staple beers of the Pizza Port empire.
Key beers: Swami’s IPA, Ponto Session IPA, Kook
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