If you're even thinking of being in San Diego, check out the rest of our DestiNATION: San Diego guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do.
Take Dining to New Heights by Eating in a Tree Pod
F rom the Mexican border to the Orange County line, San Diego is awash in craft brews like no other place in America. Nearly every neighborhood in the city now boasts at least one -- if not several -- locally owned small breweries. And when it comes to number of craft breweries and consistently mind-melting releases, there's San Diego, possibly Portland, and then the rest of thirsty America.
We have the smugly superior Stone Brewing (who helped put craft beer on the map). The locals-only magnificence coming out of Second Chance Beer Company (headed by award-winning brewer Marty Mendiola). And we're the first permanent home of Danish gypsy brewery Mikkeller. With more than 4,500 employees at 130-plus local craft breweries, it's more than "just beer" to us.
Certain beers put San Diego on the map decades ago, while plenty of new ones keep us there. And if you're visiting for the first time, you have to keep alert for the ultra-local one-offs that only lucky locals can get their hands on. We've got each category covered. It's overwhelming, but if you speak the beers on this list, you'll get around San Diego like an expert.
National favorites to drink at the source. San Diegans are more than willing to share the sweet nectar of our craft breweries. Whether you're grabbing a six-pack from your neighborhood bodega in Queens or pounding pints at a sports bar in Dallas, don't be surprised when these not-so-local exports seem to pop up everywhere. And suddenly you know more about them -- and have sipped 'em fresher -- than anyone else at your neighborhood pub.
Golden rye IPA, 7% Say what you will about the Alpine/Green Flash merger. I've heard it all before. Despite many wounded beer nerds' tantrums, the fact remains that this is one of the greatest beers from one of the greatest breweries that ever came out of San Diego.
IPA, 7% Yes, Ballast Point sold out. Yes, Sculpin isn't craft beer anymore. But it was for a long time, and with nationwide distribution, it's often the first introduction that people have to San Diego beer. I'm OK with that. It could be worse -- it could be Watermelon Dorado.
Double IPA, 8.1% When you're ballsy enough to literally commandeer a style's name for the name of a beer, you better have the goods to back it up. Green Flash does. This hop-bomb brought San Diego-style IPAs to the masses and has been going strong ever since.
Double IPA, 8.5% One of the old guards of the San Diego craft beer scene. Newer, sexier breweries have captured the attention of easily distracted beer drinkers, but don't sleep on the classic. This ridiculously hopped, but classic imperial IPA keeps hopheads clamoring for more of that delightfully bitter flavor.
Double IPAs, 9.4% Serious beer drinkers already know that hop-forward beers are best enjoyed fresh, but actually slapping an "expiration" date on the label was marketing genius. Stone might be filled with some arrogant bastards, but they sure know how to make -- and sell -- one hell of a beer.
Imperial porter, 10% San Diego may be known for extraordinarily hopped beers, but this imperial porter with vanilla and coffee from local roaster Caffe Calabria will coax you to the dark side. Most triumphantly enjoyed in mid-December at the brewery's tasting holiday, Victory at Sea Day.
The best San Diego brews you have to come here to get. You'll probably still find these brews within a hundred-mile radius, but beyond that it's a crapshoot. When in San Diego, do as the San Diegans do -- these are our local favorites.
IPA, 8.2% Rip Current figured it'd better go big or go home, and boy am I glad it went big. At over 8% ABV, it's dangerously drinkable, but delightfully decadent with fruity and floral hints throughout.
Since 1987, Pizza Port has been dishing out the perfect marriage of flavors: pizza and craft beer. Its packs of pint cans -- most notably, Ponto Session IPA, Swami's IPA, and now Kook double IPA -- are ubiquitous on the San Diego craft beer scene and universal crowd-pleasers.
Cream ale, 5.2% Not to be confused with Mother Earth Brewing in North Carolina, Vista's Mother Earth Brew Company has seemingly perfected a vastly underrated style -- the cream ale. This particular recipe with vanilla is anything but cloying; rather, with light hops and a dry finish, this medium-bodied brew is exquisitely drinkable year-round.
Beers you definitely won't find at home. Now you're skewing into beer nerd territory. Your bartender might cock an eyebrow if you order one of these underappreciated gems. Take it as a good sign.
Imperial coffee porter, 8% It's easy to get an early start on a full day of drinking when a beer is this good. Plus, why call it a breakfast beer if you aren't supposed to launch the morning with a pint or two? Enjoy this award-winning beer -- with its kick of cold-brewed coffee -- wherever you can find it on draft, but never pass up a chance to try the barrel-aged version of it for an even more powerful punch.
Farmhouse sour ales, 4.5% If beatitudes are blessings, then Council's lineup of tart Belgian-style farmhouse ales is the canon of the category. The lineup includes such disparate flavors as cherry and prickly pear variants. Some are better than others, but all are worth a try.
Russian imperial stout, 9.3% If there's anything better than coffee and beer, it's a coffee beer. New English's collaboration with Zumbar Coffee has proven to be a winning combination, actually taking gold at the Great American Beer Festival in 2012. It's potent, best enjoyed slowly and sumptuously.
American wild ale, 5.5% By focusing on all-artisanal sour beers, barrel-aged wild ales, and those laced with the yeast strain Brettanomyces, Toolbox is the San Diego brewery of choice for lovers of sour beer. This low-ABV wild ale with boysenberries drives local beer connoisseurs into a frenzy when it's available. Grab it if you see it.
American IPA, 6.5% Santee isn't generally considered one of the hotspots of the San Diego craft beer scene, but Revolver took everyone by surprise by winning the gold medal in the hotly competitive American IPA category at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. If you're looking for a better example of the style, you probably won't find one.
Pale ale, 8.7% Strategically located in a quickly developing edge of Downtown, Half Door quietly has been releasing top-notch dank, hazy, and juicy East Coast-style IPAs in response to the flood of sticky and crisp West Coast-style IPAs. Keep an eye out for the North East IPA, which promises a tropical fruity approach to the pervasive trend.
Beers that help San Diego tell time. With 70-degree winters, we tend to mark the transition between seasons by special beer release schedules. There's never a bad time to visit the Capital of Craft, but it can't hurt to plan your trip around a brewery calendar to best enjoy these once-a-year beers.
American IPA, 6.8% Everybody loves Citra hops. This juicy strain is one of the most popular in the craft beer scene, and Modern Times' spring seasonal release maxes out its potential. Snag a four-pack between March and May.
Russian imperial stout, 10% Why leave it for Santa? This sweet, bitter imperial stout will just slow him down on his sleigh ride around the world. Save it for yourself and pretty soon you'll be feeling toasty inside and out.
American red ale, 6.66% It's actually better to be single when you have a bottle of this seasonal red reminiscent of chocolate and flowers. You won't have to share with anyone else, and that's the best gift of all on Valentine's Day.
Mocha stout, 8.1% San Diego isn't known for its harsh winters, but this Mexican mocha-style stout is still a versatile and warming addition to your beer cellar. Drink it fresh or age it; either way, its body of cocoa, coffee, cinnamon, and peppers will keep working to provide a different flavor experience every time.
The super-rare unicorn beers you must drink if you find them. San Diegans take their über-limited beers very seriously. We love our one-time releases never to be seen again and our yearly brews that sell out in seconds. If you have a cellared stash, want to crack into the beer-trading scene, or seek something special for your next bottle share, these are the brews you should be scouting for.
Imperial stout, 12.4% Brewer Derek Gallanosa is no stranger to experimentation, and it often pays off -- most notably with the success of M3, an imperial stout with cacao, vanilla beans, and locally roasted Costa Rican coffee supplied by Mostra Coffee. It's basically black gold in a bottle and notoriously hard to get your hands on.
American imperial stout, 10.3% Unicorn, indeed. Not only do you have to be in Modern Times' membership program -- that would be The League of Partygoers & Elegant People -- to get your hands on this limited 2016 release, but it's actually a blend of five already-hard-to-get aged brews including: Haunted Stars aged in rye whiskey barrels, Monsters' Park aged in maple syrup barrels, Devil's Teeth aged in bourbon barrels, Monsters' Park aged in Barbados rum barrels, and Monsters' Park aged in Spanish brandy barrels. It's basically the Voltron of craft beers.
Gueuze, 7% Despite the great release debacle of 2016, Duck Duck Gooze is still one of the single greatest rare beers anywhere in the world. With it only being available every three years, there's quite a lot of work that goes into this blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old beers aged in French oak barrels, so if you're lucky enough to snag a bottle of it, cherish it as you would your firstborn.
Russian imperial stout, 12% Bourbon barrel-aged Vietnamese Speedway, Kona Speedway, Peanut Butter Speedway, Hawaiian Speedway… you name it, it's amazing. Honestly, I have no idea how many variants have been produced throughout the years. I just know I haven't met one that I didn't like.
Double IPA, 9.4% This award-winning big IPA often gets overshadowed by the much-(over)hyped Pliny the Younger, but when you want an aggressively hopped, hard-to-acquire, medium-bodied, high-ABV IPA, don't bother trying anything but Roustabout.
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Beth Demmon is a San Diego-based food and drink writer who loves craft beer and motorcycles (not necessarily enjoyed together). View her work at BethDemmon.com or follow her on Instagram @thedelightedbite.
Scott Klemme is a San Diego beer enthusiast. He recommends drinking local beer.