The town Karl Strauss, The Lost Abbey and Stone made famous is riding a new wave of craft beer. Luckily, there are enough brew-friendly bars and eateries to pour them all.
With more than 30 breweries, you could tour San Diego for weeks and never go thirsty. Winner of the World Beer Cup for Small Brewery of the Year in 2010, Ballast Point Brewing (Scripps Ranch, ballastpoint.com) is currently expanding its production space and tasting rooms for both its brewery and distillery, the first licensed in San Diego since Prohibition—that means more room to enjoy beers like Sculpin IPA. The British- and Belgian-style craft brews from AleSmith Brewing (Miramar, alesmith.com) are beloved—especially annual barrel-aged releases like Decadence, an old ale—and now more widely available thanks to a brewery expansion and new bottling line. On the last Saturday of the month, tour the new digs with owner-brewmaster Peter Zien. Down the road, up-and-coming nanobrewery Hess Brewing (Miramar, hessbrewing.com) concocts beers like Intrepidus, a San Diego-style IPA, just 51 gallons at a time, and unleashes them in its tasting room four days a week. Nearby, Green Flash Brewing (Mira Mesa, greenflashbrew.com) is settled in after a move from Vista; its new digs feature a 50-barrel brewhouse and old favorites like multi-GABF-award-winning Extra Pale Ale. Now, two new outfits vie for Vista’s top brewery slot: At Mother Earth Brew Co. (Vista, motherearthbrewco.com), hop-heads compare the sessionable Auld Knucker IPA and hard-hitting Primordial Imperial IPA before picking up supplies in the on-site homebrew shop; at Iron Fist Brewing (Vista, ironfistbrewing.com), beer lovers flock to Hired Hand, a sweet and spicy farmhouse ale that headlines the company’s Old World-style brews. Across from Petco Park, Mission Brewery (East Village, missionbrewery.com) has converted a former Wonder Bread factory into an urban brewery that pumps out Old World styles like the rare Düsseldorf-style altbier Mission Amber. And if you think San Diego’s stalwarts are just sitting pretty, think again: The Lost Abbey (San Marcos, lostabbey.com) recently expanded its operations with a new lab, bottling line and a few hundred barrels, while Stone Brewing (Escondido, stonebrew.com) just launched a South Park outpost that sells bottles and growler fills, introduced the 18-acre Stone Farms and announced plans for a brewery expansion (including an on-premise hotel) and a second location of its verdant World Bistro & Gardens in Liberty Station.
30th Street, the main artery connecting the neighborhoods of North Park and South Park, has become a hub for local craft beer culture. It’s anchored by two must-drink-at destinations, the cavernous Hamilton’s Tavern (South Park, hamiltonstavern.com), which is often packed to the rafters with craft beer drinkers (especially on the second Saturday of every month, when the pub serves up free grub), and Toronado San Diego (North Park, toronadosd.com), a newer, less lived-in relative of the legendary San Francisco bar with a whopping 50 taps. Further afield, the Tap Room (Pacific Beach, sdtaproom.com) is a hybrid of a sports bar and pub, located just blocks from the beach, while the dive appeal of Eleven (Normal Heights, elevensandiego.com) fuels concert-goers who come for the live rock shows with craft taps and its own food truck, parked outside the bar. And on a street lined with Asian eateries, the chummy feel of O’Brien’s Pub (Kearny Mesa, obrienspub.net) makes it popular with beer drinkers and brewers alike.
Blind Lady Ale House (Normal Heights, blindladyalehouse.com), known locally as BLAH, is a casual, communal-seating dining spot dressed in brick and reclaimed wood. The artisan pizzas are made with topnotch, locally sourced toppings; snack on a slice with a pint by Automatic Brewing Co., its on-premise brewery helmed by co-owner and beer guru Lee Chase. On 30th Street, Bacon Bingo (house cured, of course) is a monthly draw at El Take It Easy (North Park, eltakeiteasy.com), whose menu of Baja-inspired plates includes octopus carpaccio and local fish piled into tortas and tacos, plus Mexican micheladas that start with a base of craft beer. Just up the block is the European charm of Ritual Tavern (North Park, ritualtavern.com), where classic pub fare like shepherd’s pie comes in both meat and vegan renditions, the fish and chips are made with locally caught seafood and the weekend brunch is offered with cask ale. (The bar was also where another newcomer, Butcher’s Brewing [Barrio Logan, butchersbrewing.com], launched its Hawaiian-inspired suds in May.) Kitschy paintings of Sigmund Freud and Jesus eating burgers invite you to order your own at downtown’s Neighborhood (East Village, neighborhoodsd.com), where you’ll also find truffled popcorn, mini corn dogs and 30 craft beer taps. Nearby Cowboy Star (East Village, thecowboystar.com) is not a stuffy steakhouse, but is nonetheless serious about meat; hence, the on-site butcher shop. Pair an AleSmith Nautical Nut Brown or a well-crafted whiskey cocktail with some of the best happy hour grub in town. And if it’s small plates you’re after, you’ll do no better than the Bacon Cracker Jacks (actually, crunchy hominy and almonds) and mini corn dogs at the beer-happy, barely-a-year-old Craft & Commerce (Little Italy, craft-commerce.com).
Stay at The Pearl (Point Loma, thepearlsd.com), grab a bike (gratis) and pedal over to laid-back Ocean Beach for a two-wheeled beer crawl. This mid-century modern motel, a hip oasis in the midst of strip-mall sameness, also screens movies poolside and hosts bingo nights. The Lodge at Torrey Pines (La Jolla, lodgetorreypines.com) offers upscale farm-to-table dining and elegant, Craftsman-style digs.
The Grill, the hotel’s casual eatery, often hosts beer pairing dinners with area breweries; dinner’s served alongside views of the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course. Check into Hotel Solamar (Gaslamp, hotelsolamar.com), a boutique hotel whose swanky restaurant, Jsix, handcrafts its charcuterie and hosts an annual dinner and art show featuring original artwork from The Lost Abbey’s beer labels. For the ultimate in drink ’n’ sleep convenience, the sleek W Hotel (Little Italy, starwoodhotels.com) is just around the corner from local beer pioneer Karl Strauss Brewery (Little Italy, karlstrauss.com), and a pint of Blackball, its new Belgian-style IPA.
Don’t miss DrinkAbout (sddrinkabout.com), a shuttled pub crawl that happens on the third Wednesday of every month; Brewery Tours of San Diego (brewerytoursofsandiego.com) provides the vehicles for the free event that runs in a continuous loop for four hours, stopping at eight craft beer bars and restaurants. Save an afternoon for a scenic, 45-minute ride north from San Diego on the Coaster (gonctd.com/coaster), a commuter train that drops you within walking distance of the Carlsbad outpost of Pizza Port (Carlsbad, pizzaport.com), GABF’s Large Brewpub of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Bonus: The adjacent bottle shop stocks more than 600 brews—and the Coaster coincidentally allows on-board imbibing. •