It’s time once again for our end of the year poll. Cast your votes across 17 different categories to help us decide who was the best of the year in our local brewing scene according to you, West Coaster readers. We’ll run the poll for approximately a month. Then, we’ll crunch the numbers and reveal the results in a post in January.
Check out winners from previous years
What are the best craft breweries in San Diego County? I get asked that all the time. When people pose that question, it’s usually because they’re visiting, so I tailor my response around the types of beers they enjoy, where they’re staying, if they have transportation, etc. But when I take stock for the purposes of an end-of-year article, I impose a different set of criteria. I begin by removing Big Beer-owned interests (it’s simply a different playing field, monetarily, than independent operations), then examine the make-up and, foremost, the overall quality of each brewery’s portfolio of beers. Is this the perfect formula? Probably not, but now you know where I’m coming from. Will my list match yours? Probably not, but that’s OK! Let us know your list in the comments. The wonderful truth is that there are many outstanding breweries in San Diego County, and a list of 15 only scratches the top layer of foam.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: A small brewery in an unincorporated town on the fringe of our county didn’t become a nationally respected cult-favorite by accident. This house built by hops continues to churn out largely hoppy stock worthy of coveting. More impressive, it’s keeping its street cred intact post-acquisition, something only good beer can accomplish.
Bagby Beer Co. | Oceanside: The sheer volume of beer produced and consistently on-tap is impressive, but the fact all of it is so traditionally to-spec and worthy of praise (as proven by an always-growing collection of Great American Beer Festival medals) is rather incredible. No place spends more time making unsexy styles utterly desirable.
Pizza Port | Bressi Ranch, Carlsbad, Ocean Beach & Solana Beach: To have one brewpub pumping out high quality beers across styles like any of Pizza Port’s do would be a big deal. To have four in a single county (plus another in San Clemente) and remain consistent year in and year out for the better part of three decades is the basis for legend status.
Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey / The Hop Concept | San Marcos & Cardiff by the Sea: No local tasting room offers as many expertly executed and variedly challenging beers as this triple-threat simultaneously focusing on West Coast IPAs, Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged everything. Even the occasional bottling hiccup barely detracts from feats accomplished here on an everyday basis.
Societe Brewing | Kearny Mesa: Batch-to-batch consistency across varied ales and lagers—hoppy, session, Belgians, stouts—and an expert level of balance and drinkability that even extends to wine-barrel-aged offerings keeps beer fans and brewers alike coming back to this living tribute to the quality and community of the San Diego beer scene. Disclaimer: I work for this company.
AleSmith Brewing | Miramar: From English session beers to high-octane Belgian, Scotch and coffee-infused juggernauts, this veteran continues to make flawless time-tested beers, but recent additions have been a mixed bag. A new pilsner is spectacular, a gimmick Mexican lager is blah, an extract orange pale is disappointing and the flagship IPA could use a youthful sibling.
Fall Brewing | North Park: The brewing team has experienced more than its fair share of fluctuation over the years, but through it all, its recipes and process remain sound. Stop in anytime, order a beer and you’re bound to encounter something both flavorful and refreshing, registering somewhere between very good and where-you-been-all-my-life status.
New English Brewing Company | Sorrento Valley: Consistently one of the most underrated local breweries, this one knocks it out of the park on the English ale front. That’s to be expected, but New World IPAs, the occasional Belgian beer and barrel-aged beers taste lovely. They have the best cask beer in town, too. (But, personally, I’d lose the Blueberry Blonde.)
North Park Beer Co. | North Park: Captivating the masses with largely session, internationally-inspired beers can be hard to do in the county’s hipster capital, but it’s been accomplished in spades at this two-story hub for members of the Finer Things Club. Consistency is up in Year Two and it’s been nice to see chances taken with occasional collaborative creations.
Second Chance Beer Co. | Carmel Mountain & North Park: Not a lot is flashy about this company’s beers, and not because of stringent traditionalism. They actually tend to veer slightly away from the norm. It would seem balance is the brewmaster’s chief aim, and he achieves it big-time as proven by devout patronage and big beer-competition wins.
Benchmark Brewing | Grantville & Bay Park: This place is all about “beer-flavored beer,” and if that’s what you prefer—straightforward ales made for everyday drinking—you’ll seldom be disappointed here. It would be nice to see new beers come along more often, but limited focus has led to arguably the best table beer, brown ale and oatmeal stout in town.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: A blending of punk-rock bravado and respect for the classics has resulted in a unique brewery offering delicious beers both New and Old World in nature. There are plenty of hop-heavy numbers to choose from, but Belgian-style ales and a crowd-favorite pilsner diversify this company’s offerings and cement its cut-above reputation.
Eppig Brewing | North Park: The lagers produced at this Brewery Igniter standout are of the highest grade. They make up only one third of the beers on the board, sharing space with IPAs, kettle sours and a rogue’s gallery of outliers. All are enjoyable even if some have room for improvement, but this business is just one year old and well ahead of the game.
Karl Strauss Brewing | Pacific Beach, 4S Ranch, Carlsbad, La Jolla & Little Italy: Many regions have elder-statesman fixtures like this. They’re old, boring and averse to change. This business is not. It actively works to remain current and relevant, and has succeeded at that. Its brewpubs produce creations of varied quality, but their overall track record is impressive.
Rip Current Brewing | San Marcos & North Park: This company’s love of seemingly all of the world’s beers (despite trendiness or marketability) makes for one of the most diverse beer boards in San Diego. Batch-to-batch consistency suffers sometimes, but they regularly do right by locales and artisanal heritages seldom celebrated by others in the local beer community.
Author’s Note: Breweries in each tier are presented alphabetically.
In the summer of 2016, after 23 years of brewing solely at its flagship location in Mission Valley, the owners of San Diego Brewing Company decided to expand brewing capacity by leasing a space in North Park’s Brewery Igniter rent-to-brew facility on El Cajon Boulevard. SDBC took charge of the largest of the campus’ trio of units, one with a lower level brewhouse facing the street and an elevated tasting room complete with a bar and roll-up door facing Ohio Street. It’s the jewel of H.G. Fenton’s North Park space (which is also home to Eppig Brewing and Pariah Brewing), but it will soon be leased to another following SDBC’s decision to vacate the premises within the first quarter of 2018.
SDBC co-owner Lee Doxtader says that securing additional brewing space was absolutely the right idea, and that the company’s time producing at the Brewery Igniter space proved that. Such is the primary advertised advantage of those temporary turnkey spaces according to H.G. Fenton—proof of concept. For most tenants that means verifying the merits of a brand-new business, but in the case of SDBC (as well as Amplified Ale Works at the Miramar Brewery Igniter campus) the goal was to satisfy, as well as generate, increased consumer demand.
In the end, Doxtader and company determined patrons missed the atmosphere and on-site food options provided at its original brewpub. As such, they are in the process of selecting a site in which to install a second brewery-restaurant combo. But first, they must finish out negotiations with H.G. Fenton and complete the process of moving out of the North Park space. It is undetermined how soon that will occur. While SDBC may extract as soon as January, there is a chance it will stay in the Brewery Igniter suite and continue to brew as far out as March. To a certain extent, the timeline will be determined by how quickly H.G. Fenton secures a new tenant. The company is currently showing the space to interested parties.
2017 has been a year of changes for one of San Diego’s longest-tenured brewing interests. Early this year, ownership closed (the second iteration of) Callahan’s Pub in Mira Mesa’s, the business that paved the way for SDBC to open in Mission Valley. Over the summer, the company parted ways with head brewer Jeff Drum, placing Matt Navarre in the lead role. Ownership feels the transition has gone well and is looking forward to an upcoming milestone: SDBC’s 25th anniversary. With any luck, they will have a new site to announce by the time they reach the quarter-century mark.
In reading a list of most-improved breweries, one can make the assumption that in order to make that roster these interests must have been pumping out bad beer at some point. While this certainly could be true, it is not always the case with brewing companies that find themselves a part of this annually shifting assemblage. In most cases this year, the operations mentioned were already making good beer—or even great beer—but are now performing even better from a manufacturing standpoint. There is always room for improvement, proof of which is provided below.
2kids Brewing | Miramar: This nano-brewery has actually been on an upward trajectory over the past few years, but this year, the level of refinement in this Miralani OG’s beers jumped quite a bit. Hoppy beers exhibit more vibrancy in their aromas and flavors, while maltier beers seem more cohesive and balanced overall. It’s no wonder this operation’s cultish fan base continues to grow, and a pleasure to see this husband-wife venture continue its steady ascent.
Alpine Beer Co. | Alpine: Alpine makes great beer. Tell you something you didn’t already know, right? Since being acquired by Green Flash Brewing Company in 2014, many have complained about perceiving a drop-off in quality between beers brewed in Alpine and those brewed on a larger scale and packaged for distribution, but this year, numerous canned offerings tasted better, more consistent and truer to the beers that inspired the purchase of that famed East County interest.
Bear Roots Brewing | Vista: Though a tiny nano built into a homebrew shop, this family-run brewery has been churning out enjoyable beer from the get-go. As such, the grizzly interest has earned a solid reputation and following, enough that ownership considered expanding brewing capabilities. Even though it opted against getting a bigger, more sophisticated brewhouse (instead fortifying the business with an outdoor patio), it has still managed to up the brightness and flavor of its beers.
Burning Beard Brewing | El Cajon: One of the most buzzed-about new breweries to open in the past two years, El Cajon’s best (and only) fermentation facility opened with an impressive beer line-up that only keeps getting better. The key is the brewing team’s devotion to fine-tuning until they get beers where they and their fans want them. Throw in this year’s barrel-aged specialties and you have an operation that managed to increase its angle of ascension in 2017.
Council Brewing | Kearny Mesa: When this husband-wife business first opened, its little-guy charm and friendly staffers made up for occasional inconsistencies. As it grew, sour beers of varied composition expanded the business’ rep and reach while taking center stage, portfolio-wise. The deliciousness of those brews continues to increase. Ditto non-sour beers, most impressively Council’s hoppy stock, which used to be a tad hit-and-miss, but now wows on a regular basis.
Division 23 Brewing | Miramar: This lesser-known brewery has had numerous head fermentationists since debuting in 2015, leading to varying quality across the beer-board. This year saw continued vocational movement within the brewhouse, but as of now, this operation’s beers are tasting better as a whole than they have at any point, making the long, winding road one must take to get to this tucked-away industrial park venue worth the maneuvering.
Indian Joe Brewing | Vista: The beer at this native American-owned brewery was at its best right before it shuttered in 2015. After a lengthy search for an ideal, much larger base of operations, the business reopened this year with a new head brewer and a laundry list of house beers coming in at 30. Variety remains the name of the game, making it harder to keep every member of the diverse line-up in check; still, Indian Joe’s beers are the finest they’ve been during either of its iterations.
Kilowatt Brewing | Kearny Mesa & Ocean Beach: This business is in the process of expanding its brewing capabilities, but before trading up to a larger brewhouse, they took the wise step of bringing on a head brewer with experience garnered over years spent at AleSmith Brewing. He has tinkered with several beer recipes and the early results are extremely promising. This should be a fun brewery to keep an eye on over the coming year.