In 2005, a friend and I were idly cruising around San Diego, hoping for a spot to drop in for a beer, when we drove passed a sign for Ballast Point’s Homebrew Mart, a place that definitely had beer. It was the first of what would become many brewery visits throughout the city, including AleSmith, Stone, Ballast Point and Coronado. There was, and still is, nothing like drinking beer at the source.
Since then, I’ve moved to the other coast and those San Diego breweries I initially fell in love with became less of an incentive to visit my former hometown. Not for lack of enjoyment, but because of its ubiquity on shelves nationwide. So, when I had the opportunity to come out to San Diego to cover the kick-off of San Diego Beer Week, my journalistic intuition kicked in and I decided to determine whether or not San Diego was still one of America’s premier beer destinations.
During the trip, I had one goal: Abstain from drinking anything that I could get on the shelf outside of California. I wanted to report on the state of the local beer scene going forward, not on established breweries. It was a goal I paradoxically reached, but also failed to accomplish.
Each neighborhood has made an identity for itself based on these new, small breweries.”
“It’s an interesting time,” said Jill Davidson, then the President of the San Diego Brewers Guild, over a flight of beers at White Labs. “We support the drink local, but we also have to support the breweries [with a national footprint].” Davidson continued to explain that while breweries such as Stone, AleSmith, Green Flash built the foundation of San Diego’s brewing scene, they also paved the way for a new generation of young, upstart breweries intent on creating a name for themselves. “When you used to come to San Diego that was your list, those four or five breweries. Now, it’s like, ‘What neighborhood am I going to?’ Each neighborhood has made an identity for itself based on these new, small breweries.”
When asked if she believes the variety of beer spread out across the county makes San Diego an exceptionally attractive beer destination, Davidson agreed, adding, “You can spend three or four days going to three or four different neighborhoods solely for the beer.”
Take one of San Diego’s more thriving beer neighborhood’s as an example. North Park sits about 15 minutes from the downtown waterfront. It’s home to a Modern Times tasting room and Great American Beer Fest best small brewery medal winner Rip Current. There’s also San Diego mainstay Mike Hess Brewing, relative newcomer Thorn Brewing and a slew of others. My first night there, I opted to grab a pint at Toronado, one of America's finest beer bars, where I could have a little of it all, including a slice of pizza paired with Modern Times’ Fruitlands brewed with guava and passionfruit.
Modern Times Beer
Friday morning, I headed down to the source, Modern Times in Point Loma, to chat with Phil MacNitt, head of national sales. He is affectionately known as “Beer Jesus” around these parts. He showed me the operation, which includes a bar held up by books—VHS tapes accomplish the same task in the North Park tasting room—house-roasted coffee, and sticky note murals. The flagship can lineup features classic typography, while one-offs typically go a tad off-centered with funky color schemes and design. If the experience is any indication as to the quality of the beer, then Modern Times nails it.
Modern Times’s doesn’t just do one style well. It does them all well. I tasted Ice, a crisp, pilsner; Geodesic, a wheat IPA; a rye grissette with brett and hazy IPA. I concluded my visit with Black House, a coffee stout on nitro with coconut. I’m in love with this place.
One of the oft-overlooked ingredients in beer is yeast. We care so much about hop profiles and grain bills. We even pay more attention to water than we do yeast. So, in order to get more of an understanding of yeast, I headed up to White Labs, who provides yeast to pretty much anyone who brews beer in this country. San Diego is the world headquarters, but there are operations in Davis, Asheville, and Boulder, as well as Copenhagen and Hong Kong.
Without getting too technical, here’s what to expect at White Labs.
There were six or seven beers on tap, but all of them were fermented differently. I ordered the flight of four Oat IPAs. It was the same base beer, but each version was fermented differently, each yeast designed to bring a difference in taste out of the beer. Some differences were subtle, others overt. Each strain made the same beer wholly distinct. One beer was a traditional West Coast-style: Bitter, piney and dry. Another beer showed bright, tropical fruit notes. The third has a softer mouthfeel on the palate. The last beer was Belgian-style with its distinct banana and clove notes. All one base beer, all different yeast strains. This was an educational experience. Tough to leave without feeling a bit smarter.
Following the experience, I sat down with White Labs owner Chris White.
Back to North Park, where I headed over to Tiger Tiger, another nationally-recognized beer bar, for a quick drink before going to the VIP Brewers Takeover. The bar is a dark, convivial spot with long wooden tables packed with friends and strangers sharing their affinity for great, local beer. The tap list had beers by Societe, Bagby and Fall Brewing. I opted for Tabula Rasa, a toasted porter by nearby Second Chance Beer Company. The owner, Jeff Motch, then escorted me to the back bar for a special tapping of sour beers by Beachwood Blendery. Maybe that’s cheating because Beachwood is not a San Diego brewery, but there are strict rules about always accepting pours of world-class sours at world-class beer bars.
AleSmith Brewing Company
In the morning, it wasn’t until after my gigantic breakfast burrito that I realized I needed to be at an beer and fish taco pairing downtown. Yes, that’s right. An AleSmith beer and fish taco pairing at the waterfront restaurant Puesto. Three beers—Sublime Mexican lager, San Diego Pale Ale .396 and Lil Devil Belgian Pale—all paired with an assortment of freshly caught-that-morning fish wrapped in flour tortillas. While I had little room in my stomach, I made this hard sacrifice in the name of journalism.
The mission to drink only beers available in California came to an end the night before at the VIP Brewers Guild Fest, and for good reason. Alesmith Brewing Company was one of the first breweries that brought me into the independent beer worldvia Wee Heavy, Old Numbskull and the IPA. I consider them all some of the classics and my all-time favorites. I couldn’t skip out on a pour of the Hawaiian Speedway Stout. While some of the new beers certainly stand out, it’s always enjoyable to drink the beers from the beer makers upon whose shoulders these new breweries stand.
The Lost Abbey
That night, I hit up the Lost Abbey Barrel Night for an experience that essentially involved pulling nails from barrels and tasting them alongside a six-course meal. Now’s a good time to get jealous. Lost Abbey has been crafting sour beers that utilize acid for years, well before the current sour craze. Their beers are nuanced and complicated, but often very approachable. Because of their tenure in the beer game, they are often overlooked. I’m here to say, definitively, stop doing that.
Lost Abbey’s array of barrel-aged beers were paired with all sorts of delicacies: a blonde sour ale aged for two years in wine barrels paired with seared duck breast; Veritas 020, an oak and bourbon barrel aged ale aged with cherries and boysenberries, alongside charred octopus; a Belgian quad aged over four years in bourbon barrels with braised swordfish. I also walked out with two bottles of the supremely-limited Veritas. It's a tough life for a beer writer.
Fall Brewing Company
In the morning of my last day in San Diego, I decided to head up to Fall Brewing Co., which is located on an otherwise residential street in North Park. It’s got ample outdoor space for food trucks and thirsty customers. Time limited me to one beer at one of my most highly anticipated stops.. As a believer that people will mostly steer you in the right direction, I asked the person in front of me to recommend me the best Fall beer.
“I like the IPA,” he said.
“Okay, so that’s what they’re known for? Sold,” I love a good west coast IPA.
“Well, I really like the pilsner too. A lot of people do,” he replied.
I considered this a better option than the hefty ABV of an IPA. He turned around yet again.
“If you like stouts, they have a really good one here,” he said.
Apparently everything here is good. That’s a great sign.
“Maybe that’s the move,” I told him.
After a couple moments consideration, he turned again.
“I don’t know, man,” he started. “That stout is really good, but it’s also on nitro and if you like nitro beers, that’s the one to get.”
Ultimately, I decided on the nitro 2 a.m. Bike Ride, a stout with vanilla and coffee. At 4.6%, this beer was delicious: easy-drinking, soft notes of chocolate, chewy mouthfeel. Proof you don’t need a high ABV to make a wonderful stout.
The highlight of my last day in San Diego was a visit to the Knotty Barrel downtown. Knotty Barrel bills itself as a “laid back gastro-pub” with over 100 beers on tap and locally-sourced food. I’m there to drink Green Flash beer and pair it with smoked meats at the 9th Annual Green Flash Smokeout. Inside, there’s a group of New York Giants fans enduring their team getting thrashed. Outside on the patio, Green Flash and their acquired Alpine Brewing Co. beers occupy every tap. There’s a man continually shucking oysters. Someone is manning the smoker, which, essentially means he’s standing in front of a grill with a beer, checking the progress of the meat every so often.
It’s a city known for hops, but the beer that piqued my interest most was Divine Sauvage, a Belgian Tripel aged in red wine barrels. It’s also brewed with brettanomyces, so the end result is a funky beer with a bit of spice. The red wine added a bit of tannic aftertaste. My second beer was Alpine’s American IPA Windows Up. We see a bit of Alpine distribution out east, but, to reiterate, it’s a different experience at the source.
Is San Diego America’s best beer city? I don’t know.
There are reasons to come and drink Stone, AleSmith, and Lost Abbey at the source. It is a more pleasurable drinking experience. To drink beers from Bagby, Second Chance, and Fall, there’s only one way to do it: Go to San Diego. In the end, it is difficult to give the distinction of best beer city to anyone. In San Diego, there are so many reasons to visit: Fish tacos paired with textbook beautiful weather and picture-perfect scenery, to start.. It seems almost unfair that their beer is also in discussions for yet another accolade. With that said, maybe it’s best we throw away this debate for the rest of time. There’s no best. We’ve got it so good in America, beer-wise. San Diego is no different. Sit by the beach, have a fish taco, have a beer, and just enjoy the view.
Editor’s note: Matt Osgood was part of a press junket to cover San Diego Beer Week. Travel accommodations were provided by the San Diego Board of Tourism.