Over the past decade, San Diego has emerged as the leading beer city in America, possibly the world. With over 48 craft breweries in the county, mostly focused on beer geek styles like double IPAs, imperial stouts, and sour beers, it's certainly worth a visit. Before returning home for break, I spent some time with my Angry Monocle co-conspiritor, Jack, seeking out the finest ales San Diego had to offer. Here are some thoughts.
Breakwater Brewing Company, Oceanside – A bustling brewpup in downtown Oceanside. We were drawn in by the Biere du Jour, a raspberry-hibiscus mead blended with stout and aged in Brettanomyces-inhabited wine barrels. Strange, to say the least. Not much stout character left. I'm not a fan of hibiscus, so that was off-putting to me, but the main problem was the intensely dry, empty finish. Reminded me of something Dogfish Head might make. We also had a decent double IPA.
Pizza Port, Carlsbad – Raucous: family-style seating, with children to match. This was my second visit to a Pizza Port; I had previously been to their location in San Clemente. The pizza is quite good: I'm a fan of the Pizza Carlsbad, with pesto, mesquite grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and feta. A good IPA is one of the few drinks that pairs well with artichoke. Pizza Port is known for their IPAs, so both of my visits I've ordered one. I don't remember the names, but they were both tap-only house beers, and both were underwhelming—lacking the intense aromatics I look for in a fresh IPA. However, I did also order a pint of Alpine's Duet IPA, which was hands down the best of the 11 IPAs I tasted that weekend. Super clean bitterness with pungent floral aromatics.
Lost Abbey, San Marcos – Located in one of the many industrial parks we visited, Lost Abbey is worth a visit just for its open-to-the-public barrel room. Unfortunately, there wasn't a single sour on tap, so we split a pint of Old Viscosity and moved on, after ogling the multitude of barrels with unconcealed envy.
Societe Brewing Company, San Diego – One of the nicer-looking tasting rooms we visited. I guess it should be, since Societe is only six months old. We had a few IPAs, which were all well-made and interesting, but none of which blew me away. I think my favorite of their beers was actually a Belgian pale ale called The Harlot. Definitely a brewery to watch, as they have a sour program going that should come to fruition in the next couple of years. Given the brewers' experience at Russian River and The Bruery, I'm excited to see what they turn out.
Toronado (Bar), San Diego – Hell of a bar. Had my first taste of Rodenbach Grand Cru (!). Also a couple more Alpine beers. Odin's Raven, an imperial stout, was flawless but uninspiring. Keene Idea, a double IPA with Nelson Sauvin hops, was incredibly pungent and unique, but I actually found the gooseberry hop aromatics in this beer to be off-putting (hints of onion). Food was ok. Burgers were generously thick—too thick, if you ask me—and the bottom bun was sopping wet by the time I was served. Also, a side of 'chips' meant potato chips, not french fries, which was a disappointment. Still, the astoundingly awesome tap list makes it hard for me to complain about this place.
Rough Draft Brewing Company, San Diego – We had some IPAs here. Hop Therapy, a double IPA, had a really nice melon note to it. Don't remember much else. The bartender wore bright red lipstick. There seemed to be a fair number of regulars.
Blind Lady Ale House & Automatic Brewing Company, San Diego – We tried to come here on Day 2, but it was closed for a private event involving Will Ferrell. We tried Automatic's Equal Rye & Justice, a rye pale ale dry hopped with Citra, which was pretty good. Looked like they had good food.
Green Flash – More taps than any of the other tasting rooms we'd been to. Some very interesting beers, such as Candela, a rye barleywine aged on cedar. Conclusion: don't age beer on cedar. Some of their IPAs were pretty good, but I still haven't found another Green Flash beer that comes close to their Double Stout.
Stone Brewing Company, Escondido – Classy restaurant. None of the Stone beers on tap looked terribly exciting. Had a bottle of Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze, which was terribly exciting. Also had a glass of Stillwater's Cellar Door saison, which I didn't much care for. Something tasted off. Might've been the sage they added. The food was good, but not great, considering the classiness of the restaurant.
When I visited my uncle in San Clemente recently, we drove down to his friend Steven's place in Encinitas and brewed a rhubarb saison on his ($5,000) Sabco system. Since we started brewing at 6am, we were finished by mid-morning, and decided to make a couple more stops while we were in the area.
Ballast Point: An excellent selection of exclusive taps from their pilot system, including a few barrel-aged offerings, such as 2010 Three Sheets barleywine, aged in Syrah barrels. Well-made, but too oxidized for my tastes. Their brandy barrel-aged Navigator doppelbock, however, was the best doppelbock I've had. And, of course, Sculpin fresh from the brewery is about as good as it gets.
White Labs: This yeast lab hosts a tasting room where you can try the same beer fermented with several different yeasts. When we visited, they were featuring saison, hefeweizen, and robust porter. To be honest, I didn't think any of the saisons were very good. Two of the hefeweizens were quite good: the one fermented with WLP300 (the classic hefe strain) had typical banana aroma, with a dry wheat finish, while the one fermented with WLP380 (a different strain from Weihenstephan), had similar aromatics, but a cleaner, fruitier finish, with a bit more tartness. I was glad to find that the robust porter fermented with WLP007 (which I used for my porter) was the best of the four porters. WLP004 (Irish ale) was also decent, but sweeter and less aromatic. The porter with WLP011 (European ale) had some interesting esters, but did not compliment the roasted malts very well. The porter with WLP001 (California ale) was boring as heck.