Our Big Beer Shake-Down -> San Diego’s Best Breweries, Beers & Pubs
I don’t think we’ve ever undertaken a task as big as this one. At the beginning of our month in San Diego our goal was to try and find the best brews in the city, and I can’t really say we succeeded. It’s not for lack of trying mind you, but rather for the sheer overwhelming size of the task involved.
Early in 2015 San Diego hit it’s 100’th brewing location. That’s 100 separate brewing areas just within San Diego County itself! Putting this into simple mathematics, assuming ~5 different beers per brew location (that’s on the low-side, but hey) and a mini 4 oz tasting of each that means one person would have to taste 16 beers each day (= 66 oz or around 4 pints) for a month just to get through it all. It’s do-able, but it’s a stretch and would likely stretch the waistline quite nicely too.
As you can imagine we didn’t manage nearly all of them, but we did get through around 25 and I can honestly say that San Diego has some of the best craft beer I have ever tasted.
This is the place that good brewers come to experiment. They flock here like fermented grains to hops, and once they’ve gotten a bit of experience under their belts they branch out and form their own creations. It’s become so crazy that the local scene has evolved from craft breweries to micro-breweries to (get this) nano-breweries. The stuff here is incredible and the market has gotten so big it’s estimated that it now generates a $600 million local impact. As a bonus for the visitor a lot of the breweries are dog-friendly and every single one offers inexpensive tastings (around $1-$2 for 4oz is typical).
There is NO WAY I could present all of this in one blog post, but I’m going to try and break it out into our top picks by category. Here you go….
Best Darn Breweries
It’s hard to chose a favorite, especially since Paul and I have such different tastes (he likes IPA’s, I like stouts) so we chose our top breweries by the ones that provided, in our opinion, the best all-around quality of beer of all types.
AleSmith – To say I was blown away by the stout at AleSmith is not an understatement. Their Speedway Stouts of which they make a basic version as well as a few specialty options (e.g. Vietnamese Coffee, Kona etc.) are simply amazing. Deep, intense, full stouts with lots of well-balanced flavor. They also make some excellent Belgium Ales (the Horny Devil is wonderful) and a really, really nice Pale Ale (San Diego 394). Bonus points -> it’s entirely dog-friendly.
Belching Beaver – I was initially attracted to Belching Beaver by their super-interesting Horchata Milk Stout which I managed to snag a taste of at a pub in town, and I have to admit just about everything we tried here was good. They specialize in unusual flavor combinations including honey notes (in their Me So Honey), very hoppy IPA’s (the Dammed) and peanut butter stouts (the special Imperial version is their best IMHO). Super dog-friendly spot too.
Green Flash – Green Flash is one of the weirder locations you’ll find in the city and from the outside looks more like a flashy office building than anything else, but step in and you’ll enter a lovely, airy brewery with (even) a nice little dog-friendly outdoor seating area. They’ve grown over the years, but I’m happy to say their quality has stayed top notch. They have an outstanding list of IPA’s and interesting stouts (especially their chili stouts) and almost everything we tried we liked.
Pizza Port – There are several Pizza Ports around San Diego and they’re a bit of a local institution. Not only are their pizza’s inexpensive & awesome, but their beer is too and each Pizza Port offers their own specialty brews. Our absolute favorite was the Ocean Beach location which offered one of the creamiest & smoothest stouts I’ve ever tasted (Suavecito on Nitro) as well as two fabulous IPAs (Penthouse Double and Jetty). Their outdoor patio area is always crowded, but always dog-friendly.
Societe – Societe was actually the first brewery we tried in the city and we were immediately hooked, especially by their selection of IPA’s. Our absolute favorite which both of us enjoyed (even me) was their big Miser IPA. It’s big (10%) and they only manage to get the mix perfect in limited batches so it often sells out in days. Lovely, airy place to have a few beers and tastings are cheap at only $1 each. Bonus Points -> outdoor area is dog-friendly.
Thorne Street – Thorne Street was a total surprise and one we’d never heard of before, but it absolutely rates in our top breweries in the city. A super-intimate place (100% dog-friendly to boot) that offers a selection of excellent quality beers. We were particularly impressed by their Imperial Stout, Dobbebock and Belgian Quad. As a bonus an excellent Thai food truck showed up outside the brewery at ~6pm and they deliver inside.
Special Mention – Modern Times makes crazy-intense coffee stouts and has a super-cool industrial decor. Their stouts didn’t make my super-duper top list (although I really liked their Oatmeal on Nitro), but it’s worth the visit here just for the decor. We also enjoyed several Mother Earth beers which we tried at other pubs, but sadly never made it to the actual brewery. Next time!
Best Darn Beers
Even harder to rate than the best breweries are our favorite individual beers, but these are the one’s that stood out for both of us:
Nina’s Favorite Stouts ->
Top Pick -> Alesmith Speedway Stout, all versions WOW!!
Most Interesting -> Belching Beaver Horchata Milk Stout & Belching Beaver Imperial Peanut Butter Stout (special 8th anniversary edition). Both are ridiculously tasty!
Creamiest/Smoothest -> Pizza Port Suavecito (Nitro). sooooo smoooothe!
Special mentions go to Stone Russian Imperial Stout (2014), Thorn Street Dark Tsar Russian Imperial Stout, Modern Times Oatmeal Stout & Mother Earth Peanut Butter Stout.
Paul’s Favorite Beers ->
Pizza Port Penthouse (Double IPA). Unbelievably tasty.
Belching Beaver Damned (Double IPA). Such an interesting Mead flavor.
Societe Miser (Triple IPA). So strong, but so incredibly well balanced.
Green Flash Mosaic (Session IPA). Love those mosaic hops.
AleSmith San Diego 394 (Pale Ale). One of the best Pale Ale’s we’ve tasted.
Special Mentions go to Mother Earth Boo Koo IPA, Alpine Nelson (IPA), Thorn Street Abbey Roof (Belgian Quad)
Best Place To Drink With Doggie
One of the surprising things about San Diego are the number of breweries that allow dogs, many of them even inside the brewery itself! ALL of the “best darn breweries” mentioned in my top list above allow dogs (all of them). Another little gem we found was Amplified Aleworks in Mission Beach. This upstairs brew pub offers a small, but good brew list, a good slice of ocean view, tasty food and a really inviting, comfy atmosphere. We went here twice.
Best Place To Drink With An Ocean View
Probably the best ocean view beer pub we found was Draft in Mission Beach. Very nice beer list (69 on tap with lots of local options) with excellent views and it doesn’t hurt that it’s biking distance from our RV park. The bartenders are very knowledgeable and food is good too (but pricey). No dogs though.
Another neat “sand watching” spot is Wonderland Ocean Pub in Ocean Beach. It sits on the second floor overlooking the beach and has a very decent beer list (30 on tap). This is also bike-able for those motivated enough to do so. Combine a beer sunset with a burger from Hodad’s and the Wed night farmer’s market just down the road for a whole experience. No dogs.
Best Place To Sample Multiple Brews
For pure beer sampling it’s hard to go wrong with the combo of (literally) next-door pubs SD Tap Room & Barrel Republic in Pacific Beach. Between the two spots you can sample ~100 different beers, many of which are local.
SD Tap Room is a bustling downtown pub that’s always busy. They update their beer list regularly and have unique options on tap that you sometimes can’t find anywhere else. Food is so-so, but beer list is awesome. I also love their online live barrel watch which allows you to see exactly what’s on tap and how close it is to running out. No dogs.
Barrel Republic is a self-serve techno-pub which is worth visiting just for the experience. You exchange your credit card for an electronic arm band which allows you to activate & pour as little or as much as you want of all 46 beers on tap. Super cool! Beers are constantly rotating and include a slew of interesting local brews. You can stumble here from SD Tap Room. No dogs.
Special Mention -> OB Noodle House in Ocean Beach is an excellent place to pick a brew and eat some good food at very reasonable prices. Their Pho is especially tasty and during Happy Hour (3-6PM) their beers are 1/2 off. Another well-known San Diego favorite is Blind Lady Ale House although we didn’t make it there this time around.
Those That Didn’t Get A Mention
You might be surprised that Stone, Coronado Brewing Company and Karl Strauss didn’t get mentioned in our lists. Although we enjoyed individual beers at each place we actually found their brews to be less interesting (overall) than the others we’ve tried. Stone & Karl Strauss are both good places to go for a sit-down beer/food combo, but they are bigger breweries and their brew quality has just been outpaced by the others in the city IMHO. You can’t go wrong tasting there, but you’ll definitely want to try some of the smaller places too.
Tools To Get Around
Here are the best tools we found for getting the low-down on the San Diego brew market:
- West Coaster Magazine – A magazine dedicated to San Diego brewing. You can pick it up around town orsee an interactive map here. The best part of the magazine are the fabulous brewery maps in the back. Click HERE.
- TapHunter – Free App for searching beer, breweries, tap lists. It’s not always 100% accurate (check the “update date” to see how recent a given beer list is), but it’s pretty darn awesome. If you find a beer you like you can put it on your “watch list” too and get notified everytime it turns up in your area. Click HERE.
You’ll be relieved to know that no friends were harmed in the making of this blog post, but many participated both furry and otherwise. Beer hugs & doggie kisses go to Lu&Terry (who came down to visit for a day), Hector,Brenda&Angel (who were constant companions), Todd,Russ&Frances (who encouraged the quest daily), Carmen (who contributed admirably) and Gayle&Jim (who sneaked into our last few days).
Did we miss your favorite? What say ye, beer drinkers….?