Ten Top San Diego Breweries and Tasting Rooms
Those of you who follow CraftBeerInSanDiego.com know I'm in the midst of a quest to visit every San Diego brewery and satellite tasting room. The list of locations keeps growing: as of today, there are 139 craft breweries in the county, plus 25 of their satellite tasting rooms. There are also 6 other non-craft breweries and 15 craft brewpubs that serve their own beer that is brewed outside of San Diego. All together that's a total of 184 locations. Way to go, San Diego!
Not counting additional places that are projected to open between now and the end of my quest, I will consider my quest completed when I've visited the 139 craft breweries and their 25 tasting rooms plus the 6 non-craft breweries. At least two San Diego breweries have no tasting room (they are production breweries for distribution rather than on-site consumption). That means my quest includes 168 places in total--plus whatever else opens before I finish.
I've done 102 reviews so far on my blog. Of those, two were for locations that have since closed (Lightening and the 32 North tasting room in Liberty Station); two were for non-San Diego brewpubs (Oggi's Mission Valley and BJ's La Jolla); and one was a cidery (Newtopia). That means 97 of my reviews so far count towards the quest for 168.
I had originally hoped to finish within a year of the date I launched my blog, Oct. 19, 2016. As of July 11, there are 15 weeks until the anniversary. That means I need to visit 4.7 breweries per week. Both my liver and my wallet had better watch out! At this point I'll be surprised if I make it within the year, but that's okay. I've been averaging 2.6 reviews per week up to this point. At that rate I'll be done around the end of January 2018.
Ten *Really Good* San Diego Breweries
Now that I've been to more than 100 San Diego breweries and tap rooms, I'm in a position to tell you the best places I've visited so far. For me, visiting a brewery or tap room is not just about the beer--though the beer is definitely key. I consider the totality of the experience, including everything from how annoying it is to get there, to interior design, to parking availability, to service, to how comfortable it is, to the availability of food--even the other patrons (it matters who you spend your time with). My judgements are based on my full experience going there, ordering a flight, and drinking the beer. Things like "buzz," reputation and popularity don't have much effect on my impressions of a place. In fact, there are several very well-regarded (even historically important) San Diego craft breweries my response to which is "meh." And that's okay. Your mileage may vary. This list represents the breweries and tap rooms that have really impressed me. I called it "Ten Top San Diego Breweries and Tasting Rooms" instead of "The Top Ten…" partly because I haven't been to all of them yet and partly because top ten lists are fairly meaningless, really, since everyone's tastes are different. These are places I liked, and I think you will probably like them, too. Given the huge number of great breweries in San Diego, there are lots of others that are worth a visit as well. If you watch What's On Draft (and you should!) you'll see that Tom's Top Ten list includes 31 locations--like him, I can't pare my top ten list down to just ten.
CraftBeerInSanDiego.com's Eleven "Top Ten" San Diego Breweries and Tasting Rooms
With links to my full reviews, for your reading pleasure.
11. Ballast Point, Miramar
Look, I know, Ballast Point doesn't count as "craft" according to the Brewers Association definition. But it is San Diego beer and, let's be honest, it is pretty darn good. They are still innovative and still make beer worth drinking. They do the whole beer-and-food thing really well. Yes, they are owned by Constellation Brands and, yes, their packs of cans are too expensive in the stores. But as a total experience, Ballast Point should be on any San Diego beer list. I understand if your hate-on for Big Beer prevents you from going there--I'm right on the fence (with one leg on either side, and let me tell you, it is pretty uncomfortable).
10. White Labs, Miramar
Technically this is a yeast supplier, but they have a small brew house and tasting room--and it is actually nicer than most of the tasting rooms around town. Their beer is really interesting. Doing a tasting flight of the same beer brewed with different yeasts is a great way to learn more about how yeast affects flavor.
9. San Diego Brewing Co., North Park
The North Park Brewery Igniter can only be considered a smash success. All three of the breweries made it onto this list, and they are acquiring huge reputations with craft aficionados. San Diego Brewing Co. makes some great beer, and has done so for a long time. They are even better now that they are on their new brewing system.
8. Second Chance Beer Company, Carmel Mountain Ranch
This is one of the more fun and lively spots to enjoy craft beer in San Diego. Plus the curated flights are great, and the beer in general is top notch.
7. Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Carlsbad (if I have to pick just one location)
There is a reason Karl Strauss was the 2016 GABF Mid-size Brewery of the Year: They are really good. I can't think of one of their many beers that I don't like, and the restaurants are excellent, too.
6. Pariah Brewing Co., North Park
The folks who work here are fun and good people. Their beer is innovative and excellent. Go here.
5. Benchmark, Grantville
Some of the cleanest, most well-made beer you will find. Style-perfect and delicious. And the folks that run it are both really knowledgeable about beer and very willing to share that knowledge.
4. Resident Brewing Co., Downtown
I was really impressed, both with the venue and with the beer. It is the best craft beer location in downtown (and that's saying something). The food from The Local (in which Resident is resident--get it?) is excellent, too.
3. Mike Hess, North Park
My sentimental favorite, since it was one of my first San Diego brewery experiences and they seem to brew almost exactly to my tastes. The beer is consistent, and consistently excellent, across a range of styles. (Can an English Mild, Mike, and I'll love you forever.)
2. AleSmith, Miramar
If you ask me, AleSmith could take over the world with Speedway Stout. And the rest of their beer is really good, too. Plus their tasting room is large and beautiful. If they had included a restaurant, it would have been even better.
1. Mother Earth, Vista
I discovered Mother Earth relatively recently during my quest, but they make some of the best beers in San Diego, which means some of the best beers anywhere.
13 Honorable Mentions that nearly made the list
These are all places I really liked, but which just didn't quite crack the top ten. (Or eleven. Whatever.)
Bolt Brewing, La Mesa
The purely-outdoor space means it is a little weather dependent--but in San Diego that's not often a problem. They offer $1 off pints when it rains, anyway (and there is cover). It is a relaxed, fun environment. I like the beer.
Groundswell Brewing, Grantville
The original Grantville tasting room has a vibe that I love, so it makes the list even although the newer Santee production facility does not (largely because of my experience with the service there, which hopefully has improved).
Poor House, North Park
No frills, almost divey, but excellent beer that should be much better known in San Diego. Plus, free pool and bar snacks.
Helm's Brewing, Ocean Beach
Some combination of the beer, the room and the proximity to the beach makes this my favorite tasting room in OB.
At Ease @ Barrel Harbor
We had a lot of fun both times we went here. The vibe is good, with lots of fellow beer geek gamers. I felt like I was with my peeps, and the beer is very good.
Maybe the fact that the employees now own 30% of the brewery will improve customer service, which has been a big negative every time I've visited either location, both at the North Park tasting room and the Lomaland brewing facility. Parking is a problem in both places, too. But the beer is great. Big props for the coffee and the graphic design on the cans, too.
Bitter Brothers, Bay Ho
This is a good place with excellent beer.
Acoustic Ales Experiment, Mission Hills
The room is comfortable and attractive, but the location is awkward to get to. That's part of the reason they are planning to move to a new space. The beer is top notch.
Pure Project, Miramar
These guys are killing it with popular can and bottle releases. The beer is innovative, high quality and really delicious. The tasting room is really small.
Rip Current, North Park
I haven't been to the Vista brewing facility yet, but the tasting room in North Park is good and the beer is excellent.
Homebrewer, North Park
Although primarily a home brew supply store, they brew a range of excellent beers and they are great people to talk with. I haven't seen their renovated tasting room yet but I'm looking forward to it.
New English Brewing Co., Sorrento Valley
The beer is excellent, and their new tasting room at the brewery (which I haven't tried yet) might push the total experience firmly into the top ten.
Culture Brewing Co.
Culture really should be in the official top ten. The beer is great. The design of their locations (both the brewing facility in Solana Beach and the tasting room in Ocean Beach) is excellent. They just don't have enough seats, nor do they offer a tray for your flights--that's a combo that makes for extreme awkwardness. It is worth it for the beer.