Twelve Top San Diego Craft Breweries and Tasting Rooms
I've started hearing from folks planning their summer 2018 visits to San Diego who want advice about which breweries to visit. By summer, barring big surprises, there will be over 200 breweries, brewpubs and satellite tasting rooms in San Diego County (a county which is, admittedly, bigger than several states). It took me 18 months to get to all of them: even if you are really serious you aren't going to visit every one on your summer vacation. So, like Brian Beagle from SD Beer Talk Radio (an excellent podcast that can help you understand San Diego's beer scene from the inside) always says, it depends where you are going to be. There is so much good beer in San Diego that you could design an awesome tour of 2 to 20 locations within just a short drive (hopefully by Lyft!) of wherever you might be staying.
Last July, I posted a "ten top" list of 11 really good San Diego breweries plus 13 honorable mentions. Since then, I've been to about 80 more locations, so I was a bit surprised looking back to see that my list isn't a whole lot different today. A couple locations have closed (apparently my ranking them highly wasn't enough to guarantee they would survive economically--humbling for me, lol). A few have moved up the list, including some from the honorable mention list that are now in my top dozen. And a few of the new places I've visited since last July have been so good that I can't not put them into this list.
If you want to use my Twelve Top San Diego Breweries list as a tour planning guide for your summer beercation, keep in mind that some of these locations are far from each other: Bagby and Eppig, for example, are at least a 60 minute drive apart, and probably longer in summer weekend traffic. For the most part, I would recommend that you pick a few of these, and then just go to other breweries and tasting rooms near them to get a fuller picture of what's up with San Diego beer. It really is pretty hard to find an actually bad brewery in San Diego.
Those of you who follow CraftBeerInSanDiego.com know I'm on a quest to visit every San Diego brewery and satellite tasting room. THE LIST of locations keeps growing: as of my May 2018 update, there are 148 craft breweries in the county (9 more than last July), plus 30 of their satellite tasting rooms (5 more than there were last July). There are also 6 other local but non-craft breweries, and 14 craft brewpubs that serve their own beer that is brewed outside of San Diego. All together that's a total of 198 locations, an increase of 14 despite the fact that there were fifteen closures in 2017 and 2018 so far (as I discuss in this article about why failure is only temporary in San Diego craft beer). I have reviewed 183 locations since I started in the fall of 2016; as of today, I just have four left. Well, five: there's yet another one opening tomorrow. The San Diego Reader just did a piece on people who are trying to visit every San Diego brewery and they included me, which was very nice.
Twelve *Really Good* San Diego Breweries
Now that I've been to more than 180 San Diego breweries and tap rooms (including a bunch that are no longer operating), I'm in a position to tell you the best places in San Diego.
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, 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 judgments 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 just "meh." And that's okay. Your mileage may vary. I called this list "Twelve Top San Diego Breweries and Tasting Rooms" instead of "The Top Twelve…" because top ten lists are fairly meaningless, really, since everyone's tastes are different. I make no claim to objectivity or correctness in my rankings. These are places I liked a lot, and I think you will probably like them, too. Given the huge number of 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 from May 2017 includes 31 locations--like him, I can't pare my top ten list down to just ten.
CraftBeerInSanDiego.com's Twelve Top San Diego Breweries and Tasting Rooms
With links to my full reviews, for your reading pleasure.
12. 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 base beer brewed with different yeasts is a great way to learn more about how yeast affects flavor. I tried their Frankenstout a few months ago--brewed with 96 different strains of yeast! It's a whole ecosystem in a glass, and it is pretty darn tasty.
11. 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.
10. Bagby Beer Company, Oceanside
This is one of the most beautiful craft brewery locations in San Diego. Plus it is large and has several different indoor and outdoor spaces, so your'll be able to find a vibe you like. The food is good. The beer is excellent: their very large house list includes several medal winners from prestigious competitions--and they have a well-curated guest tap list, too, in addition to a full bar. If you are enjoying the pier or beach, this is the place to come for your sundowner.
9. 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. While you are downtown, you can't go wrong also checking out local favorites Monkey Paw Brewing, Half Door Brewing or Knotty Barrel. The Bell Marker is good, but I found they had a pretty limited menu of beers they brewed themselves, all in styles that are more for the average drinker than craft aficionados. I personally really enjoy the Ballast Point location in Little Italy, though some SD beer folks avoid it since it was sold to the company that owns Corona and hence no longer counts as craft beer. Please do avoid the 10 Barrel Location in the East Village--it is actually a very nice place, but they are "fake craft" owned by megabeer.
8. 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. I can't think of one of their many beers that I don't like, and the restaurants are excellent, too. For a fun vibe, their Pacific Beach location (really Bay Ho, but I won't quibble here) is excellent--and it is right next to the main brewery. However, it is open pretty limited hours, there is no restaurant, and it is a pain to get to. You are safe in picking any of the six San Diego Karl locations where you happen to be; you won't be disappointed.
7. Second Chance Beer Lounge, North Park
Last year, the Second Chance brewery in Carmel Mountain Ranch made my ten top list as one of the more fun and lively spots to enjoy craft beer in San Diego. It has curated flights that are great, and the beer in general is top notch. But since then they opened a tasting room in North Park that I think is the best location in a VERY beer-rich neighborhood (you could do 16 breweries and tasting rooms in a 3.5 mile walk through North Park from Blind Lady Alehouse to Thorn Brewing). On top of that, Second Chance offers one of the only "pick-six" packs in pint cans which includes TWO GABF medal winners. Tabula Rasa, their robust porter, has won gold at GABF two years in a row. It is good.
6. Bear Roots Brewing, Vista Pariah Brewing Co., North Park
The folks who work here are fun and good people. Their beer is innovative and excellent. Go here.There are two Bear Roots locations in Vista. The original spot, where they brew on a tiny system, has a home brew store and a very nice bar and tasting room. They have just opened a new tasting room in downtown Vista; from photos I've seen online it looks great. If you are short on time and want to maximize your beer touring, go to downtown Vista. There are now four excellent spots within a couple of blocks of each other: Mother Earth's tasting room, the Belching Beaver Tavern and Grill, Wavelength Brewing, and now Bear Roots. Their Bear Cookie peanut butter stout is the best in San Diego--but you can check that yourself since their competitors for that title are the also-excellent Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout and Mother Earth Sin Tax.
5. Eppig Brewing Waterfront Biergarten. For pure experience, this might be the best beer drinking location in San Diego. There's something about beer, sunshine and boats that just can't be beat. Eppig's beer is always good. They are especially well-known for their range of lagered beers, but everything they make is very tasty.
4. New English Brewing Co., Sorrento Valley
The beer is excellent, and their new tasting room at the brewery, as I predicted it would when I published my "Ten Top" list in July 2017, pushes the total experience firmly into the top ten. Their beer wins medals constantly, and they brew a set of styles I really enjoy (mostly British but also west coast IPAs). I had a bourbon barrel aged version of their already-award-winning Zumbar Stout at a 2017 San Diego Beer Week event they hosted and it was one of the best beers I've ever had. They even do cask beer in the traditional English way, which is a rare (though admittedly growing) thing in San Diego.
3. 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.
2. 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. Habitus rye IPA is possibly my favorite beer in the world. Now, Mike, just can an English Mild and I'll love you forever.
1. 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.
12 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 twelve. Whatever.)
Groundswell Brewing, Chula Vista
The original Grantville tasting room has a vibe that I loved; I was less enamored of the Santee brewery location. But the Chula Vista tasting room is the best of the three, so if you are down that way be sure to stop in. I really like the Piloncilo Brown, which just won a gold medal at the 2018 San Diego International Beer Competition (they won a bronze for another beer at the same competition--I'm happy to see them doing so well). While you are there, 3 Punk Ales is directly across the street; they are also recent SDIBC gold medal winners for their rye beer, and the punk-themed tasting room draws lots of fans. If you want a third spot, go a little ways north to to Iron Fist Brewery's Barrio Logan tasting room, where their Ken Schmidt series never disappoints.
Poor House, North Park
No frills, almost divey, but very good beer that should be much better known in San Diego. Plus, free pool and bar snacks. I like it a bit better than Fall Brewing, just up the block, but that place is good, too.
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. 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 very nice room with excellent beer. Since I visited them, they have won some beer competition medals.
Pure Project, Miramar
It has been more than 18 months, but my visit still sticks in my memory. These guys are killing it with popular can and bottle releases, too. The beer is innovative, high quality and really delicious. The tasting room is very small, but it can be fun. Check their website for details of upcoming releases.
Rip Current, North Park
These guys won the Very Small Brewing Company of the Year award at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, and their beer is excellent. I especially enjoy their range of stouts and other darker beers, which are all different from one another and consistently top notch. The tasting room in North Park is good, and for proximity to other great beer in that neighborhood I recommend it over the brewery in San Marcos, though that's a fine place too if you happen to be up that way.
Home Brewing Co., North Park
Based inside The Homebrewer, a very well-regarded home brew supply store, they brew a wide range of excellent beers and they are great people to talk with. They have renovated their tasting room since I reviewed them, but the great beer and super-nice people are still the same.
Culture Brewing Co.
Culture really should be in the official top twelve. The beer is great. The design of their locations (the brewing facility in Solana Beach, the tasting room in Encinitas, 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.
Pariah Brewing Co., North Park
The folks who work here are fun and good people. Their beer is innovative and excellent. Stout with local sea urchin roe? Yes, it IS delicious.
Ebullition Beer Works, Vista
I was very impressed when I visited this still-new brewery a few months ago. It is modern and industrial, yet comfortable and beautiful. The people who own it are awesome, and they love talking about their beer. Even better, their beer is excellent. I expect this place to join the ranks of San Diego's best breweries in short order.
Rouleur Brewing Company, Carlsbad
This bicycle-themed brewery is fun and sophisticated at the same time. If you are a road biker, you'll love it. If you are a beer drinker, you'll love it. The art is neat, and the staff are really nice. Impressively, having only been open for about a year, they just won a gold medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup for their Belgian Blonde Ale, Domestique.
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 way too expensive in the stores. But as a total experience, Ballast Point should be on any San Diego beer tourist's 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.
If you are visiting San Diego for a beercation, shoot me an email at Bill@CraftBeerInSanDiego.com and maybe we can arrange to meet up for a beer. Let me know if you find this list useful or interesting. If there is a place you think should have included, let me know that, too, in the comments below!