A Denver Guy Checks Out The San Diego Beer Scene

by Billy Broas

Picture of Ocean Beach San Diego

When you hear talks about the best beer cities in America, the same names always come up: Denver (represent!), Portland, Philly, Asheville, and San Diego.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the last one as my girlfriend and I took a much needed vacation to Southern California. It was our first time there, and I wanted to see what all the beer talk was about.

Now I do want to point out that this was not a dedicated beer trip but rather a couple’s beach vacation where beer played a side role. I didn’t do any private tours or interviews and I missed a lot of great beer venues. Besides, who can afford to do a beer-only vacation? I’m jealous of you.

Our local joint

We stayed in Ocean Beach which is a hippie surf-bum area (we’re not big on fancy resorts). Other people criticize it for being dirty, but I think it has character.

Picture of front of Pizza Port in Ocean Beach San Diego

Pizza Port Ocean Beach

Besides the beach, the best part about this place is that Pizza Port Ocean Beach was only 3 blocks from our hotel. Pizza Port has a few brewpub locations and they are owned by Port Brewing, the same company as The Lost Abbey. They all make fantastic beer and Pizza Port Carlsbad in particular tore it up last year at the Great American Beer Festival.

The OB location is no slouch itself. They have some delicious big hoppy beers in the traditional west coast style and even a tasty little summer ale called Osprey. The place seems to be a hit because it gets absolutely slammed at night and it’s hard to find seating, even with the cafateria style community tables.

We loved Pizza Port OB and went there a few times.

Stone World Bistro

Stone World Bistro

Stone World Bistro

My mother lives in Carlsbad not too far from the Stone brewery, so we took the train up there for lunch and a tour. I’ve heard this place is impressive, but holy shit.

Huge granite boulders, fire pits, trees in the dining room – it’s quite a spectacle. Outside there is a 1-acre garden with a babbling brook and a nature trail. You won’t find a more relaxing place to drink a beer.

We ate outside where I had to quickly down a 9.2% Japanese Green Tea IPA before catching the tour. The beer is a collaboration between Stone and two Japanese breweries with the proceeds going to the Japanese relief efforts, so I felt good about my buzz.

The Stone brewery is just as impressive as the dining area and garden. If you’ve been on any craft brewery tours, you can tell that these guys are big. It’s a 55,000 sq. ft., 120 bbl facility. The tour guide was entertaining and at the end they give you free tasters of the Pale Ale, Smoked Porter, IPA, and Arrogant Bastard.

The place is a gem, and my Mom even bought me Arrogant Bastard socks from the gift shop. How cool is that?

Other imbibing

Pizza Port and Stone were our main destinations, but when we weren’t on the beach or visiting landmarks we did check out some other good beer stops. Here are notes on locations & beers:

  • Newport Pizza and Ale House: When I saw a “No Crap on Tap” sign on the wall I knew I was in the right place. Great pizza and beer list. I really enjoyed the Speakeasy Betrayal Imperial Red.
  • Stone Cherry Chocolate Stout: We picked these up from the Stone gift shop. Two homebrewers won a contest and had their beer made commercially. I love seeing homebrewers get noticed and they deserve it with thisĀ deliciousĀ beer.
  • The Beer Co.: Ok so I didn’t actually have a beer here because I was craving a mid-morning Bloody Mary. I didn’t see any brews that really stood out anyways. Can anyone speak from experience?
  • Ballast Point Sculpin: This is a legendary beer that I’d never gotten a chance to try until I had it at The Blue Parrot in Ocean Beach. Great hop bomb IPA.
  • Coronado Islander Pale Ale: Also had this at The Blue Parrot. It’s super easy drinking and has a refreshing raspberry-like hop flavor.
  • Firestone Walker Robust Porter: On tap a Pizza Port. I needed a break from all the hops and this beer was the perfect escape.

What did I think of San Diego?

Picture of Stone Brewing's Green Tea IPA

Green Tea IPA

San Diego really is a great beer city and beautiful overall. I compare everything to Denver, and I still think we have the edge in beer. I’m also curious as to how what breweries people count as in San Diego. Stone and The Lost Abbey are a good 30 miles from downtown San Diego so if you applied that same radius to Denver you would include Boulder and Aurora (Dry Dock).

While Ocean Beach was great for beer, I was a little dissapointed in the overall food & beer scene in downtown San Diego. In downtown Denver there is a great bar every 10 ft. but it was actually hard for us to find a decent place to get a drink in downtown San Diego.

I do think San Diego has an edge with the average bar’s beer selection. That’s really a great way to judge a beer city – not by the craft beer geek bars, but by what’s on tap at the “Average Joe” bar. From our experience every restaurant had a least a few great craft beers on tap.

So San Diego has some great things going on and I can’t wait to return. I love the Rocky Mountains but growing up on the East Coast, sometimes I need some beach to go with my beer.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

JEG August 12, 2011 at 11:57 am

A San Diego native and big beer lover, I’m sad that no one directed you to 30th street in North Park, which has become a relative craft beer “mecca” just outside of Downtown SD. Downtown is a nothing, trust me, I lived there, and the food scene is hit or miss. But 30th street offers a huge variety of beer purveyors (Blind Lady Ale House, Toronado, and Stone is opening a tasting room as well) and amazing food spots (Linkery, Alexander’s, Jayne’s Gastropub.) On your next visit, check it out!

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Billy Broas August 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm

People directed me to the 30th street but we weren’t able to make it. I always like visiting the downtown area of any new city so that’s where we headed after Balboa Park. 30th street will be on the next visit though. Thanks for the suggestions on beer and food spots.

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Jimmie the Mum August 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Sounded like a relaxing time. Glad you enjoyed CA.

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Billy Broas August 13, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Thanks Jimmie. We had a great time.

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Dennis August 13, 2011 at 10:40 am

When people reference San Diego’s craft beer, they are referencing the county of San Diego, because most of the great beer is in North San Diego County, Stone, Port/The Lost Abbey, Green Flash, although they just moved to the Mira Mesa are of San Diego.

You also have great craft beer on the south end with Coronado Brewing and Alpine Brewery. So the majority of renowned brewers aren’t in the City of San Diego. So you do three tours of 5 breweries each, a south county tour, a Miramar/Mira Mesa area tour and a route 78 tour. 3 days, 15 breweries and 90 beers, not a bad 3 day weekend. Plus great food at the end of each.

I love San Diego’s beer scene but I’m partial to Portland since both Rogue and Deschutes have opened breweries in the City.

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Billy Broas August 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Ah thanks for the clarification – San Diego County. Yea that does really increase the land area.

That’s useful info Dennis and sounds like one hell of a beer-vacation. Hopefully I can find the time in the future to do it. Portland is another beer mecca I still need to check out.

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Adam August 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Did you hit Hamilton’s Tavern. It’s a small, almost dive bar in what appears to be an old house in a neighborhood. I read about it in Imbibe Magazine, which named it one of the 100 best places to drink beer in the country. Anyway, they had a tremendous selection and a great, chill, down-to-earth atmosphere. It’s right down the road from the more posh North Park area, if you’re in to that.

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Billy Broas August 13, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Na wasn’t able to hit Hamilton’s. Looks like an awesome place though. It’s funny actually, I checked out the Tap List and it’s more than 1/2 Avery beers. You would think they had a stake in it: http://hamiltonstavern.com/ontap/

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Jason Harris August 17, 2011 at 1:32 am

From what I recall when I was there, they tend to do theme beer taps for a little bit at a time. In a week or two it’ll probably be all something else. As others have said, all the people who live in San Diego hate the downtown area because it’s too touristy/douchey/expensive, but the South/North Park area has become sort of the beer mecca.

Next time you’re in town, you should have a tweetup! I would have gone down to SD for that.

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Billy Broas August 17, 2011 at 10:20 am

Ah ok I thought it may have been a “tap takeover” or something.

Yea I wasn’t aware that the downtown area was so lacking in beer culture. Thankfully the other places we visited were awesome and I have a list of places to see next time. Tweetup for sure!

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Ryan August 18, 2011 at 11:51 am

As a former Denver-ite who just moved out to San Diego, I’ve noticed a lot of Colorado craft beers on tap at the local bars; especially Avery. Not sure what the connection is, but San Diegans seem to love Avery. Also, I second JEG’s comment -The neighborhoods of North Park, South Park, University Heights and Normal Heights have some incredible bars with great food, atmosphere, and a kick-ass selection of craft brews. Next time you’re in town, hit up one of the Drink-Abouts, and let us all know so we can join you!

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Billy Broas August 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Hey Ryan. Yea I did notice an abundance of Avery. At least they have good taste. Thanks for the tips and I will definitely let you know when I’m back.

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Jason Harris August 18, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Avery is probably the best overall brewery from CO that we get in CA, and one of the best in the country, if I had to say. That’s probably why you see them here so much.

Jessica September 22, 2011 at 6:26 am

Great recap of a great beer ares! I was lucky enough to go to SoCal twice this summer (once for work, once to visit my brother) and I loved it. Stone was awesome; definitely the most beautiful brewery I have ever been to. Next time you are out that way you should go to Ballast Point. It’s in the back of a homebrew shop and they have some awesome beer on tap. Cheers!

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Billy Broas September 23, 2011 at 9:59 am

Thanks for the comment Jessica. You’re right about Stone – it’s amazing. I hope to make to Ballast Point and many other beer stops next trip.

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BeerBrad December 4, 2012 at 11:08 pm

I know it’s over a year later, but there are a couple good breweries in the downtown area.

Mission Brewery in the old Wonder Bread factory by the stadiums. They don’t have food so it’s dog friendly and they bring in food trucks.

Monkey Paw just a few blocks northeast of Mission Brewery by the freeway. They have a dinky kitchen in back with good cheesesteaks and they do a lot of collaboration brews. I think I got more free tastes from them than anywhere else I’ve been (and I’ve been around).

Karl Strauss has a restaurant down by the harbor. The main brewery isn’t open to the public yet. Their selection is on par with Stone or Rogue.

All three are well worth going out of your way to check out.

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Billy Broas December 5, 2012 at 9:51 am

This is useful stuff Brad. I will be returning to San Diego before long so I’ll put the info to good use. Cheers.

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BeerBrad December 11, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Let me know when you go and we might meet up. I’m not far from there and I’m always looking for an excuse to go drink good craft beers. I’m something of a food, beer, and wine tourist.

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