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Three San Diego County self-guided brewery tours that combine great breweries and craft beers with locations that are easy to get to from one another.
With so many breweries spread out across San Diego's rather large county, it's important to do a little planning before heading out for a day of beer touring. Here are some suggestions that will help you do it right. Also, each of the three combos ends at a place that offers, not only great beer, but also great food. No doubt, after giving your taste buds a workout at the first two stops, you will have worked up an appetite!
A Few Words of Beer Touring Wisdom
Stay hydrated at all stops—have at least 16 ounces of water at every tasting room. Secondly, don't rush. Time and hydration are your two best defenses against overindulgence. Spend at least an hour at each location. And thirdly, have a designated driver or Uber/Lyft app at the ready. There's no better long-term beer-tasting strategy than that.
There are so many great breweries in North County that whittling them down to just three is quite a challenge. Truth is, you could easily stop at a dozen other breweries while you're traveling the #78, which is also now known as the Hops Highway. For the sake of this roundup, here's a trio that will give you a nice variety of styles, locations and options.
Just off the #78 in San Marcos, you'll find this small but inviting tasting room and brewery. Here, the brewers/owners Guy Shobe and Paul Sangster concentrate on making their full-flavored brands of mostly classic American styles. Sangster (who was nationally recognized a number of times as one of America's best home brewers) is particularly good at hoppy styles, such as Lupulin Lust IPA, In the Curl Imperial IPA and Pearling Pale Ale, which are the stars of the show here. They also won 2015 Very Small Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year at The Great American Beer Festival.
This super-fast growing company has become San Diego’s sixth-largest brewery in little more than seven years. Their success is founded on an ability to do a wide variety of crowd-pleasing beers that are highly flavorful and very drinkable. Their most popular beer by far is their Cali Creamin’ Cream Ale (one of SD’s best poolside sippers!), but their session ales, pale ales (Pin Up) and IPAs (Boo Koo, Kismet, Primordial) have also gained loyal followings from die-hard hop fans.
Keep heading west on #78 until you can't go any further (less than 20 miles) and you'll wind up at the South Coast Highway in Oceanside. Straight ahead, you should be able to see the ocean, and on your left (on the corner) you'll see URGE and the home of Mason Ale Works. This brewery-and-restaurant is owned and operated by the same group that owns one of North County's best craft beer bars, except here they have their own brewery. The Mason Ale Works beers are all clean, crisp and tasty takes on classic (mostly American) styles, and they all pair exceptionally well with the high-end burgers, sandwiches, salads and fish dishes that make up the bulk of URGE's menu. They also feature 34 other taps highlighting the best of San Diego and elsewhere.
This region, roughly defined as the county south of #56 and north of #8, has become one of San Diego's fastest growing brewery areas. Much of the attention has recently been focused on the Miramar/Mira Mesa area, which is home to big operations like Ballast Point, AleSmith, Karl Strauss and Green Flash, as well a nearly half a dozen smaller new breweries. The three picks for this mid-county outing, however, are south of Miramar in the Mission Valley area.
This cozy, family-run brewery offers visitors a charming tasting room filled with unique handmade touches, cool lighting fixtures and high-top tables. They also pour their pints into big, chunky, glass-cut mugs that harken back to your favorite neighborhood pub or bier garden. Co-owner/brewer Matt Akin is a talented lad who can brew any style well. He's earned acclaim for his brown ale and his table beer, but his IPAs are top notch as well. Matt also strives to keep the ABV levels tame on most of his brews (many are 5% or lower), which makes Benchmark a great first stop on this brew hop.
If you're feeling like getting some air, five minutes on foot will get you from Benchmark to Groundswell. This cozy brewery and tasting room sits on a quiet street lined by small businesses and houses. Furnished with corner sofas and a comfortable bar, this location offers patrons a nice variety of beers to choose from, including some very flavorful IPAs (Undulation) and some tasty kettle sours. If Pogue Mahone or Oathbreaker (or some version of it) is on tap, be sure to get a taste of these unique beers.
You could also walk from Groundswell to San Diego Brewing (it's only half a mile) but you'll have to cross Friar's Road to do it (it's not a problem, just a heads up). San Diego Brewing is one of San Diego's oldest brewery operations (the company has been making beer since the 90s) and may be one of the industry's unsung heroes. Housed inside a friendly, well-worn, family-centric brewpub, the brewery offers a nice range of well-made styles to choose from, all of which are designed to pair well with the unpretentious pub food on the menu. There's a beer for any palate here (San Diego Blonde is a great lager style), but hop lovers will be extra happy with the Infinitude IPA.
Note: San Diego Brewing recently added a second location in North Park, which is just a production brewery and tasting room.
This region actually encompasses a wide range of very diverse neighborhoods, each of which boasts an impressive and growing collection of breweries, tasting rooms and beer bars. Within its borders (everything south of the #8) are the neighborhoods of East Village/Barrio Logan, Hillcrest, North Park, South Park and Downtown proper, in the heart of the city. This 3-stop combo takes you to an area not far from downtown where—for the most part—you'll basically stay within spitting distance of the airport (a short Uber/Lyft ride, if you want to get some last-minute tasting in before heading home!).
These guys have sort of been pioneers since they first opened this facility in 2013. Situated in a non-descript factory-laden area near Sports Arena Boulevard, this tasting room is quite impressive when you step inside. It's a cavernous space with high ceilings and it's filled with a number of creative—even idiosyncratic—touches that include a bar made from old rare books, two state-of-the-art growler fillers, and a giant mural of Michael Jackson made from 12,000 Post-It notes. What's more, the beer is some of the best and most interesting being made in San Diego. The brewery's takes on Saisons, IPAs, wheat beers and brettanomyces beers are always fun to taste; their fruity Gose beers are tart, crisp and delicious; and the Black House oatmeal coffee stout (made from coffee roasted at the brewery) is not to be missed.
About two miles southeast (figure on a 10-minute drive) you'll find this small but interesting brewery. The tasting room and the brewhouse occupy different spaces at the same location, which used to be the site of San Diego's popular pre-Prohibition brewery, Mission Brewery. [Today the new Mission Brewery is located in downtown San Diego.] The Acoustic tasting room is meant to feel like a speakeasy, and the plush sofas and chairs offer a cozy and comfortable environment in which to sit and sip. The beer lineup includes a number of somewhat unique beers that you won't find in many other places, including the Hopski Lager, the Willow Wolves IPA and the Groupie Belgian Strong Ale.
A 3.5-mile drive south will get you to the Little Italy neighborhood, which is filled with great restaurants and an increasing number of tasting rooms and beer bars. Even though Ballast Point is one of San Diego's brewing giants, this location houses a small 15-barrel brewhouse that is dedicated to R&D and small-batch innovation. Of course, all the company's standard hits are on tap, but the real fun is in seeing and tasting what's been brewed right there on India Street. Chances are it's only available there, and it's very limited in supply. No matter what you're drinking, it will surely pair well with the restaurant's simple but elevated pub food menu, which features great fish dishes, excellent sandwiches and appetizers, as well as killer house-made pretzels with beer mustard.
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