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Try this eastern loop that takes you through El Cajon, Alpine, Julian, Ramona, La Mesa and Santee. If you want to do the full loop, you'll need the entire day, but you could also break it into just the northern breweries (Ramona and Julian) or just the southern breweries (Santee, Alpine, La Mesa and El Cajon). You might also want to consider booking a brewery tour that will chauffeur you around while you enjoy a few samples at each stop.
Since the mid 1990s, San Diego County has seen exponential growth in the number of its breweries. A great deal of that recent growth has come in regions—both north and south—that are near the coast or within 15-20 miles of the coast. Some savvy brewers have looked at the geography of that growth and realize there's great opportunity in heading east. For one thing, the playing field is far less crowded right now.
Getting to East County from anywhere in the county is not hard once you're on the Interstate 8. Once there, you'll find that most folks in east county are distinctly non "surfer dudes." These towns tend to show off another side of California, one that celebrates agriculture, the Old West, and the true-blue American pioneer mentality of fierce independence...plus a love of good beer.
From downtown or the south, you'll head north and east along Route 67 into the town of Ramona. Here, on Main Street, you'll find a small tasting room nestled between a meat market and other mini mall storefronts. As Ramona's only brewery, ChuckAlek has planted the first flag in town and has distinguished itself as a true brewing pioneer. Many of ChuckAlek's beers are both ambitious and unusual. Brewer/owner Grant Fraley is fond of doing his take on "old" styles such as his altbier and brown porter, along with some truly unique brews, like his La Cappellana ale, which is made with the 100% brettanomyces yeast.
From Ramona, head east on Route 78, which will take you into the scenic old mining mountain town of Julian. On the eastern outskirts of Main Street, you'll find Nickel Beer Co. A small wooden cabin-style building houses a rustic but charming tasting room where brewer/owner Tom Nickel offers up his hand-crafted beers. Tom has long been a player in the San Diego craft beer scene, and his beer knowledge runs deep. In Julian, he mostly brews what he likes to drink, which tends to be hoppy pale ales and IPAs along with some stouts and malty beers. He'll also play around with a few fun ingredients and flavor combinations, most notable of which is his Apple Pie Ale, a beer that smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice and pays homage to Julian's world famous apple pies.
Heading back down south to San Diego on Route 79 and west on Interstate 8, you could incorporate a stop in Alpine before you go back west. See the Eighth Stop in the SOUTHERN BREWERIES list, for Alpine Beer Company.
From Julian, take Route 79 south to Interstate 8 west, then north on State Route 67 to the town of Santee, which is now home to four breweries. The first brewery you'll encounter is BNS, which opened its doors in June 2013. A nice outdoor patio leads into the main tasting room, which is adorned with various items of Americana from the Old West. It's a large, well-appointed space, with a separate area that offers home brewing supplies. Head brewer Dan Jensen brews a relatively small collection of "core" beers, and also offers various special releases and seasonal brews. Lovers of lighter styles will be especially content with the Saloon Girl Saison and the Gunfighter Golden.
Only a few minutes from BNS, you'll find Groundswell Brewing on Prospect Street. This brewery recently expanded from its tiny space in Grantville, where it was brewing on a 3-barrel system. In their new location, Groundswell will ramp up to about 10,000 barrels per year, and will expand its lineup to include many more offerings and taps. Along with their new space came a large, nicely designed tasting room, a big bar, and a nice lineup of core and seasonal beers from which to choose. Among their standouts are Undulation White IPA, Mango Tart (Berliner Weiss), and Piloncillo Brown. Two of their specialty beers, Oathbreaker and Pogue Mahone are super interesting and unique beers that, if available, should not be missed.
Just down the road from Groundswell—literally a few thousand feet—is Finest Made Ales. This is the cozy, welcoming space that originally housed Santee’s first brewery, Manzanita Brewing Company (which is now closed). Owner and brewer Rey Knight is an experienced brewer with a solid talent for making well-rounded, balanced, and flavorful beers. His lineup usually includes about 10 beers on tap, which range from light and hoppy to dark and malty (which is Rey's wheelhouse). A fun selection of homemade sodas is also available for those under-21 visitors.
From Santee, head south on State Route 67 to El Cajon. In 2016, two homebrewing buddies with similar taste in heavy metal music decided to open a pro brewery together, and the result was Burning Beard Brewing Company. From the very beginning, this brewery has been focused on creativity matched with exceptional technique and attention to flavor. Almost immediately upon opening their doors, Burning Beard became one of the hottest tap handles at San Diego’s craft beer bars, and they gained a large and loyal following that continues to grow today. All of BBBC’s beers are good, but standouts include Hopmata IPA, Dankness Visible IPA, Banksy ESB, and Holy the Void Coffee Stout.
Heading east on Interstate 8 lands you smack in the middle of Alpine. It's a charming little town, unassuming, quiet, and happy to stay that way. On the main drag, you'll find Alpine Beer Company, which is also simple and unassuming—except for its beers, which are some of the best in San Diego. Founder Pat McIlhenney, who has been brewing at this location since 2002, gained quite a cult following, especially from hop-heads who adore Alpine's many hoppy brews. There's plenty for non-hop-lovers to choose from, but—if you're a “hopster”—don't miss the Nelson Rye IPA, Duet IPA, or Pure Hoppiness IPA.
The smell of mouthwatering barbecue emanates from the Alpine Beer Company Pub just a few doors down from the brewery. If you are landing here around lunchtime, stop in for an amazing selection of plates that will pair perfectly with a freshly poured Alpine beer. Just ask your server for recommendations.
Tracing its roots to a makeshift tasting room in a Quonset hut in North County San Diego, the original Bolt Brewery came and went in the late ‘80s. Back again as the first brewery to open in La Mesa thanks to a change in local brewing ordinances, Bolt is a short drive to the west of El Cajon. Helmed by Clint Stromberg, who is a veteran brewer and was part of the original Bolt operation, there’s an emphasis on full-flavored, hoppy session beers, along with ales and lagers. The charming outdoor tasting area can be somewhat tricky to find amongst the industrial businesses that are its neighbors, but once you exit Interstate 8 travelling west, stay to the right on Center Street and you will be rewarded with a laid-back and very local craft brew experience.
If you can’t make it out to East County, head to Little Italy to try beers at Bolt’s second location.
Once you find a parking spot at Bolt, you might consider leaving the car and walking to Helix Brewing Co. for your next stop. Cameron Ball opened Helix Brewing Co. with an emphasis on local, growing up in La Mesa’s iconic Mt. Helix area. A civil engineer by trade and passionate home brewer, the leap to a commercial brewery and tasting room gives Ball the opportunity to create a friendly community gathering place and ply his considerable brewing skills to the craft. If you find Helix brews especially “drinkable” and a bit on the lighter side, that’s all part of Ball’s plan to create lower-alcohol content beers: even Helix’s Active IPA only rates a 4% ABV, which is imminently sessionable.
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