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In 1989, when Karl Strauss opened its first brewpub in downtown San Diego, they began a local tradition of brewing a new style of beer. Soon labeled “craft,” these beers were made in small batches using fresh, quality ingredients and - most importantly - they delivered big, bold flavors that few beer drinkers had ever experienced.
The opening of that brewpub on Columbia Street marked the beginning of San Diego’s modern craft beer industry. In less than two decades, that same industry would give birth to the most vibrant beer scene in America.
By the early-to-mid nineties, other small brewpubs and breweries followed Karl Strauss’s lead. In 1993, the first Pizza Port opened in Ocean Beach, brewing small batches of clean, fresh, richly flavored American styles. Then there was AleSmith in 1995, which focused on a variety of European-like recipes that included bold Belgian-inspired beers. In 1996, two more small breweries opened their taps: The first was Ballast Point, which started brewing in a home brew supply shop in Linda Vista (Home Brew Mart) and the second was a little company in San Marcos called Stone Brewing Company. Stone quickly made a name for itself by brewing intensely hoppy and malty beers with the unabashed goal of challenging drinkers to abandon mass-produced “fizzy yellow beer” in favor of flavor.
By 2002, Alpine and Green Flash Brewing Company were up and running. They focused their attention on crafting big, aromatic, hop-centric beers that further defined the newly famous “San Diego style.” Green Flash’s iconic West Coast IPA pushed the limits of IPA even further by packing more hops and more malt into its brew, making it one of the most aggressively hoppy beers in California. Craft fans adored it, and West Coast IPA became one of San Diego’s hallmark brands, along with Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Strong Ale, AleSmith’s Speedway Stout, and Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, to name just a few.
The period between 2005 and 2012 saw phenomenal growth in San Diego’s brewing industry. During these years, the number of breweries nearly doubled. In 2006, The Lost Abbey began brewing their intensely flavored, creative versions of classic Belgian styles, along with their full-flavored American classics (which they brewed under their Port Brewing label). By 2010, a whole new crop of small-to-medium breweries had joined the community, many of which aimed to expand on the ever-increasing demand for audacious, hop-forward “San Diego style” beers. Mike Hess Brewing opened in a tiny office park and became San Diego’s first “nano” brewery (they only produced 1.6 barrel batches - 50 gallons - at a time). In Vista, Mother Earth Brewing Company started operations in their small home brew supply shop. Five years later, the company is one of San Diego’s fastest-growing breweries, producing nearly 23,000 barrels a year. (Their cream ale, Cali Creamin’ has become the benchmark for the “San Diego style” cream ale.)
Every San Diego brewery has at least one IPA in its lineup because the demand for this hoppy style of beer has been insatiable. Amazingly, as crowded as this field has gotten, there’s always room for a fresh take. When it debuted in 2012, Societe Brewing became the darlings of the San Diego brew scene by launching their uniquely delicious IPAs (Pupil, Apprentice, Bachelor). They proved that, even in a town awash in great IPAs, there’s always room for a well-crafted beer that’s brewed with true passion.
San Diego’s “founding” breweries have now grown into national and international brands. Stone is the 9th-largest craft brewery in America and just became the first California craft brewery to open in Europe—in Berlin, Germany (they have also broken ground on a huge production facility in Richmond, Virginia). Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits—propelled to a great extent by the phenomenal popularity of their Sculpin IPA—has also grown into a huge international brand. AleSmith, one of San Diego’s most-medaled breweries, has just opened the largest tasting room in the county, and is on pace to soon produce 200,000 barrels a year. Green Flash has already begun construction on a Virginia Beach facility that will double the brewery’s production capacity and will expand the brand to thousands more East Coast fans.
Today, San Diego’s rebel brewing tradition remains vital as its brewery count continues to explode. With nearly 120 operational breweries, San Diego sees an average of 1.5 breweries open every month. An estimated 30–40 more breweries are currently in the planning or permitting stages. San Diego is by far the fastest-growing beer county in America.
San Diego’s original breweries were pioneers that pushed the limits of classic beers, and the newest brewers in town continue that tradition. In response to an increasing demand for less aggressively alcoholic beers, many brewers have innovated ways to create full-flavored, highly aromatic IPAs and pale ales that don’t clock in at 8% or 9% ABV. These lower-alcohol hoppy beers - commonly called “session” beers - have become the “next wave” of San Diego’s boldly styled hoppy brews.
In addition to developing unique takes on IPAs, many new brewers (as well as established ones) have expanded the boundaries of recipe development and have embraced cutting-edge brewing and aging techniques. Some, like Fall, Second Chance, Monkey Paw, and Bitter Brothers, are utilizing new hop varieties and are exploring previously ignored styles, such as goses or zwickel biers. Others, with the expert help and guidance of White Labs (a local company that just happens to be one of the world’s largest suppliers of yeast) are playing with new varieties of yeast strains and creating new flavors by varying fermentation temperatures. Whatever they do, the newest generation is well aware of the expectation that they brew nothing short of great beer.
Hops made San Diego famous, but they are no longer the only focus at many breweries. Sour beers and barrel aging have become the “next hot thing” and the newest area in which San Diego has become a style leader. Visit any number of breweries today and you’ll find beers aged in bourbon barrels, whiskey barrels, tequila barrels, port barrels, and wine barrels, to name just a few. You’ll also find beers that have been brewed with a stunning array of ingredients - everything from coffee, chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon, to grapefruit, tangerine, orange peel, coconut, rosemary, coriander, hazelnut, habaneros, and peanut butter.
The fearless spirit of experimentation and boundary pushing is alive now more than ever at San Diego’s breweries. It is a spirit felt throughout the community, as many brewers are inspired by the creativity of their peers and the ever-changing tastes of the beer-drinking public. San Diego’s brewers are constantly feeling the urge to try something bigger, something braver, something bolder. That, in a nutshell, is the true spirit of San Diego brewing.
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