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San Diego: The Capital of Craft Beer

With a fun atmosphere and locals who take beer seriously without taking themselves too seriously, San Diego is a great place to escape for a libation vacation.

With a casual, relaxed atmosphere and locals who take good beer seriously without taking themselves too seriously, San Diego is the perfect place to escape for a libation vacation. Industry leaders like Karl Strauss and Stone Brewing Company began in San Diego, and the region boasts more than 100 craft breweries with several located within a mile of San Diego's 70-mile stretch of coastline.

Cited as "a sunny heaven for suds lovers" by The New York Times, San Diego is home to innovative breweries that have brought home major awards at international competitions, including the World Beer Cup where San Diego garnered more awards than traditional brewing destinations like Germany and Belgium.

The following are some of the outstanding places where visitors can discover for themselves why San Diego has emerged as the capital of craft beer.

Creative Breweries

From exotically flavored brews to unique facilities that could be mistaken for art galleries, San Diego's craft breweries are serving up a hefty dose of creativity along with tasting flights.

  • Founded in San Diego in 1996, Stone Brewing Company is one of the fastest growing craft breweries in the country and will soon be one of the first American craft beer brands to open a brewery in Europe, but true craft enthusiasts still make pilgrimages to their main brewing facility in San Diego's North County. The headquarters offers daily tours of their vast campus, which includes a Zen-inspired garden with multiple tasting areas. Opened in 2013, Stone Brewing Company's Point Loma location features a bocce ball court and a lawn for al fresco movie screenings. Both locations also feature the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, an expansive on-site bistro serving high quality food made from organic ingredients, many of which are grown at Stone Farms, the brewery's proprietary farm.
  • With four locations in the county, Ballast Point Brewing Company is one San Diego's best known craft breweries. Daily behind-the-scenes tours are offered at the Miramar production facility, and the Miramar and Little Italy tasting rooms both boast an excellent on-site restaurant. Guests at all locations can taste Ballast Point's award-winning staples, like the Sculpin IPA and original Pale Ale, as well as more experimental and unique brews, like their Indra Kunindra Curry Export Stout.
  • One of San Diego's newer breweries, Modern Times Beer offers a well-rounded lineup of saisons, pale ales, IPAs, and unique seasonal releases like the Black House coconut and chocolate-infused stout and a sour cherry gose. Adding to the brewery's appeal are the unique design and décor of their tasting rooms; the North Park-based "Flavordome" has lampshades on the ceiling and a bar covered with old VHS tapes, while their Point Loma "Fermentorium" features a giant, colorful mural of Michael Jackson constructed entirely out of Post-it® Notes.
  • For a truly one-of-a-kind experience, visitors can head to one of San Diego's nanobreweries, which typically brew fewer than three barrels at a time. The small batches mean each visit will be unique and guests are likely to be sampling a pint with the brewer sitting just a few bar stools away. Some of San Diego's notable nanobreweries include Benchmark Brewing in Grantville, Council Brewing in Kearney Mesa, and Bolt Brewing in La Mesa.

Tried and True Favorites

Craft beer fans can sample the cream of San Diego's beer crop at these award-winning and locally beloved breweries.

  • Originally opened in 1915, Mission Brewery would be San Diego's oldest brewery if it wasn't shut down during Prohibition. Reestablished in 2007, the current Mission Brewery is steps away from downtown's ballpark, Petco Park, in the East Village, making it the perfect spot for a pre- or post-game beer tasting. In the tasting room, guests can play shuffle board while sampling Mission's wide variety of beer styles. Tours of the brewing facility are offered hourly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
  • Green Flash Brewing Company in Mira Mesa showcases the use of fine, all natural ingredients in their award-winning beers that are brewed in small batches to ensure each glass is of the freshest and purest quality. The brewery features a tasting room with 30 taps, an in-house food truck, and public tours. Green Flash recently added a sister location, Cellar 3, which focuses on the brewery's barrel-aged beer collections and features an on-site art gallery.
  • Considered a "nano-brewery" due to their small size when they first opened in 2010, Mike Hess Brewing Co. has since expanded into a state-of-the-art 12,500-sq. ft. brewery in San Diego's North Park neighborhood. The location offers the public a unique tour perspective, allowing guests to access and view the brewhouse from raised catwalks above the tanks. The dog-friendly tasting room features games and food trucks regularly.

Top Brewpubs

Visitors with an appetite will find more than a few venues where the food is as much of a draw as the craft beer.

  • At Blind Lady Ale House, located in Normal Heights, 20 taps pour local, regional and hard-to-find Belgian brews from a list carefully curated by owner Lee Chase, a former head brewer of San Diego's own Stone Brewing Company. The restaurant specializes in hand-crafted Neapolitan-style pizzas with fresh mozzarella, house-made sausages, local produce and sustainable meats. Blind Lady Ale House is also home to the brewing facilities of Automatic Brewing Co., whose brews can be sampled on-site.
  • Located in North Park, Tiger!Tiger! Tavern is the sister restaurant of Blind Lady Ale House. Local beer lovers gather at long communal tables to enjoy the tavern's excellent beer list as well as a variety of gourmet sandwiches served on bread baked in-house in a wood-fired oven.
  • Located in downtown's East Village, Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery offers an Old World pub atmosphere, complete with a menu of pub food like cheese steaks and hot wings prepared to gourmet standards. More than two dozen taps feature some of the best beers from around the world as well as Monkey Paw's own brews, which include creative concoctions like the "Live Wire Caramel Coffee Milk Stout," named for a popular local dive bar.
  • URBN St. Brewing Co. offers an updated take on pizza and beer at their East County San Diego restaurant. Located in El Cajon, URNB St. brews nine signature beers onsite, all of which serve as the perfect complements to their thin-crust specialty pizzas, like their famous "Mashed Potato" pizza featuring mozzarella, bacon, and parmesan.
  • Set in a Victorian-era house in downtown's East Village, the family-owned Half Door Brewing Co. offers a cozy dining and drinking experience. The historic venue features wrap-around patios, vintage-inspired wallpaper and repurposed church pews for seating. Serving lunch, dinner, brunch and happy hour bites, Half Door brews 10 beers onsite, including stouts, Berlinerweisse, brown ales and more.

Best Beer Bars

Visitors can taste their way across San Diego's craft beer scene without leaving their barstool at any of these top notch beer-centric bars.

  • Located in North Park, Toronado San Diego is a sibling of San Francisco's famous beer outpost. At Toronado San Diego, the focus is clearly on craft beer with 50 taps featuring the best from local, domestic and international breweries. Bottled offerings number more than 230 varieties and focus on Belgian, French, German and English brews.
  • With more than 75 years of service, Hamilton's Tavern in South Park is the oldest beer and wine licensed establishment in San Diego. The local landmark offers high quality ales and craft beers from around the world, boasts one of the most diverse bottle selections in San Diego and offers weekly "Firkin Friday" tastings of special releases.
  • The 25 taps and extensive bottle list at O'Brien's American Pub in Kearny Mesa feature local San Diego drafts and rare brews. Known locally as the "hoppiest place on earth," guests can find an extensive selection of the pub's specialty, hoppy beers, including Alpine Beer Company's Pure Hoppiness, AleSmith's Speedway Stout and Ballast Point's Sculpin IPA, along with a tasty, traditional tavern menu.
  • Located on the third floor of a historic building once used by the Navy as a locker room for sailors in transit, Quad AleHouse in downtown's Gaslamp Quarter features a 28 taps and a floor-to-ceiling map depicting the locations of San Diego's 100-plus breweries. Quad focuses on offering patrons a well-balanced draft list filled with special releases and rarely found beers. Other highlights include a whiskey-based cocktail program, a fast-casual menu with specialty sandwiches and salads and terrific second-floor views of downtown's bustling Gaslamp Quarter below.
  • The craft beer experience begins at the San Diego International Airport for visitors flying into America's hoppiest city. Inspired by the many local beer bars that line 30th Street in the North Park neighborhood, Terminal 1 features Craft Beer on 30th Street, a bar with 12 taps pouring beers from small local producers and a rotation of seasonal beers, as well as tried and true favorites. In Terminal 2, travelers will find an outpost of Stone Brewing Company; in addition to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and offering Stone beers on tap, the restaurant sells sealed bottles perfect for bringing home as a souvenir or for improving the in-flight drinking experience.

Unusual Beer Experiences

Whether it's beer tasting while watching scientists at work or learning about the brewing techniques used by ancient Sumerians, San Diego is home to a number of unique beer experiences that can't be had anywhere else.

  • At White Labs, visitors can discover the science behind brewing along with artfully crafted beer. White Labs is one of the largest producers of brewer's yeast in the world, supplying yeast to local craft brewers and international brewers alike. At their Miramar tasting room decorated with flasks and beakers, guests can watch the scientists in action through a laboratory-facing window while enjoying a pint. Tasting room staff educate curious visitors on how different yeast strains influence flavors and beer characteristics with flights of White Labs' own in-house brews.
  • Located directly above the waters of San Diego Bay on the Shelter Island Fishing Pier, Fathom Bistro, Bait & Tackle offers breathtaking views complemented by 15 varieties of craft beer on tap. Hungry visitors can enjoy sausages, hot dogs and sandwiches from Fathom's kitchen, or catch their own dinner utilizing the supplies from a neighboring bait shop.
  • Now through August 2016, the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park presents BEERology, an exhibition that explores the connections between agriculture, cities, writing and religion with craft brewing. Ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Chinese and others each perfected the brewing arts in interesting, and even strange, ways; the exhibition highlights fascinating stories and phenomenal artifacts that reveal the links between beer and culture, such as the solid gold beer cup of an Inca king. Local craft brewers including Green Flash, Port Brewing/Lost Abbey, Ballast Point and more offer special tastings and parties throughout the exhibition's run.
  • Located in Mission Valley, Citizen Brewers offers a unique retail space where beer aficionados can brew on commercial grade equipment. The 2,000 sq. ft. facility features everything needed to brew ales and lagers, including assistance from experts, recipes, ingredients, eight copper-jacketed steam kettles, a bottle washing system, a temperature-controlled room for fermentation and taps for bottling and kegging. Appointments are preferred and a maximum six people per kettle group is allowed. Clients can also develop their own labels to print and attach to bottled beer.

Pub Crawls: By Foot, By Car, or By Rail

From trains and buses to simple walking tours, there are many ways to spend the day sampling San Diego's craft beer scene.

  • In downtown San Diego, there are several options for beer lovers to map out a self-guided pub crawl. Breweries within easy walking distance of most downtown hotels include Mission Brewery, Half Door Brewing and Monkey Paw Brewing Co. in the East Village. Local beers can also be sampled at numerous downtown pubs and restaurants like Downtown Johnny Brown's, Neighborhood and Knotty Barrel. Visitors seeking a guided craft beer tour can join So Diego's "Stay Crafty" walking tour of Little Italy, featuring stops at Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Ballast Point, Bottlecraft and more.
  • Locals call 30th Street in the neighborhood of North Park "the best street in the world for craft beer." Along 30th Street, visitors will find Fall Brewing Company, Rip Current Brewing, Belching Beaver Brewery, Modern Times and Poorhouse Brewing Company, with Mike Hess Brewing, Thorn St. Brewery and South Park Brewing Company located just a few blocks over. In addition, dozens of restaurants and bars located along 30th Street proudly serve local craft brews, including beer-havens like Hamilton's Tavern, Toronado San Diego, Waypoint Public, and Ritual Kitchen & Tavern.
  • Offered by San Diego Beer & Wine Tours, the Beer Train Tour of San Diego allows guests to hop on the Coaster train along the beach and ride to breweries within walking distance of the stops. In addition to beautiful views of the coastal scenery, the tour offers tastes of local craft beers, food parings, guided brewery tours, games and prizes.
  • For those who want to experience San Diego's beer culture, meet the brewers and leave the driving to someone else, guided brewery tours are an excellent option. Brew Hop offers custom-designed private brewery tours of San Diego; visitors can relax in luxury as they are chauffeured to their choice of local breweries. The 5-hour "Beer Connoisseur" tour includes samples, behind-the-scenes tours at four breweries and a meal. The 2.5-hour "Beer Tasters" tour stops at two or three breweries and includes samples and tours. Brewery Tours of San Diego offers regularly scheduled tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Each tour visits three breweries and includes transportation, tastings and lunch.

Upcoming Beer Events

While neighborhood beer events are plentiful throughout the year, visitors won't want to miss these signature San Diego craft beer fests.

  • Every August, Stone Brewing Company hosts one of San Diego's largest beer events, their annual Anniversary Celebration and Invitational Beer Festival. Held at the California State University San Marcos campus, the event features more than 40 guest breweries along with more than 100 different beers including one-offs and limited edition releases, home-brewed sodas, food from Stone Brewing World Bistro and more.
  • Established in 2011 by Green Flash Co-Founder and breast cancer survivor Lisa Hinkley, Treasure Chest Fest is one of San Diego's largest and most anticipated annual rare beer events. Held on Aug. 29 from 12-5 p. m. at the brewery's Miramar headquarters, the festival serves up special one-day-only brews along with food pairings, a vendor village, craft beer demos and more. For the 5th year in a row, Treasure Chest Fest will serve as a fundraiser for local breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure San Diego.
  • On Friday, Sept. 18 during 6-10 p.m., the San Diego Festival of Beer returns to downtown San Diego. Founded in 1994, the event is San Diego's oldest beer festival and now draws more than 4,000 beer lovers annually. Sixty-plus brewers offer samples and tastings alongside live musical performances, vendors and food booths.
  • San Diego Beer Week returns Nov. 6-15, 2015 for a 10-day celebration of local craft beer and San Diego's thriving brewing culture. Festivities kick off with a Brewers Guild Festival and conclude with a Chef Celebration of San Diego Beer, a gourmet beer and food pairing event. Last year's San Diego Beer Week boasted more than 400 events, ranging from beer dinners to meet-and-greets with local brewers, with an estimated 20,000 attendees. San Diego Beer Week events for 2015 will be posted online at SDBW.org.

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