In recent years, San Diego has burst onto the international beer scene, emerging as America’s craft-beer capital. “From the very beginning, the emphasis was on quality from a technical perspective, which laid the foundation for our brewers to indulge their artistic passions,” says Chris Cramer, co-founder of the pioneering Karl Strauss Brewing Company (www.karlstrauss.com) that opened in 1989. Today, 58 microbreweries are producing mostly barrel-aged beers (like the “double IPAs” or strong India pale ales that are such a feature of the U.S. brewing scene). Many more breweries are coming down the pipe. No wonder this southern Californian city has been described as the “hoppiest place on earth.”
Each November, the annual San Diego Beer Week (sdbw.org) showcases more than 100 craft-beer-related events, from barrel tastings to wine versus beer food-pairings. But outside the festival, Brew Hop (www.brewhop.com) can put together private brewery tours tailored to your taste buds and you can track down your favorite tipple with the TapHunter app (www.taphunter.com). In the meantime, here’s a selection of local hotspots to get you started.
Bottlecraft Beer Shop and Tasting Room
Don’t know your gose from your gueuze? Then begin at Bottlecraft, part tasting room, part beer shop and part hipster bar. Opened in 2011, Bottlecraft stocks around 700 local, domestic and imported bottled beers stacked by geographical location, and knowledgeable staff—led by qualified sommelier Brian Jensen—take pleasure in educating drinkers, hosting daily changing four-glass flights, weekly mystery flights, regular themed tasting events and classes. You’re welcome to order-in food to accompany your beer purchases and enjoy it in the convivial atmosphere around the large communal table. For special events, Bottlecraft works with local gourmet food trucks on imaginative pairings. Tel: (1-619) 487 9493; 2161 India Street; bottlecraftbeer.com.
Stone Brewing Co.
Founded in 1996 by enthusiasts Steve Wagner and Greg Koch, the Stone Brewing Company has grown into one of the United States’ largest craft breweries and is still expanding. With nine year-round core beers—including the signature Arrogant Bastard Ale—it boosts its line-up with one-off specials, collaborations with other brewers and the annual home-brewer’s competition winner. Take one of the daily guided-tours of its stunning headquarters in Escondido, then head to the sleek indoor-outdoor bistro, renowned for its world-food menu and an egalitarian rotating beer list, including those from other local microbreweries. If you can’t make it to the brewery, visit the South Park store where you can taste the beer, fill your growler and buy the T-shirt. Tel: (1-760) 471 4999; 1999 Citracado Parkway; stonebrew.com.
The Lost Abbey
Award-winning Lost Abbey beers come with names such as Devotion, Judgment Day, Lost and Found and Inferno Ale, each with its own story and one-off artwork. Based in the Stone Brewing Co’s former premises in San Marcos, Lost Abbey has a legion of fans and the rituals of its tasting room inspire near religious fervor. Much-respected co-founder and director of brewery operations Tomme Arthur has created Belgian-inspired, flavor-driven beers, and his experiments include ageing in former wine, tequila and brandy barrels, with fruits, herbs, spices and a variety of wild yeasts. Look out for the last couple of bottlings in Lost Abbey’s 2012 Ultimate Box Set. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Tel: (1-800) 918 6816; #104, 155 Mata Way; lostabbey.com.
Hundreds of beer taps hang from the ceiling of this dimly lit bar like multicolored stalactites. Owner Scot Blair began as an enthusiastic home brewer before opening Hamilton’s in 2006 with the aim of converting the locals to quality suds. Now this bastion of craft-beer, tucked away in South Park, boasts one of the city’s most impressive lists, with 28 beers on tap, two cask engines and over 300 sought-after bottles, from local microbrews to exotic imports (look out for ‘food beer’, infused with everything from Aleppo peppers to lamb). Patrons are passionate—at one of the Firkin Friday’s cask ale showcases, Victory at Sea from San Diego’s Ballast Point sold out in a record-breaking nine minutes. As Blair says: “Once you’ve had a grass-fed beef burger you can’t go back to McDonalds.” Tel: (1-619) 238 5460; 1521 30th Street; hamiltonstavern.com.
Part of the rejuvenation of downtown’s East Village, Neighborhood is a successful union of edgy artwork, an innovative take on traditional American bar food and a strong craft beer list, with 27 drafts and over 30 bottles on offer. This contemporary eatery has kept the sport but ditched leatherette booths in favor of loosely arranged seating around the bar and patio, while portraits of Jesus and Sigmund Freud devouring burgers adorn the walls. Executive Chef Jason McLeod, brings his Michelin-star experience and quality ingredients to the menu in dishes such as jalapeño mac and cheese, chorizo corn dogs and grain-fed sirloin burgers slathered in artisanal cheeses and homemade sauces, such as guajillo salsa and mustard seed aioli. Just don’t ask for ketchup, it’s banned. Tel: (1-619) 446 0002; 777 G Street; neighborhoodsd.com.