The Southern Californian city of San Diego is considered to be one of the craft beer capitals of the United States – along with Portland, Denver, Seattle, and the entire state of Vermont. Home to over 130 craft breweries and the birthplace of the West Coast IPA, San Diego’s craft beer boom is the result of a strong homebrewing community that hit the ground running once brewpubs were declared legal in 1982. Now, there’s quite literally a brewery on every corner. A five-minute walk after dinner at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in Little Italy took me past taprooms for Bolt Brewery and Ballast Point, the latter of which refused me service because they didn’t recognise my NSW Drivers Licence (see Useful Tip at bottom). Among the first breweries to open post-legalisation include the aforementioned Bolt Brewery (1986) and Ballast Point (1996, now owned by Constellation Brands), along with other recognisable names such as Karl Strauss Brewing Company (1989), AleSmith Brewing Company (1995), and Stone Brewing (1996).
Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens
Out of these, Stone Brewing is the largest, ranking among the U.S.’s top ten craft breweries by sales volume. The headquarters are based a little bit north of San Diego, in the city of Escondido (about a half-hour’s drive away), at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. It boasts a one-acre (4,000 m2), perpetually sunny beer garden that features quaint Koi ponds surrounded by wooden deck chairs and shaded by Eucalyptus trees, which were introduced to California by Australians during the Gold Rush.
But, the marvel is really about what goes on inside. Over 45 million litres of beer are produced here annually, in tanks so large they can provide a (very thirsty) consumer with a six pack of beer every day, for a year. The brewhouse is also home to two brewing systems, one of which is very patriotically draped with a giant star-spangled banner. Being a city heavily influenced by its Naval Base, patriotism is quite prominent here – between thirds of a San Diego Gulls ice hockey game (yes, thirds), servicemen and women were asked to stand to receive applause, volume only surpassed when a fight broke out between players ten minutes later.
Stone’s enormous packaging line is in a separate building, on the other side of the aptly named Lupulin Lane. The brand is well known for its highly-hopped beers – all but two of the nine beers in the core range are IPAs. Beers produced by sister company Arrogant Brewing are even more aggressive, but in a different way, with ABVs reaching up to 13%. That said, it’s this challenging of the norm and a penchant for beers prefaced by “imperial” or “barrel-aged” that has been the driving factor behind Stone’s success.
Quirky Newcomers (and Tasty Food)
The new wave of breweries started after the turn of the millennium, undeterred by the plethora already in the city, but knowing that they had to do things a little differently to stand out. This included a franchise of popular pizza brewpub Pizza Port, which launched a spinoff brand, Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey. They began producing sours and Belgian-style ales to contrast with the slight variations in West Coast IPA that every brewery seemed to be making.
Although one of the many Pizza Ports are touted as must-visits, Filippi and his alluring grotto had already satisfied our pizza cravings, so on our second night we opted for Cali-Baja cuisine instead. This combines the fresh seafood produce of California (like fish) with Mexican staples (like tacos) to create amazing things (like fish tacos), best enjoyed in a city as close to the Mexican border as San Diego.
More recently, Modern Times Beer has achieved cult status by being as quirky as it is awesome. The beers are often unique hybrid styles and named after real and mythological utopias, with colourful packaging designed by professional graphic artists and typographers. Funded by a successful $65,000 Kickstarter campaign, the flagship Lomaland Fermentorium features an amazing barrel-aged program, house-roasted coffee, a tumbleweed chandelier and a 11,000 post-it note mural of Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles.
Nerd Out About Yeast
Despite the local breweries’ love affair with hops, San Diego is also the hometown of an equally as important beer ingredient – yeast. White Labs, a name instantly recognisable to any brewer, lies on Candida Street in Miramar, the same neighbourhood as AleSmith, Ballast Point and others. Although mostly a laboratory, there’s also an on-site nanobrewery, which allows for a very unique tasting experience.
Just before the end of the brewing process, a 300 L batch of beer is split into multiple portions, then each is inoculated with a different strain of yeast. The result is a bunch of identical base beers conforming to the same particular style, with only the difference in yeast characteristics to set them apart. The idea is to order a tasting flight of that style and learn how each yeast strain changes aspects of the beer. For instance, I chose the wheat ale flight (5.5 – 5.7% ABV), which consisted of four beers fermented with WLP080 Cream Ale, WLP300 Hefeweizen, WLP320 American Hefeweizen and WLP351 Bavarian Weizen.
Take a Hike!
It may be two and a half hours drive away, but San Diego’s closest National Park is Joshua Tree, in the Mojave Desert. A hike here works off all the beer and offers beautiful sights of towering rock formations, twisted cacti, the odd coyote and, of course, Joshua trees. Like, so f–king many of them. Honestly, once you’ve seen one Joshua tree, you’ve seen all the Joshua trees.
A somewhat depressing sight in Joshua Tree National Park that I wish I never looked at is the viewpoint for the San Andreas Fault. Looking down, there’s a misty haze in the valley that barely covers the bright neon lights from all the casinos in Palm Springs. No, it’s not cloud cover, but rather pollution from Los Angeles, blown inland by the ocean breeze. I’d rather look at more Joshua trees.
Useful Tip: Carry Your Passport
Out of all the times I’ve been to the U.S., this was the only one in which my licence wasn’t accepted as ID. In fact, it happened twice on this trip, the other time being at a bottleshop in Santa Barbara. Both times I didn’t really mind, especially the time in Santa Barbara because I was only buying Budweiser to see what it tasted like (bad), but it would be pretty disappointing to take a 30-minute Uber to Escondido only to be turned away because New South Wales sounds like a made-up place.