San Diego’s classiest anchorman would’ve loved its suds scene

by Jason Foster

Hamilton's Tavern in San Diego

pintsWhen I was in San Diego a while back, I kept getting taxi drivers who were Canadian ex-pats. So: why did they move to southern California? Prepare yourself, because the answer they all gave may shock you.

“The weather.”

Well, duh: San Diego has one of the best climates of anywhere, ever: mid-20s every day, not too humid, cool breezes coming in off the ocean and very little rain. And that’s all year round.

It’s obvious why a frost-bitten Canadian might want to be here — but it’s almost as obvious why a lover of craft beer would, too.

With a population of roughly three million, San Diego County has over 80 breweries and one of the fastest-growing craft beer scenes in North America. It’s home to some of the beer world’s most respected brands, including Stone Brewing, Green Flash and Ballast Point. But just like at their world-famous Sea World, I found that most of the craft beer action happens under the surface, in the small brewpubs and breweries that speckle the city.

San Diego is the epicentre of the West Coast IPA sub-style — a drier, sharper and more intense interpretation of the hoppy beer. So obviously there were plenty of IPA examples to try, but I was just as impressed by how the local breweries handled other styles.

Let’s start with Stone Brewing: known for their brash marketing and brasher beer, they’ve become one of the biggest names in craft brewing. Their brewery’s beer garden is awesome, with waterfalls and quiet nooks where you can sip beer and contemplate life — more like a winery garden than a brewery. I was most impressed with their latest Enjoy By IPA, which is firmly dated to inform the consumer to consume it within five weeks of bottling. I had the 9.20.2014 version, which had been available for only 10 days.

Along with Stone, San Diego has a bunch of other longstanding breweries making great beer. Green Flash’s West Coast IPA is a classic of the San Diego sub-style, while Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA is also definitely worth a pint or two. San Diego’s oldest brewery, Karl Strauss, remains impressive thanks to their Red Trolley Irish Red Ale.

But it was the upstarts and lesser-knowns that really caused me to stand up and take notice. Alesmith Brewing, for example, impressed with every beer I sampled. While they’ve been around awhile, they haven’t developed the same reputation as Stone. (I’m not sure why). The aroma in their IPA (earth, pine, lemongrass, marmalade and more) is unsurpassed, and their Speedway Imperial Stout spills over with licorice, coffee, molasses and a pleasant alcohol warming (at 12 per cent alcohol).

Societe Brewing (which has only been open since 2012) has taken the local scene by storm thanks to brilliant, precise beers ranging from their light-bodied but sharp pale ale, The Publican, to The Debutante, their spicy and hoppy Belgian blonde.

As for places to go, a must-not-miss is Monkey Paw, a funky brewpub in east downtown. The building might not be much to look at but you’ll be sorry if you miss anything off their rotating list of beer (brewed right next door!). I’d suggest a beer that I tried, but they’ll all be long gone by the time you get there, as they never brew the same beer twice. Oh, and their Philly Cheesesteaks are a local legend.

Looking for an uplifting experience that combines great beer with progressive politics? Head over to Hillcrest Brewpub, which proudly proclaims itself America’s only gay-owned brewery. I can’t confirm the accuracy of that claim, but I can say I’ve never been at a brewery that is so enjoyably, festively and unabashedly gay. Patrons are treated like gold, and the beer names are a riot: why not try a Crotch Rocket (their red ale), or maybe a more assertive Hop Sucker, their double IPA? Just don’t think the names are just gimmicks: their beers can uniformly stand on their own merits.

Lastly, you can’t go to San Diego and skip Hamilton’s Tavern. Annually rated as one of the best beer pubs in the U.S., it’s an out-of-the-way place that may be the best neighbourhood pub I’ve ever been to. Decorated with tap handles hanging from the ceiling, its 30 taps offer the best the beer world has to offer — in fact, it’s the only place in San Diego to drink the much-sought-after Pliny the Elder. I felt completely at home in this off-the-beaten-track spot.

San Diego is a gorgeous city with a ton of things going for it — but for beer geeks, its craft-brewing and pub scenes easily top that long list.