A bull beats a cock, but a monkey beats a bull, and if this all so confusing to you then try it with some beer! One of the hottest pub games is sweeping the San Diego microbreweries.
It's a dice game best played with a cold beer so if you hear of a Cock and Bull tourny coming your way you best get to the pub to check it out. Go to the Cock and Bull FB page to get more updates.
Pick up that beer and pay attention!
Beer 101 class is in session but don't worry if the last test you took was at traffic school because in my class everyone passes. Learn about beer styles and how to order, discover how to plan out an afternoon outing or a week long beer vacation. Those with Attention Deficit Disorder will want to skip to my top picks for San Diego's best breweries and brewpubs. And unlike real school, I encourage all my students to drink while studying.
Got a question? Ask it on the Facebook page and maybe one of the more advanced students can help tutor you. In fact, following our Facebook page gets you a guaranteed "A" and good beer karma. So pop a cold one and let's get studying.
It's not that simple. Wait, yes it is!
Let's face it, walking up to the chalkboard in a brewery and having the guy who made the beer ask you what you want can be a bit daunting. But there is an easy solution to this - order a flight of tasters. Most breweries offer flights of 5 tasters, usually at a buck apiece. These are 2 oz. pours that let you sample their beers before commiting to a pint. It's sort of like winetasting. In fact, if you're planning on visiting a number of breweries in an afternoon, drinking tasters instead of pints is a fun way to sample a lot of different beers.
But I know what you're thinking - you still don't know what to order, you don't know the difference between an IPA and a Porter, and that brew guy is staring at you and waiting for an answer. And then it happens - he asks you what type of beer you like and you have no idea! Don't panic!
Instead, say that you are new to the craft beer scene and would love to try a sample of five of their beers. If there is a commercial beer you normally drink, tell them. If you're embarrassed to say you drink Bud Light, tell them you normally drink "American Pale Lagers" but looking to branch out. Most of the breweries are pretty friendly and open to educating their customers as to their beer styles and nuances. You'll learn more about this in our next lesson but a rule of thumb is that most newbie craft beer drinkers will find that sticking with beers with words like "Blonde", "Amber", "Pale", or "Saison" in their description will be the more accessible and less bitter beers.
Now here is where I make you into a beer nerd. When they hand you the beers you need to pull out a pad of paper and write down what you ordered. Seriously, there is something about beer that makes you totally forget details like this. And when you taste, it's a good idea to put little stars next to the ones you like and frowny faces next to the ones you don't. A few notes would be good, but I'm not checking homework so that's up to you. But know that beers you like or hate today might change as you drink more beer and refine your palate. Remember how you used to think there was nothing better than Capt. Crunch cereal and your favorite wine was a sickening sweet White Zin on ice? Don't be quick to say you don't like an IPA or that dark beers are not your style because the more you drink the smarter you get. I know, they told you the opposite in high school but I'm telling you the truth. Drinking can make you smarter! Now let's move on to beer styles.
Here's where a little homework pays off big.
There are tons of different beers in the world but really only two types, lagers and ales. Under each type is hundreds of variations but I'm going to stick to what I know, the beer produced right here in San Diego. Almost all the beers brewed here are ales.
Let's get started with the beer that put SD on the map, the IPA. IPA stands for India Pale Ale and was originally made in England. We took that beer, cranked it to 11 and you have San Diego IPA. Do you remember that "Bitter Beer Face" commercial from Key Stone? Not that I would ever drink Keystone but that sucked up face is what my wife and several of my friends think IPAs taste like. For the true hop head, there is no substitute. Around here if your IPA isn't hop strong on the smell, tingly on the tongue and finishing crisp and bitter you don't belong.
Before we deep dive, a shout out to Brian Beagle for his help with this article. Brian writes the popular blog Sore Eye Sports which focuses on skateboarding, BMX and San Diego craft beer. Providing photography, event coverage, product reviews/giveaways, interviews, insight, news and videos for your enjoyment. Email Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. Now back to our program.
Some of my favorites include Mongo from Port Brewing (technically a double IPA but that just means more of the good stuff), Stone IPA, which is one of the lightest beers they brew and The Pupil from Societe, which is definitely the most drinkable on the list for the inexperienced IPAer. This is not the beer for new craft beer drinkers to dive into eyes closed; it's not bait to get your girl to a brewery. In this category you also have the lighter pale ale and the heavier Imperial or Double IPA. Be careful with the doubles, they often have a high alcohol content.
More Beer Styles from America's Finest (Brew) City
Recently our city has had a big stout explosion. Stout beers are traditionally heavier and darker than average. There are blonde stouts but that is the exception not the rule. Rich deep maltiness, a much bigger and more complex flavor and a heavy body are all normal with stouts. This is the beer that is often described as chocolatey, deep and possibly even oily. The richness of the malt make stouts have a sweeter finish than IPAs. You are not fooling around when you grab a 22oz stout out of the fridge. It is very common for stouts to be smoked, have coffee flavors or actual coffee in them and have a surprising drinkability. I am fond of Stone's Smoked Porter (porter is a type of stout), Ballast Point's Black Marlin and Helm's Brewing's Beeruccino.
San Diego also has some great Nut Brown Ales. Some people leave the nut part out of the title but it's a perfect description of the color and richness of the beer. This is my second favorite type, only beaten by IPA. The name comes from the darker brown malts used to brew it and the darker color of the beer. Medium bodied, easy to drink, flavorful and satisfying are how I describe nut browns. This beer is your best chance to convert a Coors drinker, get your girl to start appreciating quality craft beer and keep any anti-hoppy beer drinker happy. No overpowering bitterness or grassyness, no deep oily flavors, a lower alcohol profile than big IPAs and stouts; this beer is enjoyable regardless of temperature, situation or food being eaten. It's quite possibly the perfect beer. Some of the best our city has to offer are Helm's Brown Ale, a heavy hitter from Manzanita called Gillespie Brown and my favorite, Nut Brown Ale from Ale Smith.
Don't Like Belgians? Whadda Ya Talking About?
Belgian Ales are probably the most difficult beers to describe because they range from light and refreshing to thick and dark, almost port like. There's enough variety you could consider Belgians as its own category of beer. Brewed in a traditional way, these beers are keeping the style originated in Belgium alive and well. What I will say is the style is so diverse that if someone says they don't like Belgians they just haven't tried the right one for them. For further research, visit Societe Brewing, they brew a range of super quality examples.
Pilsner is the most popular beer in the world, light and golden, crisp and refreshing and the only lager on the list. This is the beer Stone calls "fizzy yellow". It's enjoyable on a hot day and a refreshing contrast to big IPAs and stouts. I enjoy Elemental Pilsener from Lightning Brewery and Coronado Golden from Coronado Brewing. Although technically a blonde ale, Mission Blonde from Mission Brewery fits in with the color, body and pure drinkability of these pilsners.
Those are the main types of beers being brewed in San Diego. I didn't cover everything but this will help start you on a path of craft beer appreciation. Get out to one of our great local breweries and order a sampler. You will get a several tasters (small glasses) to sample what that brewery has to offer. Pay attention to what you're drinking, take notes, and find what styles of beer are your favorites. San Diego has world class quality beer and I encourage everyone to find a local brewery that makes beer they enjoy.
Spend an afteroon or a week drinking beer!
Whether you're a local looking for an afternoon adventure or a vacationer looking to escape the Legos and killer whales, San Diego has plenty of breweries to make sure that happy happens. But before you jump in the car you need to do a bit of planning because most breweries are only open certain days, none have food carts every day, and some are really, really hard to find! Lucky for you that I've already done my homework and willing to share my answers.
How to Pack 4 Breweries into 1 Afternoon
Start by going to the San Diego Breweries Guide, the only complete listing of every brewery and brewpub in San Diego. It's easy to sort by clicking on the area of town you want to visit. Note that there are breweries and brewpubs, the difference being a brewery is just that - a place where they brew beer - while a brewpub is more focused on serving food. For the purest San Diego microbrew experience stick with the breweries and hold off on the brewpubs.
By now you'll notice that Mira Mesa/Miramar and North County have the greatest concentration of pure breweries, which makes them a great place to plan an afternoon of beer tasting. You'll want to make sure your phone has a GPS app (WAZE is a good free one) because some of these tiny breweries are tucked away in the unlikeliest of places.
Saturdays are the busiest days to beer taste but have the advantage of nearly always having food carts. I prefer tasting on Sundays when the crowds thin out and turn mainly locals. Call ahead to see if there will be food and if not, plan ahead by bringing some of your own. What?? You can bring our own food into a brewery? Yes, most won't mind but be cool and keep the food items to small, finger food items. Supermarket Sushi works really well in this setting, though a spread of dry salami, cheese and crackers is also a good bet. Big Mac and large fries are best consumed in the car before you come in. They might not kick you out for that but your fellow beer drinkers might not appreciate the brewery smelling like a fast food joint.
If you have your heart set on a tour, do the Stone Brewery Tour up in Escondido. They revamped their tour program so there's no waiting in line 2 hours in advance. It's a few bucks but it includes the tastings at the end and yes, you get to keep the little Stone Brewery glass. What a deal! I would avoid the tours at the other breweries unless you are really dedicated because you've seen one bag of hops, you've seen them all. But Stone does a good tour and the setting is nice with their lush gardens and giant outside bar.
Plan a Vacation in San Diego... with Beer!
It sounds crazy but you won't be the first one to plan an entire vacation around San Diego beer! First things first, where to stay?
Find a hotel close to Carlsbad's Legoland and you'll be in the middle of a vibrant North County microbrewery scene, about 25 miles north of downtown. As a bonus, you'll be close to some of San Diego's best non-touristy beaches, a good place to unwind after a long hard day at the breweries.
If you're planning on doing other San Diego activities, then stay closer to downtown. The Gaslamp District is the hot spot if you want clubs and restaurants, perfect if you're in the cool demographic. For bay views, stay at Harbor or Shelter Island, or go full-on tropical with a Mission Bay resort. There's only one real brewery in downtown (Mission Brewery) but hop on the freeway and the Miramar / Mira Mesa breweries are just minutes away. North County is about a 30 to 45 minute drive, depending on traffic.
For hotel reviews, check out Local Wally's Guide to San Diego and when you're ready to book, go to my hotel section where you can see the rates and availability. My booking partner offers a best rate guarantee and if you have questions on what hotel is best, feel free to post your question on my Facebook page and I'll get right back to you with free advice. How cool is that?
There certainly are enough breweries in San Diego to fill up a week but you might want to add a few non-alcoholic activities to the mix. Afterall, what will your co-workers think when you tell them you went to San Diego and didn't go to the Zoo or the beach or any of our other cool attractions. For the best things to do in San Diego, go to Local Wally's Guide to the Best San Diego Attractions. And guess what? There are discount tickets available there so you can save some of your dough and buy more beer. Always looking our for you.
So Many Microbreweries, So Little Time
If all you wanted was beer, you could go to a bar. But just like winetasting, exploring the San Diego microbrewery scene is more about getting a buzz and partying with friends. In fact, if that's your goal you probably should go to a bar. Beer tasting is about the entire experience, the ambiance of the brewery, the friendliness of the staff, and learning more about the beers you're drinking. But with so many breweries, which ones are the best? Which are the BEST breweries in San Diego?
TOP OVERALL BEST SAN DIEGO BREWERY
The Winner: The Lost Abbey, big enough to attract a nice crowd but not so big that you think you're in a corporate fake. Servers are friendly and helpful with enough choices to please every palate. Newbie beer drinkers should try the Avant Garde, an easy to drink straw colored ale while dark beer lovers will want to try the Old Viscosity, a massive dark beer that's described by the brewers as "thick and sludgy like the oil from a crankcase" - worth at least a taster!
Runner Up: Stone Brewery is the one that started the craze and their Escondico location features a giant restaurant and lush gardens. Possibly the best beer tour of any brewery ($3) - and you keep the glass. Food is good enough but it's the beers that bring the crowds and the outdoor patio that keeps them there. Stone Pale Ale is a standard but make sure you taste the Smoked Porter and Arrogant Old Bastard, a beer that surprised even the brewers with it's popularity.
Also consider Mission Brewery in the Gaslamp area, a large brewery built in the old Wonderbread factory. This isn't a restaurant, this isn't a Hooter's knock off, it's not a themed sports bar, it's an authentic brewery experience. Close to Petco Park so if you're going to the ballpark come early to avoid parking hassles and go to Mission first.
Green Flash in the Miramar area looks like a giant corporate office on the outside but is actually a giant tasting room once inside. Down the street is Alesmith Brewery, quite a bit smaller but equally cool with equally good beers.
BEST "HOLE IN THE WALL" SAN DIEGO BREWERY
The Winner: Iron Fist is the classic San Diego microbrewery. Housed in a non-descript industrial park, you'll swear you're in the wrong spot until you see the people with growlers and the crowd around the food stand. Newly expanded tasting room gives you lots of places to spread out and the stools are a welcome touch. Some of the beers can get mighty aggressive so newbies are best to stick with Renegade Blonde or the Golden Age, a citrusy brew with champagne-like bubbles.
Runner Up: Aztec Brewery is another hard one to find. Your GPS will loop you around endlessly but look for the small Aztec signs and head to the back of the industrial park. Super friendly, they even have free tacos on Tuesdays and food vendors on Saturday and Sunday. The original Aztec Brewing Company dates back to prohibition when it was made in Mexico, but don't expect a Dos Equis taste-alike. Cutting edge flavors, Aztec Amber is an award winner and an easy to drink introduction to Aztec Brewing Company.
Noteworthy: If you like your breweries small but your flavors big, check out Hess Brewery, a tiny nanobrewery with just enough space at the bar for you and your friends. Or go to Lighning Brewery in Poway, a brewery so small that there's not even a bar. Societe Brewing in Clairmont Mesa looks small on the outside but opens up to a modern and large tasting room and Mother Earth Brewery not only is a cool little brewery but has beer supplies as well for the home brewer.
BEST SAN DIEGO BREWPUBS
The Winner: Blind Lady Ale House is home to Automatic Brewing, a nanobrewery with an foodie attitude. Unlike the corporate giants serving up generic food in a generic setting, Blind Lady Ale House is dedicated to making great local food, including authentic Italian pizza using fresh organic ingredients. Normal Heights location means an eclectic crowd with everyone from hipsters to old timers enjoying the urban vibe. Tons of beers to choose from, this is what a brewpub should be all about.
Runner Up: Monkey Paw in downtown San Diego is off the beaten track and looks like the kind of bar you shouldn't go into but don't let that stop you. Inside the setting is beer bar authentic and the food is creative - How about some Drunken Monken Bones (tender pork shanks bites with BBQ or Hot Wing sauce on them)? Of course, tons of local beers on tap including a half dozen or so they make themselves. Be cool, tell your less hip friends to go to Gordon Bierch while you and your pals chill at Monkey Paw.
Noteworthy: For a setting that Mom would approve of, Karl Strauss off Miramar road has above average food in a Japanese garden setting, complete with koi ponds and waterfalls. And far far away in north Vista is Prohibition Brewing Company, a family run brewery with top notch burgers, wings and other pub standards. It might look like a Blues Brothers dive bar from the outside but inside the vibe is family friendly and beer focused, worth seeking out if you're beer tasting in North County.