Exploring the San Diego beer scene, part 1

This is Part 1 of the San Diego beer adventure. (see Part 2.)

Fellow Seattlites, count your blessings—the Emerald City is replete with craft beer.  Sure, the rest of the country is slowly catching up, but for most of the nation craft beer is still an anomaly and only about one in 25 beers consumed nationally is craft beer (about 4 percent). Around Seattle, that number is closer to 25 percent. As craft beer lovers, we are not totally alone. There are a few other places across the country with vibrant craft beer cultured comparable to our own. Recently, we paid a visit to one such craft beer stronghold.

My wife had never been to San Diego and my last visit was nearly 20 years ago. Expansive beaches, sunshine and great craft beer seemed a perfect way for us to remedy the suffocating winter malaise that consumes your spirit when you live in the Pacific Northwest.

The weather disappointed us but the beer did not.

Taking San Diego by Storm

We only had two days on the ground in San Diego, so we devised a judicious craft beer attack plan. Unknowingly, we planned our visit during San Diego’s two-day monsoon season. We therefore wanted to avoid anything vaguely resembling traffic. Instead of spending the majority of our time in the car driving from brewery to brewery, we split our attention between breweries that were along the way and the good beer bars within San Diego proper. We figured that this plan would give us the best opportunity to sample the widest variety of beer from the area’s breweries.

Day One

This beer adventure was part of a larger vacation to Southern California. We left Palm Springs early on a Friday morning and drove the Pines to Palms Scenic Byway (palms to pines, in our case). Faster routes were available, but Kim and I are built for comfort and not for speed. This route delivered us to the northern edge of San Diego County, not far from Escondido.

Stone Brewing Company

Okay, this is a big brewery. I know that many people might think Stone has gotten too big for its britches, but in my opinion any visit to San Diego County should include a visit to Stone Brewing in Escondido. In short, the place is amazing—vast, high tech, and beautiful.

Big brewery, big tour. (Stone Brewing)

When you approach it, you might miss it. Stone’s world headquarters is horribly underdressed when viewed from the street. When you step through the front doors into the lobby, you will not be impressed either. When you walk into the lovely Stone Bistro, you might raise your eyebrows and nod in approval. But when you walk out onto the patio…

The Bistro at Stone. No expense spared.

Kim actually got a bit verklempt when we walked out of the pub and into the sunny, expansive, lush, beautiful, organic beer garden. It’s hard to put into words. We have nothing like it around here. With unlimited resources, this is what my backyard would look like. Breathtaking.

Enjoying a beer in the garden at Stone.

Take the tour. It’s free and there is a beer tasting at the end: about two pints of free beer, by my reckoning.

Ballast Point Brewing Company

Heading south from Escondido, we next stopped at Ballast Point Brewing. Located in an unassuming building deep in the heart of a light-industrial business park, you will need to mind your GPS to find Ballast Point. Seriously, trust her when she says, “You have arrived at your destination.”

When we walked into the small tasting room at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, the place was packed. We did the sampler tray, which was kind of a waste of time. All of the beers were great, don’t get me wrong, but we had spent the previous six days in Palm Springs, where good beer (especially good IPA) is very hard to come by. That being said, we gravitated to the Sculpin IPA, both the draft and cask versions. Oh sweet relief! It reminded us of home. Sculpin IPA is more northwestern than many of our Washington-brewed IPAs. It is completely out-of-balance and ridiculously over-hopped. I mean that in the most reverential way.

The bar at Ballast Point Brewing.

Before long, we noticed some familiar faces. Were these people following us? Yes, as a matter of fact, they were. The Brewery Tours of San Diego bus was on our tail. Along with the other tourists, we took the tour of Sculpin’s brewery. Compared to the kind of breweries we are used to touring, this one seemed much more familiar and “to scale” than Stone. They made us wear safety glasses. Cool.

OSHA Approved Brewery Tour at Ballast Point.

Ballast Point’s beer is excellent, and we always appreciate being introduced to a new brewery, but there wasn’t a lot more for us to see at the brewery, save for a guy dropping to the floor and doing 20 push-ups every 10 minutes (the Marine Corps Miramar Air Station is nearby, after all).

AleSmith Brewing Company

At this point, the breweries started to seem like a Russian nesting doll: they just kept getting smaller and smaller. AleSmith Brewing is located in an even less-assuming business park that is even harder to find. There is barely a sign on the door to let you know you’ve arrived. In fact, even after you walk in you might wonder if this is the place.

There is no atmosphere, only beer. In a big room used to store empty kegs and little more, you will find a diminutive tasting bar. Nothing fancy, just good beer. The actual brewery is next door. Apparently even this much of a tasting room is a relatively new thing for AleSmith.

No frills, good beer at AleSmith Brewing.

The beers get better as they get bigger. The AleSmith IPA was good. The Wee Heavy was better. The Speedway Stout was outstanding. The Old Numbskull was mind-blowing. Largely unknown outside of San Diego County, AleSmith is a highly decorated brewery. It’s easy to understand when you’re there tasting the beer.

The person pouring beers in the taproom suggested that AleSmith might be having conversations with a distributor in the Seattle area, but that’s all we know.

See Part 2 the adventure

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  1. Alesmith, Port and Ballast Point are the Gems of the San Diego area. I love everything they do, especially Victory at Sea and Old Numbskull.

  2. So glad you discovered AleSmith! I’m a San Diego transplant to the WA beer scene, and when I go home I take an extra suitcase so I can stock up on Speedway Stout at BevMo. Had a special release aged in bourbon barrels and it was amazing. I met Peter Zien at the 2009 GABF and he told me then that they were trying to make it up into Washington. I really, really hope they do.

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