San Diego has become a hotbed for budding microbrewery activity in the past several years, with dozens of craft breweries having sprouted in the San Diego area. While a few breweries have gained national nods and have since gone big business—we’re looking at you, Ballast Point—there are still plenty of breweries that have just laid down their roots and maintain their unassuming appeal.
AleSmith Brewing Company
AleSmith was founded in 1995 in a small single-unit facility located within the commercial district of Miramar. They started out small with “a 15 bbl brew system, tasting bar, office, and a three-man team.” After winning awards in international beer festivals, current owner Peter Zien took over in 2002, helping launch AleSmith into success during what he called “the golden age for American craft beer” (“around 2008-09”) in The San Diego U-T.
In 2015, AleSmith celebrated their 20th anniversary and moved into a larger space two blocks west of their original location. The new facility boasts 100,000 square feet, a custom Steinecker 80 bbl system, and San Diego’s largest tasting room. Stop by for their award-winning Speedway Stout or their San Diego Pale Ale .394, dedicated to San Diego Padres legend, Tony Gwynn.
Probably one of the most popular breweries to come out of San Diego, Ballast Point was founded in 1996 in the back of Home Brew Mart, a shop that sells supplies and ingredients needed by home brewers. Into the early 2000s, Ballast Point expanded with locations in Scripps Ranch, Little Italy, and finally, Miramar, where the main production facility is now located. In 2015, Ballast Point was infamously sold to Constellation Brands (makers of Corona, Modelo, and Pacifico) for $1 million.
Ballast Point’s most popular brews range from their Ballast Point Pale Ale, a German/Kolsch Pale Ale, to their many varieties of Sculpin, an India Pale Ale. In 2008, they also founded Ballast Point Spirits, producing their own variety of gin and becoming the first microdistillery in San Diego since the Prohibition.
Bay City Brewing Co.
One of the newer breweries on this list, Bay City Brewing Co. sits in the midst of Point Loma, between the 8 freeway and the Sports Arena. Bay City is owned by native Pacific North-Westerners Greg Anderson and Benjamin DuBois who took the area’s art of craft brewing to their chosen home of San Diego. Their brewery is quietly gaining traction among craft brew circles, with head brewer Chris West at the helm of all beer production.
Visiting Bay City is like hanging out in someone’s backyard, as their brewery houses their welcoming tasting room and spacious, laid back outdoor patio. When you’re there you can try the Coffee Pale Ale; while most beers that have coffee flavors can be found in dark beers like porters and stouts, Bay City’s Coffee Pale Ale is actually a light beer nuanced by coffee notes provided by local coffee roaster John Hermann of Swell Coffee Co.
Belching Beaver Brewery
Tom Vogel was happily brewing beer and making wine in his backyard before he became the owner and CEO of Belching Beaver Brewery. Knowing for years that he wanted to open a bar or brewery, he gathered up a team consisting of architect Dave Mobley who is now COO & owner and head brewer Troy Smith of Coronado Brewing Company.
Belching Beaver’s brews can be savored at one of many locations from their roots in Vista, to their brewhouse in Oceanside, or to tasting rooms in North Park and Ocean Beach. One of Belching Beaver’s more popular offerings is their Peanut Butter Milk Stout, which won the silver and bronze medal at the World Beer Championships in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Coronado Brewing Company
Like AleSmith and Ballast Point, Coronado Brewing Co. got its start early after it was founded in 1996 by Ron and Rick Chapman in their hometown of Coronado, California. In the mid-’90s, they were one of only five other craft brewers, working with “an original brewing system of 10-bbl brewhouse, (3) 10-bbl fermenters and (3) 10-bbl serving tanks.”
Interest in Coronado Brewing expanded into local distribution and by 2004, they began bottling some of their most popular productions: Coronado Golden, Mermaid’s Red, Islander IPA, and Point Loma Porter. They now have locations in Coronado, Imperial Beach, and in San Diego’s Tecolote Canyon area near Mission Bay.
Fall Brewing Company
Before Fall Brewing Co. came into fruition, co-owner and brewmaster Ray Astamendi has racked up tons of experience working for St. Archer, Mission, Maui Brewing, and Left Coast. Now he is at the helm of North Park’s Fall Brewing, where he is known as “The Captain.”
Fall Brewing’s offerings are solid contenders to other brew options that can be found all along 30th Street. Some of the most popular recommendations range from Green Hat IPA, a San Diego-style India Pale Ale, to 2 A.M. Bike Ride, a coffee and vanilla bean stout with coffee beans from San Diego’s own Dark Horse Coffee Roasters.
Green Flash Brewing Company
Founded in 2002, Green Flash Brewery is the brainchild of Mike and Lisa Hinkley, who’ve gathered a highly-skilled team of craft brew experts to help product exceptional brews. Originally started out of Vista, Green Flash relocated its flagship to Mira Mesa in a 44,000 square-foot facility in 2011 and by 2015, it became the 4th largest brewery in San Diego County.
Green Flash is also one of the only SD-based breweries to have a location outside of California, with a tasting room and beer garden in Virginia Beach, VA to better reach their east coast fans. Specializing in India Pale Ales, Green Flash has popular varieties such as West Coast IPA, Imperial IPA, and Le Freak in its lineup.
Half Door Brewing Company
Siblings Stacy and Dan Drayne hoped to bring back the tradition of Irish small scale brewing after the exasperation of Ireland being taken over by a macro-brewer, who “will remain unnamed” according to their website (they’re referring to Guinness, in case you couldn’t guess). That’s why when they opened up Half Door Brewing Co. in Downtown San Diego, they sought to represent “the brewing traditions of [their] ancestors” when thinking of what beers to create for their family run brewpub.
With a refined menu and stellar setting—Half Door resides in the 4,000 square-foot East Village house that’s over a century old—they’ve created a lineup of their own house beers in addition to 20 other taps that are reserved for guest beers.
Helix Brewing Company
Located in a commercial district within La Mesa, Helix Brewing Co. is “motivated by science, dedicated to adventure, and built by community.” The small brewery is owned and operated by Cameron Ball, a civil engineer who grew up in the Mt. Helix area of La Mesa. Ball began with a 10-barrel system from Portland Kettle Works in Oregon and before opening in 2015, told West Coaster that he hoped to “focus on making exceptional hoppy beers, rye-infused beers and session beers.”
Now, you can go to Helix’s open tasting room that currently has 12 taps with beers made in-house. With offerings like Acid Drop, a Bavarian Weizen, and Stoner Moment, a hop rotating IPA, Helix Brewing is truly a hidden gem.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company
Karl Strauss is San Diego’s longest running brewery, having been founded in 1989. Founders Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner asked for the guidance of master brewer Karl Strauss, who was Cramer’s cousin and coincidentally, the former vice president of production at Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee. Strauss helped them develop a brewpub and lent his knowledge of dozens of beer recipes to help them get their footing, even serving as the company’s spokesman in 2006.
Today, Karl Strauss Brewing is probably one of the most recognized beers out of San Diego and is even credited with forging the craft brewing industry in the county. Two and a half decades since its opening, Karl Strauss now has 11 locations throughout southern California and a multitude of beer options to try.
The Lost Abbey
Vince Marsaglia, co-owner of Pizza Port in Solana Beach (yet another fantastic San Diego microbrewery), had wanted to create Abbey Style beers that were inspired by the brewing traditions of Belgium. That’s about the same time that the Marsaglias hired brewmaster Tomme Arthur to brew at Pizza Port, where he developed the restaurant’s first Belgian-style beer.
After Arthur had built up a reputation within SD’s craft beer community as an exceptional Belgian beer maker, he and Marsaglia began to develop a range of Belgian-style beers within Marsaglia’s original vision. After taking over Stone Brewing Co.’s (yes, another San Diego brewery) original San Marcos location, Marsaglia was able to see The Lost Abbey become the formidable brewery it is today.
Mission Brewery is perhaps one of the oldest breweries on this list, having originated in 1913 in the only Mission Revival industrial building in San Diego. Due to the threat of Prohibition, the original Mission Brewery closed down by 1918. In 2007, homebrewer Dan Selis resurrected the name and reestablished Mission Brewery in the historic Wonder Bread building in Downtown’s East Village.
The 25,000 square-foot brewery has its original brick and mortar foundations, boasting a capacity of 10,000 barrels a year and a tasting room that can accommodate up to 400 people. In addition to that, all of Mission’s beers are brewed, bottled, canned, and kegged on-site with Mission Blonde, Mission Hefeweizen, Mission Amber, and Mission IPA at the core of its offerings.
Mike Hess Brewing
When Mike Hess was moving out of East County and closer to the coast, he elected a light industrial park location for his financial services office along Miramar Road. The space came equipped with an 800 square-foot garage that Hess used for his home brewing setup. After reading about “nano” brewing, Hess became interested in a venture that soon became a full on brewing company with three locations and over 30 employees.
Hess and his team create a range of beers that are “truly hand-crafted” and “well thought out,” and that can be purchased by the glass or in bottles and cans at local retailers. Hess’s “Mike Hess Brewing Odyssey Blog” also has become a go-to manual for many aspiring nano-brewers across America.
Modern Times Beer
Modern Times founder Jacob McKean had originally planned to be a history professor before he decided that that was going to be a boring profession. He ventured into freelance writing and homebrewing before working at Stone Brewing Co., which he eventually left to start Modern Times Beer.
McKean and his team brewed their first batch in 2013 and have since found nothing but success, as Modern Times is arguably one of the most popular craft breweries in San Diego. Their 30 bbl production brewery, which boasts a tasting room and coffee shop (Modern Times also roasts their own beans), is located in the Sports Arena area of Point Loma. You can also try their fun, fresh, and aromatic brews at their “flavordome” in North Park or at multiple retail locations throughout southern California.
Pizza Port Brewing Company
Before beginning the aforementioned Lost Abbey, Vince Marsaglia and his sister Gina took ownership of a pizza place in Solana Beach. Vince used extra storage space in the pizza shop to try his hand at home brewing and soon began to serve his craft-brewed beers to pizza customers in 1992.
Pizza Port expanded into a seven-barrel brewery that before serving its own beers featured other local home-brewed beer, and is considered influential in developing the craft-brew culture in San Diego. With multiple locations, over 91 awards and medals, and having their own beer and pizza served at Petco Park, Pizza Port Brewing is perhaps one of the most influential breweries to have started in San Diego county.
Husband and wife Jesse and Agi Pine were living in Costa Rica when they wanted to recreate a great beer that reminded them of home in San Diego. They partnered up with their friend, Mat Robar, and set up shop in Miramar, already a hotbed for new breweries in San Diego.
Pure Project focuses on sustainability and sourcing their ingredients from the purest regions so as not to overlook quality. They also focus on giving back to local and global movements that “sustain us through grassroots involvement and outreach.” Pure Project offers 12 varieties of beers ranging from IPAs to stouts and Saisons.
Saint Archer Brewing Company
Saint Archer is a fairly new brewery, having been founded in 2013, but quickly rose to prominence in San Diego’s craft beer scene. Setting up shop in Miramar, their 17,000 square-foot brewery has a 30 barrel system lead by head brewer Kim Brisson-Lutz.
Saint Archer boasts an award-winning lineup of Blonde Ales, IPAs, White Ales, and Pale Ales, taking home five combined gold medals in 2014 at the Great American Beer Festival and San Diego International Beer Festival. Like Ballast Point, Saint Archer was bought out by a big-name brewing company when in 2015, it became a subsidiary of MillerCoors.
Second Chance Beer Company
Marty Mendiola graduated from UC Davis’ Master Brewers Program and had earned ten medals at the Great American Beer Festival and six awards at the World Beer Cup for his creations made at La Jolla’s Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, where he was head brewer. In addition to his brewing accolades and being the former president of the San Diego Brewer’s Guild, Mendiola eventually founded Second Chance Beer Co. in Carmel Mountain.
In addition to their brews, Second Chance is dedicated to their namesake, second chances. A lot of the materials used in their brewery location are repurposed or recycled. They also use the “second chance” philosophy for philanthropic efforts, donating to and working with charities that give second chances, from animal rescues to raising awareness about organ and tissue donation.
Societe Brewing Company
Travis Smith and Douglas Constantiner worked at The Bruery, a brewery in southern California, where they met and became instant friends. They founded Societe Brewing Company “on the simple principles of high-quality ales and lagers built to advance beer’s reputation and place in the modern world by remaining true to its Old World roots” and they continue to operate Societe on the basis of bringing and keeping people together.
Although they do not bottle or can their delicious offerings, Societe’s brews are available to try at their brick-and-mortar location in Clairemont Mesa. Advocates for Societe recommend the Pupil, Apprentice, or Dandy, which are varieties of IPA that Societe has become known for.
Stone Brewing was founded in 1996 in San Marcos by Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, two buddies who bonded over their love of beer. They eventually opened up their own brewery and knowing that distributors wouldn’t be interested in carrying an unknown brand, self-distributed their beer which lead to the creation of Stone Distributing Co. which distributes craft beer from over 35 breweries in the U.S. and abroad.
Stone became an instant hit and they soon had to relocate to Escondido, becoming the largest brewery in Southern California. Their flagship beer is their Stone Pale Ale, the first beer that they created, but they have also become popular for other varieties, such as their “Enjoy By” releases, which are beers that are best enjoyed by a specific date. Stone Brewing is probably the most successful craft brewery to get its start in San Diego.