Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I hosted a series of beer tastings at the bar in the Four Points LAX, then known as the “Beer Hotel.” Those were the days when Southern California was a pretty sad place for beer, so our events featured mostly beers from the state’s northern half, mixed liberally with imports and whatever East Coast brews I and general manager Phil Baxter could get our hands on.
After a couple of tastings, however, an interesting thing started to happen. Rather than sitting back and watching us showcase outside beers, SoCal brewers like Tomme Arthur, Peter Zien, and Mark Jilg began to bring their beers along, which is how I initially became acquainted with the beers of Pizza Port, AleSmith, and Craftsman.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, what I was witnessing was the birth of one of America’s top beer markets, and the speed at which it progressed from those early days amazes me still. Although it may be hard to imagine, looking at L.A. and, more specifically, San Diego today, almost all of what we know as the Southern California beer scene is a 21st century creation.
It was with that context in mind that I paid a week-long visit to San Diego in January, reacquainting myself with a city I had only visited sporadically over the last 15 years, and only for a day or two at a time when I was able to get there. Suffice to say there was much to see, do, and taste—way too much, in fact, to detail in a relatively brief column such as this.
So, then, the highlights—very near the top of which has to be the almost three-year-old Stone Brewing digs at Liberty Station.
A short taxi or Uber ride from downtown—you quickly realize when staying in downtown San Diego that almost everything is a taxi or Uber ride away—Liberty Station is an old military barracks that has been renovated into a shopping and arts district, in which Stone managed to score an astounding amount of square footage—the largest restaurant space in the area, I was told.
There is indoor and outdoor seating, private party spaces, an open-air cinema, gardens, and bocce ball courts. Oh, and there’s also a brewery that cranks out small-batch specialties at a rapacious rate, including during my visit a dark chocolaty, bone dry-finishing brown ale called Lifeblood, and a soft and curiously malty Berliner weisse named Berlin is Calling. All told, there are 40 taps of beer from Stone, Stone Liberty Station, and other assorted breweries, plus a menu that strays a bit toward the pricey, but delivers top quality and taste.Another favorite stop was the Coronado Brewing Company, accessible from downtown via a short and cheap and highly enjoyable ferry ride. The brewery is located not far from the ferry dock and serves standard pub fare alongside very solid, occasionally excellent ales and lagers, like the piney Islander IPA—also available, like many IPAs on the West Coast these days, in various fruit-accented versions—and the marvelously structured, roasted caramel apple-ish Mermaid’s Red.
The island of Coronado—which isn’t really an island, but connects to the mainland near the Mexican border—is the sort of place you might not think to visit unless someone pointed you there, but the resort-like community is well worth a half-day’s visit at least, and not just for the brewery alone.
If you have a car at your disposal, it is relatively easy to hit some of the big area names, like Green Flash, Lost Abbey, and Alpine, but if you do not, you’re going to need to make do with what’s in town and nearby. Again, taxis and Ubers can get you to places like Hamilton’s and the San Diego outpost of the Toronado, both beer bars worth the fare. Alternately, depending on the location of your hotel, you can walk to the Monkey Paw, an endearingly run-down beer bar and brewery in the East Village, or the downtown location of Karl Strauss Brewing, which was San Diego’s first craft brewery, opening in 1989, and remains today a curiously unheralded, yet always worthy destination.
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Or you could do as I did and make your home-base the boutique-y Hotel Indigo, which is conveniently located across the street from the relatively new and already firing-on-all-cylinders Half Door Brewing. It’s meant to be styled after the pubs of the Irish countryside, and in truth it does a pretty good job at nailing that aesthetic: homey, hospitable, and thankfully not covered in Celtic-themed bric-a-brac. It seems to have not a lot of customer space relative to the amount of its Victorian-era home that is taken up by the brewery operations, but the ample porch space coupled with San Diego’s famously temperate climate seems to make it all work.
At one year of age, Half Door’s beers range from good to better-than-good, with palatable potential in some of them for greatness. Sort of how the entire Southern California beer scene seemed when I began visiting not much under a couple of decades ago.