You eat an elephant the same way you eat a fish taco: one bite at a time. Drinking your way through a Beer Mecca like San Diego is no different.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scope of the place. If you spent just a half-hour at each brewery, and could instantly teleport from place to place, it would still take more than two full days of nonstop drinking to get a mere sampling of what San Diego has to offer. And that’s not even counting the bars. Or restaurants.
I had 36 hours, an Uber account, plus two industry locals as guides, and I only managed to get to four breweries. Four. Out of 111. For all the math wizards out there, that’s just 3.6%.
I’m not saying I did it the right way. I’m just saying there’s no wrong way to do it.
Bobby Mathews is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. With an aura as big as a station wagon and an even bigger personality, he embodies everything I love about beer.
Having never met — and with no more than a handful of text messages between us — Bobby picked me up on a Saturday afternoon in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood. As I hopped in the cab of his truck, he flashed me a toothy, mutton-chopped grin and greeted me with a hearty “Welcome, Brother” in an accent I couldn’t quite place. I immediately felt at home.
Leaving San Diego-proper behind, we passed through La Mesa and El Cajon and climbed through the foothills, past the edges of urban sprawl. As the incline and elevation began to increase, Bobby told me a bit about himself.
Born and raised in Ireland, he traveled the world on a commercial fishing boat. He broke his back on that boat, in a very literal sense, after falling from a perch, hitting the bulwark, and nearly drowning. Surgery and rehab led him to San Diego, his wife, and a successful career in insurance — not to mention an absurd number of county hunting and fishing records.
But in a cosmic version of Newton’s cradle, that boat is also what eventually led him to Alpine Beer Company.
After arriving, Bobby settled in Alpine, a rural, mountainous section of San Diego County about 30 miles northeast of downtown. Alpine is home to, among other things, lots of wildlife, self-appointed border patrol militias, and the eponymous brewery.
It was in their pub that Bobby became enamored with gems like Pure Hoppiness and Duet. It was there he started spending more and more time as he became less and less interested in the insurance game. And it was there he encountered a mutual ethos and parlayed a bevy of odd jobs into his first foray in the beer business.
Though they share many similarities, in some respects, Bobby and Alpine couldn’t be more different. Bobby is boisterous and larger-than-life. Alpine (at least the location I visited) is tiny and unassuming. Their operation is broken down into two parts: the pub and the brewery. Each occupies an opposite end of a nondescript strip mall, with a seldom-open book store lodged in between.
As soon as I walked through the doors of the pub, it felt like I’d been there before. For as much as it is a bastion of the West Coast beer community, it has a remarkably midwestern feel.
The interior is adorned with beer paraphernalia from all over — Sierra Nevada, Victory, Brooklyn, Wicked Weed — but feels immediately familiar, and intimate, like a fish fry joint back home (although here it's the brisket). On the other end, the brewery is small and spartan, but serves as a station for growlers fills and merchandise.
The patio, though — the patio is the one place I’ll think of when I think of San Diego. It is forever etched into my mind as a repository of phenomenal beers and a host to good vibes.
On that patio, I had the good fortune of tasting some of Alpine’s most revered, archived releases, like Chez Monus, Gouden Vallei, and Kiwi Herman. But it was also on that patio that I tasted Nelson for the first time, at the source, directly out of the brite tank. It was, unequivocally, the brightest, freshest beer I’ve ever had, and I’ll take that memory with me to the grave.
But even more than the beers, the thing I remember most is the cast of characters Alpine has assembled. A motley crew to be sure, but so genuine and endearing, that there’s no choice but to become fast friends.
I spent so much time talking with them that Bobby was forced — in part by circumstance, in part by his wife — to leave me in order to attend the wedding of another Alpine employee. Luckily, I hitched a ride back toward town with Kevin, who had just finished a shift in the kitchen.
As we sped back down through Harbison Canyon toward the city and the outer edge of Uber range, I grilled Kevin about the local dining scene. When pressed for a casual, uniquely San Diego destination, he suggested Fathom Bistro, right on the water.
On approach, Fathom Bistro, Bait, and Tackle, looks like little more than a dockside shack. It is, as Kevin described, directly on the water, located in the Shelter Island Marina. Most evenings, there would be a picturesque sunset reflecting off the bay. But a spring rain started to fall as my car dropped me off and I was met with a rather drab harbor.
The selection — of both beer and food — more than made up for the conditions outside. Fathom features a highly curated selection of California drafts, with an emphasis on local offerings, supported by standouts from further up the coast. For food, they specialize in house-made sausages like bierwurst and Italian, but also delicious oddities like the chicken basil with sun-dried tomatoes.
As I waited for my food, a pair of young couples with children dashed in to avoid the downpour. The girl behind the counter told me about a local punk show that was happening that night. Octopussy played silently on the TV in the corner, above shelves full of dog-eared National Geographics. All the while, a handful of men stood casting lines off the end of the dock, impervious to the elements.
Fathom felt broken-in but not worn. It served as the perfect interlude to grab a bite, prolong a buzz, and gather my thoughts. After a full day of cross-country travel, winding roads, and unforgettable beers, I was as drained as my camera batteries, but I had one last stop before bed.
The moment I walked through the doors at Modern Times in Point Loma, a group of guys at the bar started waving at me. I was wearing a ball cap. They had just come from the Padres game. They clearly thought I was someone else.
They were, however, next to the only open seat at the bar. As I approached, they realized they didn’t know me. They apologized. I told them they didn’t need to. They bought me a flight to welcome me to their city. I bought them a round to help celebrate their friend’s birthday. It encapsulated my day.
They left shortly thereafter. It turns out their missing friend had ended up at the other Modern Times tasting room, which must be a common mistake these days. I managed to close down the Point Loma location. 22 hours earlier I woke up in Ohio. Now, standing beneath a Post-it Note mural of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and some tumbleweed light fixtures, I summoned a car to take me back to my room.
Day One in San Diego had surpassed my most lofty expectations.
Day Two was going to be a whirlwind. I was meeting up with GBH’s own Mike Sardina, VP of the San Diego Brewer's Guild, and "Ruler of the Underworld" at Societe Brewing. He'd put together a jam-packed schedule of visits to some of his favorite spots.
In many respects, Mike is the polar opposite of Bobby — smaller, much more introverted, no facial hair. Mike was a lawyer. Bobby was a fisherman. Mike drives a Prius. Bobby drives a pickup. But upon meeting them both, the same love of beer and pride in their city comes through immediately.
(It wasn’t uncommon to hear locals wax poetic about San Diego, and even use their beers to leverage an out-of-towner to permanently relocate.)
We met at Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, a short walk from my room in North Park. It was clearly a neighborhood spot with a small, warm cafe, an extensive collection of branded parody t-shirts, and excellent single-origin options from both Africa and South America.
Mike was wearing an Alpine hat (no asterisk) when we walked in. I was reminded of the day prior, when an Alpine employee was wearing a Societe hoodie.
For as vast a scene as it is, San Diego is incredibly close-knit, and breweries are very supportive of one another. That’s certainly the case in other cities across the country, but not at the same level. There was an uncommon camaraderie, as if everyone was in on the secret: the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is good for everyone.
After Mike educated me on just how rare my experience at Alpine was, we headed toward Benchmark Brewing. On the way, we made a pitstop at Nomad Donuts, an eclectic little shop with some of the strangest — and most strangely delicious — donuts I’ve ever seen. Flavor combos like honeydew mint prosciutto don’t necessarily sound that appetizing, but somehow work in a perfect harmony of sweet, salty, and spicy.
When we arrived at Benchmark, I could tell immediately it was a family operation. Co-founders Matt and Rachael Akin were getting out of the car as we pulled in and they had their little daughter, Neva, in tow, ready for a another day at the brewery. She ran to the door and tried to open it, as if she owned the place (one day, she probably will) and we all filed in behind her.
Situated in a run-of-the-mill industrial park, Benchmark’s exterior is unassuming. With only a standard issue office sign denoting its location, if you weren’t looking for the brewery you’d pass right by it. The taproom, however, couldn’t be more different. It’s thoughtful and tactile and beautiful and a testament to Rachael’s design background. The aesthetic is straightforward but refined, and reflects the personality of the brewery — and the beer they make.
Standouts are their Table Beer, a meditation on subtlety and nuance, but with enough flavor to stand up and demand attention, and the Oatmeal Stout, which lives up to its billing as being “life-changing” and is a GABF gold medal-winner from a year ago.
On the backs of those two beers, supported by an overall stellar lineup, Benchmark is growing, both physically and operationally. During my visit, they were prepping to build an outdoor patio and bar in the back, but also to package their beer for the first time.
The former will make an already great taproom even more enticing for drinkers, while the latter will help them reach an entirely new audience altogether. And Rachael has her designer’s eye on both endeavors, making sure the Benchmark experience stays consistent, regardless of where they meet the consumer.
They’re expanding thoughtfully, in small increments, and in ways that stay true to their ethos. What I took away most, however, is the passion Matt and Rachael have for what they do, and the conviction they have in making their beer. In a city awash with assertive West Coast IPAs, Benchmark is carefully crafting a world-class lineup of simple beers that challenge the palate — and the drinker — in very complex ways.
Next up on the brewery list was Mike’s home turf of Societe Brewing Company, far and away, the place I had heard the most locals talking about. Unsolicited, when people heard I was from out of town, they’d ask if I’d made my way over to Societe yet.
After sampling a good chunk of their drafts, it was easy to see why. For the wide range of beers they make, they seem to have a mastery over all of them. Their wheelhouse is certainly in the American IPA — like most of San Diego — but there’s little fall off, if any, when they extend to traditional Belgian styles. Or huge stouts. Or light saisons. Or English staples.
It’s a truly remarkable array of beers they produce, each at the highest quality, and each with their own unique signature. In the cavernous, wood-filled taproom, the beers somehow managed to match the space: huge and humble at the same time.
The pony wall that separates the taproom from the brewery also serves to separate the colorful from the grayscale. Where the tasting room is light and warm — filled with communal tables and board games — the brewery is calculated and industrial — with row upon row of shiny, stainless vessels.
From a purely logistic point of view, their brewery is organized in the most intelligent manner I’ve ever seen. Moving laterally across the building, each step of the brewing process is parceled out in sequential order — starting with milling and mashing at one end, all the way through to packaging and distribution at the other.
And the barrel warehouse. The gorgeous, climate-controlled barrel warehouse with oak stacked to the rafters, is set off to the side, its own separate entity.
Seeing everything laid out made me wonder why all breweries aren’t organized the same way.
Similar to Bobby the day before, Mike had to leave before I’d had my fill. I needed a minute to figure out the rest of my few remaining hours in the city, and to keep working my way through the draft selections. There were three places left on my list, not breweries, all bars: Blind Lady Ale House, Tiger!Tiger! Tavern, and the famed, Toronado.
Blind Lady and Tiger!Tiger! share ownership, and a certain sense of style, but each has a distinct niche and clientele. Blind Lady is the more classic of the two, with vintage skateboards covering nearly every square inch of the wood-paneled walls, and Zeppelin and The Stones on the speakers. The vibe is laid back, with a slightly older crowd and mostly pizzas on the menu, all made with locally sourced, organic ingredients.
The beer lists at both places were similar, with Blind Lady’s skewing slightly more Belgian and Tiger!Tiger!’s a bit more local.
Tiger!Tiger! is definitely trendier — but more intimate — with bikes on the wall instead of skateboards. There’s still a lot of wood, but the interior is a darker hue, and sparsely lit. The crowd is younger, more affluent, the food offering more refined, including some wonderful wood-fired sandwiches and a selection of raw or prepared oysters.
The staff at both establishments couldn’t have been nicer, or more knowledgeable.
I ended my night, and my stay in San Diego, at legendary Toronado. The beer list was nothing short of impeccable, with the rare Belgian options alone, enough to make my head spin. Not to mention all of the local fare, and some gems from a little place up the coast called Russian River.
Toronado is equal parts dive bar and neighborhood pub — everything anyone could ever want out of a beer bar — and the only place I could have ended my trip. It was a perfect microcosm of everything I’d seen in the past 36 hours: an immaculate and wide-ranging selection, a knowledgable and friendly staff, an educated but modest customer, and an absolutely killer vibe.
The prevailing feeling I had there, and wherever I went in San Diego, was refreshed. It was so refreshing to be able to go into a bar and know, no matter what I ordered, it was going to be quality. It was so refreshing to be able to ask the staff questions, and not only get an honest answer, but to not be judged for asking in the first place. And it was so refreshing to be able to turn to any patron, at any place, and talk about what we were drinking without pretense.
I made a lot of friends in 36 hours. I rode in a lot of cars in 36 hours. And I drank a lot of beers in 36 hours. But I always favor quality over quantity. In San Diego, it’s tough not to get both, no matter what you’re looking for. The city is an embarrassment of riches and you’re rarely a stone’s throw away from one of the best beers on the face of the Earth.
If you haven’t already, go. If you have, go back. And when you’re there, be sure to breathe, take it all in, and work your way through, one beer at a time.