With 160 breweries, 55 tasting rooms, a brewers guild, an annual beer week, multiple festivals (including Collabapalooza and Rhythm & Brews), themed haunted houses at Halloween, tasting tour operators, a forthcoming museum, and countless bars, pubs, and restaurants with hop-notch beer selections, San Diego County easily earns its title of Craft Beer Capital of America. Those stats also make it a sensational choice for a fermentation-focused vacation.
Despite being one of the oldest breweries in the region, Stone Brewing is still a star hopheads are guided by. Founded in 1996, the country’s ninth largest independent craft brewery is famous for its unapologetically hop-heavy IPAs. Tours of the 57,000 square-foot Escondido compound, which includes a store and Stone World Bistro, ends with a sampling in souvenir glasses. Enjoy a full menu and 36 beers on tap in an expansive dining room, patio, and one-acre beer garden with a stream and fire pits. The Liberty Station outpost, a former Navy mess hall, adds bocce and an outdoor cinema space. There are taprooms all over the city including at the airport. Stone's core products are found all over the world so seek out special sips like a powerful (11.5 percent ABV) stout made with pecans and actor Wil Wheaton’s help.
Two friends attempted to start a craft beer revolution in the jungles of Central America in 2013, but ultimately pulled out of that paradise because it lacked necessary infrastructure. Costa Rica’s loss was San Diego’s gain. Sticking with the Pura Vida philosophy which emphasizes a connection to the land, they use high-quality, local (when possible) ingredients—like Temecula honey, Central Valley peaches, and dry-farmed, no-till grains from Alameda—and sustainable practices like eliminating plastic snap packs on to-go beer. The Miramar Brewery has a moss wall and 16 taps, which often see new drafts a day earlier than the other locations. But the zoo-adjacent Balboa Park location also has a modern crisp eco-vibe with reclaimed Torrey Pine accents and animal videos. Plus there’s four more taps, a sun-drenched patio, and food partnerships with block buddies Barrio Star (Mexican) and Donna Jean (vegan).
Good times are easy to come by at California’s first employee-owned brewery. Started in 2013 and named after a defunct utopian colony in 1800s New York, it has multiple locations in the county, all of which are vegan, have kooky names like Flavordome, and are wildly decorated with velvet paintings, wall murals made with floppy disks, or Post-Its. We’re partial to Lomaland Fermentorium with its loud music, boho patio, and 32 taps dispensing year-round favorites, pilot batches, and experiments. There's also a cafe serving Modern Times coffee. Because they don’t sell food, you can bring it in or order delivery.
Started in North Park, where they still maintain a tasting room and seven-barrel production facility, Thorn Brewing Co. makes a Baja-style lager, a hazy New England IPA with a brilliant name (Hopster Pot), and even a Keto-friendly IPA with less carbs, calories, and gluten than normal, all emblazoned with the most adorable trash panda on a penny-farthing logo. In 2017, they opened a bigger, better, rustic brewhouse complete with 30 barrels, a canning line, event mezzanine rentable for private parties, and a taproom in Barrio Logan. Both locations allow dogs and children and often have food pop-ups out front.
Come for beers divided into four categories: Out West (IPAs for days including two-time Great American Beer Festival gold medalist, The Coachman), Old World (European varieties), Stygian (dark, roasty, and sometimes evil), and Feral (wild and red wine barrel-aged concoctions). Stay a little longer at the Mesa 20-barrel brewery for the excellent programming that includes a running club, crafting classes, beer and food pairings, and holiday markets. Based on the founders’ very different musical tastes, they also alternate between death metal and bluegrass yoga practices.
Another oldie but goodie, Green Flash, named after the storied sunset phenomenon, started whipping up batches of strong, hoppy beer in 2002. They were responsible for trademarking the term West Coast IPA in 2011 thus codifying and legitimizing California’s signature suds. The 2019 Editors’ Choice winner offers tours of its den of dankness (that’s a compliment!). 30 beers including the flagship that started it all, a smoked coffee porter, and a tart session ale with grapefruit can be enjoyed in a beer garden with bites crafted to pair with them from the in-house food truck.
The Miramar warehouse is modern and minimalist with black floors, wood accents, and naked bulb chandeliers. Place orders at the long counter with friendly, knowledgeable workers. They’ll eagerly walk newbies through the basics of shandies, sours, and stouts, detail flavor profiles of up to 30 beers or hard seltzers, or debate with devout drinkers. The Mango Gose goes great with good weather on the patio. (Full disclosure: It’s no longer a true microbrewery as it is now under the MillerCoors umbrella.)
Started in 2017, Wild Barrel Brewing just might be the ultimate place to blow off steam. The 15-barrel brewhouse, known for its Vice fruited kettle sours and going all in on the haze craze, shares a San Marcos building with both axe throwing and batting cages. As you’ll definitely work up an appetite, it’s a good thing a food truck is in the mix Tuesdays through Sundays. Drink a Strawberry Cheesecake sour or Hipster Chocolate Vanilla Macaroon stout for dessert.
Named after the San Diego neighborhood it is situated in, Hillcrest Brewing Company is loud and proud about its status as the first gay-owned brewery in the world. It’s a convivial space (especially on holidays and during San Diego Pride) with communal tables, a patio, an extensive pizza menu, Kegs & Eggs Sunday brunch specials, and the occasional inflatable flamingo. They also make a fine float with the house-brewed root beer.
More than a century after two Brooklyn brothers established a pre-Prohibition beer empire, one’s great granddaughter picked up the malty mantle on the West Coast in 2016. She and her partners were winning medals at beer competitions within a year for releases like the Japanese-style dry lager or the Glitz and Glam Berliner weisse with raspberry and cherry. The HQ in Vista allows people to imbibe while watching the magic happen. But you might prefer guzzling near gulls on the heated and shaded patio of the Shelter Island Biergarten, the only harbor-front tasting room in town.