San Diego Craft Beer: Creating a Culture of Connoisseurship

Pint of Ale

In the last two decades, national interest in craft beer production has increased dramatically. Arising from a strong dissatisfaction with the flavor monopoly of national beer corporations, the distinctly grassroots craft beer movement has elevated beer consumption to a degree of connoisseurship formerly associated only with wine. With over 30 breweries scattered throughout the county producing award-winning beers, San Diego, California exemplifies this trend and distinguishes itself as a destination for beer aficionados.

History of Craft Beer: Nationally and in the San Diego Region

San Diegans’ taste for beer was evident very early in the city’s history. Prior to prohibition, the thirst of San Diego’s 112,000 inhabitants was quenched by its seven breweries and 55 saloons. However, prohibition dealt a heavy blow for beer producers, forcing many to close. Three of San Diego’s breweries successfully re-opened after the repeal: San Diego Brewing Company, Aztec Brewing Company, and Balboa Brewing Company.

These three breweries continued production, fighting to preserve a local market that was steadily becoming nationalized and monopolized. For a while, they were successful, producing twenty-five percent of California’s beer in 1940. It proved to be an uphill battle, however, as growing mega-corporations Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller Brewing created and dominated a national market by making exclusive deals with distributors, liquor stores, and pubs, edging out local brewers. By 1953, these three corporate giants managed to destroy their San Diego competition, resulting in the closing of the three San Diego breweries that had survived prohibition.

The complete dominance of the American beer market by Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller Brewing successfully hindered craft beer production in America for decades. However, a series of government legislation beginning in the late 1970s helped facilitate its revival. In response to the growing popularity of craft beer brewing as a grassroots pastime, Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1978 legalizing homebrewing. In 1982, California passed legislation enabling a licensed manufacturer to sell beer to customers for consumption at a public eating place, thus giving rise to the “brewpub.” Brewpubs proved to be a primary facilitator of the resurgence of craft beer in America, enabling craft beer makers to create independent markets beyond the reach of national beer corporations.

San Diego’s craft beer renaissance began shortly after the implementation of this legislation. Craft brewing is identified by three distinctive characteristics according to the Brewer’s Association: small (producing less than two million barrels a year), independent (with less than 25% of the brewery being controlled or owned by a national industry member), and traditional (with at least 50% of beers produced being all-malt beers or beers whose only additives serve to enhance, not lighten, flavor). Larger-scale craft brewing began to reappear in San Diego in the late 1980s, with Bolt brewery leading the way in 1986, and Mission Brewery as well as the first Karl Strauss location following in 1989.. A virtual craft beer explosion occurred in the 1990s, resulting in the establishment of a diverse array of breweries and brewpubs including La Jolla Brewing Company, Callahan’s Pub and Brewery, Pizza Port, Stone Brewing Company, Alesmith, Coronado Brewing Company, Ballast Point Brewing Company, Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, and notably the historic re-opening of San Diego Brewing Company. The success of many of these breweries further contributed to the development of flourishing, diverse, and vibrant craft beer community in San Diego, with many of them achieving national notoriety by the beginning of the 21st century.

San Diego Craft Beer Culture and Tourism

San Diego has risen from its humble homebrew beginnings to become a veritable epicenter for beer culture and tourism. With over thirty brewery locations throughout the county, the majority of which originated in the area, San Diego has one of the largest concentrations of breweries in the nation. San Diego hosts several annual beer festivals including the City Beat Beer Festival in May; the two-day Real Ale Festival hosted by Pizza Port Carlsbad in June; the San Diego County Fair Craft Brewer’s Festival in June at the Del Mar Fairgrounds; the Stone Sour Fest in July; and the September San Diego Festival of Beer in Downtown San Diego. The most recent World Beer Cup was held in San Diego’s Mission Valley in April 2008, distinguishing San Diego as an international beer hub. These international and domestic festivals have attracted visitors and locals alike, further encouraging the San Diego community of beer connoisseurship.

In addition to hosting a variety of beer festivals, San Diego has gained notoriety for the quality of its product. San Diego breweries have been steadily collecting awards from the World Beer Cup, culminating in their performance at the 2008 event, winning 14 of the coveted medals. Additionally, at the 2007 Brewer’s Association Great American Beer Awards, two San Diego breweries took home notable awards: Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey won the Small Brewing Company of the Year prize, and Ballast Point Brewing Company’s Sculpin India Pale Ale was awarded a bronze medal in the Pro-American Beer Competition. In both the national and international brewery arenas, San Diego continues to gain notoriety as a location for high quality craft beer production.

San Diego brewery tours have grown in popularity in recent years, mimicking the sophistication of wine-tasting expeditions. Independently-run companies like Brewery Tours of San Diego, and Brew Hop of San Diego, shuttle groups around San Diego County breweries, providing safe transport for traveling imbibers.

Many breweries offer their own guided tours, with in-depth explanations of the brewing process and the particulars of specific beers, complemented by requisite beer tasting. Stone Brewery in Escondido, California is well-known for its brewery tour, attracting more than 20,000 out-of-town visitors annually. Rock Bottom Brewery also conducts regular tours of its facilities, while Alesmith is offers by-appointment tours and tastings.

San Diego breweries and their surrounding neighborhoods have established closely-knit communities of beer connoisseurship. Local breweries like Stone Brewing Company sponsor or host movie events, book clubs, and other community events on their grounds, accompanied by their beers. Local bars like O’Brien’s Pub, the Tap Room, the Ritual Tavern, Downtown Johnny Brown’s, Hamilton’s, and the Liar’s Club feature a wide selection of local brews, and frequently host events featuring limited release local beers.

San Diego brewpubs, which helped launch San Diego’s beer connoisseurship and craft beer revival, continue to support local beer culture, offering approachable and appealing environments for introduction to San Diego brews. Oggi’s Pizza and Brewing Company, Coronado Brewing Company, La Jolla Brewhouse, and Pizza Port’s San Clemente, Solana Beach, and Carlsbad locations, are examples of the wide variety of brewpub options in San Diego, gaining as much recognition for their food as for their unique brews.

With a thriving beer culture, and world-recognized breweries, San Diego is an excellent retreat for beer connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Traversing the county, sampling local brews and visiting the multitude of award-winning breweries provides visitors and locals with a unique craft beer experience that is both edifying and enjoyable. By participating in San Diego’s craft beer community, visitors and locals are united as members of an American beer vanguard, supporting a local food movement while indulging in a most delicious hedonism.


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