San Diego
Credit: Courtesy Karl Strauss

San Diego is more than sunshine, Corona, and shore leave. The city has 78 craft breweries and, if plans proceed apace, it will have more than a hundred before the end of 2014. More approachable than crafty Portland and a good deal warmer than hard-drinking Denver, San Diego is making a reputation for itself as the ultimate destination for beer lovers, who can choose from a wide variety of tasting itineraries. The up-and-coming breweries are fun to visit, but serious sippers will be more impressed with the quality of product (and experience) at the city's stalwarts, the group of breweries that established a beachhead here and never stopped innovating.

The fastest way to understand San Diego brewing culture is to talk to Shawn DeWitt, co-founder of the Coronado Brewing Company, which underwent a $1 million expansion last year, doubling its production to an anticipated 16,000 barrels in 2013. DeWitt's signature beer, served to greedy-looking visitors in the brewery's restaurant, is the java-tinged Blue Bridge Coffee Stout, made using beans from local artisanal roaster Cafe Moto and a process he developed. Rather than trumpet his success in creating a great coffee beer, DeWitt shared the recipe with a direct competitor.

"Stone Brewing recently approached us and said, 'We're intrigued. How'd you get that coffee flavor so pronounced in your beer?" says DeWitt. "'We know you have your secrets, but seriously, how'd you do it?' So I shared our process with them. I have yet to come up with another industry like that. Coke and Pepsi certainly aren't doing it."

Across the bay on Columbia Street is Karl Strauss, a Coronado inspiration that opened here in 1989 after co-founders and cousins Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner consulted their "Uncle Karl," a 44-year Pabst veteran born in a German brewery, about the possibility of creating something new. Karl has since launched seven other locations that pour local favorites like Karl Strauss Amber and Red Trolley Ale. The latter, which was intended as a medium-bodied holiday seasonal, is now brewed year-round using caramelized malts for the smooth flavor of toffee and an overall sweet finish that settles easily. The city acted as an expert taster.

Farther north near Mira Mesa is Ballast Point, another early trendsetter founded in 1996. The location – a business park – is odd for a thriving brewery, but the packed tasting room masquerades as a lively beachside bar and the place is perpetually hopping. The Sculpin IPA is a crowd favorite, but the Calico Amber Ale has earned a hat trick of gold medals at the World Beer Cup, European Beer Star, and Great American Beer Fest over the years. Despite the industry recognition, Ballast Point Beertender Chris Stinner says, CAA is the breweries' "most underrated beer." It isn't easy, after all, to create an amber with a strong bite that isn't overpowering like hop-forward IPAs.

Five miles due west is the two-year-old production facility of Green Flash, which has a capacity of 100,000 barrels a year and is now home to between 20 and 25 different ales at any given time. Nearly the entire 45,000-square-foot facility, replete with two-story conditioning tanks, oak barrels, and a 20-case-per-minute bottling line, is visible from the tasting room. Belgian beer fans can tip back a glass of the light, but spice-forward Saison Diego, an unfiltered golden ale brewed with Seville orange peels, Chinese ginger, and West African grains of paradise. Looking out at a happy crowd, Green Flash Tasting Room Manager Dave Adams, admits that it's gratifying to watch his hometown's reputation grow.

"When I talk to beer fans now, they're like, 'Oh, you're from fucking San Diego!' " he says. "They're starting to realize how big we are compared to Portland and Colorado."

More Information: Brew Hop offers customized tours of 70 of the area's breweries led by local beer experts. Tours start at $75 a person and require a minimum of four people.