On a recent flight I noticed an article in Southwest’s Spirit magazine listing the best beer cities in America. Expecting to read another story like the one recently on CNN.com praising Portland as the epicenter of all things fermented and frothy, I was shocked to see the Rose City in the #2 spot. According to Southwest I was headed to the best city for beer in the country—San Diego. I’m not accustomed to putting much stock in literature I find sharing a seat-back pocket with SkyMall, but my family trip now had a chip on its shoulder—I was going to taste as much San Diego beer as I could and smugly laugh my way back to Oregon where we keep the real beer. I mean, Bend was #7 on that CNN list. Southwest doesn’t fly to Bend, so I’m sure they didn’t even get considered for a biased article that’s clearly just a tool of the powerful Sea World/Pacific Beach tourism industry. Everyone knows that Stone makes a delicious beer—OK, a really delicious beer—but San Diego can’t possibly have a brewing scene that rivals Oregon, can it? At this point a tap list composed solely of Corvallis beers would stand up against just about anyone in the world, especially Southern Californians, right? Don’t they just drink Coronas on the beach all day down there?
I hopped off the plane determined to establish the dominance of Oregon beer—and what beer do most breweries in Oregon hang their hat on? India Pale Ale. Apparently San Diego thinks a lot of theirs, too—they even consider San Diego IPA a distinct subcategory of beer—so it seemed like a natural rivalry. Conveniently, it’s what I like to drink anyway. I would stick to IPAs and see how they stacked up against beers from Corvallis.
My first night out I felt overwhelmed in the best way possible. There are enough breweries in the area that there was no way I was going to be able to taste everything in the five nights I was there. That’s a delicious problem to have and I was up for the task of covering as much ground as I could. One of the very first—and best—pints I had was Sculpin IPA, from Ballast Point Brewing Company: honey colored and a well-balanced 7%, with a floral, piney hop aroma like a sun-bleached version of Calapooia’s Riparian IPA.
The next night I grabbed a last-call pint with Brother Joe at a beachside brewery/kebab place called Amplified Ale Works. We met Sheldon Kaplan, the director of a recently released documentary film called Suds County, USA. The film tells the story of the craft brew renaissance in San Diego over the last 25 years, so this was just the guy to meet! Sheldon had a couple pints past last call with us as he and the bartender schooled us on San Diego beer. Amplified had just celebrated its one-year anniversary and we got to taste a special bourbon barrel-aged double IPA that would have been right at home at Block 15. They then turned us toward a couple of perfect end-of-the-night, crisp, clean, quaffable 5.5% beers from Societe and Rip Current Brewing, both in the same vein as Sky High’s Boundless Session Ale.
The best beer moment by far was when another local beer Sherpa, the Canadrian, took us to Fathom Bistro Bait and Tackle, which is all of those things and more. Out over the water on a fishing pier in Point Loma, we got to sit and watch people pulling little bass out of the water 10 feet from our table while eating bacon-wrapped, chile-covered hot dogs and ordering from their extremely well-curated tap list. San Diego may have the upper hand when it comes to this kind of scenery—I don’t know how well it would go over if you tried to order a beer while fishing from the patio at Terminus.
All in all I enjoyed the hell out of myself and drank some great beer. Is it as good as the beer in Corvallis? Some of it certainly is. They may use hops primarily grown in the Northwest, but they know how to use them. I already miss a few of those beers, although I wouldn’t trade one for the other. It’s good to know that there is great IPA going on in the southlands; now I have options to reach for when I need that sun-and-surf kind of feeling.
Maybe the writers for Spirit magazine can retain some credibility. They’re not just shills propping up a tourist destination that’s flailing due to loss of interest in Shamu—San Diego beer is really good, and you should try some.
For a taste, be sure to check out Corvallis Brewing Supply and the Orange Store (Shop N Go Market). Both regularly carry beers from AleSmith, Green Flash, and Stone. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled when around town for anything else from Suds County, USA—they’re doing great work down there.
By Jesse Tomaino