SAN DIEGO – When I was growing up in California, San Diego was our version of old-style Florida. It was nice. It was sunny. It was boring. It was a place for retirees, naval officers and folks who couldn’t handle the edginess of Los Angeles.
Boy, have things changed. You’ll still find a naval presence. And lots of sun in a city that receives 263 days of sunshine a year and gets less than 12 inches of rain. But you’ll also find edgy shopping areas, fabulous restaurants that take advantage of the year-round local produce and perhaps the best craft brewery scene in the U.S. outside of Portland, where the beer is great but the weather much less conducive to year-round patio tastings.
The San Diego Brewers Guild lists nearly 100 breweries in the area, with entertaining names such as Rip Current, Rock Bottom and Indian Joe. They also have an annual San Diego Beer Week, with this year’s event slated for Nov. 6-15, which is actually a rather generous 10 days.
The last thing you want to do is drink and drive, so the Brewers Guild website conveniently has links to the city’s growing public transportation network. There’s also a San Diego Beer (and wine) Train that gives you tastings at four breweries, a tour and light lunch as you ride from spot to spot on a trolley on a five and-a-half hour trip.
One of my favourite brews made in this booming beer town is the Grunion Pale Ale made by Ballast Point. It’s a hoppy, slightly orangey-tasting beer with a lovely, golden colour and a bit of sweetness to it; fantastic with a spicy or flavourful burger.
Ballast Point started way back in 1992 as a home brewery, before craft beer and San Diego became synonymous. I take a tour and learn how they encourage employees to try different types of hops or different ingredients. One IPA had added grapefruit, another had habanero peppers added (it allegedly makes for a good hangover drink, but I’m skeptical).
Their Little Italy brewery/restaurant is a sea of young people at night. You order your food at the counter and sit in a cavernous space with tons of the city’s youngest and best-looking folks in everything from little black dresses to British Columbia-looking lumberjack shirts. They make a great chicken sandwich with jalapeno remoulade and very good fish tacos.
Most of their beers stay in the San Diego area, so you’re best off to take a bottle or two home if you like something. (Better still, sell your house in Canada and move here; there are too many good breweries and not enough room in your suitcase.)
Over in the booming North Park area, we stop at the trendy Waypoint Public; a buzzy spot that lists beers on a panel that resembles the old airline or train terminal displays. One of their beers on offer during a recent visit was the Belching Beaver Great Lei IPA, which is rich and flavourful. Their Belching Beaver Hop Highway 78 IPA contains four or five types of hops for balance and has a zingy, citrus/grapefruit edge that works well with food.
Waypoint Public makes a great burger with pulled pork, a fried egg (you can skip the egg if you like), arugula and pickled veggies. They also serve up a lovely pasta with cherry tomatoes, sausage and shrimp. Bonus: there’s an enclosed kids play area in one corner with crayons and toys and a movie screen. They were showing Toy Story (without sound) when I visited, so the kids were entertained but the conversation went uninterrupted.
Not only does the Belching Beaver make outstanding beer, they also just hosted their second annual Belching Beaver Classic at their brewery in the north end of town. Featuring local food, classic cars and motorcycles, the likes of which you tend to find only in mild climate, auto-centric spots such as California. Money raised at the festival helps to support the families of struggling U.S. Marines; a very worthy cause.
You don’t want to leave San Diego without checking out the gorgeous cliffs and beautiful beaches of La Jolla, just north of downtown. Whisknladle is a cool bar with high ceilings and plenty of good-looking locals. There are fantastic happy hours all over town. At Whisknladle I found great $5 tapas from 3 p.m. onward including snap peas that were fresh and crisp and came topped with garlic, chili and grain Dijon mustard. I also loved the meatballs. And, yes, they serve plenty of great local brews.
The bustling Gaslamp Quarter downtown is filled with tons of great bars. I found a pretty good band and plenty of nice beer on tap at Tin Roof during a recent visit. Also highly recommended is the rooftop bar at the luxurious Andaz Hotel downtown.