San Diego Beer Safari

I’m a bad dad. My daughter was about to turn 16 and had never been to Disneyland.

Lucky for her, I’d heard one of the best beer towns in America is just down the coast from Disneyland: San Diego.

Failing to take one’s kids to Disneyland almost constitutes child neglect in Alberta. In my defence, my kids have been to California, but to San Francisco instead of L.A. Really, isn’t Chez Panisse in Berkeley better than Splash Mountain in Anaheim? Northern California gave us the food, wine and microbrew revolutions. Southern California gave us what, the fish taco? But rumours of great beer down south made me reconsider.

And so, soon enough there was the beer guy wandering down Main Street, U.S.A. under the sweltering California sun. Here’s the thing: there is no beer in Disneyland. I would have paid anything for a cold pint of Piglet’s Pilsner or Bambi’s Best Bitter. Beerphobic Mickey is indicative of the world outside the park gates, as L.A. is not much of a beer town. When the microbrew revolution erupted up north in the eighties, perhaps Angelenos stuck with chardonnay.

In the evening we headed straight for the ocean and into the real-life fantasy land of Newport Beach. Here was the southern California of legend — surf, sand and sun, and finally a cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in my hand. On Balboa Island, we found Bear Flag Fish Company on a side-street. We chose from fresh albacore, ono, ahi, salmon and more at the counter, and friendly surfer dudes grilled up some fabulous fish tacos and burritos. Paired with a Blue Moon witbier from a bucket of ice, and L.A., or more precisely, the O.C., was looking up.

From Newport we moved south down the Orange County coast towards San Diego, guided by simple goals: finding the perfect fish taco, sampling craft beer at every opportunity, and swimming at any beach in the Beach Boys’ Surfing U.S.A. I hit the trifecta at Swami’s Beach, north of La Jolla, with a fantastic fish burrito from a roadside taco shack and a Green Flash West Coast IPA in a water bottle (a subterfuge as beer is banned on SoCal beaches).

Arriving at our San Diego hotel at Mission Beach, I went out for pizza. A block from the hotel I walked into Luigi’s, a modest pizza place. I took a seat at the long bar to wait for the pizza and was stunned to see a row of 24 beer taps in front of me, all for San Diego craft beer: Stone, AleSmith, Coronado, Ballast Point, Iron Fist, Karl Strauss, Green Flash and Lost Abbey. I settled in with an Arrogant Bastard Ale and prayed the pizza would take a long, long time to arrive.

Happily, Luigi’s was not an anomaly as San Diego is swimming in great craft beer. On our rented pink cruiser bicycles one night, we trekked on the boardwalk to the SD Tap Room in Pacific Beach. There were 44 amazing California beers on tap for me, delicious fish tacos for my long-suffering family. An Edmonton beer geek pal assures me Hamilton’s Tavern, the Blind Lady Ale House, Pizza Port and Neighborhood are just as great. What I liked most about the Tap Room and San Diego in general was the unpretentious, laid-back attitude to craft beer and to life. No wringing of hands, no beer geek angst, just a lot of people enjoying good local beer. Need proof? On our last day we went to San Diego Zoo. Once again there was the beer guy, wandering about in the sweltering California sun. However, unlike Disneyland, at the Zoo even the refreshment carts sold beer — local craft beer on ice. Beervana!

Except for Green Flash and Coronado, many of the best San Diego beers like Stone, Alesmith or Karl Strauss aren’t available in Alberta. But many other great California beers are available at places like Sherbrooke Liquor, Keg ’n Cork and Wine and Beyond. Below a taste of California, from north to south.

StoutLost Coast 8 Ball Stout (5.8%), Eureka, CA

Founded in 1990, Lost Coast is a unique brewery in the quirky city of Eureka up near the Oregon border. Unique, as it is one of the few female-owned and operated breweries. 8 Ball is a full-bodied oatmeal stout, with chocolate and coffee traces in its roasted malt taste, plus a nice touch of west coast hops.

RedTailMendocino Red Tail Ale (6.0%), Ukiah, CA

Mendocino was a microbrew pioneer, rising in 1983 from the ashes of the very first American craft brewery, New Albion. Making use of New Albion’s brew equipment, house yeast and even some staff, Mendocino brewed this earthy, fruity amber ale as their first beer, and today it remains a craft beer classic.

Lucky13Lagunitas Lucky 13 Alt (8.8%), Petaluma, CA

A brewery in Napa wine country has to take some chances to compete. Lagunitas pushes the brewing envelope, using non-traditional methods, celebrating happy accidents and making liberal use of hops. This American strong ale is a big bomber of a beer, brimming with citrusy hops and not for the faint-hearted.

Devil’s Canyon California Sunshine Rye IPA (7.1%), Belmont, CA


Located in the foggy San Francisco bay area, Devil’s Canyon brewers are cheerfully optimistic calling this beer California Sunshine. Here they tweaked a traditional English IPA by adding rye, making for a balanced but assertively bitter IPA with a unique toasty and bready mouth-feel and taste.


IslanderCoronado Islander IPA (7.0%), San Diego, CA

Coronado Island is part of San Diego but in a world of its own. So too, Coronado Brewing, one of the brewers like Stone and Green Flash putting San Diego beer on the map but with their own twist. This is a punchy India Pale Ale with the piney-citrusy aroma and bitter taste that IPA fans know and love.

CucapaCucapá La Migra Imperial Stout (8.5%), Mexicali, Mexico

During a vacation to Mexico, I asked the bartender if he had any beer other than Corona. “Si Señor” he replied, giving me a Corona Dark. But Mexican craft brewers do exist, and one of the best is in Baja California. This big, robust imperial stout is full of roasty malt taste with a bit of fruit, from piloncillo Mexican candy.

Peter Bailey’s next beervana trip is to Portland but he hopes to return to San Diego soon. He tweets as @Libarbarian.