San Diego County — The Craft Beer Capital of the World

north-park-october-20thMost of my recent blogs have centered on craft breweries in the Inland Empire, along with allied events and activities, because these stories also appear in 909 Magazine. As noted many times, the craft beer  industry continues to grow locally, and the established breweries just keep getting better, as evidenced by recent developments.

Special congratulations to the “dean” of the local breweries, Dale Bros. Brewery, which was awarded the Small Business of the Year in the 41st Assembly District by Assembly member Chris Holden’s office.

Critically acclaimed Claremont Craft Ales is celebrating its third anniversary with a major commemorative event on July 11, while Rök House Brewing Co. in Upland, Sanctum Brewing Company in Pomona and Hamilton Family Brewery in Rancho Cucamonga all recently commemorated their respective first anniversaries with special events. A new Oggi’s Sports, Brewhouse and Pizza is under construction at the Colonies in Upland and due to open before the end of the year.de15aef42b720130121f2ec040c60e1d

While the Inland Empire may have a large cluster of craft breweries compared to other Southern California regions, the local area is still a small piece of the pie when compared to San Diego County, where, at last count, there are 110 small or craft breweries currently in operation. The North County city of Vista alone, with a population of fewer than 100,000 residents, has 11 breweries or tasting rooms.

A trip to San Diego County breweries is like a guided tour of the stars. It’s similar to a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley or Paso Robles, except instead of traversing among beautiful hillside vineyards, most of the stops are at nondescript industrial parks. But even that’s changing, thanks to the incredible atmosphere at palatial Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens along the Escondido hillside. Other breweries are finding their way into more traditional restaurant settings, with full food and beverage offerings.


The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing – San Marcos

Known worldwide for its hoppy West Coast India Pale Ale style beers, San Diego County is truly that much more advanced in the craft beer world than the rest of the country. It is widely considered to be the Craft Beer Capital of the United States and has become one of the world’s great craft beer regions. California ranks as the nation’s No. 1 craft brewery state, and San Diego accounts for about 25 percent of the California breweries. The region is a travel destination for beer lovers to experience some of the best beer in the world. I’ve chatted with people who’ve traveled from across the country specifically to visit The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing, Stone and other San Diego breweries as part of their West Coast “beercation.”

Almost everywhere you turn is an opportunity to sample another brewery’s offerings. But it’s the quality of the brews that outshines the large quantity of breweries. They’ve simply taken beer to a higher level.san diego

San Diego County brewers won 14 medals at last fall’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the nation’s largest beer competition and the most prestigious awards in the industry. San Diego brewers also earned 11 medals at the 2014 World Beer Cup, which claims to be the most prestigious in the world.

The county’s growth and success has resulted in numerous newspaper and magazine stories, television features and a recent PBS documentary called “Kings of the Craft.”

Total annual industry sales of San Diego-brewed beers neared $850 million last year – a $90 million increase over 2013. The industry’s economic impact to the county was estimated at $600 million in 2014, according to the latest updated report by National University System Institute for Policy Research. Local craft breweries and brewpubs are responsible for more than 6,200 jobs.

In North County alone, the craft beer industry has an economic impact of just about $275 million, nearly $185 million of which comes directly from the breweries themselves. That’s more than Comic-Con brings to San Diego and surrounding communities, according to the NUSIPR report.

It’s not unreasonable to expect an eventual measurable boost to the Inland Empire economy if the industry continues to grow. As San Diego County has seen, if there is a saturation point of too many breweries, it hasn’t reached that level yet.

SDBG_2014_MAP_v3San Diego’s status at the top of the craft beer world has also been a boon to regional tourism, helping to boost the industry and fill tour buses with thirsty out-of-town visitors. At least half-a-dozen companies offer brewery tours, much like the bus-chauffeured group tours common in wine country.


Karl Strauss 4S Ranch–Rancho Bernardo

Perhaps hoping to establish tourism destinations within the county much like the wine regions of northern and central California, several areas have taken on their own identities. For example, there are craft beer clusters like Miramar/Mira Mesa, North Park, South Park, Liberty Station, and the “Hops Highway,” which boasts some 40 breweries along or near Hwy. 78 from Oceanside to Julian.


Pizza Port Ocean Beach

The craft beer movement may not have been born in San Diego, but it likely took its biggest steps toward maturity because of the region’s rapid growth. Karl Strauss Brewing Company opened a brewpub in downtown San Diego in 1989, marking the city’s first new commercial brewery in nearly 40 years and setting the stage for bigger things to come. Stone and other now well-known breweries began springing up all over the county, including AleSmith Brewing Co., Ballast Point Brewing Co. and Pizza Port Brewing Co. – still among the leading craft breweries in the nation.

Those are among the most famous outside of San Diego, along with The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing, Green Flash, Mother Earth, and the Belching Beaver Brewery. Dozens more, like Bagby Beer Company, Coronado Brewing Co.Mike Hess Brewing Co. and Societe Brewing, are acclaimed regionally and throughout the industry.Ale Smith

The small tasting room at White Labs is ancillary to the company’s educational, training, consulting, supply and laboratory services. White Labs provides resources, yeast and enzymes to major commercial breweries and home brewers alike, and its tasting room offers side-by-side tasting comparisons using different yeasts in a given beer style.

There’s simply a different culture in San Diego County when it comes to craft beer. New brewery openings and major beer-related events are routine water cooler banter around town, and the release of a much-anticipated new brew typically generates more buzz than the Padres on a winning streak (okay, maybe those don’t happen very often).

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Stone’s Greg Koch is the center of San Diego County’s craft beer success

Brewing personnel have become famous in their own right. Stone’s Greg Koch may be the face of the region’s industry, while brewers like The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing’s Tomme Arthur, Bagby’s Jeff Bagby, Pizza Port’s Devon Randall, Karl Strauss’ Paul Segura and Ballast Point’s Yuseff Cherney are prominent beer business personalities.

San Diego Beer Week is celebrated throughout the county every November, and Southern California’s biggest beer festival will take place on Aug. 14-15, when Stone Brewing hosts its 19th Anniversary Celebration on the campus of Cal State San Marcos. All of the major San Diego County breweries participate at the festival, and some, like San Marcos-based The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing, host corresponding events at their own facilities in support of the Stone Festival.

All in the name of advancing the San Diego beer community.


An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the August edition of 9-0-9 Magazine.

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