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Hop to It!

S.D.’s beer scene has never been this buzzy. From breweries to moonshine, we tap in for the ultimate imbiber’s guide!

The award-winning Stone World Bistro & Gardens 

Societe Brewing 

Millions drink it. Japanese tourists flock here for it. At last count, there were 65 local breweries, and that’s not even including the dozens of bars and restaurants serving up suds galore. Craft beer may be exploding in popularity from coast to coast, but San Diego’s scene is the uncontested epicenter. It’s time to raise a glass to the city’s favorite elixir.

Girls Allowed
Beer blogger Laurie Delk couldn’t resist the lure of craft beer. “It was just a natural evolution of my palate,” she says. With a background in wine—she lived in Italy and ran a wine shop in New Orleans before moving to San Diego—she’s especially adept at converting the staunchest oenophiles. “There is a nuanced and complex beer for every wine lover,” she swears. As beverage director at Encinitas’ rollicking Lumberyard Tavern and Grill, Delk also proves there’s a beer for every dish. Her pairing program—or should we say “brogram,” considering the male-to-female ratio?—has been a huge hit. As for ladies who worry about their waistlines? “I have two words,” says the enviably slender Delk. “Hot yoga.”

Brewed Awakening
Steve Ragan, a former architectural designer, took the leap from hobbyist to professional brewer after years of handing out samples to his buddies in his garage. “When they said they’d actually buy it, I knew it was time,” he says. He just opened Culture, a sleek new brewery and tasting room in Solana Beach that’s been packed nightly with locals who walk here after work.

Heavy Hitters
Industry newcomers aren’t the only ones opening shop. Craft beer fans are eagerly awaiting the opening of Bagby Beer Brewery in Oceanside, helmed by Jeff Bagby, award-winning former head brewer for Carlsbad-based Pizza Port. Housed in a former Saab dealership on Coast Highway, the brewery will feature a tasting room, restaurant and bar. Meanwhile, S.D. stalwart Stone Brewing Co. now has company stores in South Park, Escondido, Oceanside and Pasadena, with a new restaurant in Liberty Station opening this spring and plans to build a $24 million hotel, as well as a bistro at the airport and a brewery in Europe. That’s all on top of Stone’s bustling upscale HQ in Escondido. >>> Green Flash Brewing moved to new, dog-friendly digs in Mira Mesa last year and tripled its production, with an online shop in the works. And Ballast Point is scouting spaces for a new S.D. brewery five times the size of its current location, as well as a smaller brewery focused entirely on experimental beers. “It will be like a test kitchen for Ballast Point,” says co-founder Yuseff Cherney, who plans to offer 20 different styles monthly. “It’s a revolutionary concept in the industry.”

Collect Call
Limited releases and special editions are the holy grail for aficionados, and S.D. brewers don’t disappoint. This month, Stone will release two versions of its Imperial Russian Stout, including an “Odd Beers for Odd Years” version called 2013 Stone Espresso Imperial Russian Stout, which uses beans from San Diego’s Ryan Bros. Coffee. There’s also a hush-hush celeb collab coming up this summer. Meanwhile, AleSmith, another top S.D. brewery, offers a Reserve Series, which this year includes the first bottling ever of its legendary Kopi Luwak Speedway Stout, made with one of the rarest coffee varieties on the planet. And each of Vista’s eight breweries will commemorate the city’s 50th anniversary this year with special releases. The list goes on and on. Our advice? Get ’em while you can.

Neighborhood Revival
When Blind Lady Ale House—along with its in-house Automatic Brewing—first opened in Normal Heights, the area was a snooze. Now it buzzes with hip offerings, from the Bells & Whistles-designed cocktail bar Sycamore Den to Bine & Vine Bottle Shop, which carries craft beers, handpicked wines, artisan cider, mead and sake. And North Park, recently declared the 13th-best hipster neighborhood in the nation by Forbes, owes much of its cool cred to the microbrew scene. In addition to several new-ish pint-size breweries (Poor House, Thorn Street, Mike Hess) and more to come this year (RPM Brewing, North Park Beer Co.), the ’hood is now home to a brand-new second outpost of Little Italy’s beloved Bottlecraft boutique.

The craft beer set no longer has to settle for a picnic table in a concrete tasting room. When it opened shop last year in Kearny Mesa, Societe Brewing Company tapped local artist Sean Kelley—who also directs Mother Sponge, a food- and drink-focused branding studio—to spruce up its tasting room. Kelley’s old-timey décor features silhouette art that pairs perfectly with the brewery’s handcrafted offerings. And White Labs—one of the world’s leading yeast manufacturers—really upped the design ante with its new tasting room. From the test tube tap handles and glass beaker light fixtures to the backlit art depicting the DNA of various yeast strains, White Labs puts the chic into beer geek.

Can It
Beer cans are like mini-kegs—they stay ice-cold longer and protect beer better from skunk-inducing light and oxygen. No wonder they’re making a serious comeback among brewers. Jacob McKean, a former media specialist at Stone, knew aluminum was the way to go for his new Modern Times Beer. Along with his three-man team of “brewing ninjas” pilfered from top area breweries, McKean hired Helms Workshop to come up with iconic designs for Modern Times. The color-striped cans are so stylish you’d never dream of covering them with a koozie. Ballast Point is also unveiling a line of cans—and promises to get to the finish line sooner.

Beyond Beer
Another big trend for craft breweries? Booze—as in small-batch spirits. Ballast Point is leading the charge (surprise, surprise) with its microdistillery, which it launched in 2008. The bottle lineup currently includes Three Sheets White Rum and Aged Rum, Fugu Vodka and Old Grove Gin. And any day now, Ballast Point will debut its long-awaited, four-years-in-the-barrels Devil’s Share Whiskey, Bourbon and Moonshine, which already garnered top honors at the American Distilling Institute’s annual awards. Rumor has it that several other distilleries will be opening soon as well, including Golden State Spirits, currently raising funds on Kickstarter.

Go Global
Step aside, Belgium. When it comes to beer pilgrimages, tourists are booking trips to San Diego, from notebook-carrying critics to Japanese sightseers on bus tours. They know all the best spots, like O’Brien’s in Kearny Mesa, a blue-collar-looking pub with an unbelievable draft and bottle list, and Alpine Beer Company, a tiny brewery that puts out some of the best IPAs in the world. And now they’ll be able to enjoy one-stop sampling courtesy of the new San Diego Brew Project. Tucked inside the 57 Degrees wine bar, the new 28-tap tasting room carries exclusively S.D.-crafted brews.