Inside San Diego's Craft Beer Mecca – It's Not All Hops!
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
By Tony Forder
I admit I have a soft spot for Ocean Beach. That's usually where I stay when I'm in San Diego. Must be the old hippy in me. It still retains the hippy/surfer/boutique vibe but seems to have gone a little up market these days – then things are pricier everywhere these days.
OB has become a desirable destination for brewery tasting rooms – recommended is California Wild Ales. Here we ran into Bill DeWitt, one of Wild's energetic partners (the other is Zack Brager) and together they turned their backs on the hop culture of SD and created what they call San Diego's House of Sours.
California Wild Ales partner Bill DeWitt, the Wild yeast logos, and Novo board, Beers on the left, Nova Hard kombucha right.
These are not your quicker-to-make kettle sours – almost all their creations are aged 9-12 months in oak before being flavored for 4-8 weeks on a smorgasbord of fruit. There were about 12 sours on the board – my favorites were Viognier, aged on grapes, and a Prickly Pear Cactus aged on fruit from Bill's neighbor's yard in OB.
You can also play some unique bar games at this spot, and if sours are not thing, they had a couple of guest IPAs from Thorn brewery. Don't forget to say hi to Bill's logo creations, Brett (Brettanomyces), Lacto (Lactobacillus) and P.D.O. (Pediococcus). Wild's original Hidden Barrelhouse is located nearby in the Sorrento Valley.
Also in Ocean Beach, you can find Pizza Port and Ocean Beach Brewery (both have brewhouses) and taprooms for Mike Hess, Kilowatt, Rincon Road Reservation and Novo, the Brazilian transplant which also offers a line of hard kombuchas.
Our buddy Fobe showed up to ferry us to a couple of breweries that I had picked out. Having lived there off and on for 30 years, he's about as Ocean Beach as you can get – even the middle initials of his nickname are OB. Real name Don Fobian, he was raised in New Jersey. When I moved to New Jersey in 1990 the first place we rented was in Garfield, around the corner from where Fobe grew up. We even met his Mom, who would always say hi when we walked by on our way to the park. I didn't meet Fobe until years later, part of a circle of friends who gather in a funky trailer park across the border in Baja for reunions whenever possible. Our third wheel this day was Jeannine Marois of Montreal beer fest fame, with whom I have conducted copious beer research over the years.
Indeed, where do you go to visit breweries in San Diego? The answer is pretty much anywhere – there's 165 of them in SD County. Back in the neonatal days of craft beer, when the pioneers of northern California and the Pac Northwest were piecing together the first microbreweries, there wasn't much going on in San Diego, but it didn't take too long for the area to catch up and bloom into a beer mecca. I've always credited a hyperactive homebrew club, QUAFF, and a close-at-hand supply of good fresh yeast from White Labs as the fertile roots of SD craft beer.
We brought our Ale Street News tour group to SD in 2005 and visited the first incarnation of Alesmith, Pizza Port's Strong Beer Festival in Carlsbad, the original Green Flash in Vista, and the new Stone World Bistro and Gardens which had just opened in Escondido. Having previously experienced a somewhat rowdy busload, they weren't at first all that enthusiastic about our tour group dropping by on its last stop on a day of beer touring but a stiff letter outlining our tour credentials took care of that and Chairman Greg Koch welcomed us – we were actually the first group seated for a beer dinner in their new banquet room.
The Hopnonymous face of Remy Zurita and the Hopnonymous taps, San Diego time.
But I digress. In those days, breweries were known. Now, I was going for the unknown, my method of akin to blindly pinning a map. I picked Hopnonymous out in the Kearney Mesa area, a little inland and north of town – maybe it was the name! There we met owner Remy Zurita, as soon as he was finished cleaning his cold box. A Frenchman, Remy was on the food side of things before he got bitten by the brew bug and began Hopnonymous as a contract brewery in 2018, making house brews for restaurants such as Buona Forchetta, which is where he had worked. The taproom and brewery came a year later and provides a well-rounded selection. I picked a creditable Hazy Double IPA; Fobe, somewhat old school, picked a lager; Jeannine a West Coast IPA, which we agreed was the best. Remy tasted us on a Mexican lager and a soon-to-be-released West Coast Double IPA, which I told Remy came close to reminding me of the iconic Pliny the Older. Remy's excitement in greeting everyone that sat down as well as his generosity in spending time with us was impressive. Rotating food purveyors and a big outdoor space will welcome you at Hopnonymous.
Heading back toward OB, we stopped in at Deft Brewing, which dovetails with Lost Cause Meadery in the Bay Park area – two for the price of one. Well, not really, you have to pay separately. Deft (I thought I knew what it the word meant, but we looked it up anyway – skillful, with a light touch) is another brewery that shows a different side than the hop culture. Traditional European styles greeted us – Pilsner and Marzen, English IPA, Porter and Foreign Extra Stout, Irish Red and Hefeweizen, all well crafted and smooth.
At Lost Cause, the meads followed the traditional route, meaning they were on the sweet side, except for the one session-strength Level 6 Laser Lotus (7%) with wildflower honey, raspberry and El Dorado and Citra hops. A curated flight costs $17 and with 12-14% blends, I was forced to recruit my compadres to help. I particularly liked Sketchy Fellow, orange blossom honey, tangerine, kiwi and grape, aged nine months in gin barrels – I bought a 375-ml bottle for $30. The Connoisseur, a traditional mead aged 18 months in a combination of cherry brandy, tawny port and cabernet sauvignon barrels was also worthy of mention.
So that's a start. If anyone is contemplating visiting all 165 brewery locations in San Diego County, I would say that 40 days and 40 nights might do it.