Crowds gather to taste beer after beer.
United States of America

Hops To It

Hops To It

Each year, the craft brewers of southern Cali fling open the doors of their establishments, inviting in the beer-loving public to taste their wares. Neal Webster Turnage raises a glass to San Diego Beer Week.

There was no denying the cinematic setting. Lush, leprechaun-green hills as far as the eye could see launching into a cobalt-blue ocean. Abundant sunshine only made it all the more panoramic. That the backdrop was the swanky Lodge at Torrey Pines resort in “chill, babe, it’s San Diego” only punctuated the life-is-good moment. The occasion? A bites-and-brew Beer Garden celebration of the city’s delicious and famous craft-beer scene.

Then some guy said, “I don’t like beer.”

OK, not entirely expected. This is a city, after all, that’s managed to blow those Budweiser horses off their slick advertising double trucks by cultivating an Evel Knievel culture of I-dare-you-to-brew-that handcrafted beer. A city where the once marginal and now legendary Stone Brewing Co.’s Stone IPA (Indian Pale Ale) slides down a bar just as fast as a Ballast Point Victory at Sea Chocolate and Coffee Porter.

Those beers, and just about every variety in between dreamt up by San Diego’s redoubtable craft breweries, are the focus of San Diego Beer Week, held annually during the first week of November. “When we started San Diego Beer Week in 2009, we were hoping to share our unique brewing scene with locals,” Matt Rattner, president of Karl Strauss Brewing Company and board member of the 
San Diego Brewers Guild, confides in me. “Five years later, we’re internationally recognised for our innovation, quality and collaboration.”


The event now spans 10 days and takes place all over the city, from local boîtes and spiffy tasting rooms to assorted breweries 
for beer-pairing dinners.

My first discovery during my first Beer Week this past November was that, in San Diego, beer is as vaunted as wine. Arrive with the idea that beer is trashy, not as posh as wine, and you’ll be chased out of town faster than a bartender can pull a pint.

Which intrigues as to why someone in the midst of this fermented demimonde might exclaim they’re not into brews at all. Luckily his attitude is inconsequential to the brewers and bystanders who realise all this guy needs is an education. The civilised response? “You just haven’t tasted one you like yet.”

Tasting a beer you like, much less sourcing one, is not a problem in San Diego. Unlike conventional breweries or even other cities that have raised a ruckus over their craft beer, San Diego is the capital of cockiness. If it blows or grows, you can be assured a brewer here is throwing it in a vat hoping for a palatable lightning bolt.

A beer for breakfast here is not out of context. In the woodsy garden grotto of Karl Strauss – on a Sunday morning no less – I lingered over a feisty brunch tamped down with a Peanut Butter Cup Porter. “We threw in cocoa nibs and a bunch of roasted peanut powder,” explains Karl Strauss brew master Paul Segura. “It fell short of what we’d anticipated. So we threw in another bag of the powder – figured what the hey, let’s see what happens.” I wasn’t the only one who left with a growler of the velvety, deep-roasted peanut and cocoa brew, evidence that the prevailing wisdom of run-it-up-the-flagpole-and-someone’s-bound-to-salute approach works here.

That was echoed in Ballast Point’s spiffy new Little Italy–located brewpub. Here, ‘pub food’ means serious eats turned out by Colin MacLaggan, a Le Cordon Bleu–trained chef. At all hours the sleek, bright pub and trendy cafe hybrid is packed. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” jovial brew master Colby Chandler assures me as he directs my gaze to the LCD monitor above the bar with a beers-on-tap display. Ballast, like most craft brewers here, encourages employees to spin the hopper and go all in with an original brew. With that in mind, Chandler hands me an Indra Kunindra Curry Export Stout. “Beware, it’s spicy,” he warns. Too late, it turns out, since I’ve been hit already with a slightly noxious-yet-fragrant burst of Madras curry, cumin, cayenne, coconut and kaffir lime leaf. It’s potent, refreshing, tingling and dizzyingly aromatic – in short, a beer that would call to the carpet even the most Indian food averse.

All of this was just a warm-up for the uber beer pub experience: the new Liberty Station compound of Stone Brewing Co. – a name now synonymous with San Diego craft beer. At 2200 square metres, it’s a candidate for its own postcode. It’s so huge I got lost. The former military barracks in Point Loma has a rough-hewn-meets-Rem Koolhaas vibe that effectively masks its capaciousness yet doesn’t mask the brilliance of the beers. Yeah, the go-to Stone IPA is here, but so are scores of others, including the Suede Imperial Porter, a collaboration with Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing. I felt it only right to slide towards the truly far out, an altruistic IPA Stone created for Operation Homefront (a military charity organisation). An orange peel brew that’s hopped with Chinook and Cascade varieties then rested in fermenters atop maple Louisville Slugger baseball bats, the beer is, well, woodsy. In a good way.

It was in the spirit of embracing such beer bombast that The Lost Abbey’s marketing guru Adam Martinez slips into the conversation. “International beer enthusiasts love this week because it’s a chance to be part of the San Diego beer revolution,” he says. “Better yet, they get to taste what it’s all about. They have a chance to meet with all the brewers in intimate settings, ask questions, and learn the inspiration and method behind the each beer.”

My beer initiation wasn’t all drinking. It wound down in true San Diego tradition: sailing. So prevalent is San Diego’s nascent alcoholic local treasure, it comes as no surprise the captain of my little skipper was a burgeoning hard cider brewer, who regaled me with tales of his garage-based operation while expertly navigating tranquil Mission Bay. The boat danced upon the water, a bright sun overhead, as we heartily parsed the sublime marriage of roasted pumpkin stout and homemade crème fraîche gelato. It was the basis of a craft-beer ice-cream float at Mike Hess Brewing’s beachside beer-pairing dinner the night before at Paradise Point Resort’s Baleen restaurant.

From there it was back home to celebrate Thanksgiving and the home stretch into Christmas. The season was spiked with a reminder of my recent education: Karl Strauss’s Four Scowling Owls, a citrusy, spicy Belgian ale (diggin’ that toasty note finish) and cult favourite Green Flash’s seasonal Green Bullet Triple IPA, which takes its name from the bitter New Zealand hop. I can assure you, after a swig of each or both, champagne is an afterthought.

By the way, the guy who foolishly declared he didn’t like beer? Guilty as charged. I stand not only corrected but also enlightened. Come November, when it’s once again time to mingle with the beer collective in San Diego, I bet I find myself on that same stretch of rolling green on a sunny Sunday afternoon. At which point I am sure I will exclaim, “I can’t find a beer I don’t like!”

Get there

United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to San Diego via either Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Get Informed

San Diego Beer Week is held during the first week of November. Check the website for upcoming dates.

Tour There

If you’re visiting at other times of the year, you can still explore the craft-beer scene on a tour with Brew Hop, Brewery Tours of San Diego or San Diego Beer & Wine Tours.

Words Neal Webster Turnage

Tags: beer, brewery, festival, San Diego, united states of america, urbanites, usa

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