Here is The List of all the breweries and tasting rooms in San Diego County.
This was an odd month of shuffling the deck chairs. Two breweries were removed from The List: one will reopen later in a new location, one was moved to the "brewery no tasting room" category and will move back to the "brewery with tasting room" list when their new location opens. Two satellite tasting rooms opened in the last 30 days: one entirely new, one in the location of a recently-closed brewery that will itself become a brewery soon. The result is a net increase of one location over last month's total. Details below.
As mentioned last month, the end of 2017 saw four closings. But it was only a temporary fluctuation and now San Diego's beer scene is back on a growth trajectory. In fact, two of the places that closed around the beginning of the year have already reopened or announced plans to reopen. We already knew that one of the former owners of Oceanside Ale Works has announced that he will reopen in the same location, likely under the name Irrational Ales. Now, La Jolla Brewing, which closed (suddenly, as it appeared from the outside), has reopened (just as suddenly) as Absolution by the Sea. Absolution by the Sea currently counts in The List as a non-San Diego Craft Brew Pub (similar to BJ's, for example) since the new owners are currently shipping beer from the Absolution production brewery in Torrance, CA. Soon, though, Absolution will begin brewing in the La Jolla location and this location will become a San Diego Craft Brewery (according the categories I've created for The List).
Another North Park Brewery Ignitor tennant, Eppig Brewing, has now opened their second location, a tasting room on the waterfront next to a marina in Point Loma. It has already proven to be a big hit even though it is still just in a "soft opening" phase. It is getting a ton of social media action, probably because the photos of "beer with boats" are hard to beat; also, of course, because the beers are really good.
I was chatting recently with a bartender at the Mike Hess Miramar tasting room in the original brewery that has not been brewing for quite awhile. There have been new tanks sitting in the back for nearly a year and nothing has been happening. Now, a plan has emerged to renovate the location to create a more comfortable tasting room with a longer L-shaped bar, more and nice seating, and a new brewing set-up. Hess is waiting on construction permits and soon will get under way. The Miramar location will focus on brewing the smaller batches of specialty beers, allowing the North Park location to brew full-speed-ahead on the killer core line up the distribution of which keeps increasing. (Full disclosure: As I write, I am drinking a Mike Hess Habitus Rye IPA, one of my very favorite beers in the whole world.)
Because of their respective evolving and unusual situations, both Mike Hess Miramar and Absolution by the Sea now have two entries each on The List now: existing tasting room/non-San Diego Craft Brew Pub, respectively, and breweries in planning, each. That double-counting inflates the total numbers a bit (well, 1%), but it seemed the only logical way to get all the info into The List.
A similar duplicative case is Acoustic Ales, which currently has two entries on the list, too. A few months ago I had heard that Acoustic wanted to vacate their location next the airport and build a new brewery. I just noticed online that their tasting room next to the airport is now closed while they build a new one in North County. I don't know whether they are currently brewing, or where, but I left them in the "brewery no tap room" section of The List for now since they do seem to be putting out new beer for distribution. And I have added them to the "brewery in planning" section as well. Latchkey Brewing is ready to start brewing at the old Acoustic Ales facility as soon as it is vacated, with plans for a renovation of the tasting room
The Depot Springs project in La Mesa was officially spiked in January. The building (apparently 70% finished), brewing equipment, and brewery license have all been put up for sale. We'll see if any investors are interested in this very ambitious project. La Mesa is also served by Bolt Brewery's production facility and tasting room, and Helix Brewing, which just announced an expansion into the neighboring building.
I am currently aware of 26 breweries in planning and 10 tasting rooms in planning. If they all come to be (highly unlikely, admittedly), San Diego County will then have 232 beer locations (accounting for the three duplicate entries in The List right now). Currently, the number of operating locations sits (again) at 199.
RateBeer.com is pretty much a dead tool. There are still users, of course. And they do have an excellent design for beers ratings. My impression is that RateBeer raters are experienced and serious beer drinkers. But compared to other beer rating sites, RateBeer is just the foam on the pint. They get so little traffic that they are hardly worth talking about in the bigger picture of craft beer life. The fact that they still get attention is, I conjecture, a hangover from the fact that many people dominant in the beer and beer writing industries started rating there when RateBeer.com was new. Long time users have their beer histories logged there and so they haven’t made the switch to Untappd. But these days, Untapdd is where it is at, and to rely on anything else in understanding the big picture in beer is to open oneself up to mistakes based on statistically flawed samples.
Earlier today, I tweeted that RateBeer iss dead and got immediate push back, so I decided to write this up to explain the grounds for my opinion. Sometimes even 280 characters is just not enough.
I first dove into the details of ratings on RateBeer when a really terrible article came out a couple of years ago claiming to rank the best American cities for beer drinkers. It was so wildly bad that I looked into its methodology and discovered that they had relied on RateBeer data. So I compared the data on RateBeer and on Untappd and found my gut feeling confirmed: the RateBeer ratings were skewed and very incomplete. The explanation, I think, is essentially statistical. There simply aren’t enough ratings on RateBeer to get an accurate picture of the beer industry, or of the opinions of beer drinkers. The community of active Untappd users is just so much bigger that RateBeer has, in my opinion, become nearly worthless.
That’s a strong claim, I know. To prove the point, consider the following comparisons. Let’s start with a beer that could make a case to be one of the most important beers in the history of craft beer.
Again, RateBeer has only about 0.8% of the number of ratings that Untappd has.
Okay, so maybe it is an East Coast thing. But it is not:
Stone Brewing Co.
Untappd: 1153 beers listed
RateBeer: 604 beers listed
This is an extreme case of a phenomenon that you’ll find all over RateBeer and Untappd: RateBeer often has a very incomplete listing of the beers produced by a given brewery. My explanation of this is that RateBeer raters are such a small proportion of the beer drinking population that there just aren’t enough of them to input all the beers. Of course, breweries themselves also maintain their Untappd pages, which helps ensure completeness and accuracy. The way RateBeer is set up, breweries aren’t involved, at least as I understand it.
That’s RateBeer with 0.36% of the number of ratings as are on Untappd.
I’ve checked this for a lot of San Diego breweries, and the effect is even more pronounced at the smaller breweries. Again, this is probably because there are relatively so few RateBeer users that they end up checking in a smaller proportion of the beers a brewery produces, and the smaller places attract proportionately smaller numbers of that already small total number.
That’s almost a laughable disparity. One could argue that the macros don’t matter to craft beer drinkers. But my point here is to show that the paucity of RateBeer ratings is a general phenomenon across all beer types and sectors of the industry.
To that end, the next examples show that it isn’t just an American phenomenon:
Cloudwater Brew Co.
Untappd: 226 beers listed.
RateBeer: 308 beers listed.
Cloudwater/Other Half Life
Untappd: 2825 ratings (avg 3.96)
RateBeer: 70 ratings (score 98)
Untappd: 325 ratings (avg 3.64)
RateBeer: 10 ratings (score 93)
Cloudwater/Brew Dog New England V2 (the most-rated Cloudwater beer on RateBeer)
So, in British beer, too, whether we are talking about an elite brewery's small-batch collaborations or the flagship beer at a very large brewery, RateBeer has a tiny proportion of the ratings that Untappd has.
The RateBeer Top 50 Beers list is humorous to me. The number of ratings it includes is miniscule. The number one beer, Topping Goliath Kentucky Brunch, has only 129 ratings: there are ten times more ratings for it on Untappd. (Its average Untappd rating is actually higher: 4.85 vs. 4.53.) The second place beer, Westvletern 12, has 3435 ratings on RateBeer, the most in the top 50 list, whereas it has 133032 ratings on Untappd. If you are worried that this is comparing the lifetime total on Untappd vs the annual total on RateBeer, (a) nope, that's the lifetime total on RateBeer, too, and (b) there were 1262 check-ins of Westvleteren 12 on Untappd in just the last month anyway. Number 7, AleSmith Speedway Stout has 857 RateBeer ratings, and 148546 check-ins (99121 ratings) on Untappd. Number 19, Pliny the Elder, has 2689 ratings on RateBeer and more than half a million check-ins on Untappd. I could keep going, but by now it is clear already. RateBeer simply has a tiny fraction of the users Untappd has.
It would be interesting to do a statistical analysis of the ratings of individual beers across the two sites. (I’m looking at you, @BryanDRoth.) From what I’ve seen, my prediction is that RateBeer ratings are more extreme: good beers (particularly famous good beers) get higher ratings and bad beers (especially macros) get worse ratings. This could have two causes—first, that the larger group on Untappd means ratings have greater spread and hence that they average out to lower values, and second that RateBeer users are biased towards giving higher ratings to higher-rated beers and lower ratings to lower-rated beers (perhaps trying to prove their cred or something). There’s a third possible explanation that I don’t put much stock in, namely that Untappd raters are less good at rating beer. While I would guess that there is a greater proportion of casual users on Untappd and a greater proportion of people we would call expert raters on RateBeer, there are just so many more people on Untappd that there are probably more expert raters (in pure numbers) on Untappd.
Whatever the result of such an analysis of the ratings, Untappd has clearly won the battle for consumers. It is far and away the more used tool for rating beers.
Named for the nearby highway that mirrors the trail once used by the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians to travel to the coast, SR76 Beerworks bills itself as the first craft brewery owned by a Native American Indian tribe. Located on the property of Harrah's Southern California Resort (though not accessible from the casino floor), the SR76 tasting room is very nicely done. It is large, has several seating areas with different moods (large bar, tables, armchairs, counter under the window) and the design is excellent. It feels polished yet comfortable. There is none of the chaotic hustle of the casino, which makes it a pleasant respite, especially considering the views of the mountains through the large windows. The day I was there the bar manager was DJ-ing a playlist of mostly-80s music, which was fine with me since those were my high school days.
They offered three flight sizes: four or eight large tasters (6oz, I think), or all ten beers on the board for $8, $15 or $18 respectively. Since I had a couple of free hours but still needed to be able to drive back to San Diego, I went for the 8-taster flight. The free bottle of water and bag of pretzels that came with it was a nice surprise.
As for the beer, I was quite impressed. Although my flight was heavy on some of my less-than-favorite styles (Kolsch, Hefeweizen, lager, session pale ale, all of which are in my "meh" category in general), everything in my flight was at least good if not even better than good. My two favorites were:
Rezonator (IPA, 7% ABV). Lovely. A little sweet, a fruit note, not too bitter. Very drinkable. 4/5
Eight & A Quarter (Porter, 8.25% ABV). A great beer. Deep, toasty, roasty malts, tons of flavor, perfect medium mouthfeel, balanced, flavorful. 4/5
Of the 178 reviews I've done now, there haven't been many breweries where I was able to rate two out of eight beers at 4/5. This is a place worth checking out, especially if you are craving a little casino action anyway.
Service was personable and friendly. They read my mood perfectly; checked in on me often enough but were not intrusive.
I struggled to locate the entrance to the parking area next to the brewery; signage could be better, and Google Maps doesn't quite get you there.
Belching Beaver just renovated and rebranded their original brewery in Vista as "Pub 980". This Oceanside location is the new main production brewery. As you would probably expect, the brewing area is huge, with massive tanks. It is quite impressive just because of the scale of the place.
The tasting room is just okay. There is lots of space, but only a few tables. Bar seating was limited. There is a company store in the corner, and games like giant Jenga and giant ConnectFour are available. There was nothing wrong with the service, but it wasn't exceptional either. I think the staff feel swamped by the volume of customers, and there is a little element of them feeling "hipsterer-than-thou". Parking was a little tough on the weekend.
Because it is so large, this area and the tasting room have even more of an industrial feel than in the usual craft brewery. For this reason, even if I lived nearby, I don't think I would chose this location to hang out at: You could go instead to Pub 380, or the Belching Tavern and Grill in Vista, both of which are very pleasant places to spend time. The Belching Beaver North Park tasting room is likewise very nice.
Since I've had a lot of Belching Beaver beer in my time, on this occasion I was just looking for a pint. To my surprise and pleasure, they had on a fresh keg of Thizz is What it Is, a Citra Double IPA that was the 2017 winner of the Alpha King Challenge, a competition that runs alongside the Great American Beer Festival and which some consider to be the most prestigious award in brewing. This is head brewer Thomas Peter's third Alpha King medal, including a bronze in 2015 and another gold in 2014.
Thizz is What It Is (Double IPA, 9% ABV). Very nice. Floral, juicy, with background piney-ness and a lingering but not-too-intense bitterness. As required of Alpha King beers, it is intense but very drinkable. My only hesitation is that it costs $9/pint. 4/5
As I was looking back over my previous visits to the various Belching Beaver locations, I realized that I've rate Belching Beaver beers thirteen times now. And I was impressed to see that I have very consistently rated them very highly. Only two of my thirteen check-ins were below 3.75/5. Until I looked back at my data, I hadn't realized that I liked Belching Beaver so much. The other thing I notice in the data is that I rate the Peanut Butter Stout differently every time I try it. I think there is or has been a lot of batch-to-batch variation in that beer; also, it is a style I am not always in the mood for.
Belching Beaver is already doing well and they seem to be on an upswing. Look to see their almost-universally popular Peanut Butter Stout in cans and kegs in even more places, and to see more of their lineup being distributed as well.
I liked the setup at Midnight Jack. It is much bigger than I had anticipated, with lots of tables and a long bar with plenty of seats. Certainly the brew tanks were much bigger than I would have predicted. I guess they do more business than I realized.
There are video games and sofas in a corner with lots of windows, and they had a food truck setting up in the parking lot out back. The owner came by to greet us and invited us to try out the board games they have available. Staff on the bar were competent and helpful. It seems that the folks who work here also use it as a place to hang out, which has pros and cons for other customers.
The beers I tried in my flight were decent but unremarkable.
Midnight Jack Pale Ale (5.5% ABV). This must be their flagship, given the name. There’s an apple-like flavor that was confusing at first, but in the end I liked it. 3.5/5
Harlem Sunset (Red Ale, 6.2% ABV). I thought this one was a little thin tasting, and a little cloying on the finish. 3/5
Death by Boysenberry (Imperial Stout, 16% ABV). The name fits. LOTS of berry. Very thin mouthfeel for an imperial stout. Tastes like Grape Fanta, not beer. Depending on what you are looking for, that might or might not be a good thing. 3.25/5
Syndicate Samoa Stout (Imperial Stout, 11% ABV). Coconut-chocolate is tasty, but this one is also thin. I’ve certainly had better versions of this style in lots of other places around San Diego. 3/5
Overall, my impression is that this is a thoroughly average San Diego brewery, right in the middle of the pack on just about everything important: service, tasting room, and beer.
Here is The List of all the breweries and tasting rooms in San Diego County.
Shortly after I posted my review of Kuracali Beer and Sake Brewery in December 2017, they closed their doors for good. It was not unexpected: The bartender on our visit told us of a planned renovation. It isn't clear whether or not they will actually reopen, though that seems to be the owner's hope.
The end of 2017 saw several more closings: Oceanside Brewing Company, La Jolla Brewing, and SpecHops Brewing. OBC later announced that after the dissolution of that partnership completes, the active partner plans to reopen in the same space under a new name.
OBC was the longest-running brewery in Oceanside (six years), and SpecHops had been open just a year. Do the places that have closed recently have anything in common? Being undercapitalized and serving merely-average beer. And, by coincidence, being non-members of the San Diego Brewers Guild. The latter point is likely an effect rather than a cause: They were probably too cash poor to pay dues, and being cash poor was probably what led them to shut down. It is worth noting, though, that 16.2% of San Diego craft breweries are not members of the San Diego Brewers Guild.
Four breweries closing in a bunch gives a bad impression, but it is only 2% of operating breweries in San Diego County, and that's in a year that saw 17 net new breweries, an increase of 13% over 2016's final total. Add to that data point the fact that two breweries opened in January: The Bell Marker Brewery and Restaurant and KO Underground Brewery and Restaurant, both located downtown.
Benchmark Brewing has made significant progress on a tasting room build out in Bay Park, but according to messages I exchanged with the owner online, it may not happen after all: the city (not the ABC) has so far not granted a permit and the carrying costs are too high to keep waiting. That's a damn shame. Benchmark's beer should be everywhere. The City of Ocean Beach similarly killed Little Miss Brewing's nearly-finished tasting room a few months ago as well. The system needs to change so that small business owners don't lose tens of thousands of dollars by having to build out on a gamble. Permitting and licensing authorities should either approve or disapprove them beforehand. It strikes me that the current way of handling these things smacks of Puritanism--which is a little out of fashion in most of American life at the moment.
San Diego Brewing Co. has recently announced that they will be vacating their Brewery Ignitor space in North Park and opening a new brewpub location soon. This is exactly the stated purpose of the Brewery Ignitor: It is a place for breweries to do proof of concept and then move on to new facilities. It is good to see it work in this instance, after last year's failure of Wiseguy Brewing in the north county Brewery Ignitor. This also likely means a new brewery will soon be moving in next door to Pariah and Eppig.
Although breweries keep opening in San Diego, the pace seems to have slowed in recent months. Perhaps this is merely a seasonal fluctuation (more breweries open in summer, I think). In fact, closings have been outpacing openings since November, though only slightly. The total is down two since November, and up five overall since July. I expect two or three additional openings in the next month or so; so far, I have no information about any pending closings (besides the location swap for San Diego Brewing North Park), but closings are usually announced at the last moment so we'll see how things go.
Until recently, this spot was O'Sullivan Brothers Brewing Company, which I reviewed in June 2017. It had been up for sale for a few months when it was purchased and transformed into Savagewood last fall.
From what I can see, they are making good decisions. O'Sullivan had some good (and award-winning) beers, especially in the porter/stout range, and Savagewood has decided to keep making some of those beers, which complement their own line of IPAs and less-heavy beers. Besides meaning that those good beers will still be available, that move probably goes a long way in transferring the loyalty of the former regulars to the new brand, too. In addition, they have renovated the front room/tasting area, so that it no longer feels like a tiny box where you drink after ordering your beer from a small window. There's a real (though still smallish) bar, and the space now feels open and comfortable. There's a little more seating, too, if my memory is correct.
I was served by the assistant brewer, who was doing double duty on the bar while prepping for the next day's brew session. He was pleasant and helpful even though he was busy.
There were ten beers, a craft soda and a cold brew coffee on nitro available for purchase on the day I visited. My flight of five beers was very enjoyable. (In addition to the four below, I tried the blonde ale, but I forgot to rate it.)
Oh Sweet! (IPA, 6.8% ABV). This was brewed as a collaboration with QUAFF, the homebrewing club, as a fundraiser. It presents a subtle pine/floral/sweet combination. It is pretty good. 3.25/5
Gnarly Dude (ESB, 5.8% ABV). It is very close to a real English ESB. Nice malty sweetness, light carbonation, smooth, bitter finish. 3.75/5
$500 Millionaire (Session IPA, 5% ABV). Very solid. Great hop profile, nicely fruity/sweet with a slight piney/earthy note. 4/5
I Get Around (fruited Pale Ale, 5% ABV). The peach and passionfruit well-melded. They lend a subtle sweetness and indistinct fruitiness. Something on the aftertaste isn’t great to me, it is a bit astringent. 3.5/5
Savagewood's beers are very good. Given that it is essentially a brand new brewery, the beers are *very* good. I'm excited to see how they grow over time.
www.savagewoodbrewing.com 9879 Hilbert St, Ste F, San Diego, CA 92131
This review wraps up my three-brewery tour of Ramona and Julian, after Smoking Cannon Brewery and Nickel Beer Co. Located in the same strip mall as the best Thai restaurant in Ramona (really, it is a good Thai restaurant), the ChuckAlek main brewery is a lot smaller than the ChuckAlek Biergarten in North Park. In contrast to how beautiful the North Park location is, this spot seemed cramped, dark and ugly--but to be fair it is just a typical brewery tasting room in a commercial space. There were ten beers on tap. Since I had had several ChuckAlek beers before and this was the end of a long day, I limited myself to three tasters on this occasion. From my memory of my experience at the North Park location, I expected more.
Dowser (Altbier, 5.4% ABV). Something was wrong. Oniony, peppery, vegetal, sour. I liked it a lot better when I had it in November 2016. 2.5/5
Forman Bitter (English Bitter, 5.5% ABV). Dominant Belgian-like yeast esters, which I don't think can be right in this style. 2.5/5
Archive 1850 Runner (English Porter, 6.3% ABV). Nice. Biscuity, with flavors that remind me of Bear Roots’ Bear Cookie. Not as dark as most porters, and it tastes a little thin. 3.5/5
Something that bugs me at breweries is when I let the staff know that something is wrong with a beer and they just defend the beer. That's what happened on this visit, when I pointed out that the altbier tasted oniony and peppery--definitely not part of the altbier style. The bartender tasted it himself and said, "Yeah, I see what you mean. I've never thought about it that way before, but that's just what this beer tastes like." Then your beer is bad! Don't look like a fool, just say, "Thank you for the feedback, I'll talk to the brewer," even if you disagree with the customer's critique. Automatically comping a beer that the customer thinks is "off" should be a no-brainer, too, even if the customer is wrong, but that didn't happen in this case either. The $2 wouldn't have mattered to me, but I bet the gesture would have changed the tone of this review…. About 1000 people per day read my reviews on Yelp, so I'm guessing the net effect for ChuckAlek will be a lot more than -$2. (That's not a threat or a brag, just pointing out that you never know what kind of ripple effect less-than-stellar service is going to have, so always go above-and-beyond.)
Anyway, despite the service lapse (I don't even mind that that beer wasn't right, that happens even at the best places, like the last time I was at Mikkeller in Miramar), this is a spot worth checking out if you are nearby. The North Park location is a lot better, though, so you can probably save yourself the trip to Ramona.
Julian is a pretty mountain town that makes its living being a pretty mountain town: On weekends the place is packed with tourists on the main street visiting the quaint stores and in particular lining up for apple pies made from local apples. (In the Mom's vs. Julian Pie Co. debate, I vote for the latter.) There are a number of cideries, as well.
Julian used to be home to two breweries, but Julian Brewing Co. has been undergoing a renovation and reimagining for quite a long time now and it still has not reopened. That means Nickel Beer Co. is the only brewery in Julian, for now at least. Thanks, Sarah, for being my DD so I could visit Smoking Cannon Brewery and ChuckAlek in Ramona as well as Nickel in Julian.
Nickel Beer Co. is owned by Tom Nickel, who has a storied history in the San Diego craft brewing scene. He brewed for some of the local "OG" breweries back in the day (Pizza Port, Oggi's, and even Julian Brewing), and he owns the famous craft beer bar O'Brien's Pub in Kearny Mesa.
I had only heard a little about the location, but it lived up to its billing: A small house (shack, really), a large outdoor patio with picnic tables, plenty of customers. I have to say, though, that I was underwhelmed by the beers. Maybe I had just expected too much given the pedigree of the place.
Apple Pie Ale ( Fruit Beer, 6% ABV). Yeah, it's okay. Made with a mixture of cider and beer plus some typical apple pie spices. It tastes light and sweet. But it was pretty flat, and the spices had an odd note too them. 3.25/5
Bloody Sot ESB (6% ABV). Light, not overly bitter. Too sweet. Soft mouthfeel. 3.5/5
C.C. O'Neill's Irish Red (Red Ale, 5.4% ABV). My reaction was, "meh." Medium malts, bitter. Nothing special. 3.25/5
Banner Grade IPA (6.9% ABV). I really expected more of this one. Nickel is famous for wet hopped beers, so I figured their regular IPAs would involve the masterful use of hops, as well. But this was just ordinary. 3.25/5
Filthy Paws (Porter, 6.3% ABV). The Black and Crystal malts lend a lightly smoky character, there's an earthy hop note, and there's a sour background. It didn't meld together as a whole, with some of the elements pulling against each other. 2.75/5
Stonewall Stout (6.3% ABV). Thin, not much flavor, but not offensive in any way. 3.5/5
While the beer was underwhelming relative to reputation, the service was adequate (quick and informative if not overly friendly), and the atmosphere was active and relaxed. The physical setting is small but okay. Except: the back room where they brew, which you have to walk through to get to the restroom, was like a hoarder's garage, and filthy. The brew tanks, hoses and floors were the dirtiest I've seen in any brewery or tasting room (and this is my 173rd review). There was a thick layer of dust on top of the tanks. The restrooms, just feet from the brew tanks, were disgustingly dirty. It didn't inspire a lot of confidence in the safety and quality of the beer. This situation is very surprising, given that brewers often say that most of their job is cleaning.
Overall, I'm not sure it is worth the trip to Julian just to visit this place. If you are here for a hike, a pie, or quaint-town-tourism, maybe drop in. Hopefully they'll get the brew house cleaned up.
I'm nearing the end of my quest. I've got four breweries to write up, and then four more to visit, and then I will be finished! Well, until the next place opens up, at least.
I'll write reflection on my quest soon after getting to the end. Doing the last twenty or so places has sometimes felt like a slog. For one thing, all the breweries I had left at the end were distant from my house, mostly in north county, which entailed a lot of driving. To compound that, in addition to being far away these last places have tended to have limited opening hours, which meant two things for me: It was hard to schedule days to get to them, and it usually meant having to drive those long distances when traffic was worst. And, unfortunately, the beer quality has seemed to be lower than average in this last group. Honestly, it has been a little frustrating. I think I can safely generalize and say that if a place has limited opening hours it is at least partly due to the fact that their beer isn't very good.
We were finally able to find a free Saturday to drive out to Ramona, where we visited Smoking Cannon and ChuckAlek Independent Brewing, and to Julian, where we visited Nickel Brewing Company. (Thanks for driving, Sarah!) It is an easy enough drive, and parts of it are quite pretty.
We arrived at Smoking Cannon just as they were opening up, so we were the first customers. The brewer was on the bar, and while he is a naturally quiet sort of fellow, he was willing to talk a bit about the beers and the theme of the place. He is a Civil War enthusiast who used to make working model cannons, so there are Civil War photos and books all around the place, and a few of his small cannons, too. The environment is comfortable and interesting, and there is a lot of seating at a long high table down the middle of the room and at counters on the sides of the rooms.
There were nine beers on the board, and I got a flight of six. I haven't seen taster glasses like these before. I'm not sure they are any better than the typical ones, but they are at least unique.
Smoked Peanut Butter (Pale Ale, 4.7% ABV). I have had smoked and peanut butter beers before, but never together and never in a pale ale. It does not quite work for me. It might be better with a different yeast. 3/5
Griffen ESB (Extra Special Bitter, 6.4% ABV). Lighter color and sharper taste than ESBs I know. A quick perusal of the style guidelines suggests this is an atypical example. 3.25/5
Phoenix (Cream Ale, 4.6% ABV). A good cream ale. Thick mouthfeel, lingering vanilla. 3.75/5
Gingerbread Porter (6.4% ABV). Rum-raisin/spice nose. Tastes like a ginger ale. Not nearly as dark as a typical porter. 3.5/5
Spencer (Porter, 7.4% ABV). A little too sweet and not quite deep enough malts. Pecan doesn’t quite come through. Other comments on Untappd suggest to me that this beer's flavor profile has dramatically evolved as this batch has aged over three months. 3.25/5
Coehorn (Stout, 7.4% ABV). Really nice deep stout, smoky malt note, luxurious smooth mouthfeel on nitro. Satisfying. This was the best of six beers I tried on this visit. 3.75/5
A few other customers trickled in as we were finishing up, and we heard the brewer's wife (clearly the outgoing one in the family) chatting with other patrons. They were regularly winner homebrew prizes, so they decided to open a brewery. It strikes me that they haven't quite outgrown their homebrew roots yet, but that over time the beer will become quite good here. One thing that may slow their evolution is the limited flow of customers in this small, isolated town. Do drop in if you are passing through Ramona.