Think Vancouver is a craft beer mecca? Try San Diego

Mike Hess Brewing operates out of North Park, a popular neighbourhood in San Diego for craft brewers

Best known for its surf, sun and zoo, San Diego also has a growing reputation for beer

At first, when I hear that my tour of San Diego’s microbrewers will involve a chauffeured Lincoln Navigator, I scoff. How indulgent, I think. But in Southern California—where everyone and everything is separated by miles of blacktop, and public transit is as rare as rain—I quickly come to appreciate the personalized service offered by Brew Hop, the city’s original brewery tour company. Especially after a second flight of beer, at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, with no food in sight.

Tony Wulfekuhle, an ex-marine from Iowa, is behind the wheel in early March as we shuttle between three of San Diego’s more popular local brewers: Mike Hess Brewing, Coronado Brewing Company and Modern Times Beer. Wulfekuhle, now in his late 20s, first became affiliated with Brew Hop in 2007 as a customer—on one of his furloughs from the Navy. When he left the Navy to attend San Diego State University a few years back, the craft beer enthusiast decided to offer his services as a Brew Hop tour guide to help pay his way through school. “The hardest part, though, is not drinking,” he says with a trace of a midwestern drawl, “especially when it’s a beer you’ve never had.”

Brew Hop offers 2.5-hour tours of San Diego’s craft beer scene for individuals and groups, starting at US$75 (which includes transportation, a host, private tours and all your beer samples at every brewery).

Vancouver Brew Tour, by Wildside Vancouver, offers a similar experience locally: $69 to visit three craft breweries, which includes a driver and beer guide, and a flight of four 4-oz tasters at each of the breweries.

In the eyes of many craft beer aficionados, San Diego (named “America’s Beer Capital” by Time magazine) has become the epicentre of a movement that has taken North America by storm. While most associate the Pacific Northwest with craft beer (Portland, Seattle and, of course, Vancouver, which celebrates its own craft beer week the first week of June), San Diego County alone has nearly 100 breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs (more than all of B.C., and up from just 37 in 2011), with a craft-brewing scene that dates back more than a quarter-century. As a writer for the New York Times put it, beer “has become as much a part of the San Diego identity as surf and sun.”

One of the local hotbeds for microbreweries is the trendy North Park neighbourhood, which lies just to the northeast of iconic Balboa Park. This is where we find Greg Hess, one of the brothers behind the five-year-old Mike Hess Brewing Company. “I think this is the number one town in the world for craft beer,” says the blond, curly-haired Hess, who looks the part of a surfer but handles sales and distribution for the fast-growing company. A trained electrician and machinist, Hess helped build the current location (open since August 2013), where most of the beer is brewed and the tasting room (where I’m acquainting myself with the delicious coffee-infused Grazias Vienna Cream Ale and the award-winning Umbrix Rye Imperial Stout) is located.

Many of San Diego’s craft brewers, like the Hess brothers, started off as home brewers. But the still-collegial-feeling scene is increasingly big business. A local think-tank, the National University System Institution for Policy Research, estimated craft brewing’s economic value to the region doubled between 2001 and 2014 to some $600 million annually, with yearly sales approaching $850 million (up from $681 million in 2011). Today, brands like Stone and Ballast Point can be found in bars and restaurants across North America and beyond.

“You’ve got some great brewers when you look around San Diego,” says Hess. “You have Pizza Port. You have Alesmith. You have Ballast Point. You have Stone. You have Karl Strauss. You have all these big breweries that are not only producing great liquid and everything else; they’re training other brewers, and those brewers are branching off and starting other breweries here.

“Once you’re in San Diego,” he says, pointing out to the patio and the midday sunshine, “you don’t leave.”

Exploring the seaside charms of La Jolla

After three hours of drinking your way through San Diego’s craft breweries, you may need to rest your spinning head (just saying). And while there are many options for accommodations in the downtown core, as well as the so-called “Hotel Circle” of Mission Valley, undoubtedly the best bet for rest and relaxation is La Jolla. The quaint and affluent suburb is home to many of the region’s top restaurants and hotels and many of its prime outdoor attractions (including Torrey Pines State Reserve and La Jolla Cove).

Perhaps nothing captures the charming seaside vibe better than La Valencia Hotel (pictured). The circa 1929 property, with its mixture of Spanish and Mediterranean influences, has a beautiful outdoor pool, cascading courtyards and the La Sala lounge and patio, with its stunning views of the Pacific. The hotel’s Med restaurant also takes full advantage of the locale, with a contemporary seafood-forward menu under the direction of executive chef James Montejano (make sure to order the delectable paella with extra lobster). Perhaps the hotel’s greatest asset, however, is its charming and resourceful concierge staff, led by Nancy Hirsch. From brewery tours to kayaking expeditions, Hirsch helps you make the most of your time in the area