Just before his death in 2007, the world's foremost beer expert, Englishman Michael Jackson, proclaimed, "Today, neither European brewers nor most drinkers on either side of the Atlantic have yet grasped that tomorrow's most exciting styles of beers will be American in conception."
If only Jackson could have touched down in San Diego in 2010 to see what's obvious to beer lovers everywhere: We're number 1. Men's Journal proclaims us Best Beer City in America. There's never been a better time to enjoy beer here. So specialized and perfected are our local breweries' India Pale Ales, in particular, that we've even set a style: West Coast IPA, supremely strong, hoppy and available worldwide. Not only do we have the best suds around, San Diego also has a fresh new crop of bars in which to enjoy them.
On a busy Friday night at Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights, energy buzzes through the brick-walled restaurant as friends on barstools swap stories, families at tables play Uno with their kids, and waitresses fetch gourmet pizzas for hungry patrons. But the epicenter is really the corner bar. Out of 24 taps flow some of the world's finest handcrafted beers, denoted on the chalkboard above. Some come from breweries on the other end of town, others from another continent.
Bartenders carefully select the appropriate glassware for each style of beer—a goblet for a Belgian tripel, a snifter for a stout, a tulip for an imperial IPA. Despite the place's kinetic energy, there's no jockeying for position or the bartender's attention; patrons wait patiently to be served a perfect pour.
San Diego has reached the apex of beer appreciation. Not only do we produce some of the finest brews (thanks to more than 30 active local breweries), we can also enjoy the best from around the world.
How did we get here? Our southwest corner—without a heavy population of German, Czech, Belgian or British immigrants—is now the beer capital of America? Many in the industry agree it was the hard work and talent coming from three breweries: Port, Stone and Alesmith. Emerging in the second wave of the microbrew industry of the mid-1990s (following the initial craft-brewing craze of the '80s that spawned the likes of Karl Strauss, San Diego's first brewery in 80 years), these brewers had at least two things in common: prodigious talent and a willingness to brew what they wanted, not what the market wanted.
To this day they openly share disdain for what Stone cofounder Greg Koch derisively terms "fizzy yellow beer"—flaccid in color, aroma and bitterness, pitifully emasculated in taste, marketed to millions with the aid of bikini-clad girls, toilet humor, pro sports sponsorships and overwhelming distribution tactics. Uniform, mass-market beer was begging to be improved upon. Drawing on inspiration from other craft brewers, from pre-Prohibition styles, from European artisans or from the depths of their imaginations, the onetime home brewers perfected their craft and grew, some meteorically, from there. Koch cites Solana Beach's Pizza Port for its hugely influential guest taps, at which home brewers showcased their talents and refined their products, as a launch pad during San Diego craft beer's infancy.
Although local brewers don't expect to compete for market share with the virtual monopoly held by multinational conglomerates Anheuser-Busch-InBev and MillerCoors, brewing exceptional beer has proved lucrative: Stone has grown, on average, 47 percent each year for the past 12 years. And they're looking to expand production into Europe.
"I've always believed that if you just make really great beer—you don't dumb it down, you don't hold back—from a brewer who's learned and studied and is fascinated by this art, people will eventually gravitate toward you," Koch says.
Being the stars of the new beer capital doesn't mean supplanting the giants. Nationwide, the craft-beer movement has only a 4 percent market share by volume. Not that this bothers Koch much. "The masses don't care about wonderful, flavorful, unique craft beers, so I don't care about the masses," he says.
Bar owners have carved out a lucrative niche, despite shunning the macrobeers. Two years ago, Arsalun Tafazoli opened Neighborhood in downtown's East Village, a haven for sports bars, where, until recently, "Everyone with a couple dollars to their name said, ‘We're gonna get the same generic booze and a bunch of plasma TVs, and we're gonna attract people and cash in,'" he says. Most of them are gone. Neighborhood is still around—and growing.
"You have to be about the product," Tafazoli says. "You have to learn how to say no to the big guys. We have 28 beers on draft, and you should have seen the look on their faces when I told these [other bar owners] downtown we're not gonna deal with Anheuser-Busch. They thought I was the biggest idiot! Anheuser-Busch sent six different reps."
After bartending his way through college making "too many Red Bull vodkas" at Pacific Beach bars, Tafazoli was inspired to open a beercentric bar after a trip through Germany three years ago. While there, he saw a list of top-10 breweries in the world. Three of them were from San Diego, he says, but he'd only heard of Stone. On his return home with a thirst for local beer, he says, "All the great beer establishments at the time were kind of divey. I couldn't take my girlfriend," which goes some way toward explaining Neighborhood's suave location and décor and its refined menu.
Scot Blair, owner of Hamilton's Tavern in South Park and his new Small Bar in University Heights, is all about the product as well. "I've flown all over the country this past year to bring probably 30 different beers into San Diego that have never been here before," he says. Look at either bar's tap list and you'll see what Blair means. Yet it's appreciated by beer fans of all ages. Hamilton's Friday-night clientele skews surprisingly young—kids in the college and post-college years, normally accustomed to consuming PBR at beach bars.
It's likely they know, as does Stone's Koch, that "Once you get converted, it's very difficult to go back."