Ready to know more about San Diego?


The Beer Lover’s (Ice) Bucket List

Need a New Year's resolution? Further your beer education by trying these 15 must-drink brews.

By Bruce Glassman | Photos by Paul Body

One city, thousands of beers and counting. San Diego’s craft beer industry is growing by the day, by the gallon, by hops and bounds. As obsessive list-makers who love to catalogue and rank, we feel it has become necessary to put down our pint glasses and identify the classics, entering them into a San Diego craft beer canon. After much debate, and having talked to professional brewers all over the county, we compiled a list of the 15 most iconic, must-try brews, one for each of the major beer styles found in San Diego. Each beer either won medals and accolades or has been a sort of longstanding gold standard for other brewers. If you haven’t already, make a pint, er point, to taste each one on the list—heck, make it a New Year’s resolution.



Red Trolley

Red Ale | Karl Strauss Brewing Company

Compared to ambers, reds tend to be a bit hoppier against a solid malty frame, with caramel, toffee, and roasty malt flavors in balance. Jason Stockberger of Mike Hess Brewing says, “Red Trolley is one of the original beers of San Diego. I’ve seen Red Trolley win awards at World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival back-to-back. I can definitely attest to how awesome it is.”

ALSO TRY: Shark Attack (Port Brewing Company) and Shark Bite (Pizza Port Brewing Company)




Belgian Style (Light) | The Lost Abbey

In general, the lighter Belgian-styles showcase the bready, biscuity character produced by Belgian yeast, along with varying degrees of spiciness and fruity aroma. These beers are often highly carbonated and are relatively low ABV (though Le Freak is an exception, at 9.2 percent), which makes them refreshing warm-weather favorites. Scot Blair from Monkey Paw and South Park brewing companies says: “What I like the most about Carnevale is the use of American hops and how they work in concert with that subtle touch of brett [brettanomyces yeast] funk. Simply put, it’s just a great all-around go-to beer.”

ALSO TRY: Le Freak (Green Flash) and The Harlot (Societe) 



Elemental Pilsner

Pilsner/Helles | Lightning Brewery

The pilsner category has some of the lightest styles out there, often with restrained hop and malt characters. These are the “crisp and clean” beers, and fairly low alcohol by volume (ABV). Shawn DeWitt of Coronado Brewing Company says: “Elemental is one of the hoppiest pilsners around. I like the fact that Lightning was brewing a pilsner when everyone else was brewing IPAs. It fits in with San Diego so perfectly.”

ALSO TRY: Longfin Lager (Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits)



Arrogant Bastard

American Strong Ale | Stone Brewing Co. 

This is a very broad category, defined mostly by alcohol levels, which are commonly 7 percent and above. These beers can resemble anything from double IPAs to malty barley wines. Most are on the heavy side, with aggressive maltiness and hoppiness. Local beer writer Peter Rowe says: “By its name alone, Arrogant Bastard Ale helped make Stone famous. Yet this is much more than a rude publicity stunt. Packed with malts, hops, and alcohol, the Bastard and its illegitimate offspring—double, oaked, bourbon barrel-aged—embody Stone’s turn-it-up-to-11 ethos.”

ALSO TRY: Decadence ’10 or Old Ale (AleSmith)



30th Street Pale Ale

Pale Ale | Green Flash Brewing Company

Our city’s pale ales are light- to medium-bodied beers that are mostly about hoppiness—moreso than pales from other American regions or England. The typical pale features hops with floral, fruity, piney, grassy, or citrus characters that are often framed by low-to-medium maltiness. Jim Crute of Lightning Brewery says: “30th Street Pale Ale really does embrace that ‘30th Street / Beer Street, USA’ ideal for beer, which is malty, but not too malty; bitter, but not too bitter; with a nice hop finish. This beer set a trend for pale ales.”

ALSO TRY: Pintail (Karl Strauss) and .394 (AleSmith)



Speedway Stout

Stout | AleSmith Brewing Company

Much like porters, stouts are all about rich, malty flavors and aromas balanced by bitterness. Caramel and chocolate notes are often accompanied by roasted coffee flavors, which can come from the use of roasted malts. Jim Crute from Lightning Brewery says, “Speedway is big, bold, and flavorful! My go-to big beer for cooler months!”

ALSO TRY: Silva Stout (Green Flash) and Zumbar (New English)




Amber | Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

Ambers are mostly about light-to-medium maltiness and medium body, with caramel and toffee flavors and midlevel hops bitterness. Tom Nickel of Nickel Beer Company says: “Calico has great flavor, but not too much of any one thing. The hops and malts are in balance with a medium-dry finish that is perfect for our mild climate.”

ALSO TRY: Amber Lager (Karl Strauss)




Hefeweizen | Lightning Brewery

Straw to golden yellow, this medium-bodied style must be made with at least 50 percent malted wheat. The typical yeast used to ferment hefeweizen produces unique fruity and spicy flavors of banana and clove, and a cloudy appearance. Peter Zien of AleSmith says: “Authentic to the core, Lightning’s Thunderweizen is a well-made example of this German style of beer. Banana and clove in the aroma, crisp and well-attenuated fermentation profile, and a wheat-based flavor conjures images of German beer halls and enthusiastic drinkers yelling ‘PROST!’”

ALSO TRY: Hefeweizen (Mission) and Hefeweizen (Gordon Biersch)



Red Poppy

Flander/Sour | The Lost Abbey

With sourness created by the addition of Lactobacillus bacteria, these tart, crisp, bracing beers (typically emulating Belgian styles) usually have cherrylike or raspberry-like fruitiness. They are often highly acidic but commonly mellowed somewhat by aging in barrels. Travis Smith from Societe says: “Red Poppy is one of the iconic beers that has fueled the sour craze in the U.S. Many have tried to mimic it, but it remains one of the best in the United States.”

ALSO TRY: Framboise de Amorosa (The Lost Abbey)




IPA | Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

San Diego is known for its hoppiness. The term “San Diego style” connotes an extra-hoppy style of IPA the world over. Like their sibling pale ales, IPAs are all about putting hop aroma and bitterness front and center, with malt character taking a backseat. Tomme Arthur of The Lost Abbey says: “While there is no shortage of amazing IPAs being made in San Diego, it’s easy to see why Sculpin gets the nod. The beer is a juggernaut and it’s on tap and available everywhere I turn.”

ALSO TRY: Stone IPA (Stone Brewing Co.) and The Pupil (Societe Brewing Company)



Nut Brown

Brown Ale | AleSmith Brewing Company

Caramel and chocolate flavors, accompanied by a roasty maltiness, will dominate a good brown. Generally, these light- to medium-bodied beers have low hop flavor and aroma but medium hop bitterness. Marty Mendiola of Second Chance Brewing says, “AleSmith Nut Brown is always near perfect with a nice, mellow character. Especially when I am sick of big IPAs—hey, it happens once in a while—I love a good brown ale and theirs is one of the best.”

ALSO TRY: Brewers Special Brown (New English Brewing Company) and Skid Mark Brown Ale (Pizza Port)



Two Tortugas

Two Tortugas’ ridiculously limited edition bottles, last released in 2011, will be available for purchase at the Karl Strauss Tasting Room on December 19, with more on the way in February 2016.

Belgian Style | Karl Strauss Brewing Company

The darker Belgian styles, which also include dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels (in ascending order of strength) are characterized by big, rich, caramel, molasses, and dark brown sugar flavors and a medium hop bitterness. Most are 7.5–12 percent ABV. Tyson Blake, general manager of O’Brien’s Pub, says: “Two Tortugas is a really well-brewed Belgian strong dark with layers of roasted dark fruits and brûléed sugar, really nicely attenuated and smooth for scary drinkability.”

ALSO TRY:  Judgment Day (The Lost Abbey) and Grand Cru (AleSmith)



Old Numbskull

Barley Wine | AleSmith Brewing Company

big, malty sweetness with caramel and toffee flavors balanced by significant hops. Medium- to heavy-bodied, these beers are often high in ABV, from 8 and 12 percent. Scot Blair says, “Old Numbskull is a brilliantly smooth-finishing and well-balanced barley wine, laden with notes of caramel, toffee, and dark fruits. Excellence personified.”

ALSO TRY: Old Guardian (Stone Brewing Co.)



Victory at Sea

Porter | Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits

Deep and rich, these beers showcase caramel and chocolate flavors with a creamy mouthfeel, low hop character, and pleasing sweetness. Many San Diego brewers add vanilla, coffee, or chocolate. Paul Segura, from Karl Strauss, says, “I love Victory at Sea. Porter is probably my favorite beer category, and Ballast added vanilla and coffee to it. All my favorite things in one beer. No single component of this beer dominates the other, and the elements all play well together, which is brilliant.”

ALSO TRY: Black Marlin (Ballast Point)



Wahoo Wheat

Wheat Beer | Ballast Point Brewinng & Spirits

In San Diego, wheat beers are usually inspired by the classic Belgian-style wits, meaning “whites.” They are crisp, lightly hopped, brewed using unmalted wheat, and most commonly spiced with coriander and orange peel. John Egan of Mission Brewery says: “Wahoo Wheat is a great example of the classic witbier style. With a slight tanginess from the wheat and coriander, it’s super-refreshing wheat beer and has become a go-to for summertime enjoyment.”

ALSO TRY: Orange Avenue Wit (Coronado Brewing Company)


The Beer Lover’s (Ice) Bucket List

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA