California breweries are in a class of their own, with dozens of new establishments popping up every year. Some of the best craft brews in the world are made in California, from the top-rated Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico to San Francisco’s delightful Anchor Brewing Company.
For the past several years, the coastal town of San Diego has been in the spotlight with literally dozens of microbreweries popping up throughout town. In fact, there’s a whole tourism industry surrounding it — complete with bus tours and guided tastings.
If you want to savor a sip of San Diego’s award-winning beers while someone else does the driving? Brewery Tours of San Diego departs from seven pickup locations throughout the city, including downtown San Diego, Old Town Transit Center, Mission Bay, Escondido and Mira Mesa. During your outing, you’ll hop aboard the “beer bus” for a guided tour through 2-3 breweries, ranging from Mission Brewery and Ballast Point to Green Flash Brewing and Stone Brewing Company. Your admission includes beer tastings, lunch, bottled water and a souvenir beer glass.
Here’s a guide to some of our favorite California breweries!
This award-winning San Francisco brewery, created in 1896 by German immigrants Ernst Baruth and Botto Schinkel, is known for such classics as Anchor Steam Beer, Liberty Ale and Humming Ale. Be sure to book their popular free tour well in advance — up to 6 months, if possible. During the 45-minute walking tour you’ll see how the brewery crafts and bottles its beer, followed by a tasting flight at the bar. Website.
Anderson Valley Brewing
Nestled by redwoods and oaks in the fertile Boon Valley, this brewery has been crafting award-winning beers since 1987. Come here for a tour, sample some brews in the Tap Room, or check out one of their pub crawls, beer tastings or beer pairing dinners. In May, they celebrate their craft with the Legendary Boonville Beer Festival. Website.
Since 1996, this San Diego brewery has wowed critics and locals alike. These hand-crafted brews, named for native ocean fish such as sculpin, black marlin, Calico bass and wahoo, taste as good as their labels look. Come here for a guided tour, offered three times daily, or belly up to the tasting bar for a flight, pint, bottle, growler or keg. Try the Big Eye IPA and Victory at Sea Imperial Porter. In addition to great beers, Ballast Point also makes a mean Old Grove Gin, Three Sheets Rum and Bloody Mary Mix. Though the bar doesn’t serve food, they do have food trucks outside on Thursday and Friday nights. Website.
Sonoma County may be known for its wine, but in Healdsburg they also make a mean batch of brews. Bear Republic Brewery won the great American Beer Festival’s Small Brewing Company of the Year in 2006, and is still going strong. Standout beers include their Racer 5 India Pale Ale, Hop Rod Rye IPA and Racer X American Double/Imperial IPA.The restaurant serves a variety of pub grub, but standouts include the Jalapeno Tower Burger, Chicken, Brie and Bacon “Press,” and the Trio of Grilled Sausages, braised in their Big Bear Black Stout. Come here for Happy Hour between 4-6 weekdays, when you can fuel up on $5 chicken quesadillas, street taquitos and crab cake sliders, washed down with a cold brew. Website.
Orange County hipsters now have a brewery to call their own, and these Belgian-inspired ales have quickly gained a loyal fan base since their debut in 2008. Started by former law student-turned-home brewer Patrick Rue, the Bruery is renowned for its Bourbon-aged brews made with unique ingredients. Their signature Belgian-style witbier, Orchard White, is infused with lavender, coriander and orange peel. If you like sour beers, don’t miss their Oude Tart, a Flemish red ale that’s aged for 18 months in red wine barrels.Tasting room pours usually include roughly 12 choices, which can be enjoyed with a rotating menu of nibbles such as pork belly reubens and mini lamb burgers from local food trucks. On the last Tuesday of October, the Bruery releases their insanely strong (19.5 %) Black Tuesday Imperial Stout. Website.
Tucked in charming Paso Robles wine country, this award-winning microbrewery is best known for its Union Jack India Pale Ale, a citrusy-grapefruit double barrel ale that’s won countless awards at American and International beer festivals. Pop into the tasting room for a sampler of their 14 beers on tap, available in 4 oz, 10 oz or 20 oz portions. Complimentary 30-minute tours are offered Fridays-Sundays on the hour between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m, or by appointment weekdays. Be sure to wear closed-toed shoes, and check in at the bar 15 minutes prior to your tour. Call (805) 225-5911, ext 607 for more information.If you’re in Buellton, you can enjoy lunch or dinner at the brewery’s Taproom Restaurant (620 McMurray Road, Buellton), when you can enjoy a pint (or two) while enjoying Central Coast specialties like crispy halibut fish tacos or blackened ahi tostadas. There’s plenty of traditional pub grub as well, such as their Double Barrel Ale Steak and Black Bean Chili or homemade Taproom Pretzels, served with Welsh cheddar cheese and mustard. Website.
Green Flash Brewing Company
Founded in 2002 by Mike and Lisa Hinkley, this Mira Mesa brewery is known for its cutting-edge beers, including their award-winning West Coast I.P.A. and Saison Diego, brewed with bits of Chinese ginger and Seville orange peels.The tasting room boasts more than 30 beers on tap, which you can enjoy outside in the Beer Garden along with fare from San Diego food trucks like The Dog Shack, Swieners and The Gooch. Several beers are sold exclusively here, including their East Village Pilsner, 30th Street Pale Ale, and Park West Porter. Website.
Karl Straus Brewing Company
With beers named Endless Summer Light and Woodie Gold, it’s not surprising that Karl Strauss Brewing Company set its roots in laid-back San Diego, becoming the city’s first microbrewery. Since crafting its first batch in 1989, Karl Strauss has expanded into one of Southern California’s most popular microbreweries, opening a series of gastro-pubs in Costa Mesa, Carlsbad, La Jolla, Sorrento Mesa and Downtown San Diego. They’re also on tap at LAX, San Diego Airport, Disneyland’s California Adventure and Universal Citywalk. Try the Endless Summer Light (named one of the best light craft beers in the nation), or the Red Trolley Ale, which received gold medals at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival. As for food, I’m personally enamored with their grilled spice-rubbed mahi-mahi fish tacos, served with chipotle sour cream and fire-roasted salsa, and their portobello mushroom sandwich, basted with amber lager and topped with chili aioli and pepper jack cheese. Website.
Kern River Brewing Company
Located just a few blocks from the roaring Kern River, this little Kernville brewery serves up some of the best beers and pub grub in Central California. During the heat of summer, come here for one of their house-made root beer floats (you can also get it with their Class V Stout!) followed by a sampling of appetizers, burgers and brats. All of the beers are outstanding, but two of our favorites are the Isabella Blond and Sequoia Red. Be sure to stock up on a growler or two before heading back to camp! Website.
Lagunitas Brewing Company
If the clever names don’t grab you (who can resist Hairy Eyeball Ale and Little Sumpin Sumpin), the brews certainly will at this beloved microbrewery in Petaluma. Founded in 1993 by Tony Magee, Lagunitas has a loyal following, and its India Pale Ale is one of the top-selling IPAs in the state. Be sure to visit the TapRoom and Beer Sanctuary, where you can enjoy live music, special-release brews and a variety of pub grub like chili cheese nachos, Kronik Chili and panini sandwiches. For dessert, try their Imperial Stout Ice Cream Float. Tours are offered by request. Website.
Mammoth Brewing Company
After a long day on the slopes, nothing says apres ski like Mammoth Brewing Company. The microbrewery specializes in more than 13 different brews, many named after local Mammoth Lakes legends (Real McCoy Amber, named for Dave McCoy) and locations (Devil’s Post Pale Ale). Come here for their complimentary tasting, then bring home a growler (or two) back to your cabin or campsite. Growlers are half-off every first Wednesday of the month. Our recommendation? The organic IPA 395, made with mountain juniper and desert sage harvested from the local forest. Website.
Named for California’s first mission, this downtown San Diego craft brewery prides itself on five heady handcrafted brews. Come here before a Padres game and enjoy John Egan’s award-winning Mission Hefeweizen — made with hints of pear, banana and cloves — or the smooth and citrusy Mission Shipwrecked Double IPA. Website.
Ireland may have Guinness and Beamish, but we have Moylan’s — a Marin brewery known for such Emerald Isle tributes as Tipperary Pale Ale, Danny’s Irish Style Red Ale, and Ryan Sullivan’s Imperial Stout.Their Irish pub serves up a variety of signature ales on tap, along with a simple menu of nachos, wings, chili and burgers. For something more authentic, try Moylan’s Irish Stew, chock-full of hearty vegetables and lamb. Website.
North Coast Brewing Company
A fixture in Fort Bragg since 1988, this coastal brewery was dubbed “one of the 10 best breweries in the world” by the Beverage Testing Institute. Their Taproom and Grill serves up the full spectrum of their award-winning brews on tap, alongside coastal specialties like crab salad, calamari steaks and steamed clams. The Culinary Institute of America was so enamored with NCBC that they have a special food pairing menu prepared by chef John Ash. Try the Le Merle Saison with ahi tuna ceviche and avocado, or the Acma IPA with fish tacos and citrus salsa. Brother Thelonious (named for jazz group Thelonious Monk) is perfect with grilled marinated flank steak and lime-chipotle sauce. Their Old Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout is the perfect accompaniment for a grown-up ice cream float, or Black Forest cake. Website.
Port Brewing and Lost Abbey
Worship your favorite Lost Abbey and Port Brewing Company ales at this brewery housed in the former Stone Brewing company headquarters. Start at the 52-foot-long bar, where you can sample more than 20 varieties of beer on tap, available in 1 oz. portions or full pints. Lost Abbey is known for their angelic (Devotion, The Ten Commandments, Judgment Day) and devilish (Serpent’s Stout, Witch’s Wit) library of beers, while Port Brewing focuses on ocean-inspired brands like Wipe Out IPA, High Tide Fresh Hopped IPA and Shark Attack Double Red Ale. Free 30-minute tours are offered on weekends. Be sure to check out the Barrel Room, where an 8-foot sign welcomes visitors with In Illa Brettanomyces, Nos Fides — Latin for “In the Wild Yeast, We Believe.” Website.
Russian River Brewing Company
More than 22 beers compete for your attention at this Sonoma County microbrewery, which took over Korbel’s Guerneville vineyards in 2003. Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo (some may remember him from his parent’s Cilurzo Family Vineyards in Temecula) is perhaps best known for his Pliny the Elder Double IPA, but all of the beers are worthy competitors. Try the Temptation — a blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels, or Supplication, aged in pinot noir barrels with a hint of sour cherry. Their Consecration dark ale is aged in Cabernet sauvignon barrels with black currants and notes of tobacco and chocolate. The Santa Rosa pub menu offers a variety of sandwiches and salads, but the pizzas are a specialty, coming in almost 20 different varieties. Pair them with your favorite brew, available in pints, goblets, pitchers and 2 oz. samplers. Website.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
As a college town, it’s not surprising that this Chico brewery/restaurant does brisk business. But it takes more than the average ale or lager to be named “among the best in the world.” Founded in 1980 by chemist/physics grad Ken Grossman and friend Paul Camusi, this humble microbrewery — named for the local Sierra Nevada mountains — has become one of California’s signature breweries. Although their Sierra Nevada Pale Ale still rules the pack, all are worth a taste. Their German-Style Pilsner took home the gold at the 2010 World Beer Cup, and their Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale has received kudos from beer critic Michael Jackson. Come here for the brewery tour, then head inside the Taproom and Restaurant for chewy wood-fired pizzas beneath the wisteria-draped pergola. Several live events are offered throughout the year in their 350-seat theater, The Big Room. Website.
Stone Brewing Company
This highly regarded California brewery, located a few skips from the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido, is famous for its Stone Pale Ale and IPA. Personally, we love their Arrogant Bastard Ale, an American strong ale that really packs a punch with its 7.2 percent alcohol level. Come here for a free tour, then check out their organic and locally sourced restaurant, which includes a variety of global cuisine, ranging from housemade kimchee and tilapia ceviche to BBQ duck tacos and chicken shnitzel. Time your visit for one of their special events, which range from Beer 101 courses to Beer & Cheese or Beer & Cigar nights. Stone Brewing is America’s 14th largest craft brewery, producing roughly 115,000 barrels per year. Website.
Of course, there are several more great California breweries not mentioned here. I’ll be adding to this list as I explore some more of them. What’s your favorite California brewery? Drop us a line and let me know!