San Diego Is the Greatest Beer City. San Diego Is Not the Greatest Beer City.

Obviously San Diego’s got a cute li’l beer scene going.


I dig that Sculpin thing they do, along with that Belgian-style Abbey that, unlike the great gospel song, remains Lost andhasn’tbeen found. They even followed suit after SeaWorld, the zoological andwild animal parks, and Lego Land and created a theme park for beer lovers. Plus: Mexican food.

Ordinarily, I like to take a balanced approach to weighing a city’s prowess as a beer town. Wherever you live, hopefully you find it top notch, as far as local brews are concerned, along with an atmosphere and support base conducive to soaking it all up.

I might have been inclined to call pitting San Diego against Portland a fool’s errand ,since both of them are clearly so awesome. But my editor here gave me explicit instructions: “don’t pull your punches (and) at least take off your gloves and slap someone with them.” Yes, boss.

So as a solid to Ezra, rather than bring up, and then put on par, places like Boulder/Denver/Ft. Collins, the Bay Area, Asheville, Grand Rapids, Philly, Austin, Vermont, and others that all make reasonable claims, I will do what Portlanders are too polite (or dismissive) to do during Charlie Papazian’s annual BeerTown USA poll. Bottom line: in terms of volume and global awe and respect, it comes down to Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, California.


Brewery and Human populations

For one, please stop with “the most breweries” thing. San Diegans say there are some 70, soon to be 80, breweries in San Diego, but they’re wrong. You don’t mean the city of San Diego. You’re talking about the whole county. Of course with that many millions of people (over 3) and that much ground to cover (over 4,000 sq miles), you’re gonna find a bunch. But roughly half of the SD Brewers Guild members are NOT in the city of San Diego. And seemingly half of them are a Karl Strauss. And Karl Strausses, while selling good beer, are no McMenamins (the eccentrics who also sell good beer, but too many people haven’t tried it in six years and think it’s still downhill). In fact, everyone knows you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and the Oregon chain trumps San Diego’s, but I’ll continue.


Let’s do some comparisons. Both San Diego and Portland boast about 50 breweries. Throw in the rest of San Diego Metro and you pick up those extra breweries. But if we’re talking whole counties, then Portland gets to claim three counties—Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington—since the city itself spills into each. And there’s an equal number of breweries (70, soon to be 80) in Portland Metro. I’m not even counting Vancouver, Washington, since I’m trying to win this argument over who has the best beer. Population-wise, as I mentioned, SD County’s population is over 3.1 million squeezed into over 4,000 square miles, while Portland’s three counties are home to a combined 1.6 million people sprawled out across just 1,200 square miles. PDX Metro has nearly one-third the population, less than a third of the land mass, yet still supports an equal number of breweries. City-wise, there are half as many Portlanders (600 thousand) vs one-point-something million San Diegans, and yet Rose City gets to claim more brewing concerns (i.e.: Strauss counts as one and McMenamins as one).

Reachability

That’s even a word; Spellcheck didn’t correct me. Reacharound. Yep, that time it corrected me. Anyhoo, San Diego, both the city and especially the county, has a ton of ground to cover. The public transpo sucks, it’s too far to ride your bike, and it’s a stupid idea to drive from one brewery to another, but at least you sober up sitting in hours of traffic on I-5 or I-15 or I-8 or, aye aye aye, there are a ton of freeways down there. Portland is chockablock with killer pub-crawls. Southeast Portland alone has 11 brewpubs and brewery tasting rooms within walking distance of one another. That’s insanity. Yummy, boozy insanity. And, after you’ve stumbled from Lucky Lab to Cascade to Base Camp to Burnside among those 11, pedal just 2 ½ miles and you’re in the Boise neighborhood of Northeast Portland, where you can start all over again. That SocialCycle pedal-pub in SD hits, what, three breweries per tour?

Sun vs Hop

The argument can be made that San Diego wins by virtue of its weather. Yeah, warmth is nice, and warm beaches are even nicer. But as far as beer city status goes, sunlight destroys hop character, so your strength is a weakness. Moreover, we have the Willamette Valley, not to mention the nearby Yakima Valley. In short, we can haz fresh hops, and we have multiple fresh hop festivals to prove it. We’re bestride the 45th parallel, like Ginuwine wants you to straddle his saddle. San Diego resides on the 32nd. Great for oranges, lousy for hops.

Six of one

Quality-wise, I’ll concede only this: the two brewing bastions are on equal footing. San Diego’s(well, Escondido’s)Stone trumps Portland’s Portland Brewing, yet I’m going on record as saying that if I could only drink Lost Abbey’s portfolio or The Commons’ oeuvre, I’m going Commons. If you wanna fight me on that, then I’d just pull Upright outta my sleeve. Speaking of Port/Lost Abbey, I’ll concede Pizza Port’s beers are, on the whole, more interesting than Hopworks’, but HUB’s pizzas trump PP’s, so can we call it a draw and be glad we each have a sweet spot for the perfect pairing?

If you bring in the complementary aspects of what makes a great beer city—its multi-tap taverns—San Diego goes down in an inglorious blaze. Toronado? Y’all franchised that from San Francisco! Of course Hamilton’s, O’Brien’s, and Blind Lady Ale House, et al. are world-class watering holes, but Belmont Station, Bailey’s, Apex & BeerMongers, Roscoe’s, et cetera, et cetera, are worldlier and classier. And pints are generally cheaper.

Point-Counterpoint

Having posed this quandary over whose scene is better, I received some nuggets to munch on.

Portlander and almost-publican Tanisha Caravelloachieved a level of balance in her encapsulation, saying, “While craft beer isn’t as pervasive in mainstream culture (in SD), they have truly stellar breweries that seem more CONSISTENTLY great. And much better food at the brewpubs.” In her blog post about her recent visit, linked to her name, she even had the gall to state, “Maybe Portland isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.” San Diego: 1. Portland: 0.

Beer vivant about town ElGordo chimed in, “You don’t have to drive a goddamn hour to get between breweries in Portland. Greg Koch doesn’t live here. And, oh yeah, fresh hop ales. That is all.” San Diego: 1. Portland: 1.

To that,Pete Dunlop, author of the just-published book Portland Beer, countered, “Good luck with that comparison. Both have great beers. Ours are just closer together.” Then his account was hacked and a member of the San Diego chapter of Anonymous posted, “If San Diego has no fresh hop beers, that’s a point in their favor as far as I’m concerned.” San Diego: 2. Portland: 1.

PacNW native and Alpha King-crowned Melvin Brewing owner Jeremy Tofte says “San Diego is now,” but he does not finish his thought. His lack of a period or any punctuation at the end implies that he simply has not finished his thought, so he might have been indicating that San Diego is now the better beer city, or possibly that San Diego is now on fire. We’ll never know. Score remains unchanged at San Diego: 2. Portland: 1.

Mario from Brewed For Thoughtpontificates up to his blog’s pun with some good food for thought. He lives in Santa Rosa, nearly exactly halfway between Portland and San Diego, and lives in California but has family in Oregon, which gives his chime extra timbre. He begins with “No offense to the Portland scene,” which braces us for some offense to the Portland scene. “I feel San Diego is doing more interesting things and producing more ‘wow’ beers that beer drinkers are talking about. Hype is a difficult thing to measure quantitatively, but San Diego definitely has it.” Does that deserve to be a factor—how outsiders perceive the scene that isn’t their own? Maybe, but I’m aware of several beer industry folks (namely editors and publishers I write or have written for) who copped to never having visited Portland. Crazy, right?! So, of course people are going to be more stoked on what’s on their radar than what isn’t. San Diego lures more visitors on account of things such as that sun thing and those theme parks and attractions. I get that. But if we turned this into a battle of who has the better attractions where maybe families visit on vacation and the beer geek or geeks in the family also get to enjoy the beer, then despite what the tourism numbers say, there’s simply no way that a dancing killer whale and some encaged koala bears trump hiking around waterfalls and strolling through the International Rose Test Garden.

But I digress. Mario goes on to mention “AleSmith being named RateBeer’s Best Brewery in the World for 2013.” Mario works with RateBeer, so I’m perplexed why he said that when that poll shows the superlative AleSmith placing 6th. Continuing on from there, the Top 100 also contains Stone, Ballast Point, Alpine, Green Flash, Port/Lost Abbey, and Pizza Port-Carlsbad. Very impressive. The Portland area, by contrast, only features two: Hair of the Dog and Upright (and four of the SD area breweries bested Hair of the Dog at #20.) But the list, an inexact science, shall we say, as a measure of greatness, just shows how much people are unaware of in Oregon. That’s what makes bottle shopping in Portland so awesome—all the whale-worthy beers on the shelves that people aren’t eBaying on. That leads to Mario’s last comments. “Portland is doing more in terms of barrel-aging and sours, but I can’t say I’ve heard much clamor around a widely distributed Portland release in the past couple years…San Diego plays the hits and sells out the arena shows; Portland prefers the intimate venues and impresses with a deep catalog and wide ranging styles and influences.” Because he brought up several good points at length, I’ll award 2 points for the surfers but us hikers score a safety. Oh wait, those are 2-points too.San Diego: 4. Portland: 3.

Now here’s where the debate gets lopsided, thanks to a TKO from none other than Stone Brewing’s brewmaster Mitch Steele*. He categorically declares Portland the victor in his most recent blog post after his most recent visit. I honestly do think it (Portland) is the best beer city in the country. Don’t get me wrong, San Diego is an amazing place full of delicious and unique beers that are at the top of anyone’s list, but craft beer is more pervasive in Portland than anywhere else I’ve ever been.” The man makes the beer at San Diego County’s largest brewery, and he put his homerism aside and let the truth flag fly. Kudos. San Diego: 4. Portland: 10 (because I weight his opinion more than everyone else’s for the purposes of this battle).

And Josh Christie, beer book hand-seller and author of a guidebook to his home state’s breweries, including those in the city of Portland (the other one), theorized, “San Dimas High School football rules.” San Diego: 4. Portland: 10. San Dimas: 1.

Home Run or Un-homer?

Because there’s San Diego and there’s North County, separated by endless freeways and gridlock, San Diego ought to be two separate beercations, whereas Stumptown is a never-ending sea of good beer. But I think there’s one thing that clearly illustrates how the scale tips in favor of PDX. If you ask 10 local Portland beer geeks, “Where should I go first?” you will get 10 different answers (predicated on what style of beer you most enjoy). Cascade for sours. Commons for saisons. Gigantic for extreme beers. Breakside for a spice jar and kitchen sink’s worth of variety. Burnside for the food in equal measure. And Deschutes because it’s Deschutes. I posed that question to Michael Bowan, organizer of Beer-Con down there, and he said the first brewery that’s “a must” for pilgrims is Alpine Brewing. “It’s a trek but they make some of the best IPAs in town.” The mountain town of Alpine is some 30 miles from downtown San Diego. That’s closer than Hood River is to Portland, where Double Mountain also makes some of the best IPAs, but much like getting from one brewery to another takes an hour anywhere in Southern California, the drive out to Hood River is also an hour. Portland doesn’t feel the need to try and lump in as many scattered breweries as possible to boost its title as best beer city.

*No Mitch Steeles were harmed in the making of this blog.

Brian Yaeger

Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer and writes for All About Beer, Draft Magazine, CraftBeer.com, Portland Monthly, Willamette Week, and more. He earned a Master in Professional Writing (with a thesis on beer). Other than GABF, his favorite, can’t-miss event is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest where he’s drawn to any band with a tuba. Along with his wife, Half Pint, he runs Inn Beervana Bed & Beer in Portland where he also lives with his baby boy I.P.Yae, and German Shorthair Pointer, Dunkel.



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Discussion

  • Champs
    Champs
    Thu Mar 6, 2014 9:48 AM

    If the crux of the matter is that San Diego destinations (save North Park) are separated by freeways between one anonymous office park/bedroom community or another, then I submit Denver’s LoDo, to which Portland has no answer. Relatively speaking, San Diego does much better with its terrible water. And both cities—anywhere but Portland, actually—have you covered if you’ve got the audacity to stay out past midnight or enjoy professional sports.

    If Portland is better, there’s room for improvement.

  • Brian Yaeger
    Brian Yaeger
    Thu Mar 6, 2014 11:04 AM

    Our baseball team (Short Season-A, admittedly) is called the Hops.

    • Mario (Brewed for Thought)
      Mario (Brewed for Thought)
      Thu Mar 6, 2014 8:48 PM

      Hillsboro is as far from Portland as North County is from San Diego. You can’t dismiss sprawling metropolis in the article then claim it in the comments.

      • Champs
        Champs
        Fri Mar 7, 2014 1:50 AM

        I don’t know where you get your numbers, but a round trip on the Sunset from central Portland to HIllsboro and back is shorter than a drive up the 15 from downtown San Diego to Route 78.

        • Brian Yaeger
          Brian Yaeger
          Fri Mar 7, 2014 7:20 PM

          ^^^!!!

        • John the Kiwi
          John the Kiwi
          Thu Mar 6, 2014 3:49 PM

          I’m a huge Portland fan, but you’re hard pressed to find many Portland beers in the top 50 lists on beeradvocate or ratebeer. San Diego beers are scattered throughout those and many other national lists. San Diego for quality, Portland for EVERYTHING else mentioned.

          • Chris
            Chris
            Thu Mar 6, 2014 6:17 PM

            Honestly, there aren’t many Oregon or Washington beers on those lists, period, but I think that has more to do with the fact that there are very few people in this region using sites like RB or BA (relative to say the midwest or the east coast). Without the initial glowing reviews from “homers” hyping their great local stuff, beers never get the little burst of hype that causes the trade forums to explode with ISO threads. Breweries like Alesmith, Stone, and most of the others that dominate the lists have fairly wide distribution range, and thus aren’t as reliant on a group of locals giving them that initial boost.

            For example, I’d put Laurelwood Megafauna, Boneyard Hop Venom, or Barley Brown’s Tank Slapper up against anything coming out of San Diego or Vermont, but since none of them are bottled (shy of that tiny run of Megafauna last fall) that only way to experience them is to come here and drink them, or trade for a growler and experience a faded shell of what the beer was intended to be.

            Likewise, the sour/wild/fruit ales coming out of Ale Apothecary, Logsdon, The Commons, Upright, De Garde, Cascade, Block 15, and Solera are comparable to anything coming out of Lost Abbey, Russian River, New Glarus, or Hill Farmstead, but once again most of them are either not bottled or are available in such limited quantities that you pretty much have to be at the brewery on release day if you want any hope in scoring some.

            Admittedly I took some liberties including beers from other parts of the state, but with the exception of Solera and De Garde I would wager that the vast majority of the sales for the rest of the breweries I mentioned comes from the Portland metro, which helps reenforce my point that there’s a shit load of awesome beer available here that most people outside the region have simply never heard of.

            All of that said, my final point in Portland’s favor is that in addition to our own awesome local beer, we have access to many of San Diego’s heavy hitters like Stone, Ballast Point, Alesmith, Green Flash, whereas they don’t see much of anything from this neck of the woods.

          • Brian Yaeger
            Brian Yaeger
            Thu Mar 6, 2014 3:57 PM

            “the list, an inexact science shall we say as a measure of greatness, just shows how much people are unaware of in Oregon. That’s what makes bottle shopping in Portland so awesome—all the whale-worthy beers on the shelves that people aren’t eBaying on.”

            • ElGordo
              ElGordo
              Thu Mar 6, 2014 5:24 PM

              Brian – I tried to find the proper stats for area and population comparison, but it’s not easy with the rules you tried to lay out. Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties have 1.6 million people total–I changed that number above. But, they also combine to over 3,000 square miles (much of which is the Mt. Hood National Forest). Census bureau numbers show that there are 2.3 million people in “Portland metro”, which includes parts of 7 counties across 2 states. Then again, the census bureau also lumps Tijuana into San Diego metro for a total of 5 million people across 16,000 square miles, much of which is desert. I dunno, SD’s obviously got more people across more land area, but it’s not easy to figure things out via any of the arbitrary boundaries available out there.

              • Brian Yaeger
                Brian Yaeger
                Thu Mar 6, 2014 6:45 PM

                Thanks Gordo. Yep, I initially only went with Mult. & Wash. counties but then caved and added Clack, but forgot to account for the slight uptick in pop. and big upswing in sq. mi. But I cannot get down with including everything they call “metro” and those other 4 counties. Yes, obviously Vantucky is PDX Metro, but as I said, I’m glad that I didn’t have to count those breweries because that would’ve tilted the scale in SD’s favor!

                • linesthroughlines
                  linesthroughlines
                  Fri Mar 7, 2014 12:26 AM

                  Having just been in San Diego on a beer mecca for 5 days last week, I feel like this article was ripped from my psyche. My short answer would be: depends.

                  I think it’s absurd you have to travel 45 minutes to get to some of “San Diego”s best breweries (Stone, Port/Lost Abbey, Alpine). I think it’s absurd that half the breweries we visited are in homogenous office parks. Transportation between all these breweries, or the lack thereof, is a serious concern, unless you’re a millionaire or have a personal DD at all times. In my opinion, these facts negate any argument for SD being a contender for “Best Beer City”

                  That said, I’d rank many of the IPAs I drank down there (Societe’s The Apprentice & The Pupil, Alpine Duet & Keene Idea IIPA, Port Mongo, BP Sculpin, etc) to be as good or better than many (though definitely not all) PDX counterparts, which I drink often. On a purely IPA front, I’d surprisingly have to vote SD. If we included all of OR, that would again sway it back this way.

                  On literally everything else: transportation, locations, variety, volume, feel, and transcendence of other individual beers. I’d have to choose PDX. San Diego’s collective beer palate, in my opinion, contains very few notes compared to PDX’s symphony.

                  -Drew

                  • Scott Schwab
                    Scott Schwab
                    Fri Mar 7, 2014 5:14 PM

                    Although I could be accused of cherry picking facts from Portland’s wheelhouse, I would like to highlight that Velo Cult decided to move their entire bike shop (including all employees and their families) from San Diego’s South Park neighborhood to Portland two years ago. In San Diego, they had beer available for customers from a single kegerator the way many barber shops do in Portland. However, when they came to Portland they decided to build an actual bar which now has 12 taps pouring really good, unique beers. They pour so much good stuff that they were given a keg of the Barley Brown/Boneyard Allocation IIPA (still on tap – enjoyed one last night!) as one of the top craft customers in Portland. Just shows how pervasive good beer is in the Portland area.

                    • Brian Yaeger
                      Brian Yaeger
                      Sat Apr 12, 2014 9:33 PM

                      World Beer Cup wins by San Diego proper breweries: 5. Portland proper? 6.

                      • douglas decker
                        douglas decker
                        Wed Apr 16, 2014 7:39 PM

                        I’m a lucky guy. My son goes to college in PDX so I get to visit 4-5 times a year,but I live near Del Mar(San Diego)—midway between downtown SD and No. County. To top it off my dental office is in North Park near 30th St! Walking distance to Tiger,Tiger!,Blind Lady AH,Tornado , Ritual Tavern,Hamilton’s,Small Bar,Belching Beaver, Hess Brewing,Live Wire and many more! Ah heaven!

                        • Unknown
                          Unknown
                          Wed Apr 16, 2014 11:05 PM

                          Great article, but as someone who emigrated from Seattle to San Diego at a young age, I can point out a major misconception. We are not LA. San Diego freeway speeds generally average around 80 mph, unless you are going North from 8-9 AM or South from 5-6 PM on a weekday, the only time you see gridlock. All these “Aye’s” (in San Diego we refer to freeways more grandiosely: it’s “the” 5 or “the” 8) allow us to get around our gigantic county in record time. You can go from Lost Abbey to Alesmith (22 mi.) in 24 minutes.

                          • ElGordo
                            ElGordo
                            Thu Apr 17, 2014 7:50 PM

                            That sounds super-safe after a couple of beers, and environmentally friendly to boot!