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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.