San Diego is known the world over for its craft beer, and while there are plenty of good choices all around the city, North County specifically is pretty much the perfect breeding ground for amazing brews. First of all, the weather is nearly always clear and warm — the perfect temperature for letting yeast do its thing (and also, of course, enjoying the results). Second, you’ve got a great mix of tourist dollars, industrial warehouse space, and brewing talent, with brewers coming from nearly all directions to settle in and make great craft. Finally, you’ve got an interested audience, ready to try a pint or a flight of whatever’s new and most interesting. So whether you’re traveling by on I-5 or a local looking to hit up a new spot, here’s a list of the best places in the area to sit and grab a brew or two (or three or four).Read More
Where to Drink Beer in North County
The best brew stops in Carlsbad, Oceanside, and more
1. Wavelength Brewing Company
Brewing beer these days is as much a science as it is an art. Yes, there’s a lot of craft in how you choose ingredients and mix them together, but there’s also science in techniques like yeast biology and hop genetics. Wavelength is a brewery that doesn’t just leverage science to make good beer — they embrace and admire it in the tasting room, too. Come in to try a tasty IPA or an amber, or you can grab one of their more offbest experiments, including a blonde sour or a tropical kolsch. While sipping, you can watch rockets launch on streaming video, enjoy a lecture, play some games or trivia, and even order food from When Pigs Fly BBQ next door, El Ranchero, or URBN pizza down the street. Scientists have always helped us to make better beer, but at Wavelength, better beer is helping to make more and better scientists.
2. Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey
The Lost Abbey is easily findable on our map, so the name doesn’t reflect its status so much as its feeling — nestled away from the coast in a hulking warehouse adorned with crosses and barrels, this place does feel a bit monastic. So it makes sense that there are Belgian monk-brewed favorites like Judgement Day (the quadrupel, so called not because it’s been fermented more than once, but because it was marked with four Xs back in medieval times — meaning that it was stronger than the dubbel or even the tripel, both of which are also on tap at the Abbey). The Abbey betrays its quiet spirit a bit, however, as it shares a space with the also-great Port Brewing, a space that used to belong to SoCal’s craft giant, Stone. Did monks ever sell classic West Coast IPAs in cans and growlers? At Lost Abbey, they do.
3. Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens - Escondido
All hail the kings of San Diego craft, ever may they reign. While a lot of the best breweries in San Diego get plenty of charm from being smaller, plucky, everyday operations, Stone has decided to show off every bit of its success at this Escondido supercenter (because if you have it, you might as well flaunt it, right?). Though the Liberty Station complex down near Point Loma is the clear flagship (and North County even gets a cozy tap room in Oceanside), there’s a whole kingdom hidden in this resort-like setup, with nearly 40 beers on tap at the bar, a restaurant (serving dishes like a “True Craft” Burger and a “Stone Steak Taco”), a company store where you can buy a tiki towel or a sticker decked out with the Stone logo, and tours available four or five times a day. The gorgeous facility puts the up-and-coming little rooms at much smaller brewers to shame, but at least it gives the smaller guys a point of comparison — as either something to aspire to or a sell-out path to avoid.
4. Culver Beer Co.
Don’t let the slightly tough-to-remember name throw you — this place in Carlsbad founded by Mike Stevenson and Ben Fairweather is worth remembering for sure. “Chef Matt” Craig worked as a bartender at the place, but had a passion for cooking, and he opened the Lightly Toasted deli spot built right into the bar area. And not only is the food tasty (and easy to order), but the beer’s solid as well — they make a great Irish red, an excellent Tangerine wheat ale, and if you’re lucky, a Peanut Butter Porter on nitro. It’s a little off the beaten path, but especially with the food spot up and running, Culver’s definitely worth finding.
5. Tap That Draft Beer Services
Unlike most of the places on this list, Tap That doesn’t actually brew anything themselves. The company started up as a keg rental spot, but as they got used to bringing more and rare beers through (usually based on customer requests), they built up an expertise that, it turns out, makes them the perfect folks to run a tap room as well. And even though there’s nothing made in house, their selection is as good (or better) as any actual brewer you’ll find in North County, and the personality here pours just as strong as the brews. There’s a board where you can buy beers for strangers (or strangers become friends), and there’s occasionally free pizza, a karaoke or trivia night, or lots of other fun themed nights happening. If you really want fresh-made beer, Legacy Brewing is right across the street, too, but even without a house list, Tap That is a real gift to beer fans in the area.
6. Arcana Brewing Company
Some breweries are more commercial investments — they represent someone trying to brew up a name for themselves in the industry, or try to build a brand, or come up with a recipe so popular that they can sell out to a bigger beer company somewhere else. But other places feel like they just wanted to put all of their favorite things under one roof: A brewing operation, a love of steampunk, and an affinity for good company and fine industry. Arcana is one such place — owner Daniel Guy surely does have commercial interests (he’s already had to fend off a lawsuit from Sam Adams after the original name of the brewery skewed a bit too close to one of their trademarks), but when you visit his spot, you get the sense that he just wanted to include all of his favorite things in one place. And when some of his favorites become yours as well (the Headbasher IPA and the Honey Pale Ale are excellent, and there’s always at least a few interesting sips of barleywine, mead, or, lately, hard seltzer, to try out), you’ll definitely appreciate what’s been built here. If you appreciate it enough, you can even join the great mug club (which gets you your own mug and access to special events and brews), though maybe not right away — there is often a waiting list.
7. Bagby Beer Co.
Bagby Beer Co. is a more recent addition to the Coast Highway — it’s leading the way for gentrification (it sits next to a climbing gym and across the street from a mortuary that’s been there since 1920) along a stretch of what used to be a pretty forgotten part of town. And while the beer here is good (the Worker Bee Golden ale flavored with local honey is delicious, and the All in the Family Amber ale is great and can be ordered in a boot), hopefully the brewers won’t be too offended to hear that the food is almost better. You can get wood-fired pizzas or burgers (including an Impossible option), poutine with pork belly and ale gravy, a local-made cheddar brat, or great specials on the weekends ready to pair with a brew. The trivia night on Tuesdays is great, and in general, Bagby brings a cool, chill vibe to the area. Gentrification has its issues, of course, but if the whole of South Oceanside eventually fills up with places like Bagby, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad after all.
8. Twisted Horn Mead and Cider
If you are interested in drinking mead (which is an alcoholic drink made with honey, water, and yeast — it’s fermented and aged like wine rather than boiled and made with grain and hops like beer), you’ve got more than a few good options in North County, including Golden Coast Mead and Fruitcraft (who also make great kombucha, which is fermented tea, made with a mixture of bacteria and yeast rather than just yeast). Twisted Horn beats the rest, however, just because they live the life a little bit more. Not only are their brews authentically named (you can drink a Raven’s Claw or a Freja’s Folly), but after you choose a drink, you can sit in a realistically built Nordic mead hall and listen to old Viking tales (seriously — they have storytelling nights). There’s also a great list of ciders (which is made with fruit juice, usually apple, fermented with yeast and aged like wine and mead) to try. If you’re a true mead head, all of the other places are worth a stop, but if you just want to sip something a little different, Twisted Horn will help you set sail. Just make sure you stop when all three sheet hit the wind — some of these drinks hit a double digit ABV (% of alcohol by volume) and keep going after that.
9. BattleMage Brewing Company
Look, here’s a theory for you, assembled over a lifetime of enjoying great beers: Beer makes people nerdy. When you’re brewing beer, there’s a fair amount of sitting around and drinking: letting it ferment, taste testing it, bottling it up, taste testing it again. All of that sitting around and drinking means you need something fun to do, and what’s more fun than telling stories? Comic books, movies, and games: D&D, roleplaying games, board games and card games. Battlemage understands this relationship through and through, and that’s why their walls are decorated with Magic: The Gathering cards, D&D characters who’ve expired in grisly ways, and a table with coloring books ready to be filled in over suds and conversation. Oh, and speaking of the beer, it’s great too — nearly everything you’ll find on the nerd-inspired tap board (there’s a Hopdouken IPA that’s excellent, a Chocobo Hefeweizen that adds cocoa nibs into the mix, and the real star, The Beer is Dark and Full of Terrors. Get a pint of that delicious stout, park your seat in the Game of Thrones throne they have installed next to the bar, and you’ll agree: Beer makes people nerdy.
10. Latitude 33 Brewing Company
Latitude 33 is a brewer that understands something that many other brewers on this list don’t (or just haven’t worried about yet): It’s not just about the beer. Yes, of course, it is about the beer, and the company does get that — the Blood Orange IPA is well worth its popularity, and the Honey Hips is also excellent. But as much as it’s about crafting the beer, it’s also about crafting everything else around the beer, too: The relationships, the marketing, the community, the sales. Latitude 33 was started by options trader Mike Ingram and his wife Treasure (namesake, you’d assume, of the Treasured Red ale), and in addition to brewing their own creations, they also put together contract brews and collaborations with lots of other great North County breweries, including Belching Beaver, Legacy Brewing, Pizza Port, Burgeon Beer Co., and Culver Beer Company (definitely try the Bro-kini, a coconut and vanilla hazy IPA put together with the last three companies on that list). Everything from Latitude’s marketing to its distribution is on point, and that’s put it near the top of the list of the fastest growing San Diego county businesses for the last few years running. Admittedly, this does make Latitude 33 a slightly more corporate entity — if your main requirement for a great microbrew is that no one else has heard of it yet, this might not be your spot. But if you’re interested in seeing a beer company that understands how to build a brand for the long term, Latitude 33’s got some excellent brews for you.
11. Prohibition Brewing Company
Most breweries in North County aren’t big on food offerings — they’ll occasionally have a food truck available, they’ll serve a few snacks, or they’ll give up and just let you bring in whatever food you want (if you’ve never grabbed a great San Diego burrito and gone to eat it with an IPA at a little tap room, you haven’t really lived). Prohibition, however, disagrees — the company’s food menu is as full service as they come, and even rivals the beer for quality. They have excellent burgers, sandwiches and salads, and some local favorites like carne asada fries and fried avocado (Prohibition also just opened a location up north in Fallbrook, home of the Avocado Festival). It’s interesting that such a menu comes from the homebrewers who started the place in 2011, but they know their beers too: The Derringer IIPA will knock you off your feet, and the Dirty Blonde and the Coconut Blonde are both very tasty. Prohibition is a little bit of a drive away from the coast, but it’s worth the trip, especially if you want some lunch or dinner with your brews.
12. Belching Beaver Brewery Tavern and Grill
There is an old law about beer in Germany called the Reinheitsgebot, or “purity order. “ The law was introduced in 1487, and adopted across the country in 1516, and it says, simply, that there can only be three ingredients used in making local beer: hops, water, and malt (the fourth required beer ingredient is microscopic yeast, but at the time, brewers didn’t even know it existed yet). That’s it. The law was originally created to control trade (and slow imports), and while it’s been limited quite a bit recently, it still holds today. The folks at Vista’s Belching Beaver, half a world away, respectfully decline to follow that rule within their walls. They mix all kinds of things into their best-in-class beers, including mango, honey, peanut butter, chocolate, and cinnamon. And the world is better off for it — Belching Beaver has some of San Diego’s best brews, hands down. Odds are good that you’ve tried them — Belching Beaver is one of North County’s biggest successes, too. This Vista location also has a great restaurant bursting with good food and atmosphere. So no offense, Germany (and thanks for everything you’ve done for beer!), but if you stick to the rules of the Reinheitsgebot, well, your loss.
13. Helia Brewing Company
Not all of San Diego’s breweries are wild affairs. Sure, in the beach towns to the south, the only way for a brewery to get any attention is to be loud and raucous enough to grab it, but up in North County, not everyone needs the attention. Some are just happy to be quiet, serene places, as dedicated to the art of making good beer as they are to the art of spending a lazy afternoon tasting IPAs and thinking about life. It was started up by a surfer and a home-brewer who partnered together, and the vibe here is very different from lots of other places in North County — it’s chill and relaxed, with furniture from all sorts of different places, and a few big windows that let in the sun as it sets over North County. The beers are tasty and light to match, with more than a few IPAs, with one red ale and a porter adding just a touch of shade. There’s occasional yoga, food trucks, and other fun, but it’s nice to go during a slow time too, when it’s just you, the sun coming through the windows, a good beer, and a book or a friend for company.
14. Kilowatt Brewing Oceanside Taproom & Provisions
This outlet in Oceanside is a relatively new venture for Kilowatt — the company started out down in Ocean Beach and Kearney Mesa, and only opened this place recently (as Oceanside continues to build up towards being a pretty busy resort town). But even though this room only opened in 2019, it has come out swinging — the beers are really impressive, especially for such a small company, and the atmosphere here is as electrifying as the name. There’s a plinko game and a huge homemade Lite-Brite wall to play with, along with other board games and fun toys, and you can sit at a long bar or hang your head out the front windows and watch the rest of Oceanside develop up around you. The Kilowatt Pale and 250 kWh IPA are great standbys (and they’ll serve the second with guava here), and if you’re interested in more experimental pints like sours, seltzers, or whatever’s new on the featured drafts, you’ll find lots to try here. There’s also a mug club to join, lots of cool pairings and painting events going on, and of course every Thursday evening Oceanside has its Sunset Market, so you can shop down Main Street and then have a brew. Kilowatt’s one of the newer sparks in town, but it’s shockingly good all the same.