In the last few years, San Diego has come into its own on the international beer scene and is now one of America’s capitals of craft beer. Dubbed the ‘Napa Valley of craft beer,’ San Diego county is renowned for its West Coast-style India Pale Ales (IPAs) and even stronger, hoppier Double IPAs, with more than 100 (and counting) breweries, which between them won 15 medals at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival.

Every November San Diego Beer Week showcases a host of craft-beer-related events, from barrel tastings to wine versus beer food-pairings. Year round, Brew Hop can put together guided brewery tours tailored to your taste buds, while Brewery Tours of San Diego run daily scheduled group tours. You can track down your top tipple with a beer savvy app such as TapHunter, or download maps and information from the San Diego Brewer’s Guild.

Beer poster in San Diego. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

The pioneers

Back in 1989 the pioneering Karl Strauss Brewing Company was the first San Diego brewery to open in more than fifty years and it’s since become one of the largest in the county. Now with eight brewery-restaurants they keep producing award-winning drinks such as Mosaic Session IPA, a single-hop beer. Take a tasting at the Santa Fe Street venue and look out for Cask Night every Thursday, when they introduce a new cask-conditioned beer (ale that undergoes a secondary fermentation process by maturing in small casks) at each of their locations.

Established in 1992 as a modest operation at the back of Home Brew Mart, Ballast Point Brewing Company has grown into one of the leaders of the local beer scene. Seven different brews are available year-round, including the original Pale Ale and Wahoo White, as well as limited editions such as the imperial porter Victory At Sea. You can tour its brewery and take a tasting in any of its four San Diego locations.

Beer tasting at Karl Strauss. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

Founded in 1996 by a pair of beer enthusiasts, the Stone Brewing Co. is the largest (and still expanding) brewery in Southern California. It has ten, year-round beers – including the signature Arrogant Bastard Ale – and also does collaborations and special releases, such as the Enjoy by IPA. Take one of the daily guided tours of its stunning headquarters in Escondido or visit one of its stores where you can taste the beer, fill your growler and buy the T-shirt.

The next generation

Nearing its three-year anniversary, Societe Brewing is already known for its brand of highly botanical IPAs – The Pupil, part of the Out West collection, has become a firm favorite – as well as takes on Belgian ales, English stouts, and barrel-aged beers. The atmospheric Tasting Room is open seven days a week – they don’t bottle yet, but grab one of their stylish growlers to take away.

Diminutive, unassuming and out-of-the-way it might be, but the Alpine Beer Company makes some of the best brews in the county and has gained a cult following, especially for its hop-heavy IPAs, such as the double IPA Pure Hoppiness. Drop in at their pub just a few doors down from the brewery for some delicious, beer-friendly barbecue.

Lost Abbey  create unique Belgian-inspired, flavor-driven beers, experimenting with ageing in former wine, tequila and brandy barrels, with fruits, herbs, spices and a variety of wild yeasts. Beers are greeted with near-religious fervor by their legion of fans – they come with names such as Devotion, Judgement Day, and Inferno, each with its own one-off artwork. The tasting room stocks regular and seasonal releases.

Beer-focused bars

Can’t get to the source? There are plenty of beer bars to try. At Hamilton’s Tavern, hundreds of taps hang from the ceiling like multicolored stalactites. Owner Scot Blair began as an avid home brewer before turning this dimly lit bar into a bastion of craft beer. New suds-converts can enjoy one of the city’s most impressive rotating beer selections, from local microbrews to exotic imports.

Beer taps cover the ceiling at Hamilton's Tavern. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

The much-loved and usually jam-packed Blind Lady Ale House – or BLAH for short – has a diverse selection of local craft beers on draft as well as bottled imports. And don’t miss the creative pizzas.

For a brew with a view, head to Draft in the historic Belmont Park on Mission Beach. With boardwalk seating overlooking the Pacific, it combines two of the city’s biggest draws – surf and suds. There’s a massive 31-foot TV screen but the centerpiece is the bar, with 69 beers on tap and more than 30 in seasonally rotating bottles. The menu’s good too.

Beer-focused restaurants

As well as craft breweries with good food, the city has a growing number of great beer-focused restaurants. In the North Park neighborhood, Waypoint Public has a well-curated craft beer list from Bottlecrafts’s Brian Jensen (see below), both draft and bottle, that’s perfectly paired with chef Amanda Baumgarten's eclectic menu, including cassoulet, fried oyster tacos and house made pasta.

Oceanside’s Bagby Beer Company is an ambitious project from award-winning brewer Jeff Bagby. This huge two-storey space has multi-level indoor and outdoor dining areas, up to an impressive 140 beers on tap, including a selection of house brews, and the kitchen serves up beer-friendly dishes such as pork belly poutine, seasonal salads, and pizza from the wood-fired oven.

Neighborhood in downtown’s East Village is a mix of edgy design, locally sourced food and a strong craft beer list. Executive Chef Jason McLeod brings his Michelin-star experience and quality ingredients to the menu in dishes such as jalapeño mac and cheese, chorizo corn dogs and grain-fed sirloin burgers topped with artisanal sauces. Just don’t ask for ketchup.

Take a flight

Bottlecraft is a great place to begin or further your interest of craft beer. Image by Sarah Gilbert / Lonely Planet

Don’t know your gueze from your gose? Then start at Bottlecraft, part boutique beer shop, part tasting room. They opened their first store in Little Italy in 2011, stocking around 700 local, domestic, and international craft beers, now they also have a North Park branch in the heart of the 30th Street craft beer scene. Owned by a consummate beer expert Brian Jensen, the knowledgeable staff takes pleasure in educating customers in craft beer, hosting guided private tastings, four-glass flights (small glasses of different beers) of guest brews and themed tasting events in the Little Italy tasting room.

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