It is early morning and I’m swimming in a coffin-shaped pool surrounded by gnarly ancient cacti, overlooked by a 12-storey floral mural. It was an invigorating way to wake up listening to the muted stirring of downtown LA – and I needed it after only two hours’ sleep. The night before, the Mad Men vibe at the stylish lobby bar of the Hotel Figueroa had led me to order a couple of late-night Old Fashioneds to help me on my way. Clearly, I should have had a few more. As my Californian sister-in-law told me: “LA for cocktails, San Diego for beer.”
Beyond Comic-Con: San Diego’s beaches and Pacific views are its real stars
I was heading to San Diego to visit my brother and his family and a big part of the attraction was to see for myself whether the city, with more than 200 craft breweries and tasting rooms, justified its “craft beer capital of America” billing (though Portland and Denver would no doubt object). Rather than flying or driving, I’d decided to travel from LA to San Diego by train on the double-deck Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, which hugs the coast for about a third of the three-hour journey.
As we slowly trundled out of the mighty art deco Union Station, the train’s woozy whistle signalled a semi-industrial backdrop of containers, parking lots and vast warehouses before picking up speed as we hit suburban Orange County, flanked by the Santa Ana mountains and the Pacific. The hazy sunshine inland finally gave way to a few wispy clouds as we met the coast at San Clemente. Suddenly the ocean was only a few feet away, along with miles of endless sandy beach studded with sky blue lifeguard towers and surfers waiting for waves. It was – a scenic and relaxing way to arrive.
As well as my brother showing me around his favourite places, I’d arranged to go on a private tour of some brewpubs and tasting rooms in North Park – one of America’s hippest neighbourhoods, according to Forbes magazine – with Summer Nixon of Brew Hop beer tours. It’s a great way to explore a range of breweries and tap rooms while someone else drives and educates you about the different varieties and tasting notes. We headed for craft beer central along 30th Street, where you can easily hit 10 fantastic locations in a 1.5-mile stretch. It’s not for nothing that Summer insists on you signing a waiver saying you’ll be responsible for the clean-up if you overdo it.
There’s certainly a rabbit hole to fall into when it comes to navigating the overwhelming variety of craft beers in San Diego. Summer taught me about colour, clarity (brilliant to cloudy), aroma (sweet and malty or sharp and hoppy), flavour, mouthfeel, head retention (a good thing) and the lacing on the glass (rings) and finish. At Eppig brewpub, I tried its Natural Bridge: Vienna Lager session beer, which had just won a gold medal at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival – it was smooth, malty and had a hint of smokiness. The hoppier and citrusy 10:45 to Denver was voted the best San Diego beer and IPA of 2018. The Dark American Sour with plum and cherry had chocolate and fruit notes and a pleasingly tart aftertaste. At Eppig you can also get a beer canned on the spot to take out – known as a crowler (not to be confused with a growler, which is a refillable glass bottle to take away).
A very different experience awaited me next door at JuneShine, which claims to be the world’s first alcoholic kombucha bar, and it brews its own organic Jun kombucha (fermented green tea and honey) onsite. The drinks have half the sugar of beer and are also gluten-free and probiotic. It’s clearly going for the healthy-drinking crowd. I tried the cucumber mojito, honey ginger lemon and the blood orange mint, which was my favourite – sour but refreshingly so.
Next we headed slightly off 30th Street to Thorn Street Brewery, which has a real neighbourhood feel. I could have drunk its smooth, chocolatey Cocomotive, a coconut porter, all day long but at 8.3% it’s close to Special Brew levels so it was quickly on to the Tropic Daze IPA – extremely hoppy and packed with tropical flavours. There are so many great breweries to visit, but unmissables are Societe, further north at Kearny Mesa, Fall Brewing and Modern Times (though the days of its huge Michael Jackson and Bubbles mural may be numbered). Because of the licensing laws about serving food at brewpubs, most tasting rooms have food trucks outside, too. There are the inevitable tacos (City Tacos are great), but you can also get sushi with a Mexican twist – at Sushi Uno I tried the Matador speciality roll packed with tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber and cilantro topped with crab, shrimp and spicy sauce. La Cochinita is also a great fusion of Mexican and Japanese cuisine. Then there’s the kimchi quesadilla from Eat Your Heart Out.
In between tastings I popped into a great second-hand bookshop, Verbatim, on 30th Street to see its first editions of one of my favourite noir writers, Jim Thompson, who lived in San Diego. Perhaps if I’d had another glass of the Cocomotive, I’d have bought one, but I’m happy with the regular paperbacks of The Killer Inside Me and his memoir Bad Boy that I picked up instead. Later in the week, I walked from the Gaslamp Quarter to the Old Town via Hillcrest and tracked down Thompson’s small, single-storey house on Second Avenue where the planes screech low overhead as they come in to land. San Diego is a very walkable city, though even in environmentally conscious California, everyone drives everywhere. But watch out for besuited kidults careering around the sidewalks on electric scooters. Even my tried and tested “Doesn’t Mummy let you go on the road?” didn’t deter them.You can’t really go wrong for food here especially if you’re after the craft beer as an accompaniment, but Summer recommends Trust in Hillcrest, North Park Beer Co, Tacos La Mezcla at South Park Brewing, the newly revamped Small Bar at University Heights, Toronado, Encontro and Tribute Pizza. Also, many places do special Taco Tuesday deals each week. The best meal I had was a Cali-Baja style dinner at Puesto. Its filet mignon taco with melted cheese, avocado and spicy pistachio serrano was sublime as was the flavoursome ceviche Acapulco – lime-cooked Mexican white shrimp with cucumber, tomato, serrano pepper, red onion, avocado and cilantro oil.
I have horrific memories of tequila-drinking as a teenager and haven’t touched the stuff for several decades, but I was persuaded to try the Casa St Matías, an extra añejo tequila, which was absurdly drinkable and thankfully came without that trauma-inducing telltale shudder.Another highlight was Balboa Park, packed with museums and galleries and an impressive cactus garden as well as the world-renowned zoo. Best of all was a very cheap night kayak trip – just $15 with all the equipment included at aqua-adventures.com – that I went on with my brother in Mission Bay, which started with seals diving under us (you might even see some bioluminescent organisms, too) and ended seven miles and two hours later with beautiful views of downtown San Diego twinkling in the distance. After all that beer, you have to work those calories off somehow.
Way to go
Hotel Figueroa in LA has rooms from £120 a night; the Lafayette has rooms from £106, and the Sofia in San Diego has rooms from £96, where accommodation was provided by sandiego.org. Contact Brew Hop for tours at brewhop.com. Air New Zealand flies daily from Heathrow to Los Angeles from £476 return
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