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Heads Up || San Diego Brewery Guide

The top five most memorable beers from San Diego's beer expert

brandon hernandez beer guide

It's no secret that my hometown has put itself on the map for more than beaches, fish tacos and mediocre sports.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Brandon Hernández, the resident expert on San Diego's prolific beer scene.

If you envy him that title, go log 900 hours or however many he’s spent since the late ‘90s, tasting, writing, reviewing and keeping up with the ever-growing number of craft breweries and events in town...and then go challenge his authority.

His new book, the San Diego Beer News Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, dropped earlier this month . (Just in time for San Diego Beer Week , kids!) My interview with Brandon will appear in next month's issue of Edible San Diego.

© San Diego Beer Week

"When I discovered craft beer, it was that Aha! moment." His voice gets a little softer, recalling. "I didn't know this existed; I want to know more; I thought, ‘I can't believe these companies are in my backyard, I'm going to go visit them.’ I get a real charge of staying on top of everything--it's so rich and diverse. It produces this joy that's hard to explain, but palpable."

His book is not only the first comprehensive guide to the San Diego beer scene...it's also the first critical guide. If value judgments harsh your mellow, be forewarned.

Brandon isn't worried.

"I've likely made more enemies than any person writing about breweries in San Diego. I'm sure there will be backlash for this guide. I think many brewing companies just aren’t used to seeing criticism, because so many other people writing on this subject get so wrapped up in the happiness associated with beer and being in such a terrific hotbed for it."

You'll read that in the article , when it comes out in December. What I didn't have room to include was his explanation of what being "critical" actually means:

"It's not just me saying, 'I don't like that's beer.' That would be pretty bush-league. The only thing that gets companies marked down in this book, as far as beer quality, is if beers are attentuated, display notes of DMS, is infected, or if it’s something you simply shouldn't drink. The most important thing is consistency. If a company’s beers taste different every time they come out, neither the brewery or its beers can be counted on."

In rating the beers, Brandon enlisted a large team of industry experts, quality control people, other critics, even local bartenders. It was important to him that ratings be awarded fairly, according to a system that would end up washing out personal biases--that the scale wouldn't be influenced by someone's hatred for smoked porter, for example, or by their cousin working in the taproom.

More than anything, he wanted the guide to be just that--a guide. So if someone values a brewery's ambiance as much as what it has on tap, they can eliminate options that include sipping beer in a stripped-down business suite.

"I'm kind of a miser. I always want to get value for my dollar. I also want to give credit where credit's due. Especially as the saturation starts to occur, what else can you really do? I believe in just being honest."

Another thing I didn't have room to include was his prognostication on where the San Diego beer scene can go next. He opines that the boys' club of microbrewing reached bona fide "scene" status in 2006, and while it's not saturated yet, it's getting there. After scrupulously reviewing everything it has to offer, Brandon thinks it might be time to reach beyond our borders.

"So much has been done...it would be cool if we really embraced what's going on across the border. It would be neat to see a tequila-aged beer. It would also be great to see some partnerships. A lot of people get wine from Temecula and Sonoma, but it would be great to see them reach out to those vintners in Guadalupe and Baja California. There's a rad brewing scene that's just starting--they're making everything from tripels to imperial stouts to really massive IPAs that are coming along rather quickly. I think that's the next place San Diego brewers can and probably should explore."

Want more? You know you do. Go get Brandon's e-book and become the expert you claim to be when out-of-towners ask you for a recommendation.

And now...

Brandon Hernández top five most memorable San Diego beers
  • lost abbey veritas 006"Without a doubt, my favorite beer that I ever had, that I never forgot...I can't bring myself to finish the last bottle I have...is The Lost Abbey Veritas 006 . It's that brewery's sour beer take on a sangria. It was so good, they even re-did it as part of their Ultimate Box Set track series in 2012. They did a good job, but I really preferred the original. It absolutely jumped out of the glass."
  • "After that, second place would be The Lost Abbey again and their Duck Duck Gooze . They just reissued that a couple months ago. It was really special--I can see why it won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

  • "A go-to for me is always AleSmith Speedway Stout . I can't believe how high in alcohol that is, yet it's so graceful and balanced.
  • green flash silva"Another imperial stout--Green Flash Silva Stout . It’s named after the brewmaster there, Chuck Silva. It's a bourbon barrel-aged beer and it shows people what you can do with a bourbon barrel without hitting someone over the head with liquor.
  • "And the last one is Alpine Great . It’s a barley wine, the base version of  which is called Good,. This beer was definitely worthy of the upgrade to 'Great' because it is just that."

ballast point habanero

There's no IPA on this list, I say to him. (If you're from San Diego, you know this is tantamount to treason.)

  • "Can't believe I didn't mention it, but I LOVE Ballast Point Habañero Sculpin IPA. I've always been a heat seeker and, though this brew is aggressively spicy, it's also refreshing--a real mind- and palate-bender - and always enjoyable. When it's on tap, I simply have to order it. Big props to Colby Chandler, BP's head of R&D brewing and perhaps the foremost chili beer master in the world, for skillfully crafting this standout IPA."

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Link to Edible article coming.

In the meantime, buy the book! AmazoniTunesBarnes & NobleKobo

And follow Brandon's tweets for the best food and drink reviews in San Diego.