Sippin’ In San Diego: Miramar

Known to many as a prominent craft beer city, San Diego, California, has been atop my list of places to visit since I got into craft beer in 2006. After surviving the pandemic, and the lack of travel for beer opportunities over the last year, I am happy to finally immerse myself in the craft beer culture of this amazing city. I will be exploring San Diego for two weeks. By the time my trip concludes I want to understand why so many cherish this place. I want to discover how a city can support an embarrassment of brewery riches when many contend that craft beer is reaching a “saturation point.” Lastly, I want to recapture the invigoration and soul-satisfying serenity that traveling for beer has brought me over the years.

Beeramar-A Cornucopia of Craft Beer

About 45 minutes north of San Diego is a town called Miramar. Miramar is comprised of industrial complexes and office buildings as well as a treasure trove of craft breweries. Miramar’s list of breweries is as eclectic as Liberace’s taste in candelabras. There are former industry titans Ballast Point and Green Flash as well as the new and trendy Harland Brewing and Pure Project. If you visit this area, which I fully endorse, give yourself plenty of time to explore the breadth and variety of breweries available.

I made it to a few, but there is definitely going to be a return trip down the road to check a few more off of my list. In this piece I will touch on my visits to Ballast Point, Green Flash, Alesmith, and Harland.

The La Brea Tar Pit of Craft Brewing Success

Green Flash Brewing and Ballast Point Brewing introduced the majority of the United States to the West Coast IPA. These breweries were peerless when it came to meteoric growth and vast distribution footprints. In 2011, it felt like these two breweries had a bigger market presence in the United States than McDonald’s. They were expanding to the East Coast and even into Europe. They also took on colossal amounts of debt and eventually had to pay the piper.

Selling for pennies on the dollar in the late 2010s, Green Flash and Ballast Point are the poster children for breweries that fell from grace faster than you could drink a can of Sculpin at the beach. What is crazy to me is that the breweries are still there and massive. In fact, based by the number of people that I saw at each location, it is hard to believe that these craft breweries were ever in financial peril.

Ballast Point Brewing

An initial observation of Ballast Point Brewing is how big the location is. Gigantic tanks are visible from the parking lot. As I enter the space, there is a cacophony of sounds generated by people enjoying their beer and food in the expansive restaurant. Luckily, I see a high top table in the bar area and avoid the 45-wait to get seated on the patio.

I am meeting my friend, Nick, formerly a brewer at Summit Brewing Company in Saint Paul. Nick moved out to California a few years ago and is a gentleman and a scholar. My friendship with Nick started when I interviewed him for a piece about a beer he brewed for Summit. During that beer chat, we discovered a common interest for humor, baseball, and quality beer. Nick now lives in Pasadena and we are meeting at Ballast Point for some beers and commiseration over a horrendous Minnesota Twins season.

Nick arrives and we embrace in a seismic bear hug. It is great to see him again. We scan the QR code and order up some flights of beer. Before long, our hightop table looks like a chess board where all the pieces are tulip glasses. The beer list is it is a nice mix of packaged and taproom-only offerings. There are a plethora of beer styles from light & crisp to barrel-aged. The beer list at Ballast Point is almost too much. I appreciate that they serve the 5 ounce pours in regular-sized tulips so you can really swirl it around and wake up the aromatics.

Beers at Ballast Point

My flight consists of a pilsner, a hoppy lager, a brown ale, and a pale ale. The hoppy lager, brown, and pilsner are wonderful. The pale ale is just ok. The food that is coming out of the kitchen looks pretty good. There is quite a fun atmosphere here. I would be curious to come back sometime and get a tour. The thing with a place this large is that it does lack the ability to personally connect with anyone at the brewery. However, it is the perfect setting for grabbing beers with a friend.

After we settle up, we walk through the gift shop. We talk about how incredible this brand used to be. Ballast Point Brewing commanded a presence on every endcap and display area in most craft beer stores. Their branding is incredible, their beers hit on all cylinders, and there really is not a style they they don’t brew. I cannot believe that they had such a tragic fall from grace.

Green Flash Brewing

Nick and I get in his car to travel from one cautionary tale of craft brewery greed to another. Green Flash Brewing is in a nondescript office complex less than ten minutes from Ballast Point. Nick has the Twins game on the radio and that really gets the ball rolling on some incredibly morose Minnesota Twins talk given their disappointing play this year. However, there is something really wonderful about talking baseball with a friend. Amidst all the bullshit of the pandemic, sitting down over a couple of brewery stops with a friend to talk baseball is something many of us had to go without for a while.

If their 2011 expansion plans were anything like the entrance to the brewery, I can see how things got a little bumpy. We walked in and made a circle, only to wind up in the exact same spot. Some patrons pointed us in the right direction and after a few hallways and turns, the cavernous taproom appears to us. It isn’t until I look at the tap list that I remember that Green Flash also owns the Alpine Brewing brand.

Nick and I grab a table and continue down the rabbit hole of ill-advised Twins trades over the years. We also dive deep into the Decameron-like list of failed prospects. Each of us have a few tasters in front of us as well. Sadly, the beers are for the most part underwhelming. In fact, the only thing that I thought was really noteworthy was their Oktoberfest and West Coast IPA. Everything else was just average. This surprised me given the fact that roughly a decade ago, Green Flash was a mainstay in my beer fridge.

Alesmith Brewing Company

Alesmith Brewing Company is a brewery that has been a favorite of mine for many years. Their Speedway Stout is, for my money, one of the best value stouts in the country. I have also tried some of the harder to find variants, and they are immensely enjoyable. So, visiting the actual brewery is something I have been looking forward to since I booked my airfare.

I Went For The Beer But Stayed for the Tony Gwynn Museum

Obviously, if I had more time and an extra liver, I would have stayed and traversed every inch of their tap list. However, being that we were nearing the end of our time together, we didn’t have that kind of time. However, in the taproom, on the other side of a nondescript door, is a room with an astounding amount of Tony Gwynn memorabilia. Much of these amazing items were donated by Gwynn’s family. It seems apropos that I had a .394 Pale Ale, a beer named after Tony Gwynn’s career-high batting average in 1994, while at the brewery.

I would love to come back to visit Alesmith again. They have so many wonderful styles that I adore. The outdoor patio area is spacious. Nick and I continued our baseball talk after being downright awestruck by the Tony Gwynn Museum. They ban photography of any kind and so I don’t have any pictures of the artifacts. I guess you will just have to go and check it out for yourself.

What Can We Learn From Miramar’s Big Breweries?

The skeletons on the beer labels at Ballast Point are symbols for Ballast Point Brewing’s journey. These skeletal sailors are visual reminders of what can happen if craft breweries cannot shift quickly to adjust to the choppy economic waters of an ever-changing craft beer market. Ballast Point has righted the ship, but the fall from grace was colossal. Literally a skeleton of what it once was, the brewery and the brand still exist.

Green Flash also shared a similar journey and is still functioning. However, the excitement and quality appear to have taken steps back from what they once were. Like their moniker, in the heyday of Green Flash, the brand shined bright. However, now that there are so many more choices and brands to drink, Green Flash seems like just another choice as opposed to something that is a must-drink.

As steady as the batting approach of the man who their .394 Pale Ale is named after, Alesmith Brewing continues to be the hallmark of quality and consistency. Their beers are offerings are smart and well-made. Their brand isn’t flashy, but rather reliable and safe in a good way. I would have loved to have spent more time there and I will do that on my next visit.

I remember listening to Sam Calagione, the co-founder of Dogfish Head, address a room full of beer writers in 2018. He explained that an industry reckoning was coming for craft breweries. The days of production breweries as the blueprint for viable success are over. Calagione’s words came to fruition for many in the next few years as consumers shifted their resources to hyper-local from regional. As we are still in the throes of a global pandemic with the Delta variant still wreaking havoc on our way of life, it is easy to forget that craft brewery struggles have been a thing well before 2020.

Despite their respective falls from grace, Ballast Point and Green Flash are responsible for helping shape craft beer with their amazing success. San Diego would not be the craft beer epicenter it is today without these two breweries. They created a fertile ground for so many new breweries and that is quite amazing. So, if you are heading to San Diego, you need to have Miramar on your list. Prost!

Dan Beaubien has been involved with Beerploma since 2014 although his passion for craft beer dates back to 2006 when he started traveling for beer.  Dan mostly covers craft beer events, festivals, brewery openings/releases, and beer reviews. Dan has a soft spot in his heart for authentic British Style ales, IPAs, and all things barrel-aged.  If you have any questions or comments about this article feel free to email Dan at dan.beaubien@beerploma.com .