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05 Mar 2018

Desert Cicerone: Our Beer Expert Checks Out the Huge Craft-Beer Scene in San Diego's North Park Neighborhood

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San Diego's Toronado location has now been open for almost a decade. San Diego's Toronado location has now been open for almost a decade. Toronado San Diego Facebook

Picture it: North Park. San Diego. 2018.

(Sorry, I’ve been watching The Golden Girls lately. Actually, I’m not sorry; that show is brilliant.)

The Coachella Valley, while a wonderful place, is a little short on craft-beer experiences—although some of us are working to make that less true. In the meantime, thirsty desert-dwellers have some great options within a few driving hours—including a neighborhood in San Diego called North Park.

Located off Interstate 805 just south of the 8, North Park is bursting with places to ingest and imbibe all sorts of delicious food and drink. One of my all-time favorite places to have a beer (or four) is Toronado San Diego. I tagged along with my friend Justin, who got more epic tattoo work done by Adam Hathorn at Big Trouble Tattoo (conveniently located next door to and upstairs from the bar). Toronado is a satellite bar of its namesake in San Francisco; the SF location has been open 30 years and is classified by LocalWiki’s site as “a dive bar for beer snobs.” I sadly have never been, but fortunately, the North Park location—which opened almost 10 years ago—is much more accessible to me. I wouldn’t call it a dive, but it’s definitely no-frills: You have a board above the bar teeming with breweries and beer names, and very knowledgeable staffers (such as the lovely Laura) to guide you through your beer experience. Don’t know what you might like? Let her know what you desire, and she will set you up with something to make your taste buds tingle. One of my favorite things about the bar is its devotion to local breweries: If a brewer is right in their neighborhood, they usually don’t bother, but if the brewer is elsewhere in the larger San Diego area, and that brewer produces quality stuff, Toronado will welcome it.

Beyond San Diego, Toronado offers classic beers from Belgium, like the beautiful Rodenbach Grand Cru, in all its blended-vintage, tart, malty glory. Yes, the bar also often carries the infamous Pliny the Elder Double IPA, from Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa. I love Russian River, but take my advice, and try some San Diegan hoppy beers—and you might find that Pliny isn’t as good as you thought. For instance, on my most recent visit, the Hop Swingers IPA—a hazy IPA collaboration from Carlsbad’s Burgeon Beer Company and San Clemente-based Artifex Brewing—blew my mind with its richly tropical and resinous aroma and flavor. On that same trip, I was happy to be joined by and have a great conversation with my good friend James, who lives within walking distance of the bar. (I am deeply jealous yet also relieved that I don’t live that close, for fear that I might end up there too much.) He had a Dark Strong Ale from Belgium called Affligem Noël—a Christmas-spiced abbey-style ale full of flavor.

Enough of my romance with Toronado: There are other places to explore if you’re not as inclined as I am to plant your butt on a bar stool for an entire afternoon. You could go a little down the street and hit the Rip Current Brewing tasting room, and try one of many diverse beers. Belching Beaver Brewery also has a satellite tasting room, and around the corner from that, Tiger!Tiger! is a wonderful place to get a craft beer or two on tap, alongside some inventive bar food. I mean, sausage poutine fries? Come on!

A really fun place to kill time is the Coin-Op Game Room. Play your way through dozens of arcade games—with the help of a great craft-beer selection! A personal favorite is a small bottle shop/tap room franchise called Bottle Craft. The store’s tap list is unique, and you can sip on tasters and nosh charcuterie while perusing bottles and cans of (what for desert residents would be) very hard to find beer. I picked up a bottle of insanely good beer from Brouwerij Boon called Mariage Parfait. This “gueuze” lambic is one of the best: It is a blend of 95 percent 3-year barrel-aged beer, with 5 percent young (less than a year old) lambic. There is also a cherry version of this called a Kriek. Don’t be fooled by the strange Flemish language; these beers are delicacies, pure and simple. I also was able to try the “Forged Series” of four coffee imperial stouts on which Bottle Craft and Mason Ale Works collaborated. Conveniently, they carried a four-pack of cans of each variant. (As good as this place is, the Little Italy location is even better.)

There are some other places I should mention that are just a short Lyft ride away; unfortunately, I don’t have the room to go too deeply into them all:

Modern Times Brewing has two locations: the brewery taproom (complete with a coffee bar serving their delicious coffee), and a North Park tasting room. The beer is great all around—and the décor offers an interesting hipster aesthetic (including chandeliers made from tumbleweeds containing interwoven Christmas tree lights). Both locations can get quite busy.

North Park Beer Co. is located right across the street from Bottle Craft and offers great beer and food from the Mastiff Kitchen, which is an offshoot of the Mastiff Sausage food trucks. They expand out from just serving sausage here, but trust me: The sausage is legit. What’s better with beer than meat in tube form?

Blind Lady Ale House in the nearby Normal Heights neighborhood has a lot—beer, pizza, charcuterie … OK, that’s not a lot, but within those confines, a whole world of flavors are contained. Try some of their own Automatic Brewing beers—made in an impossibly small space at that location.

Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park (yes, friendly faces everywhere) is another classic beer bar in San Diego that rivals Toronado. Indeed, it is a dive bar for beer snobs. The last time I visited, Melvin Brewing from Alpine, Wyo., was holding one of the 2x4 Days—celebrating the release of their incredible 2x4 Double IPA by taking over many taps, showing nothing but martial arts movies on the TVs, and giving out swag like logo bandannas and ninja star-shaped coasters. The bartender dressed as a ninja really sold it for me, as did the showing of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.

If I’m in the North Park area, you’ll likely find me parked at Toronado, planning my next move from there ... if there is one. Happy hunting!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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