In the past ten years alone, hundreds of craft breweries have sprung up in Southern California, and on any given day, you might be tasting the best beer of your life at (nearly) any one of them. But your chances of finding The One go up significantly if you know where to look.
The hip areas in and around downtown Los Angeles boast a rapidly advancing beer scene. But to find the best brews in LA County, turn westbound and down. Heading into off-the-beaten-path sections of LA’s South Bay region, the first stop sits just below the airport, in El Segundo, at its namesake El Segundo Brewing (140 Main St, El Segundo). The small, Main Street brewery specializes in a style of beer commonly associated with SoCal: the West Coast IPA. The strong hop aromas practically burst out of each crisp pint, rising to the high ceilings of the often-packed tasting room.
About ten miles south you might head to another unlikely destination: Torrance’s Monkish Brewing (20311 S Western Ave, Torrance). When the small brewery opened, it focused exclusively on Belgian-style beers—they even posted a sign proclaiming “No IPAs.” That sign came down in a big way in 2016, when Monkish joined the craze and quickly mastered the hazy Northeast style of IPA. These days, hundreds of devoted fans often lead to hours-long lines.
Only twenty minutes from Torrance, Long Beach’s Beachwood Brewing & BBQ (210 E 3rd St, Long Beach) stands in a class of its own. The brewpub has emerged as one of the best IPA producers on the entire West Coast, yet reigns as World Beer Cup champion on the strength of its excellent stouts. Both styles happen to pair extremely well with smokehouse BBQ, so good news! Beachwood’s just as adept with ribs and pulled pork as it is with malts and hops.
Orange County hasn’t long been recognized as a craft beer destination, but a spate of breweries in and around Anaheim have very much changed that. Noble Ale Works (1621 S Sinclair St B, Anaheim) also reigns as a World Beer Cup champion, even claiming gold medal in the uber-competitive American IPA category. Its hoppy beers are outstanding, and a new beer garden will make the tasting room a prime destination on warm nights.
The OC’s most venerable brewery is The Bruery (717 Dunn Way, Placentia), and it specializes in—well, having no particular specialty. Barrel aged, sour, and experimental beers tend to be this creative brewer’s bailiwick, but intense variety is what keeps its tasting room packed. DIY tasting menus next to the bar make for more efficient service—simply tick off five beers you’d like to try, and a beertender will set you up with a colorful flight.
Call me biased toward my hometown, but any craft enthusiast will tell you San Diego is the capital of craft beer in SoCal (and possibly the entire American Southwest). AleSmith Brewing Company (9990 AleSmith Ct, San Diego), for example, has set the bar for world-class beer since opening in 1995. It boasts the largest tasting room in town, plus a vast patio, a small museum celebrating local baseball legend Tony Gywnn, and a one-of-a-kind blending bar where you can mix and match various beers to taste, just like professional brewers do.
In San Diego’s North County, Stone Brewing is another godfather of the beer scene, often credited for introducing the region’s brashly hopped specialty—the West Coast IPA—to the world. Its Escondido restaurant and beer garden (2816 Historic Decatur Rd #116, San Diego) is a veritable Disneyland for craft beer drinkers, and you’ll find a second, Liberty Station location just behind San Diego Airport.
Stone originally opened in San Marcos, but when it outgrew its original brewery, The Lost Abbey (155 Mata Way #104, San Marcos) moved in. Named for its devotion to the style developed by Trappist monks in Belgium, Lost Abbey made a name for itself crafting the most highly-sought sour beers on the West Coast, in addition to exquisite farmhouse ales. Since it shares brewing space (and talent) with sister brand Port Brewing, you’ll also find a few of San Diego’s most classic IPAs on draft and in bottles.
Unlike every hop powerhouse on this list, you won’t find Societe Brewing‘s (8262 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, San Diego) IPAs in bottles. The brewers who launched the Kearny Mesa business strongly believe freshness and proper handling are crucial to enjoying their beers. Consequently, its old-timey tasting room and patio has become a local favorite and a destination coveted by beer geeks across America.
Savvy marketing and quirky, stylish branding has helped Modern Times Beer (3725 Greenwood St, San Diego) grow at an unprecedented rate (open only three years, it’s expanding with breweries in both Anaheim and downtown LA within the next year). But ultimately, the fantastic flavors of Modern Times’ boundary-pushing beers have ushered in a new approach to SoCal craft that embraces hybrid styles, barrel aging experiments, and copious use of the word rad.