Gray clouds coated the sky as we ducked inside our fourth brewery of the day, bellying up to the cozy bar before rain fell.
Southern California couldn't guarantee sunshine, but it promised plenty of pints.
While some are drawn to San Diego for its spectacular beaches and warm weather, we had a different mission: exploring its booming brewery scene — rain or shine.
Sipping our IPAs, we hardly considered ourselves part of a trend, but we were, enthusiastically. As the craft beer industry explodes, more people are taking so-called "beercations," trips planned around destination taprooms, brewery tours and beer festivals. A study by the national Brewers Association in 2016 found that nearly half of people surveyed visited breweries while traveling. In a survey by travel site Travelocity last fall, more than three-quarters of respondents would visit craft breweries on a trip.
The website named top beer destinations, with the Portland area coming in No. 1 followed by Denver, Seattle, Portland (Maine), Colorado Springs, Santa Rosa, Spokane and San Diego. (The Twin Cities came in No. 11.)
As we clustered in a group for a brewery tour of Ballast Point, one of the nation's fastest-growing craft breweries, it was clear we weren't the only tourists soaking up the beer scene.
"We have a reputation; it's an exciting time," said Jill Davidson, who works at Pizza Port Brewing Co. and is president of the San Diego Brewers Guild. "It's almost like a renaissance."
California has the most breweries of any state in the nation, according to the Brewers Association, so it's no surprise that San Diego's brewery scene has eclipsed other cities', with 130 breweries and growing — more than all of the breweries in Minnesota. In fact, Davidson said, 21 breweries opened in San Diego County last year alone and last year's annual Beer Week event drew 20,000 attendees from 28 states and eight countries. This year's event is scheduled for Nov. 3-12.
"The weather doesn't hurt," she said about the city's draw.
Most days. My friend Catherine Cuddy, 31, of St. Louis Park, a Minnesota brewery owner, and I were greeted by gloomy, unusually cool weather, but we were still relieved to escape 6-degree temps in Minnesota. Dismissing the elusive blue skies, we bee-lined to the beach — for beers. From a boardwalk patio, we sipped IPAs and inhaled the salty air, mesmerized by the roar of the ocean as surfers braved the waves in wet suits and skateboarders passed by.
"We get people here who are just [here] for the beer tours," said Justin Grasso-King, a New York transplant leading our tour of Ballast Point. "San Diego is the craft beer capital of the country."
Drinking a tart American wheat ale and Ballast Point's well-known Sculpin IPA, we got a behind-the-scenes look of the 107,000-square-foot brewery that opened in 2014 in Miramar — dubbed "Beeramar" — one of two industrial areas in San Diego that have become brewery hot spots. We marveled at gleaming copper kettles and watched as crews cleaned empty silver kegs, then stacked ones full of beer on a pallet.
It's not just major breweries like Ballast Point tapping into the success of locals and tourists tossing back pints. It's led to a flurry of smaller breweries nearby like Duck Foot and Little Miss Brewing, appealing to everyone from the hop head to the sour enthusiast.
Farther north, off Hwy. 78, the so-called Hops Highway, breweries cluster together in another business park. We tested a creamy peanut butter milk stout at Belching Beaver, a blood orange IPA at Latitude 33 and a Belgian wit at Booze Brothers as the Super Bowl played on TVs in unusually sparse taprooms.
"It's like going to Disney World without the lines," Cuddy said.
Under heat lamps inside taprooms like Green Flash, we hopped between breweries and then worked off the pints on hikes of the majestic Torrey Pines State Park and the cliffs of La Jolla. While the natural beauty of San Diego remains a major highlight, rainy weather couldn't put a damper on the trip, especially with so many breweries to explore.
Forgetting the surf and lack of sun, we left Southern California after toasting a dozen breweries, already planning the next trip on our beer bucket list.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141