About 15 years ago, there was a Belgian beer renaissance raging across the United States. Even in hop-happy San Diego County, most breweries experimented with abbey ales, witbiers and even barrel-aged or wild ales brewed in the Belgian tradition. But as I’m reminded each year when asking local ale-and-lager fans to nominate their favorite locally produced beers for the San Diego Beer News Awards (SDBNA), consumer tastes are ever-changing. Back when Belgians were hot, it was tough to find lagers. Now those bottom-fermented beers are all the rage, as are craft iterations of styles that were once considered too much of a joke to even produce: American adjunct and Mexican-style lagers, light, low-calorie and even non-alcoholic beers.
One of the things that I’ve found most exciting about such trends over the past quarter-century is that nearly every style has had its time in the spotlight at some point during the American craft-beer movement. What’s important to remember is that, just because a style or regional family of beers is no longer en vogue doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of craft fans who still love them. I recently had a discussion with a reader who contacted me when I called for nominations in the SDBNA’s Belgian Ale category. He shared that he – like me – loves that family of styles and laments how tough it has become to find local Belgo-inspired beers. When he told me he wished there was some list of San Diego breweries that still focus on his favorite brews, I decided to make it happen.
The following are local beer operations that deal in this delicious Old World stock.
The Lost Abbey (Vista, San Marcos, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, East Village): In 2006, the owners of Pizza Port (which makes a gold-medal Belgo blonde ale called Guillaume) teamed with pub brewer Tomme Arthur to develop a brand celebrating his ahead-of-their-time Belgian beers. From monastic abbey ales (Lost & Found dubbel, Judgment Day quadrupel) to a hoppy Brett saison (Carnevale) and Duvel-inspired strong pale ale (Inferno, which will be resurrected after a decade-long absence later this year) to barrel-aged sours ranging from a Flanders-style red (Cuvee de Tomme) and even a blend of American lambics (Duck Duck Gooze), there are no clunkers.
Burning Beard Brewing (El Cajon): Though fans flock to this nine-year-old brewery’s hoppy beers, abbey ales ranging from a solid singel (Get Thee to a Nunnery) to a boozy dark-fruit quadrupel (Panic at the Monastery) have been part of the program since day one. They are terrific, but what really sets “The Beard” apart is its extensive – and sadly underappreciated – barrel-aged sour and spontaneous beer program, the highlights of which include a barnyardy lambic (In Praise of Bacchus), its triple-year mélange (Gueuzapalooza) and self-titled crimson sour (Flanders Red Ale).
Societe Brewing (Kearny Mesa, Old Town): Though this popular 11-year-old brewing interest has seen a great deal of stylistic change over the past several years, its array of quality Belgian ales has remained steadfastly affixed to its tasting room’s beer board. A pair of golden and dark strong ales (The Madam, The Widow) are joined by a mellow, lightly bready amber (The Debutante) and an award-winning blonde (The Harlot) that’s built on a Czech Pilsner base and lent lovely floral character from Belgian yeast.
Duck Foot Brewing (Miramar, Leucadia): When Head Brewer Matt Akin joined this ducky outfit in 2019, he brought with him a love of Belgian ales, as well as prowess for brewing them first gained at AleSmith Brewing. That experience continues to pay off with a year-round blonde ale (Aviator Glasses) and a fantastic, food-friendly dubbel (Platypug), as well as a tripel (Sasquack) and quadrupel (ChupaQUADra), both of which are barrel-aged (and sometimes fruited) from time to time, producing even more dynamic flavor profiles.
Pure Project Brewing (Vista, Carlsbad, Miramar, North Park, Bankers Hill): While this 1% for the Planet op doesn’t offer Belgian ales of the everyday-drinking variety, they craft some of the finest saisons in the county. Whether a product of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (Emmeline) or mixed-fermentation (Madeline), fruited (Tao), wet-hopped (Infinite Falls) or otherwise barrel-aged, they are delicate on the palate and flavorful on the taste buds. It’s the reason they were sought out to produce San Diego Beer News’ third-anniversary hoppy farmhouse ale, Finger on the Pulse.
Deft Brewing (Morena): It’s fitting that this individualistic seven-year-old company, which eschews IPAs and fads in favor of honoring Old World archetypes, should dare to produce multiple Belgian ales regardless of whether customers clamor for them or not. From their Great American Beer Festival (GABF) silver-winning table beer (Austere Abbott) to a bolder, higher-alcohol tripel (Bruxelles Trip), this worldly operation does right by this country that they so obviously harbor a deep-seeded affinity for.
Other Standout Offerings
North County: Carlsbad operation Rouleur Brewing began with a Belgian-heavy beer list. Over time that has changed, but the two that remain include a golden strong ale (Soloist) and a two-time GABF medal-winning (and World Beer Cup silver-snagging) blonde (Domestique) that also garnered Best of Show at the 2020 San Diego International Beer Competition. Off Palomar Airport Road, Belgo-based blondes, goldens and wheat ales have been part of Culver Beer Co.‘s game plan from day one, and since reviving its brewing program, Carlsbad Brewing offers some house Belgians to go with a long list of guest imports. Oceanside brewpub Northern Pine Brewing regularly gets praise from regulars for its saison (Saized & Confused) and Escondido nano Backyard Brewery does well with its dark strong ale (Bill’s Big Belgian) and its lower-ABV cousin (Dark Belgian).
Central: Saisons, including those of the Brett and mixed-ferm ilk, are available along with a bevy of barrel-aged sours at California Wild Ales in Point Loma and Ocean Beach, while a bold-yet-elegant Belgian blonde ale awaits at New English Brewing in Sorrento Valley. Kearny Mesa’s Hopnonymous Brewing has made it in the top three at the SDBNAs the past two years with its golden strong (The Dorsty Lion), while North Park Brewery Igniter newcomer Barley & Sword Brewing has reeled in nominations for its farmhouse ale (Les Saisonniers). Kearny Mesa’s Ataraxia Aleworks taps the occasional Belgian, as well. Then there’s venerable Normal Heights bar and eatery, Blind Lady Ale House, and its on-site nano, BLAH Brewing, which salt-and-peppers its brew schedule with Belgian offerings.
Downtown / East Village: Belgophiles headed to Petco Park will have no trouble finding proper pre-game beverages. Two-story brewpub Half Door Brewing has its house blonde (Father Ted) and something high enough in ABV to get you through nine innings (Tripel), while East Village Brewing offers sporadic Belgians, which have included a wit (White Dog), saison (Sandlot) and tripel (Tripel Play). And over in the Gaslamp Quarter, Resident Brewing sells bottles of top-notch vintage barrel-aged farmhouse ales (Saison Prestige, Impressionist).