Where the Pacific Ocean meets California in the farthest southwestern corner of the United States, San Diego buzzes from dawn til dusk with makers who are exercising unparalleled patience, creativity and curiosity—all in the name of craft beverages. They’re the remedy to a sweeping culture of instant gratification—if only for just one drink. Using coffee, cocktails and beer as their canvases, artisans across San Diego County are building precise flavor profiles into sippable crafts, and they’re tempting you to drink it all in. Here are three standouts.
Lofty Coffee Co.
Matt Prior stands in front of a large Loring roaster and mindlessly reaches into the cooling tray, tossing a few freshly roasted beans into his mouth. “Coffee is like most things in life,” says the 33-year-old director of coffee at Lofty Coffee Co. “It’s much more complex below the surface.” Just seven years after opening its flagship shop and three and a half years after starting the roastery, the Encinitas-based café now has four locations throughout the San Diego area. But Lofty is still as boutique as a coffee shop gets. And it’s modest about it—modest about adhering to a seed-to-cup philosophy, about sourcing 80 percent of its coffee product from direct relationships with small farms, about making everything in house, from the nut milks and caramel to the chai and croissants. “Specialty coffee is more than just the beverage, it’s everything that comes with it,” says Prior. It’s all part of the Lofty ethos, which commits to community, quality of product and sustainability. “Sometimes profit gets thrown out the door,” he adds, “and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
At Campfire, a year-old casual-hip concept restaurant in Carlsbad, it’s easy enough to see the physical separation between the kitchen and bar. Philosophically, however, it’s not as clear. Market availability and seasonality drive the ever-rotating menus for each, from dish to beverage. “It reads really ambiguously on the menu,” says bar manager Leigh Lacap, 33, referencing some of the more unusual ingredients, like smoke or Douglas fir. “But in actuality, it’s just some booze, something sweet and something sour. Nothing too esoteric.” The latest iteration of that is Trash Talk, an innovative section on the menu that reuses what would otherwise be waste, fermenting or emulsifying rinds and browned herbs left over from prepping bar syrups and upcycling them into cocktails. It’s not about breaking the mold so much as it is about playing. Lacap and his staff (whom he jokingly refers to as his “apostles”) are equal opportunists when it comes to ingredients, manipulating fruits and vegetables using techniques and equipment more at home in a kitchen than behind a bar. “The future is bright,” he says with a laugh, surveying his team as they shake, spritz and adorn cocktails. “But it’s not clear.”
Fall Brewing Company
San Diego may be known for its legacy breweries such as Stone and Ballast Point, but there are more than 150 others throughout the county, with new ones cropping up from talented aficionados all the time. And that’s what sets North Park’s Fall Brewing apart. “Fall wasn’t made by a homebrewer with a dream,” says Larry Monasakanian, 44, the brewery’s sales manager. “Ray makes clean, consistent, classic beer. It’s akin to the quality levels that you’d find at bigger breweries because he’s a pro.” Monasakanian’s referring to Ramon Astamendi, the brewer and systems mastermind who, along with local storied graphic designer Dave Lively, helped design, launch and grow Saint Archer, another famed San Diego brewery—until MillerCoors stepped in with an offer. With Fall Brewing Company, they returned to craft brewing’s roots: straightforward styles made from real ingredients and without flavor fillers. Three years later, the team, which now includes head brewer Greg Hoover, can look out over the tasting bar at Fall and see industry veterans, pints in hand, any day of the week. “We take pride in that—that other brewers come to our spot to drink,” Monasakanian says.
Where to Stay
While you’re in town to sample San Diego’s wares (and maybe visit the beach, a museum or the zoo), rest your head at Pendry, the hottest boutique hotel to open in San Diego—bringing with it a welcome dose of class to the historic Gaslamp Quarter.
Where to Drink (Even More)
If you’re thirsty for more, get your caffeine fix at James Coffee Co. before sipping through the libations menu at Craft & Commerce (and perhaps stumbling into its hidden tiki bar, False Idol). Or you can sober up with pizza and a pint at Pizza Port, which has launched as many craft brewers as Copenhagen’s Noma has chefs.