Credit: Brett Newton

After a disgustingly humid month here, I had to get away for a week to preserve my sanity. I chose to head to San Diego, and split my time between the south and north parts of the county.

Why San Diego? Friends, the beaches, the weather, the food and, of course, the beer.

After I arrived at my rental in Hillcrest near downtown San Diego, my next move (after unpacking a little and cleaning up) was Burgeon at the Arbor, in Little Italy. This location added a chef and kitchen, with a tempting menu—and beer-pairing suggestions by a Cicerone. I’d been wanting to visit this place for a while, but life intervened until now; this was my victorious moment.

A lovely patio framed the entryway, and I bellied up to the bar. I was very thirsty and hungry, so my first order of business was a half-pour (something breweries in the desert should adopt) of my favorite beer they make: Clever Kiwi. It’s a German-style pilsner hopped with one of my favorite hops, Nelson Sauvin, from New Zealand; it is such a crisp, light, intensely tropical experience. For food, I kept it simple and ordered the burger. That turned out to be a great decision.

The bartender, John, was incredibly friendly, animated and passionate about their beer. I chatted with him while trying 5-ounce pours of the other beers on tap. They’re all great, but the most notable was the Just Wondering IPA collaboration with Wondrous Brewing Company in Northern California, using another favorite hop of mine from New Zealand called Riwaka; it’s just so damn drinkable.

Besides Clever Kiwi, there were two other pilsners on tap: their core German-style pilsner, Pistil, and a newer, Italian pilsner, Pergola. Italian pilsners are much like their German counterparts, but with more liberal use of the same hops. These were pitch-perfect incarnations of both. Even the brown porter, Heir to the Throne, was gorgeous—rich with chocolate, coffee and dark fruit flavors.

Before my next stop, I stopped at Bottlecraft in North Park to see what their can and bottle selection was. Bottlecraft is more than a bottle shop, however; it has beers on tap and a small deli for charcuterie. I wasn’t planning to try a beer there, but there was a dry-hopped gose (German sour-ale style) called Nelson Hose, from de Garde Brewing in Tillamook, Ore., a brewery that makes some outstanding sour ales of all types. My love of them and Nelson hops drove me to enjoy 5 ounces as I browsed.

I then walked across the street to North Park Beer Co. to enjoy a few. North Park also makes excellent beers across the board, and as I sat down at the bar, I noticed how many people were ordering their pilsner. This happened quite a bit at The Arbor as well—and it’s cause for celebration, in my book. I have openly been hoping for lagers to become the next big trend in craft beer, and the selection of märzens and festbiers for Oktoberfest is rife with excellent craft-brewery examples.

I, however, wanted to continue my New Zealand hop kick with the version of their Hop-Fu! IPA using Nelson and Peacharine hops, called NZ Fu! It was the least Nelson-y beer I had that night, but it was no less tasty. It showcased a really nice malt backbone and a full body as well.

As I sat down at the bar, I noticed how many people were ordering their pilsner. This is cause for celebration, in my book.

After that, I had to try the Old Geezer, aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. This barleywine had a huge caramel character to it without being cloying. The vanilla and bourbon notes, as well as the warm finish, made this an excellent experience. When I mentioned how huge the caramel flavor was, the beertender told me they added Werther’s Original candies during the brewing process. Think whatever you’d like about that, but, damn it if it didn’t work.

Coin-Op Game Room is a big reason I ended my evening in North Park. It’s a barcade, and I feel privileged to have been a teenager in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when arcades were thriving. Yellow Brick Road at the Palm Desert mall was the one I went to most, and I miss it—and arcades in general—dearly. (Someone tried a similar concept in Palm Springs, called Glitch, before the pandemic, but it wasn’t to be.) Coin-Op is not very big, but it does have beer on tap, along with a full bar and video-game classics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time and Street Fighter II: Championship Edition. I sipped on a decent IPA from Thorn Brewing and sank quite a few tokens into the band Rush’s pinball machine. As a big fan of Rush, pinball and beer, aided a cool breeze from outside, this was a peak moment for me. I finished my night with a glass of E.H. Taylor Small Batch bourbon as I depleted my remaining tokens.

That was just first night. I don’t have a lot of space to describe the next night, which ended at Bottlecraft’s Little Italy location after another dinner at Burgeon at the Arbor. At Bottlecraft, I had a glass of Enegren Brewing’s Leichtbier, which is a little German-style lager they made for their 11th anniversary, along with small pours of Gueuze Tilquin from Belgium and Fremont Brewing’s Coffee-Cinnamon B-Bomb, a barrel-aged “winter ale.”

The next night (after a daytime visit to Coronado Beach) was even better, with my good friend James hosting a steak dinner at his place with friends and awesome conversation (including me pointing to a VHS tape that apparently includes footage of him skydiving into his graduation rehearsal at Palm Desert High School, somewhat blinded by smoke canisters—and almost hitting power lines).

This was the end of the first leg of my journey. Next month, I’ll discuss what happened further north in San Diego County.

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Brett Newton

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He can be reached at caesarcervisia@gmail.com.