San Diego Craft Beer History

More and more San Diego is becoming known for its nickname of ‘Craft Beer Capital of the U.S.’ And you better believe that we San Diegans take the responsibility of holding this title very seriously. Today, in San Diego, there are over 150 microbreweries and the rate at which this number has been increasing exponentially over the past decade. Tasting some of the world’s best beer straight from the source is a cool and unique experience. Not only are the city’s beer offers great, but breweries have become an iconic space to gather with friends and have fun playing games and enjoying appetizers while sampling flavorful beers. The best part? There are San Diego tours that can take you to some of the best breweries the city offers. Check out our list of San Diego brewery tours to learn more. 

So what exactly is a microbrewery? A microbrewery is a smaller brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year. The term craft beer is also closely related to these microbreweries as many of our beloved San Diego Breweries specialize in the art of ‘crafting’ their own unique flavors such as the well-known bitter, hoppy taste of the IPA. The focus of the craft brewing industry is on the high level of quality and customization that goes into each barrel rather than on producing a large quantity of beer.


San Diego Brewing Company in 1914

San Diego Brewing Company in 1914. (Photo by


Let’s take a deeper look into the history of the beer industry specific to San Diego and see what brought it to the flourishing state that it is in today. The Gold Rush of California and the development of the farming, fishing, and railroad industries around the 1850s meant the population of San Diego was on the rise. This growth in population meant the demand for the beer industry was also increasing. In 1896 San Diego Brewing Company was the first brewery to open in the county. They produced over 140,000 barrels of beer per year and distributed their products all over San Diego and beyond thanks to the railroad.

However, the beer industry was devastated when the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919 was established, thus prohibiting the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol. By the time the amendment was repealed in


A peek inside Aztec Brewing 1937

A peek inside Aztec Brewing 1937. (Photo by


1933, most of the breweries were long gone and they faced a significant challenge to re-opening because of the monopolization of the top three players in the industry. In fact, after prohibition ended in San Diego, there were only three breweries open: Aztec Brewing Company (which came up North from Mexico), San Diego Brewing Company, and Balboa Brewing Company. Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller Brewing were producing the majority of the nation’s beer at this time and used forceful marketing tactics such as contracting stores to only sell their brand of beer. This resulted in the closure of San Diego breweries for the time being.

During the 1980s, California legislation was changing to allow the production and sale of beer from licensed manufacturers granted that certain stipulations were met. The law said that licensed manufacturers could “sell beer and wine, regardless of source, to consumers for consumption at a bona fide public eating place on the manufacturer’s premises and which are operated by and for the manufacturer.” Source Another factor that played into setting the scene for the craft beer industry in San Diego was the constant fluctuation of prices and taxes and on imported beer. In 1982 brewpubs were legalized, providing the necessary platform to introduce “craft” beers to San Diegans.

Karl Strauss’ Old Columbia Brewery and Grill was the first brewpub to open in 1989. When the craze of craft beer spread from the upper class to the middle class, there was no stopping the growth of the industry and it has been thriving ever since.

Recommended Craft Breweries in San Diego

  • Stone Brewery
  • Pizza Port 
  • Ballast Point 
  • Karl Strauss
  • Ale Smith
  • Modern Times
  • Coronado Brewing
  • Green Flash

San Diego Craft Beer Tours

The craft beer industry of San Diego is also a nice compliment to the popularity of the city as a top tourist destination. If you want to find out more about this booming industry in San Diego look no further. We offer a number of different brewery tours from a downtown beer tasting walking tour, to a tour of the microbreweries in North County, we will take care of the planning you just come and taste for yourself what makes San Diego the craft beer capital of the U.S.