Road Trips

Take a Ride Along Southern California’s Beer Trail

The Lost Abbey’s tasting room is filled with ornaments and images that evoke an actual abbey. (Photos: Melissa Valladares)

Pinpointing the hottest region for craft beer in the U.S. is a difficult task, but Southern California is certainly on the short list. From innovative ales to the classic West Coast-style IPA, the area is renowned for the output of its top-notch breweries — and Los Angeles, California, is a good starting point to begin exploring them.

Of course, if you’re doing a brewery tour you don’t want to be the one behind the wheel. So, secure a designated driver first. Then it’s time to hit the road.

Los Angeles

california breweries
Sip beers in an industrial setting at Smog City.

It’s worth making a stop or two in your departure city. Smog City, in the suburb of Torrence (also the home of the Western Museum of Flight and the Toyota Automotive Museum), is a great starting place.

Inside the funky, industrial taproom, you’ll blend with millennials and beer tourists alike, all seeking to sample the brewer’s award-winning creations. (Smog City has won several medals at the Great American Beer Festival — the Super Bowl of the beer world.)

It’s a working brewery, meaning you’ll be surrounded by brewing equipment and seating is a bit limited, but it’s an authentic experience. Beers you’ll want to sample include Sabre-Toothed Squirrel, a red ale, and the Kumquat Saison.

Santa Ana

32 miles from L.A.; 49 mins drive time

california breweries
Keep an eye out for the mural when you visit The Good Beer Company.

Head east from Torrence to Santa Ana, California, and stop by The Good Beer Company. You’ll immediately be struck by the mural on the wall with three bears overlooking the taps in the intimate taproom.

The brewery is influenced by Belgian brewing traditions and is one of Southern California’s masters of Belgian-influenced ales. You’ll find a wealth of funky farmhouse and tart gose ales alongside traditional offerings like a Pale or Blond Ale.

Be sure to try the Hoppy Oro, a dry-hopped sour farmhouse ale, and George, a tart ale that’s aged in oak barrels with peaches.

If you’ve got the time or need a break from beer, be sure to visit the Santa Ana zoo – especially if you like monkeys. (The donor of the land it sits on stipulated the zoo must house at least 50 monkeys at all times.)

Vista

61.6 miles from Santa Ana; 72 mins drive time

california breweries
Nothing wrong with a burp! Try the goods at Belching Beaver.

When you’re ready to resume the Beer Trek, hop on I-5 and enjoy the picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean as you head south until you hit Carlsbad. Once you’re in Carlsbad, take a quick detour on CA-78 to Vista, California.

Your first stop in Vista should be at Belching Beaver Brewery. Despite its odd name, Belching Beaver’s reputation is growing quickly among beer lovers, and the brewery has actually quadrupled production since 2015 as word of the quality of the beers has spread.

You’ve got two choices for locations — the original, bare-bones production and tasting room or the brewery’s Tavern and Grill six miles north. The former is for those who prefer an authentic industrial brewery environment, but the Tavern is the more popular choice, with a good-sized patio (complete with fire pits) and well-regarded food. There’s even a wine vault that’s made from a repurposed bank vault.

You’ll find rarer beers at the production facility, but wherever you stop be sure to try the creamy and delicious Peanut Butter Milk Stout and the Damned! Double IPA .

San Marcos

6 miles from Vista; 15 min drive time

Though it may be tempting to head back over to the coast, take one more inland detour to San Marcos, California, next. There you’ll find The Lost Abbey and Port Brewing, sister breweries that are among the most well respected beer makers in the state, due to the quality (and scarcity) of their beers. The breweries have more than 1,000 oak bourbon, brandy, sherry and wine barrels that are used to create remarkable barrel-aged offerings.

The Lost Abbey’s tasting room is filled with ornaments and images that evoke an actual abbey that makes world class Belgians. It’s a fun and jovial place to have a beer, but can be loud at times. The attached barrel room is a quieter, more intimate place to enjoy your beer.

Port Brewing has a wider selection of beers than The Lost Abbey, including more traditional lagers and hop-forward IPAs, but everything on tap is sure to please even the most discerning of drinkers.

This is a good place to grab a bite to eat along your journey as well, as San Marcos has some of the best restaurants in the San Diego vicinity. Old California Restaurant Row is a good place to start looking. It’s also a town loaded with golf courses and bike paths. And Double Peak Park is the highest coastal peak in the county.

Solana Beach

18 miles from San Marcos; 43 mins drive time

california breweries
Grab an outdoor seat and unwind with a pint at Pizza Port.

Either hop back over to I-5 (passing Legoland California) and continue heading south or take a scenic drive along Highway S6 through the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve.

Both routes will take you to Solana Beach, California, where you’ll want to stop at Pizza Port Brewing. There are also locations in Carlsbad, California, and San Clemente, California, if you can’t wait to try this brewery, but the Solana Beach stop has a rustic feel, with indoor and outdoor seating and funky murals on the wall.

It’s a favorite hangout of locals — and, if you’re a real fan of beer trivia, the first keg of Stone beer was tapped at this location.

Each Pizza Port location pours something slightly different, but if you’re a fan of Pale Ales and IPAs, this is a must stop brewer. Be sure to try Swami’s IPA, no matter where you stop. Carlsbad is the newest and biggest of the tap rooms, but Solana Beach has a bit more character.

San Diego

22 miles from Solana Beach; 28 mins drive time

Finally, pull into San Diego, California, where all of your beer fantasies will undoubtedly come true. There’s an embarrassment of riches here for beer lovers. Green Flash, AleSmith and Ballast Point are all world-class breweries that are worth your time, but if you’re on a tight schedule, the place you absolutely want to hit is Stone Bistro & Gardens.

There you’ll be able to enjoy a meal at the top class restaurant/bistro (with an emphasis on local, small-farm organic foods). Afterward, grab one of the renowned brewer’s freshest beers and explore the extensive gardens area or relax in one of the Adirondack chairs or covered outdoor couches. After that ride, you’ve earned it.

This article was published through a partnership with Visit the USA, inspiring travelers to explore America’s boundless possibilities.