The Best California Craft Beers We Had in 2020
December 10, 2020
Living in California, we routinely drink more California beer than beer from any other state. Most of the festivals we attend are in California, our favorite bottle shops carry largely California beer, and, since we love supporting our local craft breweries, we consume a huge amount of Los Angeles County craft. This year, with COVID shutting down all of our plane travel, our percentage of California beer consumption was higher than ever in 2020— so for our first Best of 2020 article this month, it only felt right for us to discuss the best California craft beer we drank this year.
By the end of 2020, we’ll have consumed over 500 different California craft beers, much of it incredibly good— so narrowing it down to 50 beers was a huge struggle, and a good number of *fantastic* beers did not make this list. We limited ourselves to two beers per brewery, in order to most effectively spread the love to as many deserving California breweries as possible. Also, as you might expect, since we live in Southern California, the honorees here do tend to skew more toward the southern side of the state. We’re looking forward to hopefully getting to explore the Bay Area more in 2021!
This is our first Best of 2020 article– be on the lookout in the coming weeks for more lists of our favorite beers across America over the past year. For those interested, be sure to check out our Best of 2019— but for now, dive into the best California beers we had in 2020!
Bottle Logic has been a favorite of The Beer Travel Guide for years. They’ve made several of our year-end lists in the past but never for their stouts— which is bizarre since they make some of the most consistently great stouts in the country, let alone California. This year, we’re remedying this egregious oversight. Bottle Logic continues to crank out world-class IPAs and sours, but they crafted two of the best stouts we had all year.
The Fall of Umibozu is a double mash imperial coffee stout collaboration with Toppling Goliath that is viscous and smooth, and the coffee flavors aren’t delivered with overwhelming bitterness… and the Space Jam is an absolutely absurd BBA coconut, chocolate, and raspberry stout. We were there the day it dropped, and they served coconut raspberry ice cream to compliment it— and that combination still lingers in our minds four months later.
Whenever we travel to Anaheim, we visit both Bottle Logic and The Bruery— neither can be missed. The Bruery has been a highlight of both our festival coverage and our Best Of coverage in years past, so it’s no surprise to find them here. While we’ll discuss their sours with a Bruery Terreux mention, their Black Tuesday stouts are a highlight every year. We had several of the Black Tuesday variants this year— and if we weren’t limiting ourselves to two beers per brewery, more of them would be on this list— but we’ll highlight the Black Tuesday: Blueberry Pancake here. Many pancake beers go too heavy on the maple syrup, but this one strikes the right blend of blueberry, maple, and bourbon— and it’s tremendously smooth for a 19+% ABV.
We also need to discuss the Bruery’s Ruekeller line, which is cranking out some of the best lagers in the country. While we could’ve easily featured the Ruekeller Marzen, which we crushed through the entire month of October, this list simply wouldn’t be complete without the Ruekeller Helles. Nothing caps off a sunny California day like a foamy pour of this beauty; the light, crisp, biscuity goodness consistently pops. There are few beers in California this eminently crushable and rich in flavor— any Bruery lager is a must-try at this point.
Speaking of must-try, any fans of sour beer that have yet to try the phenomenal array of barrel-aged sours at Cellador Ales is seriously missing out. They made our Best Sours list two years running— and will inevitably make it again this year— and we named The Gutless Wonder, their blended wild ale with boysenberries and marionberries, as our favorite beer in California in 2018. Needless to say, this list would be incomplete without Cellador.
There were several Cellador sours that merit inclusion on this list— it was incredibly difficult choosing to cut The Carrot King, one of the more unique sours we’ve ever had— but we ultimately narrowed it down to two winners. Murex is an oak wine barrel aged blend with boysenberry and honey, fruity, rich, and puckering with just the right hint of sweetness… and we had to include Fuckified, their Masumoto peach pit wild ale. It boasts tremendous stone fruit flavor and an absolute smack in the face of sour— we bought a growler full so we could get smacked in the face for the whole week.
Whenever visitors come to LA and ask which brewery to visit, we usually lead off with Highland Park Brewery, because there are very breweries in California that have exhibited such mastery across nearly every style of beer. They are one of two breweries in California that have made in years past our Best IPAs list, our Best Sours list, and our Best Stouts list— that’s rare company to be in, and HPB has absolutely earned that reputation.
This year, before the world went to Hell, we got to attend their Griffith Day and sample an absurd number of variants of their terrific imperial stout, Griffith J Griffith. Many deserve to make this list, but if we had to choose, the Fluffernutter Griffith takes the cake: the coffee, peanut butter and vanilla blend with the rich cocoa to make one of the better fluffernutter stouts we’ve ever had. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there may be no beer we had more of this year than Timbo Pils, their hoppy pilsner that we inevitably purchase every time it drops. It’s so crisp, well-balanced and crushable— it’s our favorite pilsner in Los Angeles, and it’s honestly not close.
Modern Times is the other brewery in California that’s run the trifecta of making our best IPAs, Sours, and Stouts lists in the past. We didn’t get to have as many IPAs and sours from Modern Times this year, largely due to the absence of brunches with friends at their terrific Dankness Dojo in downtown LA (thanks, 2020). However, since Russell got to attend their Carnival of Caffeination in San Diego, we got to consume a bevy of their world-class stouts this year.
Choosing only two out of about a dozen imperial Modern Times stouts is a fool’s errand, but we did our best— and strangely, neither of them came from Carnival of Caffeination, but rather were enjoyed during our first-ever visit to their Anaheim taproom, Leisuretown. Monsters’ Park: Coconut Nola Coffee Edition is a big boozy beaut, with rich bourbon and bitter coffee balanced by a touch of sweetness at the end… but there was a clear winner from this pack of Modern Times’s stouts. The MT Ultra: Coconut 2020 is as decadent as it gets— the richest toasted coconut flavor I’ve ever had in a beer, and obscene smoothness for a 13.5% ABV. It sits at a staggering 4.79 on Untappd for a reason: it’s the best stout we’ve had all year.
We fell in love with Moksa during our first visit in 2018, hitting them up on a drive to Lake Tahoe and ultimately placing them on our Best Stouts of 2018 list. This year, we were fortunate to return to Tahoe— which also meant another trek to Moksa. It was a blisteringly hot summer day sitting outside in Rocklin, so we got the slushie version of their Sunset Punch, which is a sour reminiscent of a slightly tart sangria. It wasn’t as sour as some of the others on our list, but it wasn’t as sweet as you’d imagine a slushie beer to be. Its rich but darker fruit flavors made for a memorable frozen treat.
And speaking of memorable, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Barrel Aged Mostra 5th Frappuccino they served at Carnival of Caffeination. They served this vanilla, maple, and espresso stout in small individual cups topped with vanilla whipped cream and vanilla powder. Sometimes at festivals, many of the delicious beers can blend together, but this singular concoction stood out from the pack as one of the best of the fest. We’ve spent many a day in quarantine wishing we had these sweet 14% espresso frapps to keep us company.
We’ve made trips to Sacramento in the past, yet we’ve somehow always missed New Glory Craft Brewery. Finally, in 2020, we rectified this oversight— and while it was a shame not to be able to drink in their taproom, we were able to grab a stack of cans for the road. Needless to say, we were delighted to find that the first two IPAs we cracked open from New Glory ranked among the best we had all year.
Ubahdank is, well, as advertised: we drank some of these among the pines near Lake Tahoe, and it tasted like we could’ve tapped this beer directly from the tree. Sticky but smooth, it never overwhelms with bitterness, but the level of dankness absolutely reaches Ubah levels. Our other first exposure to New Glory was Citra Dream, their citra IPA that had been freshly canned when we bought it. It was fresh, juicy, creamy, and as citrusy as you’d hope, and it absolutely ranks among the best Citra hazies in the state.
We took a long stay in San Diego in early 2020 with one goal: hit all of the craft breweries in the area that we’d always wanted to try but never had the chance. Pariah Brewing was high on our list, and it did not disappoint— its taproom has only been open for three years, but it’s clearly cemented itself as one of the best craft breweries in San Diego. We went one day, drank as much as we could— then came back *the next day* to try the rest of the tap list. If that’s not an endorsement, I’m not sure what is.
Our recommendations: Pariah has some of the best hazy IPAs in the city, if not in all of Southern California. Dank Drank is Pariah’s foundational IPA, and boy, if they didn’t nail it right out of the gate. It’s a dank Mosaic juicebomb, fruity but not without bitter bite. Any of Pariah’s hazy IPAs could’ve easily made this list. Furthermore, we were fully enamored with All the Bootleg Snacks, a chocolate coffee and vanilla imperial stout that was brewed with a variety of “bootleg snacks,” the knockoff generics you find at the grocery store. You’d be concerned a beer like this would be too sweet, but the good folks at Pariah strike the perfect balance.
If you’re listing the best breweries of Los Angeles County, Smog City absolutely needs to be on your list. I’m not convinced there’s a brewery in Los Angeles that gives better bang for your buck than Smog City— in a city where 4-packs of beer at many craft breweries can be quite pricy, you can get a 4-pack of top-notch craft beer from Smog City for $14 or less. Numerous times, we’ve emptied our wallets for a beer at a more “hyped” brewery, or we’ve waited in line for a can release, only to try it later and think, “… why didn’t we just go to Smog City?”
For my money, there’s no more consistently great beer in Los Angeles than the Smog City Coffee Porter. It’s an absolute standard in our house— I’ve carried home bottles of Coffee Porter from grocery stores more times than I can count. It’s rich, roasty, and chocolatey, and I’ve never once had a bad batch. Furthermore, they now sell four-packs of Coffee Porter in cans at Smog City for *$13.* That’s the best craft beer deal in Los Angeles, period. We also loved their recent sour blonde, Snugglebug, a raspberry and boysenberry sour with major pucker. We gave some to a friend who’s a serious sour snob, who tried it and said, “Instant 5 stars.” Snugglebug is $10 for a 500mL bottle— most breweries with a sour this great would charge more for a 375mL bottle. The taproom’s great, the staff has always been kind, the prices are fair, and the beer is delicious— brewery hype needs to be prioritizing this over expensive cans of triple-hopped 10% haze.
We were grateful that our visit to San Diego was on a weekend when Stave and Nail Brewing was open. Stave and Nail is a small batch brewery in San Marcos that specializes in mixed culture fermentation and barrel aging— so, needless to say, these are brewers after our own heart. For the first year of their existence, they kept irregular opening hours (even before COVID), so we were definitely crossing our fingers while planning a trip that they’d be open. Gratefully, the stars aligned, and even though we entered with high expectations, they met those expectations and then some.
Unsurprisingly, our favorite was one of their sours: La Ferme Rustique Peach. La Ferme Rustique is a farmhouse ale which, like all of the sours we tried during our visit, delivers a healthy dose of complex funk without sacrificing the fruit flavor or the strong pucker you want from a sour. This barrel program promises to produce best-in-California level sours for years to come. We also loved the Infinity^2, an imperial coffee stout with rich coffee flavor and a surprisingly easy finish. This makes it a dangerous 10%+ ABV sipper… but danger is our middle name.
Even though we’re big fans of sour beer, we’re generally skeptical of the “smoothie sour”/“milkshake sour” style that we’ve seen take off in the craft beer world in the last couple of years. So when we went to Kings Brewing in Rancho Cucamonga, admittedly, we entered expecting to feel the beer was overhyped. However, one beer made us quickly realize how wrong we were: Purple Rain. While those who need their beer to taste like beer may be thrown for a loop, this incredible drink tasted like a tart grape Kool-Aid. Russell grew up drinking grape Kool-Aid and listening to Prince, so this sent him flashing back to his youth like the food critic at the end of Ratatouille. We’re still skeptical of that beer style on the whole… but we’re true believers in Kings.
Pure Project is one of the best breweries in San Diego, if not all of Southern California, so attempting to single out beers for this list was a borderline impossible task. We could’ve chosen any of their hazy IPAs, and their barrel-aged sour program puts out high-quality pucker with regularity. However, if we had to pick one standout, it’s the Chocosaurus Rex. Most Mexican hot chocolate imperial stouts promise the inclusion of a hint of spice to give it that little splash of caliente… but so rarely do these stouts deliver on that promise. But does Chocosaurus Rex deliver? You bet Jurassic does. (Read that joke aloud. We’re sorry.) It gives you massive brontosaurus amounts of cocoa, and then right at the finish, just the right touch of spice sneaks up on you like a velociraptor. Clever girl, Pure Project… clever girl.
Moonraker and Slice are both breweries outside of Sacramento, and both are known for making outstanding haze (Moonraker has made our Best IPAs list for two years running now). This year, however, while we could’ve given some haze praise to both spots on this list, we’ll instead show love to their west coast triple IPAs. Moonraker’s Extremis and Slice’s Wombo both have monstrously strong, resinous pine flavor… but remain surprisingly drinkable with impressively clean finishes. Both of them absolutely hold their own against renowned west coast triples like Pliny the Younger. Speaking of which…
Pliny the Elder’s younger triple IPA brother made our Best IPA list in 2018, and it’s back on the list in 2020. While we weren’t able to visit Russian River in 2020, and while we’re sad to hear that the Pliny the Younger event and release are currently delayed for 2021, we were able to get multiple pints of Younger last spring before the shutdown, and they hit the spot as ever. In 2018, we used the phrase “absolute pine grenade,” and we think that still perfectly applies today.
The Black is Beautiful initiative was definitely one of the highlights of the craft beer scene in 2020. Weathered Souls Brewing created a terrific stout base and encouraged other breweries to get creative with their respective batches. Mumford Brewing and Flatland Brewing both made our Best Stout list last year, so it’s not a surprise to see that their two renditions of Black is Beautiful were our favorites of the several we tried. Mumford’s Black is Beautiful was brewed with coffee and cacao— an exceptional coffee stout, big, bitter, and creamy. Meanwhile, Flatland went with coconut, vanilla, and cacao nibs. We had our first visit to the Flatland taproom this year, and while everything we had was terrific, the stouts are where they really shine— and their sweet, coconutty Black is Beautiful stood out from the pack.
This, sadly, is the In Memoriam section of this list. The Good Beer Company was one of our favorite spots in Orange County, and Thunderhawk Alements was a top-tier San Diego craft brewery. Unfortunately, both closed their doors this year. They left us with some great memories— and some terrific beer. Coincidentally, our favorite beers from both of them came with a coffee twist. Thunderhawk’s Electric Youth is a magnificently balanced coffee pale ale, and The Good Beer Company’s Grindz is a Horus Aged Ales collab coffee sour— and as strange as that sounds, the execution was absolute perfection. Both of these places will be missed, but we’ll keep our eyes peeled to see what the former owners will brew up next.
Speaking of Horus, whenever you attend a beer festival, and you see Horus will be in attendance? Go to that booth the second you enter, because that line is going to be *long.* We were fortunate to see Horus at two different festivals in January and February– we braved the long lines and got the sample some of Kyle’s best stout work. Our favorite was the Hazelnut Crown, a collaboration with Three Chiefs, a smooth hazelnut and coconut delicacy. We also visited The Original 40 Brewing in San Diego for the first time this year and found them to be one of the best craft breweries in San Diego, with delicious food, hospitable bartenders, and, yes, great beer. Everything was very good, but our favorite? You guessed it: a Horus collaboration, Zazu’s Tutelage, a gooey vanilla hot chocolate treat that ranks with Hazelnut Crown among the best stouts in the state.
Certain breweries put out bottles every year that you know will rank among the best beers you have that year. Fortunately for us, living in Los Angeles, we’re surrounded by several breweries who crank out delicious bottles throughout the calendar year. We didn’t make it down to Long Beach enough this year, but Beachwood Brewery makes consistently great beer, and their sour-focused offshoot, Beachwood Blendery, has a series of sours, “Careful With That ________, Eugene,” that consistently ranks among the best sours in Southern California. This year, we had Careful With That Pluot, Eugene, one of the best, most tart, and most deliciously complex sours of the year. However, when we want to crank up the ABV and enjoy some LIFE? We go to El Segundo Brewing for their annual Old Jetty release, as it’s, for our money, the best barleywine in town. We cracked open last year’s Old Jetty this winter, and that toffee, caramel, vanilla, bourbony goodness warmed our hearts (and our whole bodies, for that matter).
While many of the best craft beers in California are liable to be found directly at the breweries themselves, there are still some terrific craft options to be found at local groceries and liquor stores. North Coast’s Old Rasputin is a staple at every poker night at our house— it’s a miracle that, in the year 2020, you can get a 4 pack of a fantastic 9% stout for under 10 bucks at the corner store. They may not be at every corner store, but most every BevMo and bottle shop I’ve been to in LA carries Kern River Brewing, makers of some of the best beer in Southern California. We’re not alone in thinking that: they were named Great American Beer Fest Brewery Group of the Year in 2019. Their Think Tank #20 was one of our first cans of the year (fresh off a New Year’s visit to the brewery itself), and while it’s unfiltered, don’t mistake it for a “hazy” in the traditional sense– it’s a hop bomb with bright Rakau hop flavor and a dry finish. Finally, Three Weavers continues to make great hoppy west coast beer: even as their distribution grows, the quality remains remarkably the same. We were big fans of The Messenger, a “sunny IPA” with big citrus flavor courtesy of yuzu and Buddha’s hands.
Speaking of west coast beer, our next west coast IPA comes from a new brewery to LA County this year, Paperback Brewing, a Glendale spot with a pulp novel theme. We’ve had a couple of their cans now, and everything we’ve tried indicates they’ll be a welcome addition to the city. Our favorite so far, however, was the first beer we tried from them, a west coast IPA with a 2020-appropriate name (and the second beer with foul language in the name on this list): What The Fuck!?! It’s not often that a new brewery drops a banger on Day 1, but this hop bomb gives you clean west coast flavor before dancing on your tastebuds with a strong resinous bite. (It’s also a contender for Best Can Art of the Year, an award I suspect Paperback will compete for annually.) We’re very excited to see what Paperback will continue to offer in 2021.
Okay, let’s get into the hazies– you knew they were coming. We wanted to start with two spots that seem to go under the radar. We put our neighborhood brewery, Santa Monica Brew Works, on our best IPAs list last year because, well, there were few beer experiences more pleasurable throughout the year than sitting down at our local spot and having some delightful haze. This year, we had to enjoy them more frequently in can form, and our favorite of these was Spread Love, a juicy IPA with incredibly strong and vivid grapefruit kick. Another spot that deserves more love is Ten Mile Brewing in Signal Hill, because, quite frankly, we’ve never had a bad beer from them. They make terrific work across all styles, and since we’re talking grapefruit haze, their hazy double IPA, Acadian Fog, gives that grapefruit juice without getting overly sweet, and it delivers a nice dry finish. We’d put Acadian Fog right up alongside many of the more hyped IPAs in the state.
Northern California has its share of top-notch haze– again, with travel restricted for much of the year, we didn’t get in a Bay Area trip, so some of our usual favorites (Cellarmaker!) went unconsumed by us in 2020. That said, we were still able to get a taste of NorCal through local bottle shops. Seven Stills’s Cord Drawer was an impulse purchase largely inspired by its colorful and creative can art, but its pleasantly smooth and fruity haze instantly won us over. Humble Sea is a standard at this house for its hazy– ahem, excuse me, FOGGY IPAs, which are consistently exceptional. Which was the stand out this year? Well, anyone who knows Russell knows his deep love for junky action movies, so the Jean Fog Van Dayum won him over before he took a single sip, and luckily, this tropical wonder lived up to its name and dropkicked our tastebuds– it’s a beer so good, you could say it had a Double Impact (we’re sorry).
Well, it wouldn’t be a year-end list without Monkish Brewing and Casa Agria. Both had made multiple lists since we launched this site, and unsurprisingly, this year is no exception. Monkish Brewing switched during the pandemic to a fully online ordering system, and while some complained about quick sell-outs, we didn’t once have an issue– frankly, it’s a massive improvement over hot outdoor lines, annoying proxies, and the pre-COVID standard hype brewery release format. So we enjoyed more Monkish than ever this year, and it’s tough to choose, but Isolation Oscillation was a DDH DIPA with rich citra hops and oat-driven creaminess. Our notes simply read, “It’s Monkish.” Casa Agria is here for a hazy IPA too– it’s made our lists for its sours and stouts in the past, but those who don’t realize need to know their IPAs are top-notch. Their big double and triple hazies are eye-poppingly good, but we favored the simplicity and the perfection of Cosmic Jungle, a Citra and Galaxy hazy IPA that’s smooth, tropical, and worthy of a third year of Casa Agria Best Of inclusion.
Enough about haze– let’s get back to the basics. We had more lagers and pilsners than ever before this year. Was it because the hot summers made the lightness more inviting? Or was it because we were stuck inside so often that we favored the lower ABV of the crispy bois? Whatever the reason, the lager life was the life for us this year. We enjoy Indie Brewing’s lighter fare with regularity, and their For Lagers was a dry-hopped German pilsner that was clean, crisp, and a touch orangey. And this wouldn’t be a Best in California article without a mention of Green Cheek. Local Import, their Italian-style pilsner, strikes a nice herbal and malty balance– if anyone asked me for pilsner recommendations in Southern California, Green Cheek would consistently be near the top of the list.
Sometimes your lagers– and your beers in general– need a little spice. We both love spicy food, so spicy beer is a logical next step. Tortugo Brewing in Inglewood has a nice, clean lager called Cristóbal… but their spin-off, Cristóbal on Peppers, takes things to a whole other level, giving their lager the heat from jalapenos, habaneros, and serranos. Oftentimes, a spicy beer is either barely spicy at all or holy-shit too spicy, but Tortugo Brewing hits the perfect middleground here. We also can’t mention spice without discussing Dry River Brewing’s famous Lady Roja-based michelada, which uses their house botanical saison as its base. It’s the best michelada in Los Angeles, no contest. We just learned Dry River is closing its taproom in LA, which is a shame– it was one of our favorite spots in town, and their sours have made our Best Sours of the Year list for two years running. We hope they continue to crank out plenty of bottles of sour in the years ahead– and whenever they release micheladas in crowlers, we’ll be there.
Speaking of sours, Bruery Terreux, The Rare Barrel, and Sour Cellars are three of the best sour makers in California. We’ve sung the praises of all of these breweries in the past, and here we are again, singing the same song. Soakin’ Up Rays is a barrel aged golden sour with passionfruit and guava, and it boasts the Rare Barrel’s trademark bright pucker. Sour Cellars’s Belly Washer is a barrel aged golden sour with raspberries and orange blossom honey— the honey gives it a splash of sweetness to balance its big tartness and make it one of the sour highlights of the year. Finally, Bruery Terreux’s Frambulous is an oak-aged sour blonde blend with raspberries, making it a perfect combo of the fruity Framboise style and the pucker-forward Terreux style— and an instant favorite in this house.
BEST LAGER: The Bruery: Ruekeller: Helles
BEST PILSNER: Highland Park Brewery: Timbo Pils
BEST WEST COAST IPA: Slice Beer: Wombo
BEST NEW ENGLAND IPA: Monkish Brewing: Isolation Oscillation
BEST PORTER: Smog City: Coffee Porter
BEST STOUT: Modern Times: MT Ultra: Coconut Edition 2020
BEST FRUITED SOUR: Kings Brewing: Fros’e Purple Rain
BEST BARREL AGED SOUR: Cellador Ales: Fuckified
We had more craft mead in 2020 than any year in memory… although, admittedly, maybe our memory is hazy from drinking all that mead. The king of the California meads we consumed in 2020 was Lost Cause Meadery, a delicious spot that shares a space with Serpentine Cider and The Good Seed Food Company, making it a great place to visit for those looking to dine and drink the night away. Normally, if you hear an 11% ABV drink has coffee, cacao nibs, vanilla, and bananas, you’d think you were sipping some amazing imperial stout variant. Art of the Peel isn’t a stout, but it has all those ingredients, and it’s one hell of a mead. We hope your hands are large enough to drink a bottle of this beauty. Congrats to Lost Cause for winning our Best Mead– they win so much, I know they’re probably tired of winning, but we hope they know their mead’s affect on us was YUGE.
What was your favorite beer from California this year? Which California beers should we make sure to seek out in 2021? Please let us know in the comments below! Please check out the website over the next two weeks for more Best of 2020 lists– and subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss any of our updates! Cheers, and thanks again to California for all the great craft beer in a year when we desperately needed it.