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Craft Beer in North County: Locals shine at International Beer Competition

Above: Wizard of Haze, a tropical/citrus flavored New England-style IPA, is the official beer of this year’s San Diego County Fair. Photo by Bill Vanderburgh

The San Diego County Fair is in full swing, open until July 4 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. While getting in and out can be a pain — and the 5 is even busier than usual because of it — cheap prizes, carnival rides, livestock and deep-fried-everything aren’t the only attractions to make it worthwhile to brave the traffic.

There’s also beer. Excellent, local, craft beer.

Mike Hess Brewing, based in North Park, produced this year’s official beer of the fair. Wizard of Haze is a tropical/citrus flavored New England-style hazy IPA that clocks in at a perfect-for-a-hot day-in-the-sun 5% alcohol by volume.

That may tempt you to have more than one, which you can do in the large Wizard of Haze outdoor bar in the middle of the fairgrounds.

The other major beer attraction at the fair is the San Diego International Beer Festival (SDIBF). This year, the beer fest was held June 14 to June 16. More than 100 breweries were featured.

The SDIBF is held each year under the delightful shade of the arena. This year Vista’s Iron Fist Brewery was the sponsor of the beer gardens area.

One thing that’s different about the SDIBF than, say, the San Diego Brewers Guild Festival in November, is that at the fair all the beer is poured by volunteers, many of whom come from a nearby seniors’ home. The pour quality can therefore vary, and the people pouring most often know nothing at all about the beer or the breweries.

For me, and I think for many beer festival goers, half the fun is chatting about the beer. Fortunately, some of the breweries represented at the festival sent representatives to stand near the beer pourers, approximating a typical beer fest experience.

I attended the first of the five sessions that took place over the weekend, on Friday afternoon. This is typically the session with the least attendance, which means the excitement of the crowd is a little less, but there are fewer lines and it is easier to move around.

Speaking of lines, the only place that had a consistent line during the first session was wildly popular Wild Barrel Brewing of San Marcos.

I also happened to be there during the strong man competition held adjacent to the beer fest. It was fun to watch men try to throw 35- to 45-pound kegs backwards over a 15-foot bar while I was drinking beer. I was careful not to snicker too loudly when they missed, since they could have easily squashed me like a bug.

San Diego County, as befits our moniker of “The Capital of Craft,” did exceptionally well in this year’s competition.

Breweries from 26 states and five countries entered over 1,500 beers into competition in 2019. Prizes were awarded in 54 categories, and San Diego breweries won 54 of the ribbons: 19 first place, 17 second place, and 18 third place. You can see a listing of the San Diego winners at this link and the full list of winners here.

The 15 winning breweries that are based in North County won a total of 24 ribbons.

North County’s winning breweries at the 2019 San Diego International Beer Competition.

Five of the eight breweries that were open in San Marcos in time to enter beers into the SDIBF competition, won ribbons.

That’s a pretty amazing concentration of beer greatness.

Four of the 10 breweries based in Carlsbad won a remarkable total of 10 ribbons, including a sweep of all three ribbons in the Imperial Stout category.

According to the fair’s website, not only is the San Diego County Fair the largest county fair in the nation, the SDIBF is the largest beer festival on the West Coast.

It draws thousands of beer lovers to one of the five sessions held over three days each June.

Admission to the beer fest includes admission to the fair, so you can enjoy the rest of the festivities while you are there.

Just beware that beer doesn’t go well with the Tilt-a-Whirl.